Three Things to Know: LeBron, Anthony Davis combine for 82 in latest sign of fast chemistry

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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) LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 82 in the latest sign of their instant chemistry. “I think we all thought there would be a little more of a learning curve.”

Laker coach Frank Vogel admitted Sunday night he didn’t expect this out of the gate. Nobody did. There has been almost no adjustment period. LeBron James and Anthony Davis had not played together before, yet, they have been dominating together since the season tipped off 24 games ago — the Lakers are +12.1 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together. And they are on the court together a lot.

Sunday the duo reached new heights, combining for 82 points against Minnesota, becoming the first Lakers’ pair since Shaq and Kobe to combine for more than 70 points in a game. Davis had 50 on the night, his best outing since coming to the Lakers — and he did it without hitting one three. Vogel called it an “old-school, smash-mouth” 50. 

LeBron and Davis’ fast chemistry is the reason the Lakers are 21-3 to start the season and on top of the West.

“I think their games fit,” Vogel said after a 142-125 Lakers win Sunday. “When you’re a general manager and you’re putting together a team, it’s not just a collection of talent. It’s putting together pieces that fit… [LeBron and Davis] are both guys that will make the right play, they are willing passers.”

Willing passers is nice, but the Lakers put the right roster around them to pass to — a combination of shooters and rim-running lob threats. Its guys willingly playing their roles and it makes the Lakers difficult to slow down.

“For me and AD, it starts with us,” LeBron said. “If we’re on the same page it makes it a lot easier for the rest of the ballclub.” He added the two stars hold each other accountable, and that trickles down to the rest of the team.

Before the season started, most pundits projected the Lakers to be floating around, or just above, 50 wins. Sure, the Lakers had two top-seven (maybe top five) players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and on paper it seemed like their games would mesh beautifully. But chemistry takes time. It was expected the Lakers would struggle early and find their footing closer to Christmas and beyond, becoming a much more dangerous team by the time the playoffs rolled around.

There has been no break-in period.

“I think [the chemistry] was there, it’s just a little missed timing,” Davis said of a few early struggles.

“I don’t know if it’s moreso lately, to me those two hit the ground running right from the start of training camp,” Vogel said. “Both on and off the basketball court their chemistry has been seamless.”

Davis hit the ground running on Sunday against Minnesota, starting 6-of-6 from the floor for a fast 13 points, and all of those buckets in the paint (a couple of them because he ran to the rim in transition and finished lobs).

“I think all of us are just more comfortable with our play,” LeBron said. “We know what we want to run, we know how we want to play, we know how we want to defend, we know what we want to be on offense. It makes it a lot easier when we are in a good rhythm… Every day [team chemistry] is going to get better and better, not just for AD and myself but for the rest of the group.”

“I think we’re just recognizing each other’s strengths, we’re getting comfortable with each other within the offense,” Vogel added.

Davis had 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting in the first half, with only one of those buckets from outside paint. It carried the Lakers while LeBron battled foul trouble.

“I just feel like I’m in a rhythm,” Davis said. “As a team, we are in a rhythm right now. Obviously, our defense has been really good for us, and it’s led to a lot of open shots for us.”

LeBron finished with 32 points and 13 rebounds, and it’s him as playmaker that puts the Laker offense on another level. On Sunday, LeBron was draining deep threes or finding guys in transition with pin-point look ahead passes. Whatever he did worked, and with Davis as a potential target, the Timberwolves had no answers.

So far, nobody around the NBA has had any answers. So much for the slow start, the West right now is a lot of teams chasing the Lakers, and that could continue all season long.

And into the playoffs.

2) With 105-102 loss to Brooklyn, Denver has suddenly dropped 4-of-5. For the past week and a half, the Denver Nuggets have struggled, and it’s mostly been about what is happening in the paint. On both ends of the court.

Brooklyn won the paint battle 66-22 on Sunday. It was ugly. In the third quarter alone, Brooklyn scored 26 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the paint. The Nets scored all their points in the paint or at the free throw line. After the game, a frustrated coach Mike Malone called his team’s effort in the third “a joke.”

The problems are on both ends of the court: The Nuggets are scoring 9.1 points fewer in the paint per game in the last five games than they have for the season as a whole. For a team led by big man Nikola Jokic and the penetration of Jamal Murray, this is a serious red flag.

Denver’s overall efficiency numbers in the last five games look okay because their 37-point, get-the-coach-fired win over the Knicks skews the numbers. But Denver has been stumbling, they have fallen to 14-7, and things are not going to get easier at Philadelphia on Tuesday.

3) Another day, another Miami Heat young star steps up. Sunday it was Tyler Herro’s turn. The Miami Heat have been getting phenominal play and unexpected contributions from their first-and-second year players all season. Kendrick Nunn is at the top of that list, playing like someone who will end up on a lot of Rookie of the Year ballots this season. Duncan Robinson, in just his second season, has started 18 games for Miami and has provided much-needed shooting (42.5 percent from three).

Sunday it was Tyler Herro’s turn. The rookie out of Kentucky scored 16 points through the fourth quarter and overtime against Chicago. That includes draining the game-winning three off an assist from Jimmy Butler.

That bucket held up as the final score, 108-105 Miami.

With Herro’s bucket, Miami improves to 17-6 on the season. This is Jimmy Butler’s team, but rather than terrorizing and running off the team’s young stars, in Miami Butler is lifting them up. And the entire organization with them.

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.

Report: In money-saving trade, Trail Blazers swapping Kent Bazemore for Kings’ Trevor Ariza

Trail Blazers trade Kent Bazemore to Kings for Trevor Ariza
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The NBA team with the highest payroll each of the last five years (record):

  • 2015-16: Cavaliers (57-25)
  • 2016-17: Cavaliers (51-31)
  • 2017-18: Cavaliers (50-32)
  • 2018-19: Thunder (49-33)
  • 2019-20: Trail Blazers (18-25)

Sitting 10th in the Western Conference, Portland is no longer content to spend so much on a losing team. So, the Trail Blazers will send Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and two second-round picks to the Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Assuming this trade becomes official Tuesday (the first day Gabriel can be traded), Portland is in line to save $12,657,456 (salary: $2,532,078, luxury tax: $10,125,379).

The Trail Blazers are now $6,129,275 over the luxury-tax line. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to dodge the tax entirely. Hassan Whiteside, Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja, Ariza, Swanigan and Gabriel are all candidates to get dealt in cost-cutting moves.

Portland is also still trying to make the playoffs. Ariza should help. He fills a clear need as a bigger wing who can defend and hit open 3-pointers. He has shown clear signs of decline at age 34, but he has outplayed Bazemore this season.

Ariza has $1.8 of his $12.8 million salary guaranteed next season, the only money due beyond this year to a player in this trade. That and the second-rounders are the cost of the Trail Blazers getting an immediate upgrade while saving major money now. Looks like excellent value.

Ostensibly, the Kings are also still trying to compete this season. They remain the fringe of the underwhelming playoff race. Ariza is not a big loss.

Still, he is a loss nonetheless. Bazemore doesn’t have a clear role. Sacramento is full at shooting guard with Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

This trade was seemingly primarily about the picks for the Kings.

Bazemore and Tolliver could also help in the locker room. There’s plenty of frustration in Sacramento. Better chemistry could go a long way.

Interestingly, Tolliver and Swanigan return to their former teams. The King gave Tolliver his biggest payday in 2016. The Trail Blazers drafted Swanigan No. 26 in 2017 then traded him to Sacramento last year. Both Tolliver (age 34) and Swanigan (limited interior big) appear in danger of washing out of the league.