Associated Press

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.

Zion Williamson looks in incredible shape, says he’s focused for restart

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson credits his mother’s wisdom with helping him manage life’s unanticipated twists and inevitable assortment of successes and setbacks.

It has served the NBA’s top overall draft choice well during a highly unusual debut season that has gone nothing like he imagined, yet still holds plenty of promise.

“The last 12 months have been a different experience,” Williamson said Thursday, projecting his typically affable, smiling, easy-going manner during a video conference at the New Orleans Pelicans’ practice headquarters. “My mom tells me, ‘Life is life. You may go through a lot of bad times. You may go through a lot of good times. It’s just: Try to prepare yourself as best as you can.’”

Thursday was an “up” day for Williamson and the Pelicans, at least online, where an image of Zion in the gym had NBA Twitter buzzing.

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Now Williamson and the Pelicans are preparing to make a “playoff push,” something that appeared highly unlikely when he was sitting on the sidelines with a surgically repaired knee, watching New Orleans labor through a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak that left the club with a record of 6-22.

“I think this team can be really special when we’re all healthy,” Williamson said.

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson was expected to be out six to eight weeks when he had surgery to repair his torn right lateral meniscus the day before the regular season. He wound up missing about three months and 44 games. When he finally returned on Jan. 22, fans packed the stands and Williamson routinely delighted them with around-the-rim highlights.

Williamson averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in the 19 games he played. New Orleans won 10 of those games and looked to be gaining momentum when the season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, that stint kept the Pelicans close enough to the playoff picture – 3 1/2 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference — to be included among 22 NBA teams that will finish their regular seasons at a central location in Orlando, starting July 30, when New Orleans plays the Utah Jazz.

Pelicans guard Josh Hart said Williamson’s addition to the lineup “made us a more aggressive, more dynamic.”

“If we had him in the beginning of the year, the story wouldn’t be fighting for the eighth seed,” Hart continued. “It would have been, we’re the four or five seed in the West, honestly.”

Williamson quickly developed an on-court synergy with creative, play-making, up-tempo point-guard Lonzo Ball. Williamson was praised by teammates and coaches for an unselfishness that has allowed other players like Pelicans leading scorer Brandon Ingram to continue to flourish.

Because Williamson’s surgery and rehab had occurred this season, he qualified for an exception that allowed him to continue to seek treatment and work out at the Pelicans’ practice center after team training headquarters around the NBA had been closed to most employees and players.

But Williamson said he remained vigilant about not exposing himself to the coronavirus, performing on-court work only with his stepfather until this week, when the NBA allowed team facilities to reopen to all virtually players except those with positive coronavirus tests.

“At first, it was very tough because even now you don’t fully know what’s going on” with the virus, Williamson said. “Me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition on the court, off the court, wherever we could find it. I do feel like I’m in good shape right now.”

Pelicans general manager David Griffin has caught glimpses of Williamson’s workouts. He said he couldn’t say for sure how Williamson’s game looked because he wasn’t able to work against other NBA caliber players.

“I can tell you he is handling the ball awfully well, and his shooting looks great,” Griffin said. “In terms of his preparedness and fitness for basketball, I can’t give you any indication of that at all.”

Williamson said his early priorities will include bonding with teammates again.

“We’ve got to stick together, keep our emotions high together and I think we’ll be fine,” he said.

Williamson’s eagerness to take on a leadership role comes despite his youth and relative inexperience in the NBA. He turned pro after one season of college basketball at Duke and doesn’t turn 20 until Monday. But he became a global internet sensation while he was still in high school and has been flooded with endorsement offers since his college career ended.

He also encountered another side of the sports business when he was

by his first marketing agent after he fired her in favor of another. That case is ongoing.

“In a weird way I haven’t felt like a teenager in a long time,” Williamson said, “so I feel like it’s not going to be anything different.”

Meanwhile, Williamson indicated that his disappointment over no longer playing in front of fans this season is outweighed by his enthusiasm for returning the sport he loves in games that matter.

“It’s definitely going to be different. You know, I love the fans,” Williamson said. “It’s crazy, man. We’re actually about to go. It’s a lot to process for sure, but I am excited.”

 

Clippers reportedly shut down practice facility after positive coronavirus test among traveling party

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The Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets shut down their practice facilities after positive coronavirus tests among players and/or staff members.

Add the Clippers to that coronavirus list, they shut down their facilities on Thursday after a member of the traveling party tested positive, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Woj’s phrasing implies that a staff member, not a player, tested positive.

Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, just 24 hours earlier, told reporters that “to his knowledge” nobody with the team had tested positive for the coronavirus. Rivers also said he believed that all the players — including Lou Williams — intended to join the team in Orlando.

This isn’t a knock on Rivers, it’s a sign of how fast things change in a coronavirus world.

It is possible the Clippers re-open their facilities before the team heads to Orlando a week from today, July 8.

The Clippers head to the NBA’s Orlando restart as one of the three-favorites to take home the title (along with the Lakers and Bucks).

Anthony Davis: Lakers’ title chances “higher” after long rest

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It’s completely unpredictable how teams will respond to a long break, a short ramp-up, and playing without fans in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando.

Anthony Davis tried to play Nostrodamus anyway — he says the Lakers will be better after an extended rest.

Here’s how he phrased it Thursday in a conference call with reporters, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Actually, I think our chances are higher just because we’re all rested and we’re all ready to go,” Davis said Thursday on a videoconference call with reporters. “If anything, our chances got higher and it’s going to be about just who wants it more…

“It’s been good for me to kind of let some of them lingering injuries I had towards the time when the NBA stopped to kind of recover and heal and get back into the best version of myself,” he said. “I feel 100 percent healthy. Well, I don’t feel, I am [100 percent healthy]. I feel like I’m ready. Ready to go.”

One theory on how teams would come out of the break — and all anyone has are theories — was that older, veteran teams would benefit from the rest. Teams such as the Lakers. Others think the condensed schedule, from mini training camps through playoff games every other day, would favor younger teams with more bounce in their legs.

Davis being healthy is critical for the Lakers. He averaged 26.7 points with an impressive 61.4 true shooting percentage, plus 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game. On the other end of the court he was a force, averaging 2.4 blocks a game and playing at a level that will get him on a lot of Defensive Player of the Year ballots.

Davis will be ready to ball in Orlando. LeBron James will be focused and a force as well. Whether the Lakers have enough around their stars to match the Clippers, Bucks, and any other challengers is the question. One we will start to answer July 30.

 

 

Adrian Wojnarowski: Jacque Vaughn likely to coach Nets next season

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn
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The Nets have two stars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the ammo to get a third star. Expectations are rising quickly in Brooklyn. Merely qualifying for the playoffs isn’t enough. Nobody felt that more than Kenny Atkinson, who got ousted historically late in the season for a postseason-bound team.

The next logical step: Hiring a blue-chip coach.

Former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, Irving’s reported preferred choice, was considered favorite. Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were also high-profile candidates.

Or maybe the Nets will just keep Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Atkinson.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

People sometimes are treating Jacque Vaughn like he was named the interim coach when Kenny Atkinson and the Nets split up. But he’s not. He’s the head coach. They didn’t make him interim coach. And while I think the Nets are considering the possibility of a search, I would still give Jacque Vaughn, I would take Jacque Vaughn against the field right now to keep that job.

“Interim” is just a label. The Nets can call Vaughn whatever they want. He’s coaching the team right now, and no job is permanent.

But unless hearing otherwise, there’s an expectation a team will conduct a coaching search the offseason after an in-season coaching change.

This might be the otherwise.

Vaughn reportedly has a legitimate opportunity to win the job. But Brooklyn will be without Durant, Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton and maybe Spencer Dinwiddie as the season resumes in Disney World. That’s not a recipe for impressing.

That’s especially true because Vaughn doesn’t fit the marquee image the Nets were reportedly seeking. In his only previous head-coaching position, Vaughn went 20-62, 23-59 and 15-37 with the Magic before they fired him in 2015.

One thing Vaughn has going for him: He reversed Atkinson’s strategy of starting Jarrett Allen over Jordan, who’s close with Durant and Irving. It’s practically impossible to see Brooklyn picking a coach – especially Vaughn – without the support of Durant and Irving.

The Nets should conduct a full coaching search. If Vaughn emerges as the best choice, great. But he hasn’t done enough to warrant Brooklyn ignoring other candidates.