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Three Things to Know: Rings aren’t won in December but Bucks are best team right now

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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) Rings aren’t won in December, but Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA right now. The Lakers wanted this one. You could tell through their words — before the game coach Frank Vogel called the matchup of the two best records in the league a “measuring stick game” — but more through their actions. Specifically, letting Anthony Davis play despite still having pain in the ankle he tweaked on Sunday.

The Bucks were better.

Milwaukee held the Lakers to 17 points in the first quarter, forced turnovers on 19.6 percent of Laker possessions, led by as many as 21, held off every Laker run late, got 34 points from their MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (who also shot 5-of-8 from three, plus had 11 rebounds), and generally handled the game.

The final score was 111-104 Milwaukee, but that makes it seem much closer a game than it actually was.

The Larry O’Brien trophy is not handed out in December, and both these teams will evolve between now and June (if both get that far).

However, right now, the Bucks are the best team in the NBA. And they proved it.

There are mitigating factors for the Lakers, no doubt: This was the last game of a road trip, Los Angeles was playing its fifth game in 10 days on the road, Kyle Kuzma was out, and Davis had his sprained ankle.

Not that the ankle slowed Davis much — he had 36 points, had to guard Antetokounmpo much of the night, and was arguably the best player on the court. Plus, he did this to the Greek Freak late in the game.

Yet, the concerns about the Lakers going into the season showed up on Thursday night. There is the depth concern — the Lakers got four points from their bench on the night. There were the questions about having enough shooting — take Danny Green (21 points) out of the equation and the Lakers shot 21.7 percent from three (including Davis going 0-of-6).

Meanwhile, the Bucks were the better team, a roster well built to match its star and in tune with how to play off him. Milwaukee players understand the angles, space the floor, and when the Lakers would close out aggressively at the arc the Bucks make smart cuts to the rim. There was balance. George Hill had 21, Khris Middleton 15, and Wesley Matthews had 13 plus a couple of clutch steals.

It’s just December. This game only counts for one game in the standings. Nothing is decided.

Right now, however, Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA — and they proved it.

2) We need a Rockets vs. Clippers playoff series. These teams can’t stand each other. There’s not a lot of venom in today’s NBA. That’s not to say guys don’t go hard at each other — they do — but after the final buzzer there is a “we’re all part of one fraternity” mindset among most players.

Which makes the Clippers and Rockets so much fun — they can’t stand each other. Like when Patrick Beverley fouled out Thursday night, Russell taunted him, waved goodbye, and picked up a technical for it.

Or, watch the normally-controlled Lou Williams lose it after a foul call and get tossed.

It was that kind of night and one where the Rockets were the better team. With the Clippers focused on making life difficult for James Harden — he still had 28 points, including nine in the final six minutes — Russell Westbrook went off for 40.

The Rockets got the win 122-117, a quality road victory for a team trying to prove it should be counted among the West’s elite.

We just need to see more of this matchup come the playoffs.

3) Likely top-3 pick next June James Wiseman leaves Memphis to prepare for NBA draft. The NBA world did not see this coming, there was genuine surprise among scouts and front office people at the G-League showcase event in Las Vegas. The Memphis Wildcats did not see this coming, either.

James Wiseman, the best big man in the coming NBA Draft and likely top-three pick (certainly top five), is leaving Memphis to prepare for the Draft.

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Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream of mine to play in the NBA. Throughout this process, I’ve asked God to ordain my steps and lead me in the right direction. God is my lord and salvation, and throughout this process he has comforted me. This was not how I expected my freshman season to be, but I’m thankful for everyone who has supported my family and me throughout this process. I want to thank the coaches and staff for all their support and my teammates for pushing me everyday at practice. I feel blessed for the opportunity to be a Tiger and for having the honor to play with these special group of guys. I can’t wait to see what all they accomplish this season. The friends and fans of Tiger Nation will always hold a place in my heart. #GoTigersGo 🐯🔵🐯

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Wiseman had issues with the NCAA and was serving a 12-game suspension because Penny Hardaway — now the Memphis coach but at the time a local high school coach — gave $11,500 to Wiseman’s family so they could move from Nashville to Memphis. He was close to coming off that suspension when the surprise announcement came.

Wiseman is an elite prospect. He stands 7’1” with a 7’5” wingspan and has impressive athleticism. The potential is obvious. The biggest concern is that he wants to play like a modern, shot-creating big man — think Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant — but right now his skill set is that of a more traditional NBA center. He’s got some developing to do.

The first thing scouts in Vegas said: This will not change his draft status much, if at all. They have seen enough, despite just three college games, although he does lose out on having the kind of season that could climb him up draft boards.

The other thing people at the G-League Showcase wondered:

Is this a trend? LaMelo Ball could start to wind it down early in Australia. What if Cole Anthony or Anthony Edwards decide to follow suit and shut it down early (or choose not to play in the conference or NCAA Tournament)? Not that they will, but if it’s not going to impact draft status then more guys in the future could go Wiseman’s route.

At least until the NBA does away with the one-and-done rule, or the NCAA finds a way to compensate athletes financially.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.

Scoring, three-pointers taken both way up inside NBA restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time there was a slate of five or more NBA games on the same day, with every team scoring at least 110 points, was more than 32 years ago.

That is, until the opening of the league’s so-called bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic – where it already has happened twice.

Scoring numbers are soaring inside the NBA’s bubble, where the restarted season is happening at Walt Disney World. Entering Sunday’s games, 17 of the 22 teams inside the bubble were exceeding what had been their scoring averages before the season was suspended on March 11 because of COVID-19.

Games on average have seen nine points more than what had been the norm this season. The number of 3-pointers in each contest – which had been on a record clip when the season got suspended – is up as well. And Indiana’s T.J. Warren, not even a top-50 scorer when the pandemic hit, is leading the bubble in points per game so far, averaging 34.4 and nearly doubling what was his season average.

“T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now,” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo said.

He’s not alone. The bubble is working for just about everybody, or so it seems.

There was a six-game NBA schedule on Feb. 21, 1988, and all the teams playing that night scored at least 110 points. That hadn’t happened, on a day of five or more games, again in the NBA until July 31 – the second day of bubble games. It happened again Saturday.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says there might be multiple reasons why the numbers are up, but foremost on the list is that the NBA has created an environment where players are comfortable.

“We came from a situation at home where players could only do individual workouts, you know, with a coach with a mask on and rubber gloves,” Carlisle said. “When you walked in the practice facility, you had to clean your shoes. You had to fill out a form, you had to take your temperature, you had do a lot of things and that was before serial testing began. So a lot has gone into this.”

It’s paying off.

Maybe this should have been expected, even after teams went 4 1/2 months without playing a real game during the suspension. Hostile fans aren’t screaming at and distracting shooters in the bubble. Nobody is weary from a long flight the night before. And the conditions inside the three different game arenas at Disney – from the lighting to the temperature – are relatively close to identical.

“Obviously, even though we are playing on different courts, they all kind of feel like the same arena,” Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez said. “It’s not like we’re going from Milwaukee to Philly, Miami, back to Milwaukee or anything like that. It’s pretty consistent in that regard.”

Only five teams – New Orleans, Toronto, Washington, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers – entered Sunday with a lower average in the bubble than they had before coming to Disney.

“It’s a very weird dynamic,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time. It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in.”

Put simply, it is taking a ton of points to win. Entering the bubble, San Antonio had been 58-5 under coach Gregg Popovich when scoring 125 points or more; the Spurs are 0-2 at Disney when scoring that many. And entering Sunday, there had been 54 games completed in the bubble – with the winning team scoring at least 100 points in all 54 of them.

“I think shooting travels,” New Orleans’ J.J. Redick said. “If you can make shots, you can make shots. … I’ve shot in high school gyms. I’ve shot in civic centers. I’ve shot in arenas. I’ve shot in basements of Catholic administrative buildings. If you can make shots, you can make shots.”

Carlisle has another theory or explanation that can’t be argued: Wherever they are, bubble or no bubble, pandemic or no pandemic, NBA players in this era can score from practically anywhere.

“To me, it’s just the level of aggression of the players,” Carlisle said. “And the fact that, you know, the skill sets of NBA players are increasing exponentially by the month. I mean, it’s just getting harder and harder to guard these guys. There’s a high level of enthusiasm. The closeness of the games has been crazy to watch. It’s just been a very special time here – even though it’s been quite unusual.”