Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Three Things to Know: Kyrie Irving returns home, drops 50, stumbles on game winner

5 Comments

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Emotional Kyrie Irving returns home, drops 50, but stumbles on the game winner. Kyrie Irving got what he wanted, and it’s easy to tell he is happy to be back in the place he considers home, New York.

You could see it in the way he got emotional speaking to the fans before the game.

You could also see it in the way he played in the season opener — his 50 points were the most ever by a player in his debut with a new team. (Your trivia answer, it had been Kiki Vandeweghe with 47 points for the Trail Blazers back in 1984.)

Irving was comfortable and aggressive, shooting threes if he got any space at all (and hitting 7-of-14 from deep) plus finishing when he got to the rim (8-of-11). The crowd was in his corner, roaring approval with every shot. Irving took what the defense gave him and also had seven assists (and eight rebounds).

The question about this year’s Nets has never been “can Irving get them buckets?” Of course he can. The question has been, “can the rest of the team rise up to his level?” There, the answer was spotty on Wednesday night. The best evidence of this, Caris LeVert had 20 points, but it took him 19 shots to get there and he had five turnovers.

Brooklyn took the lead with and 11-4 run late — a rainbow three from Irving with 1:16 left had them up 115-112 — but as he had done all night Karl-Anthony Towns took charge for the Timberwolves. KAT finished the night with 36 points and 14 rebounds.

The game went to overtime, where it went back-and-forth until the Nets got the ball with 11 seconds left down one. It was time for a storybook ending for Irving, the Nets went 1-4 flat and let Irving iso for the win…

And he slipped.

Irving still got off a surprisingly good look, it just did not fall. Notice that Irving’s team ran over to pick him up.

It’s still the kind of game the Nets can be optimistic about. The team is still coming together around Irving, the role players will have better nights, and they were in it to the end against a good team.

For a Minnesota team with playoff aspirations in a stacked West, this is the kind of road win they need. Towns was all-world, and he has to do that all season. But it was more than that. Treveon Graham started and made some impressive hustle plays, Josh Okogie was gritty, Robert Covington played well. And as for Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves were simply better when he sat most of the night, but when he attacked took things happened and he did that a couple of times in overtime. It’s a good start to the season for Ryan Saunders and company.

2) Bradley Beal was ejected, and the league should rescind this. Luka Doncic was on fire — 34 points on 12-of-19 shooting on the night, 4-of-9 from three, plus he had 9 boards. If Washington was going to have any chance of coming back in the fourth quarter and beating Dallas, it had to slow down Doncic.

Bradley Beal took on the challenge. He was physical, he was aggressive, he was competitive, and he was ejected on a poor couple of calls. First, there was an unnecessary double-technical, and when Beal waved his arm at the referee — not in a threatening way, they were 20 feet apart at least, this was more dismissive — the official was thin-skinned and tossed Beal.

Come on now. It’s late in a chippy game, but there was zero need for the first double technical, and the ejection — with just a minute to go in the game — was a pointless exercise in power.

Doncic gave Beal a hug before he left the court — Doncic got this was just two guys competing.

All Beal’s defensive efforts didn’t work, Dallas picked up a quality 108-100 win to start the season. Kristaps Porzingis played well with 23 points on 16 shots, and his alley-oop sealed the game.

3) Markelle Fultz looked pretty good for Orlando. It’s one game against a team lacking any rim protection to speak of, but for Markelle Fultz this was a good night.

Fultz finished with 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting, plus six assists. His three wasn’t falling, but it didn’t matter because he was aggressive attacking the rim and the smaller Cavaliers had no answer. He had three nice drives out of the right corner, but this ended up being his best play of the night.

It’s just one game, but that was as good a start for Fultz as Orlando could have hoped. By the way, the Magic beat the Cavaliers 94-85.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

Leave a comment

Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

View this post on Instagram

Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

A post shared by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

Leave a comment

Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.