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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.

Michael Jordan on LeBron James comparisons: “We play in different eras”

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LeBron James — who on Saturday night likely will move past Kobe Bryant into third on the all-time NBA scoring list — has reached the point in his legendary career that he only can be compared to other legends.

Specifically, Michael Jordan.

Jordan, now the owner and face of the Charlotte Hornets, was in Paris to watch his team lose to the Milwaukee Bucks, and tried to downplay comparisons to LeBron.

“We play in different eras. He’s an unbelievable player. He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world. I know its a natural tendency to compare eras to eras and it’s going to continue to happen. I’m a fan of his, I love watching him play. As you can see, our league is starting to expand on very talented players. I think he’s made his mark, he will continue to do so. But when you start the comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a stand-up measurement. I take it with a grain of salt. He’s a heck of a basketball player without a doubt.” 

Does anyone think the ultra-competitive Jordan actually believes that? Of course not, we saw his Hall of Fame speech. But for fun, let’s take MJ’s words at face value.

Jordan is right. Both that it’s nearly impossible to compare NBA players across eras and that people will continue to do it anyway.

Jordan was a better one-on-one scorer playing in an era where the rules pushed the game toward isolation basketball and playing through contact. LeBron is a much better passer with better court vision in an era where driving-and-kicking to the corner, or making a skip-pass against an overloaded defense, is the smarter basketball play. Jordan broke open barriers as a player who is a brand off the court, but LeBron expanded that in a social-media era and added in a social conscience.

Both are legendary players, both are products of their generation, and both are Mount Rushmore players. Which player you think is the better player says more about you, your age, and your preferred style of play than it does LeBron or Jordan.

But please, commence the arguing in the comments.

 

Greek Freak makes himself at home in Paris, scores 30 points, Bucks beat Hornets

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PARIS — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 12 rebounds and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks beat the Charlotte Hornets 116-103 on Friday night in the first NBA regular-season game in France.

Milwaukee improved to 40-6 with its eighth straight victory. The Bucks have the best 46-game start in franchise history. They were 39-7 in 1970-71 when they went on to win the NBA championship.

Eric Bledsoe added 20 points and five assists for the Bucks.

Malik Monk led Charlotte with 31 points. The Hornets have lost eight in a row.

Milwaukee rallied to tie it at 78 going into the fourth quarter. Pat Connaughton put the Bucks in front with a dunk in the fourth. Then Antetokounmpo got going, drawing a foul as he slalomed through the defense.

Report: Needing depth at center, Dallas trades for Willie Cauley-Stein from Golden State

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Dallas took a big hit this week when center Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles. The Mavericks’ starting center was a critical pick-and-roll partner with Luka Doncic, a roll man and vertical threat that allowed Kristaps Porzingis to space the floor (along with other Dallas shooters), plus Powell was a solid team defender.

Willie Cauley-Stein is going to get a chance to fill that role.

Golden State is trading Cauley-Stein to Dallas for a second-round pick.

Dallas just made a trade for Justin Patton to waive him and clear out a roster spot for this trade.

Cauley-Stein is averaging an efficient 7.9 points and 6.2 rebounds a game for Golden State. More importantly for Dallas, he provides the athletic dive man, a threat on the roll they need to keep things open for Doncic.

Dallas could have waited out the market to try and land a better center, but this gives them a reliable fit for minimal cost (a late second-round pick, they kept Golden State’s own second rounder). Cauley-Stein will split time at the five with Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and Boban Marjanovic.

For those of you crunching the numbers at home:

For Golden State, in the short term, this move creates a couple of open roster spots. One of those likely will be used to re-sign Marquese Chriss, who was waived last week. The other roster spot likely will go to Ky Bowman.

Golden State adds a pick and a trade exception for sending out a player that was not part of their long-term plans anyway.

In trade about money/roster space, Mavericks send Isaiah Roby to Thunder for Justin Patton, cash

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We have a trade…

That shifts things around on the end of the bench in Dallas so they could create a roster spot forWillie Cauley-Stein (a trade that was announced later). A trade that is mostly about saving some and rolling the dice on a project in OKC.

Dallas is sending Isaiah Roby to OKC for Justin Patton, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What is really going on here?

For Dallas, this is about clearing out a roster spot, it plans to waive Patton. That roster spot is going to Willie Cauley-Stein in a trade with Golden State, that was just reported. The Mavericks lost center Dwight Powell to a torn Achilles this week and needed to bring in a player or two — via trade or free agency — to help bolster the existing front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and Boban Marjanovic. Here is Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News.

The move also clears out a little cash for Dallas.

In Oklahoma City, they get a young player to develop but also save some money.

Roby has not played in an NBA game yet. The rookie out of Nebraska — taken 45th overall last June — is a development project, but one who passes the eye test for an NBA power forward. He did a lot of things well in college — scoring, rebounding, works hard off the ball — but can he do that at an NBA level? He’s played in nine G-League games this season, averaging 9.2 points and 7 rebounds a game.