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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.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.