Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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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) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Joel Embiid has Olympic-sized decision to make: France or USA

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HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — Joel Embiid has two choices: the red, white and blue of the U.S., or the blue, white and red of France.

An Olympic medal might hinge on his decision.

France is still hopeful that Embiid – the reigning NBA scoring champion – will choose to wear its colors for the 2024 Paris Olympics even though he recently became an American citizen, national team coach Vincent Collet said Thursday.

Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers star, may choose to play internationally for the U.S. or France, but not both. It was widely presumed that he would play for France at the Paris Games and possibly even next year’s Basketball World Cup in the Philippines, until Embiid revealed last week that he now has American citizenship as well.

“Now he has both nationalities, and he has to choose one basketball nationality, which is not the same,” Collet told The Associated Press. “So, that is a choice. Nobody can do anything to change it.”

Embiid told AP last week that it’s too early to think about a decision. By rule, he will eventually have to declare a choice to FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, if he decides that he wants to play at the Olympics or World Cup.

France is the reigning Olympic silver medalist and is planning to have a team featuring Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum – and, quite likely, top NBA draft prospect Victor Wembanyama – at the Paris Games. France’s plan is to essentially take what will be its Olympic roster to the World Cup next year.

Without Embiid, that French core has been extremely formidable. On top of the 2021 silver in Tokyo, France won bronze at the 2019 World Cup and silver again at this year’s European championships.

With Embiid, that group would figure to be even better. Collet said Boris Diaw, the general manager of the French national team, has been in contact with Embiid to discuss options.

“I know he met some of our players to discuss,” Collet said. “I think he should play with us. But we will see. We will respect his decision whatever it is.”

Embiid was born in Cameroon and has held French citizenship. He has a Brazilian girlfriend – their son is American – went to high school in Florida and played college basketball at Kansas.

The five-time NBA All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection has spent his entire pro career with Philadelphia, averaging 26.0 points in his first six seasons and a career-best 30.6 points on his way to the scoring crown last season.

Wembanyama encore: 36 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks against Ignite

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Victor Wembanyama is for real.

And I don’t mean real tall, although he is that, too. Check out this image of him next to Rudy Gobert, who is a legit 7’1″.

Wembanyama is for real like a genuine generational talent — in his second game against the G-League Ignite he had 36 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocked shots.

That comes off his 37-point performance in the first meeting where he hit 7-of-11 3-pointers and had five blocks.

To be clear: That is 73 points, 15 rebounds, nine blocks, shooting 9-of-18 from 3 (and 22-of-44 overall) across two games against a good talent level. And he is 18 years old.

Everyone in and around the NBA has been trying to come up with player comps — Kristaps Porzingis, Ralph Sampson, Tim Duncan — but the reality is Wembanyama is one of one.

Scoot Henderson — the G-League guard projected as the No. 2 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft — played just five minutes in this game after bumping his knee while guarding Wembanyama. He was taken out of the game and X-rays found a bone bruise, he did not return. He is officially day-to-day the team announced.

Wembanyama and his Metropolitans 92 got the win in this rematch, 112-106.

Draymond Green not expected to miss any games, Warriors to handle discipline ‘internally’

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Draymond Green is not expected to miss any games for punching teammate Jordan Poole during an altercation during practice, Warriors GM Bob Myers said Thursday.

That’s not to say he is escaping any punishment, it will just be handled internally, Myers said.

Green showed up at Chase Center and apologized to the team and then left, he did not practice with the Warriors, reports Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Draymond apologized to the team this morning, Jordan was there in the room, I was there in room with the team, the coaches, the players and we heard that,” Myers said.

Whatever punishment the Warriors are handing down to Green, it will not include missing games, Myers said.

Coach Steve Kerr added, “I expect [Green] to return on Saturday and get back at it.” That implies a couple of days suspension, likely with a hefty fine.

Kerr was also quick to shoot down the rumors of Poole having an “attitude” around camp as he comes up on a massive contract extension. Stephen Curry echoed that, saying those reports are “absolute BS.”

The Warriors have seen their fair share of Draymond Green incidents over the years, and as a locker room and franchise they know how to move on from it. While this made headlines, the Warriors will shrug it off and move on.

Miami, Milwaukee have their eyes on Jae Crowder

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The Heat and Bucks don’t just have interest in the same player. They’re looking to replace the same player.

Two years ago, P.J. Tucker helped Milwaukee win their first championship in a half-century. Last season, he helped Miami lock up the top seed in the East and make the Conference Finals.

With Tucker in Philadelphia, both the Heat and Bucks are looking to fill the void with a different lockdown enforcer that can stretch the floor.

Jae Crowder and the Suns agreed that he won’t participate in practice as the team looks to accommodate his trade request. In a recent ESPN+ article, Zach Lowe made it clear that both Miami and Milwaukee are interested in pursuing a trade for Crowder.

“The Bucks have internal interest in Crowder as that Tucker replacement after getting into the recent Jerami Grant and Bojan Bogdanovic discussions, sources say. They will search all season for one more piece.

“The Heat have interest in Crowder too, sources say, but finding matching salary is tough until Dewayne Dedmon, Caleb Martin and Victor Oladipo become trade-eligible in the winter. Martin might start, and the Heat are optimistic Oladipo can play a huge role.”

Grant and Bogdanovic were traded to Portland and Detroit, respectively. The Heat may struggle to find a trade that works since Phoenix probably won’t want to take on Duncan Robinson’s contract. Dedmon, Martin and Oladipo will become trade eligible on January 15th.

Crowder has a history with the Heat, as he helped them make the NBA Finals in the bubble. He helped Phoenix make the NBA Finals two seasons ago and then helped them finish with the best record in the NBA last season.