Three Things to Know: Ice cold Harden can’t warm up even with Antetokounmpo out

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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) Ice cold James Harden doesn’t warm up with Giannis Antetokounmpo out, Bucks win. The “fancy” advanced statistical way of putting it would be shooting variance from a team’s statistical norms, something smart people look at when breaking down a game.

A simpler way to put it: It’s a make-or-miss league.

Thursday night, the Rockets were making in the first half, when they shot 52.4 percent from three and led by 16 at halftime. Then they missed in the second half, when just 18.5 percent of their threes fell.

That’s when the Bucks got back into it by using their size on both ends — Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, and the Bucks went on to win 117-111 in the season debut for both teams.

Antetokounmpo finished with a triple-double of 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists — getting 20 of those points in the second half — but with 5:18 left in the game the Greek Freak used his off arm to clear out Clint Capela, got called for his sixth foul of the night, and went to the bench.

The Bucks were up just six at the time and it felt like the Rockets’ chance. Russell Westbrook made a push to close the gap to one, and then… nothing. The Rockets could not get their shots to fall, going 1-of-5 from three after the Greek Freak fouled out. James Harden was 0-of-1 from the floor in that stretch. Scrappy play from Milwaukee had it holding on for the win, thanks to a critical three from Khris Middleton and Lopez playing well as the fulcrum of the offense.

Harden, in particular, couldn’t find the range all night, no matter who was on the floor. The former MVP was cold, shooting just 2-of-13 (although he did get to the free throw line 14 times). Check out his shot chart.

Even when Harden got off a decent shot, this happened.

Westbrook had a better night in his Rockets debut, scoring 24 points, grabbing 16 boards, and dishing out seven assists.

This loss wasn’t about Harden and Westbrook not meshing — although they did argue a little — but more about defensive questions for Houston, something that is going to follow them all season long. Getting stops is going to be a challenge.

Also in their opener, the Rockets just missed shots. And it’s still a make or miss league.

2) The positive vibes in Phoenix didn’t even last 24 hours, Deandre Ayton suspended 25 games. Wednesday night, Deandre Ayton had his best game as a pro. It was well rounded — he has scored more than 18 points and grabbed more than 11 rebounds before, but he was an efficient 9-of-14 in the opener. More importantly, he had his best defensive game ever, including four blocks. Yes it’s small sample size theater, but Ayton and the Suns looked better than expected in blowing out the Kings.

Thursday all that momentum came crashing down — DeAndre Ayton was suspended 25 games by the NBA for testing positive for a banned substance. Specifically, a diuretic (which is on the list of banned substances because it can be a masking agent for steroids).

“I want to apologize to my family, the entire Suns organization, my teammates, partners, our fans and the Phoenix community,” Ayton said in a statement. “This was an unintentional mistake and unfortunately I put something in my body that I was completely unaware of. I do understand the unfortunate impact that this has on so many others, and for that I am deeply sorry. I’m extremely disappointed that I’ve let my team down. I will continue to work with the NBPA to go through arbitration and am hopeful of a positive resolution.”

About that resolution, there is a portion of the CBA that allows redress if the banned substance was taken without the players’ knowledge. That is the claim of Ayton is making with the players’ union (as well as Ayton’s agent, who clearly spoke to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). It may be true.

Whatever happens, Ayton is going to miss time. If it is the full 25 games he is not back until Dec. 17.

Aron Baynes will start at center for the Suns, which is a defensive upgrade (even compared to the improved Ayton) but a significant drop off on the offensive side of the ball. Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, and Kelly Oubre Jr. are going to have to generate a lot more looks and knock a few down for Phoenix.

The Suns are trying to develop their young core into something special, this is a setback — albeit a temporary one — along that road.

3) The Clippers haven’t even added the guy who was third in the MVP voting last year yet. Kawhi Leonard is making a habit of ruining things for Golden State fans. For example, their last memory of Oracle Arena in Oakland was watching Leonard and his Toronto Raptors teammates celebrate winning a title on that floor.

Thursday night, the new Chase Center in San Francisco opened its doors for basketball — and Leonard and his Clippers blew the doors off the Warriors, winning 141-122 in a game where the fourth quarter was garbage time.

Leonard had 21 points and a career-high nine assists.

As the Lakers learned Monday night, the Clippers come with a balanced attack — Lou Williams had 22 points off the bench and his pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell added 18, Patrick Patterson had 20, even Ivica Zubac had 16. Through the non-garbage time part of the game, the Clippers had a 136.1 offensive rating (stat via Cleaning the Glass). Los Angeles also played good defense, making it difficult for the Warriors to find a rhythm.

The Clippers are 2-0, have looked dominant, and they don’t even get Paul George back until next month. This team looks scary.

The Warriors look like a team with a lot to figure out.

Stephen Curry is going to have to carry the Warriors on offense this season, and he had 22 points but was 2-of-11 from three and had eight turnovers on the night. Without the gravity of Klay Thompson (knee) and Kevin Durant (Brooklyn) to pull defenders away, the Clippers were in Curry’s face contesting everything. Los Angeles is looking like (and on paper should be) an elite defensive team and an exception, but Curry is going to have less space to operate this season than he is used to. The former MVP is going to have to adapt, and the other Warriors are going to have to make teams pay for all that focus on Curry. D’Angelo Russell shot 6-of-16 (for 20 points) and struggled defensively at times.

It’s just one game for the Warriors, but this season is going to be a struggle in ways Warriors fans are not used to watching. Curry will have better nights, as will the Warriors, but it will be a long road.

It is still a long road for the Clippers, too. But they have reinforcements coming.

Watch Isaac Okoro drain game-winning 3-pointer, Cavaliers top Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Isaac Okoro hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 0.7 seconds remaining and finished with 11 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat Brooklyn 116-114 Thursday night and closed in on their first playoff berth since 2018 with a two-game sweep of the Nets.

“It was a lot of pressure put into the shot, of course,” Okoro said. “You always feel good with a game-winner. For me, it was my first one.”

Donovan Mitchell scored 31 points, Evan Mobley had 26 points and 16 rebounds and Jarrett Allen finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds against his former team. Cleveland, which beat Brooklyn 115-109 on Tuesday, won for the eighth time in 10 games and reduced its magic number to clinch one of the Eastern Conference’s top playoff spots to two.

“It was ugly at times,” Mitchell said. “There’s just so much going on (in the playoff race), and at the end of the day all we can do is control what we can control and winning these games instead of praying that other teams lose or win, we just gotta go out there and do what we do, and it’s great to have a win like this tonight.”

Mikal Bridges scored 32 points, Spencer Dinwiddie had 25 points and 12 assists and Joe Harris hit five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points as the Nets lost their fifth straight game.

“It’s frustrating,” Bridges said. “Obviously, we’ve got to keep the energy and morale high, but it’s devastating losing like that.”

Cleveland trailed 112-104 with 2:13 left before closing the game on a 12-2 run, with the help of three crucial Nets turnovers. Trailing by one, Mitchell missed a second free throw that would’ve tied the game, then he missed a put-back, and three different Nets had their hands on the ball for the potential rebound before it bounded to Cleveland guard Caris LeVert.

“I thought we did a great job of getting some stops to put ourselves in that position,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “You miss the free throw, we had multiple opportunities at it, but guys didn’t quit on the play, and we talk about winning 50-50 balls and winning the scrap.”

LeVert, who spent his first four seasons with Brooklyn, found Okoro in the corner, and he drained the 3-pointer to give Cleveland the lead.

“The ball goes out to Caris, and I’m just running to the corner and going to my spot, and Caris trusted me,” Okoro said. “Once it left my hand, I knew it was going in.”

Bickerstaff said Okoro had no fear of taking the big shot.

“But I think what was most important is Caris saw that he was open and got him the ball, and that speaks to this team,” Bickerstaff said.

A heave from half court by Bridges at the buzzer fell short.

Bridges secured his eighth 30-plus point game as a member of the Nets through three quarters with 14 points in the third quarter. Then Harris heated up with four fourth-quarter 3-pointers in a sub-five-minute span, helping Brooklyn build a 10-point advantage.

“I felt like we deserved to win that game because we did a lot of good things throughout the course of the night,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “This is an opportunity for us to learn who we are.”

The Cavaliers rank first in the NBA in points-against per game and defensive rating, but had no answer for the Nets offense, which shot 56% in the first half. Dinwiddie had 19 points, including 11 in the second quarter, and seven assists, helping Brooklyn take a 61-60 lead into the break.

Mitchell and Bridges each scored in double figures in the first quarter, seeming to trade baskets in the early going. Mitchell scored 12 in the first, including nine in the first 2:17. Bridges had 10, helping the Nets build a 33-31 lead after one.

Malone says Jokić turned off by ‘ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation’

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There has always been some element of “if you don’t see things the way I do you’re an idiot” in the NBA MVP conversation. Between sports talking heads and fevered fans on social media, there have always been some pushing the edge in the MVP debate.

However, something about Nikola Jokić looking like he would win a third-straight MVP around the All-Star break — fueled by Tim Bontemps straw poll at ESPN — turned the conversation much more intense much earlier this season. And it got nasty — again driven by ESPN on-air personalities. Some past MVP votes were re-litigated through the lens of this season, while other fans and media equated backing their guy with tearing down someone else (often Jokić, but sometimes Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, the other frontrunners). That has turned Jokić off from the conversation, Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after his team beat the Wizards Wednesday.

Here’s the full quote:

“I think this year unfortunately has just taken a really ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation, and I think it’s really turned a lot of people off, including [Jokić]. And what’s happening now is there’s so many guys that could win the MVP this year. Great candidates. Joel Embiid is a great candidate, Luka Doncic is a great candidate, Jayson Tatum, whoever you want to put in that mix, those are all deserving. But what happens in today’s society is that everybody, it’s like when I was a college coach and all the negative recruiting. It’s not promoting my guy, it’s ripping down every other guy. And that’s just ridiculous.

“This game, as Adam Silver told us at the All-Star break, the game is in a great spot. The league’s in a great spot. We have great players. Celebrate them. Don’t criticize, don’t tear them down. Build them all up, and whoever wins it, good for them. And that’s one thing that’s been really disappointing this year with the whole MVP conversation and all the hot takes. It’s really just gotten ugly and nasty, and I really don’t care for it.”

Malone isn’t the only person saying this. Jeff Van Gundy talked about this on the Lowe Post Podcast.

“Can we stop trying to put people down?” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said recently. “We should be celebrating our guys in the league. Giannis, Jayson Tatum, Joker, all of them are great. We don’t need to push one down to elevate the other guy. They all are completely different players.”

The NBA may not always like the tone but it LOVES the debate — it does not want everyone hugging it out. They want drama and tension. They want an argument. And in an online world where tearing someone down gets more clicks/eyeballs than lifting someone up, the debate was always going to get ugly at times.

[Side note: What grates on voters (*raises hand*) is when people jump in our mentions or timelines saying that this stat or style of play – clutch points, defense, some advanced stat, head-to-head play — makes it clear and obvious that it has to be Player X. The NBA goes out of its way to get a very diverse group of voters in terms of background, and everybody brings their own criteria to the table. As it should be.]

There is no single NBA-sanctioned definition of MVP for a reason — the league wants the arguments.

Which this race is providing. You can make a legitimate argument for Jokić, Embiid and Antetokounmpo. It’s boring (and bad sports talk) to say there is no bad choice among them… but there is no bad choice among them.

That said, some passion and a little edge are welcomed in the conversation. Ideally, people just know where the line is.

 

 

PBT Podcast: Kings a playoff threat? Plus some summer free agent talk.

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The last time the Sacramento Kings were in the playoffs, there was a Bush in the White House and Pixar released the first “Cars” movie.

They are back with a vengeance this season, going into the playoffs with a top-three seed and an elite offense, but how far can they go once in there? Maybe a long ways if things break right, and Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin of NBC Sports get into all of that.

They discuss the passing of Knicks legend Willis Reed, then Corey’s Jukebox compares Jayson Tatum to Eddie VanHalen’s “Eruption.”

Finally, they focus on some possible free agents this summer maybe making their final runs with teams — will Draymond Green be back with the Warriors? What about Kyrie Irving with the Mavericks? The Knicks want Josh Hart back but are not getting a discount, and don’t be surprised if the Heat and Trail Blazers try to make some big moves.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron James begins on court work, shoots down report of return before season’s end

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Lakers fans’ dreams of their retooled roster — one that was impressive for the three games everyone was together just after the trade deadline — getting healthy and making a surprise run through the Western Conference start with one simple premise:

LeBron James getting back on the court.

There was good news on that front Thursday following his evaluation. The Lakers announced that LeBron started “on-court activity” and a “gradual basketball movement program” to return from a foot tendon issue that has sidelined him for 12 games. However, no official timeline was given for LeBron to return to the court.

At almost the same time that news broke, it was leaked to multiple reporters that LeBron was targeting a return for the final week of the season. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin summed it up well on SportsCenter:

“A league source familiar with LeBron James’ thinking told me that he believes LeBron will push for sometime over the final three games the Lakers play in Los Angeles — April 5 against the Clippers, April 7 against the Suns, April 9 against the Jazz — to target that range so long as there are no setbacks in his rehab to make his comeback. Get back onto the court, get a little bit of a dress rehearsal before either the play-in tournament or a playoff berth for the Lakers.”

Within an hour after the reports of a LeBron return timeline broke, he shot them down on Twitter.

There is zero chance word of LeBron targeting the final week of the season was leaked to at least four well-sourced NBA and Lakers’ reporters randomly or by someone that all of these people did not trust. Choose to read between the lines what you will, or who you think is pressuring whom, but this did not get out on accident. There is unquestionably a desire to get LeBron back on the court in Los Angeles before the end of the season. The Lakers need LeBron for any kind of playoff run and they don’t want to just throw him in the mix for a play-in game.

The Lakers are currently tied for 9/10 in the West with Dallas, just half a game back of the Thunder and Timberwolves for the 7/8 seeds, and 1.5 games back of the Warriors as the No. 6 seed (although they will be difficult to catch, especially with Golden State having now won two in a row on the road — the Lakers would need a record two games better than the Warriors the rest of the way). Los Angeles is also half a game up on the Pelicans and Jazz for falling out of even the play-in. The Lakers need wins.

LeBron would help with that, but he says there still is no timeline for his return.