Three Things to Know: Lakers’ dependance on LeBron exposed by red-hot Denver

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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’ dependance on LeBron exposed by red-hot Denver. Taking sweeping lessons from one NBA regular-season game is a Trumpian-level overreach, but one game can highlight trends.

We saw that with both the Lakers and Nuggets Sunday night at Staples Center, where the Denver Nuggets won their sixth game in a row, cruising past the host Lakers 128-104.

For the Lakers the trend — and the lesson from it — was clear: They need to find LeBron James some playmaking help.

LeBron is the Lakers’ fulcrum, without him the offense simply does not space and move the same way — they had a season-low 18 assists. Saying the Lakers are better with their MVP-candidate, the man who is arguably the best player walking the face of the earth (even as he turns 35 next week), is not exactly a hot take. LeBron missed his first game of the season Sunday night with a thoracic muscle strain (and he is day-to-day heading towards the Christmas Day showdown with the Clippers).

The lesson from Sunday is the Lakers need another playmaker for their eventual playoff run.

When LeBron sits this season, the Lakers offensive rating falls off 10.7 points to 102.2 — a number that would be dead-last in the league right now, worse than the mainly G-League team the Warriors are rolling out nightly. With LeBron and his league-leading 10.6 assists a game (not to mention 25.8 points), Anthony Davis gets the rock in places he can do damage, players in the weakside corner are just one bullet pass away from being a threat, and the Lakers are dangerous in transition. With LeBron, the Lakers are a top-five offense in the league.

Without him, with everything flowing through Anthony Davis (32 points, 11 rebounds), the Lakers looked a little too much like the Pelicans of recent years. The team Davis forced a trade to get away from. As good as he is, Davis alone cannot run the show.

The best teams, championship teams, have a second shot creator who can keep the offense flowing when playoff defenses scheme to load up on the primary ball handler and take away his favorite plays. In the postseason, things will get harder for LeBron, and that’s when the Lakers can turn to… Rajon Rondo? Kyle Kuzma? Are those guys the Lakers can trust?

They may have to be because there is no good path to adding a quality player in Los Angeles at the trade deadline. Their older players on one-year contracts will not return much in a move (Danny Green would, but the Lakers aren’t trading him). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s name comes up (paired with Kuzma?), but he has the right to veto any trade and likely would.

It’s the one concern with the playoff Lakers. We’ll see a good test of how they would fare on Christmas against the Clippers (LeBron is expected to be healthy and good to go then).

On the other side of the court, the lesson is Denver’s offense is back — they are having fun again on that end — and with that, they must be counted as one of the top teams in the West.

As of Monday morning, the Nuggets are 20-8 on the season, have won six in a row, and are officially the two seed, just ahead of the Rockets and Clippers (and three games back of the top-seed Lakers, who built a cushion for their current three-game losing streak). Denver may have stumbled out of the gate this season with questions about Nikola Jokic’s conditioning swirling, but the Nuggets have shed the “bust” label, found their footing and look like a threat again.

During Denver’s six-game streak, they have an offensive rating of 119.3, best in the NBA.

Watch them play against the Lakers and it was obvious they were having fun again — Malik Beasley putting his fingers to his lips to quiet the Laker crowd, while Paul Millsap was flexing. Denver has had a surprisingly good defense all season; now that their offense is clicking again the Nuggets need to be mentioned as one of the top threats in the West. Maybe on the second tier (behind the two Los Angeles teams), but a threat like the Rockets and others.

Denver’s season ultimately will be judged on games in May, not ones against a shorthanded Lakers team in December. The Nuggets were bounced in the second round by Portland last season, and to move forward from that spot will be more difficult this season. But that is the ultimate measuring stick.

For now, however, Denver is having fun again. And that’s a good start — and makes them one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch.

2) Jayson Tatum scores a career-high 39 points in Celtics win against Hornets. For the past few weeks, it felt like Jaylen Brown may be the young Celtic player breaking out this season, he had played well on both ends of the floor and fueled wins.

Sunday, Jayson Tatum reminded everyone what he could do, dropping 39 points (on 15-of-29 shooting) against Charlotte, including taking over late with 22 in the fourth.

Tatum did his damage when he drove to the rim (5-of-6 shooting) and from three (4-of-9). What he also brings Boston is good, switchable, perimeter defense — that’s the end of the floor that has coach Brad Stevens praising Tatum, via NBC Sports Boston.

“I can’t believe it’s not talked about more, how good he is defensively,” said Stevens. “I think, for whatever reason, that gets lost in the shuffle. How much effort he’s been playing with all year has been like — he’s really become a great defender. His length. He chases balls, he challenges shots. He gets his hands on balls or keeps them in their mind that he’s behind them with that length. And then he’s a great rebounder from the wing.

“So he’s a really good defender. He’s a big reason why our defense is where it is as a team and we need him to keep continuing to be at that level.”

Boston has the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season (they are not missing steps without Al Horford in the paint), and if the Celtics are going to be the second-best team in the East and a threat to the Bucks, that’s the end where it has to start. Tatum has become key to that.

3) Paul George is welcomed back to OKC with cheers and open arms. Then beaten. If the fans in Oklahoma City had decided to boo Paul George after he forced his way out of town last summer and into a trade to Los Angeles, it would have been understandable. Fans are loyal to their town and team, and they want the same from the players. George re-signed in OKC, then a year later wanted out.

However, he was welcomed with open arms and cheers in his return on Sunday.

Classy.

Oklahoma City is a better team than many fans realize and moved above .500 Sunday with a 118-112 win over George’s Clippers. That was fueled by 32 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the player the Clippers didn’t want to give up but had to in the George trade. The Clippers knew he would be good, and SGA got his revenge game.

How big a postseason threat the Thunder are — and they look like a playoff team in a West where nobody has run away with the last couple of seeds — will depend on what the roster looks like after the trade deadline. Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and others could be on the move.

With Chris Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander running the show (and some interesting three-guard lineups with Dennis Schroder) Oklahoma City is going to be a tough playoff out.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”