Three Things to Know: Lakers’ offense flat in the clutch, Clippers exploit that in win

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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’ offense flat in the clutch, Clippers better in final minutes and overall right now.

Alex Caruso grabbed the rebound with 19 seconds left and got the ball to LeBron James, the Lakers down three with a chance to tie up the marquee game on Christmas Day. Frank Vogel kept his hands at his sides, trusting his best player to make the right play and not calling time out.

LeBron walked the ball up the court and the Lakers wasted 16 seconds lollygagging around to set up the final shot. That shot was a contested LeBron stepback three — a distance from which he as 2-of-11 shooting at that point on Christmas Day, and from an area on the floor LeBron is shooting 28.6 percent for the season. This was not a great shot choice, but that was moot because Patrick Beverley blocked it, it went out off LeBron (after a replay), and the Clippers won 111-106.

There are multiple reasons the Lakers lost this game (start with Kawhi Leonard‘s 35, he was a force), but there’s one critical area that’s concerning heading into the trade deadline, and potentially in the playoffs:

The Lakers’ crunch-time offense is not good.

It’s slow and predictable — “live by LeBron or die by LeBron” — and the best teams can exploit that. The Clippers — now 2-0 against the Lakers this season — are one of those teams.

In the final 4:30 of this game, the Lakers were outscored 8-3 as the Clippers cranked up their defense. That’s not an isolated issue — the Laker have an offensive rating of 100.7 in the clutch this season (final five minutes of a game within five points, stats via NBA.com). That’s 20th in the league. The Lakers are still 12-4 in those tight games because their defense has been elite in the clutch, but the best teams — and the Clippers are one of those, with all their stars getting to the line in the final 4:30 — are going to find a way to get points.

Once the Clippers cranked up their defense, the Lakers scored 20 points in the fourth quarter on 8-of-22 shooting. Los Angeles needs a better offensive flow late.

The Lakers had that flow in the first half because they are a good transition team that got out and ran, getting buckets before the Clippers’ defense got set. The Lakers led by 12 at the break (the Clippers’ halftime comeback from was the biggest on Christmas Day of any team since the Mavericks in 2003). Kyle Kuzma was the third scorer the Lakers needed for much of the game, scoring 19 in the first half and 25 on the night.

The Lakers need a consistent third scorer, games like this one on Christmas make you think Kuzma can be that guy. However, he’s not consistent and he needs to be — or be traded for someone who can be — by the time the playoffs roll around.

Another concern for the Lakers: LeBron is 16-of-43 against the Clippers this season (37.2 percent). Granted, LeBron looked slowed by his injury in this one and then got kneed in the groin in the first half. But if you’re out there, then you can play. The Clippers have the length and a multitude of defenders they can throw at LeBron, and it has worked.

The Clippers also can roll out a lineup late in games where they trust all five guys and do not need to hide anyone. Do the Lakers feel that way about Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

While this game had the hype and feel of May, not December, both teams afterward were quick to play some variation of the “just one of 82” card. They’re right, both of these teams will evolve and look different by the time the playoffs roll around.

But if the Lakers don’t fix their clutch offense, the outcome will not be any different.

BONUS THING TO KNOW:

The best line of the night goes to Clippers coach Doc Rivers, when asked pregame about what he got for Christmas: “Yeah, I bought myself terrific presents, and I drank it all.”

2) Can Philadelphia keep shooting its way from deep past the Bucks?

It’s a difference in defensive philosophy:

Philadelphia allows the fewest three-point attempts against in the league, 27.5 per game. The Sixers chase teams off the arc.

Milwaukee allows 38.4 threes per game, second most in the league, they pack the paint, drop their bigs off pick-and-rolls, and try to take away anything at the rim. Milwaukee has the best defense in the NBA, it works for them, but coach Mike Budenholzer’s philosophy opens them up to teams willing to take, and who can make, from deep.

On Christmas, the 76ers shot 21-of-44 from three (47.7 percent) and handled the Bucks comfortably, 121-109.

The question becomes, is that level of shooting sustainable for the Sixers? Philly attempts an average of 30.2 threes per game, fifth-lowest in the league, although they hit 36.8 percent of them (fifth-highest percentage in the league). Can Philly shoot like they did on Christmas through a playoff series against Milwaukee?

What is sustainable is the way Joel Embiid’s and Al Horford’s defensive energy can make Giannis Antetokounmpo work for his points. The Greek Freak was 8-of-27 shooting for the day, and while in future matchups Antetokounmpo will score better, he’s always going to have to work very hard for his buckets against the anchor of the Philly defense.

Philadelphia, when at home or in a big game, are so much more engaged and play with a different energy than other nights. On those off nights, there seems to be no good fit with Joel Embiid and Al Horford, and they don’t hit from three at the same pace. Brett Brown and the Sixers argue they are a team built for the playoffs (and playoff-like games, such as this one).

Maybe so, but Philadelphia needs to think about playoff seeding, too. Right now, they would face the Bucks in the second round (a 1-4 matchup), then have to play one (or two) series after that. Can the 76ers find enough regular season focus to get past Miami or Boston for the two or three seed? They need to make that path to the Finals a little easier with the higher seed if they can. (The Bucks will be the top seed, they already have a four-game cushion.)

3) Sleeper games? Not so fast, my friend. Warriors, Pelicans pull off Christmas Day upsets.

Christmas Day belonged to the dogs in the NBA — the underdog covered four of the five games (Boston ran away from Toronto and covered that spread).

The two biggest upsets were the Warriors and Pelicans as outright winners.

Golden State beat Houston by playing great defense on James Harden. Sure, the Beard still had 24 points in 9-of-18 shooting, but he only took one free throw all game. Golden State used Glen Robinson III as the primary defender but had Draymond Green (usually helping off Russell Westbrook) to challenge and crowd Harden before he could get a shot off. Make anyone else beat them. The Rockets couldn’t and lost 116-104.

New Orleans got 31 from Brandon Ingram, have a much better offensive flow with Derrick Favors on the court, and knocked off the Nuggets 112-100. Denver had been red hot coming into the game with six straight wins, but they laid an egg on the big stage (don’t read too much into that, but it’s not a great sign). Jrue Holiday had 20 points, played good defense, and his trade stock went up even higher with this win.

LeBron, Grizzlies, NBA world reacts to death of Tyre Nichols

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Hours after the excruciating video of Memphis police fatally beating Tyre Nichols was released, the Memphis Grizzlies chose not to open their locker room and not speak to the media about it — it was too raw, too painful.

“The senseless loss of life for Tyre Nichols has really hit us hard,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said pregame in an interview with local broadcast partner Bally Sports (via the Associated Press). “It’s been tough being on the road, not being home. I wish I could extend my arms through this camera right now to the family. They’re going through a lot.”

The Grizzlies weren’t the only ones who felt that way around the NBA, emotions were high around the league Friday (as they were around the nation). Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Minnesota and Milwaukee released states echoing what the Grizzlies said.

LeBron James used his platform to make a statement, as he has in the past.

Statements were released from the NBA, WNBA, players, the players union and more.

“This is just crazy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said unprompted to open his press conference, discussing the video and incident.

Nichols, 29, was pulled over in a traffic stop by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7 and was beaten to death by five officers. The bodycam footage shows Nichols being brutally beaten as he calls out for his mother and is defenseless. Nichols died in the hospital three days later. The five officers involved have been fired and charged with second-degree murder.

Dolan says he he has no plan to sell Knicks, retire, but he loves facial recognition

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - October 06, 2022
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Knicks owner James Dolan has been better in recent years about staying out of the way of the front office and staying out of the media spotlight — both of which are good for the Knicks and their fans’ sanity.

However, he stepped back in the spotlight the past couple of days — doing an interview on “Good Day New York” on Fox 5 Thursday then WFAN sports talk radio on Friday — and reminded everyone why it’s best when he stays out of it. Here are the highlights of these interviews.

• Dolan isn’t going anywhere, saying to WFAN he is not selling the team, nor does he plan to retire. Via Fred Katz at The Athletic:

“I have no plans whatsoever to sell at this point. I’m not retiring anytime soon. It’s a family-controlled asset, so someone in the family will eventually own it.”

That was a bit of a pipe dream for Knicks fans, there had been no rumors of a sale. With the value of NBA franchises rising rapidly and Dolan enjoying being the owner of one of the biggest brands in the sport, there has been little chance of a sale.

• Dolan defended Madison Square Garden’s controversial use of facial recognition technology to ban attorneys from firms involved in lawsuits against the Knicks or MSG from entering the property (or other Madison Square Garden properties, such as Radio City Music Hall).

“At Madison Square Garden, if you’re suing us, we’re just asking of you — please don’t come until you’re done with your argument with us. And yes, we’re using facial recognition to enforce that…

“If someone is suing you, that’s confrontational. It’s adversarial. If you’re being sued, you don’t have to welcome that person into your home.”

Except, it isn’t a home, it’s a public building where sports and entertainment events take place for which tickets are sold. Also, there are fans saying they have been banned from the building because of social media posts critical of Dolan.

• This policy has created a considerable backlash, including from the New York Attorney General, who said the policy could violate anti-discrimination laws in the state. Lawmakers in the New York state assembly introduced a bill prohibiting sports venues — such as Madison Square Garden — from refusing entry to attorneys or others involved in lawsuits against the organization.

• Dolan said on FOX 5 that the State Liquor Authority reached out to the Madison Square Garden company saying the use of facial recognition technology in this manner could lead to a suspension of their liquor license.

“This isn’t going to bother me because I’ve been sober 29 years. I don’t need the liquor.”

Dolan even hinted he could do a dry New York Rangers game on Fox, but he backed away from that idea the next day speaking on WFAN.

• Dolan reiterated his support of current Knicks decision-maker Leon Rose.

Dolan also went on to say he expects the Knicks to make the playoffs this season, however, there is no timeline for the team to contend for a ring.

What will Rockets do at trade deadline? Send out Gordon? Bring in Collins?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets
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There’s a sense in league circles that this is the final season Houston will be okay with having one of the worst — as of today, the worst — record in the NBA. The Rockets hope to grab one of the big names at the top of the draft board this season, but they already have drafted Jalen Green at No. 2 (2021) and Jabari Smith Jr. at No. 3 (2022), plus made a draft night trade for Alperen Şengün (who is playing well). With cap space to spend and extensions coming up, the tanking days will be over.

How will that impact the Rockets at this trade deadline? Here are a few names to watch.

Kelly Iko at The Athletic reports the Rockets have interest in the Hawks’ John Collins and the sides have talked, but there is no real traction yet.

There has been nothing concrete from the Rockets — merely ideas floated by the Hawks to Houston among other teams — but the interest is real.

The Rockets could also be part of a larger, three-team trade to move Collins.

Eric Gordon remains on the trade block, as he has been for more than a year. Gordon has been frustrated waiting, but the Rockets have held out for what they thought was fair — a first-round pick — to no avail. That price likely comes down, and according to Iko at The Athletic, the front office is “more inclined to trade him now” than in the past, but the proof will be in a deal.

• Teams also are calling about K.J. Martin, according to Iko.

K.J. Martin, there continues to be interest in the 22-year-old combo forward who has been quite productive as a starter — averaging 14 points and seven rebounds on 35 percent shooting from 3 — but nothing concrete at this juncture in terms of offers on the table.

The Rockets like Martin, it’s going to take a serious offer to get them to consider it.

Knicks reportedly offered multiple first-round picks for OG Anunoby, got nowhere

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors
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What are the Toronto Raptors going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s less than two weeks before the trade deadline and the entire NBA is still asking that question, the Raptors are the one team that could turn this trade deadline from a dud to epic if they decide to pivot toward a rebuild. Are they willing to trade players like OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam, or will they look to add a more traditional big man such as the Spurs’ Jakob Poeltl, who has been linked to the Raptors in rumors? Everything seems to be on the table.

Anunoby is a player a lot of teams covet, including New York. The Knicks reached out to the Raptors, reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

“And Anunoby with Toronto, I mean, that would cost you a lot. That would cost you significant draft compensation. Maybe the Knicks are there, maybe they’re feeling like they could make the playoffs and make a big push if you added in Anunoby. I know that we reported they contacted Toronto on Anunoby and I was told in that conversation they offered multiple firsts. But this was a while back… Toronto has done a lot since then. But I don’t think the league is crystal clear on what [the Raptors] want to do on Anunoby.”

Anunoby is an elite on-ball wing defender who can be a finisher, averaging 17.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game at age 25 — the asking price will start at two unprotected first-round picks in this market. The Knicks may have thrown some of their protected picks in the conversation, but Toronto’s asking price is reportedly sky-high because they’re not eager to get rid of him.

Anunoby is making $17.4 million this season and is under contract for $18.2 million next season, a fair price for what he brings to the court (he has a player option at $19.9 million in 2024-25). What the Raptors do with him may signal their direction.

At the deadline, most people around the league expect Toronto to trade Gary Trent Jr., but that’s it. Any other big moves are likely this offseason. If ever.