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Three Things to Know: Warning about Lakers’ future arrives in the form of Luka Doncic

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LOS ANGELES — 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) Warning about Lakers’ tough road ahead arrives in the form of Luka Doncic. Dallas entered Sunday with the best offense in the NBA — not just this season, but in NBA history. The Mavericks had an offensive rating of 116.1 (which would best even the recent Warriors offenses, if Dallas can sustain it).

LeBron James seemed to take that as a personal affront.

He has picked his spots on defense in recent seasons, and those spots were never 20 games into the season. Sunday was going to be his spot — he was active, physical, all over the court and disrupting Luka Doncic at every turn. He had three early steals and got into the body of Kristaps Porzingis to force one of them.

However, the Lakers couldn’t sustain it — and that spotty effort has been a thing the past week plus. While Los Angeles had won 10 in a row, they had faced a softer schedule of late and that allowed them to get away with flipping the switch. Los Angeles trailed Memphis by 15 and New Orleans by 16 recently but were able to come back against those overmatched teams.

The Lakers could not do that against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a couple of holes the past week or so,” guard Danny Green said. “Eventually, it’ll catch up to us. It did.”

By halftime, the Mavericks bench had changed the tone of the game — and the Lakers were struggling enough for LeBron to call a huddle on the court to cuss at his teammates.

This time there would be no L.A. comeback and the reason was Doncic — 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists in the third quarter alone. Dallas made an adjustment that worked beautifully: When the Lakers blitzed Doncic off the pick-and-roll he quickly gave up the ball but then got it right back and attacked again before the defense could reset. Give the young star that kind of space and he will carve a team up.

In the third, the Lakers made a run to get the lead down to 10, but then Doncic found a cutting Delon Wright for a layup, drained a three, hit another layup when Doncic himself drove the lane, and by that point the lead was 17 again. Doncic was feeling it, and it showed with a step-back three over his idol LeBron in the fourth.

The Lakers are 17-3 this season, but the thing is they are 14-0 against teams below .500 when they faced them and 3-3 against everyone else (beating the bad teams is a sign of a good one, the dynasty Spurs were the kings of that). December is filled with a lot of everyone else — the Lakers have the toughest schedule in the league in December. That starts with a Denver/Utah road back-to-back Tuesday and Wednesday, kicking off 8-of-9 away from Staples Center.

The Lakers have been able to get away with some stretches of sloppy play the past few weeks because of their talent level and how much better that was than everyone they faced. When LeBron is playing at an MVP level — which he absolutely is — he can overwhelm weaker and even average teams. The good teams, like Dallas, can weather the storm and make a comeback. The Lakers have to be sharper, have to clean up their play on both ends, get back to playing at an elite level, or it’s going to be a long, cold December.

2) Concern about Marcus Smart injury overshadows another Boston win. Jayson Tatum scored 30 points and Boston did what good teams do on Sunday: They found a way to win on a day they weren’t as sharp as normal, rallying to beat the Knicks. Jaylen Brown added 28 in a win that improves the Celtics to 14-5 and keeps them as the three seed in the East.

That’s not the big story out of this game.

Marcus Smart went down with an oblique injury after a collision with Kevin Knox. Smart left the game not to return, but the real concern is this is the same injury — and Smart said the same spot — that caused him to miss about a month last season.

The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season and Smart is at the heart of that. He has been tenacious on that end, in a way that has to get him Defensive Player of the Year votes (although it’s too early to have that discussion just 20 games into the season). Smart has refused to take time off to heal a variety of smaller injuries this season, something that just comes with his all-out style of play, so a couple of games missed that gives his body time to get right is not the end of the world. However, Boston will miss him a lot if he has to miss any extended time. We should learn more on Monday.

3) Toronto is the best team you’re not watching, now with seven wins in a row. It’s considered the statistical sign of a title contender: Having a top-10 offensive and defensive rating. As you might expect, the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks all have that this season.

So do the Toronto Raptors — they actually have a top-five offensive and defensive rating.

While most fans have focused on the drama in Los Angeles or how Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken a step forward this season with the Bucks, the Toronto Raptors have quietly looked like a team ready to defend their title. Kawhi Leonard bolted for those bright lights in L.A., but north of the border Pascal Siakam has emerged as a true superstar, Fred VanVleet has stepped up and is scoring 18.6 points a game, Kyle Lowry is still the heart of the team and Marc Gasol is making plays on defense. The Raptors are a legit threat.

Just ask the Utah Jazz — Toronto blitzed the feared Utah defense for 77 first-half points (that was with Rudy Gobert back in the lineup) and led by a franchise-record 40 at the half. From there, the Raptors cruised to a 130-110 win, their seventh in a row to improve to 15-4 on the season. Siakam led the way with 35 points.

Toronto has been one of the great stories of the NBA season, and one not getting enough attention. The Raptors’ ability to develop players — like Siakam and VanVleet, and now rookie Terrence Davis — has not just kept them afloat this season but turned them into a genuine threat to the powers of the East.

Toronto is not going to just celebrate their title and quietly fade away this season. This is an outstanding team that is set on defending its crown. The league underestimated them, but no longer. The Toronto Raptors are turning heads. And winning games. A lot of games.

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

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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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’

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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:

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

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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
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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

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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.