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Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard gets his ring then destroys his old team

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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) Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team. Board man got his ring.

The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.

Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.

Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.

Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.

The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?

Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.

2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)

The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).

Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.

Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.

Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.

3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.

However, people seemed to sleep on what a good athlete Ja Morant is. If you want proof, why not go as Phoenix’s Aron Baynes about it. Morant flat-out destroyed Baynes on an early contender for Dunk of the Year.

Notice that came on a critical fourth-quarter possession — you’ve got to love the way Morant is willing to attack in that situation.

• Bonus Thing to Know: DeAndre Jordan is going to make sure Jarrett Allen looks good before taking the court.

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.

 

Bulls: Lauri Markkanen out 4-6 weeks

Lauri Markkanen
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Lauri Markkanen ranked No. 34 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years entering the season.

Instead of building toward that promise, Markkanen has underwhelmed. His shot just isn’t falling as hoped.

Now, the news get even worse.

Bulls:

The Bulls (2.5 games and two games out) have been hanging in the playoff race. But there was already little reason to believe they’d make a postseason push. Now, there’s even less rationale to predict a longshot postseason run.

Markkanen will be eligible for a contract extension next offseason. The 22-year-old can still fulfill his potential as a 7-foot shooter with defensive versatility. But he’s running out of time to show consistent contributions. That’ll make it tougher for Chicago to offer a satisfactory extension.

Two of the very things that could happen for the Bulls are Markkanen shaking off his extended slump and landing a high draft pick.

This could help with both.