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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 James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.