Three Things to Know: Who is in more trouble, Bucks or Lakers?


Day 2 of the NBA playoffs were all about the upsets — two eight seeds beat two No. 1 seeds. Welcome to the upside-down bubble. But which top seed is in real trouble? Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) The Lakers are danger zone because Blazers, Lillard are that good

After a disappointing Game 1 loss — which followed right in line with a disappointing eight seeding games — the Lakers can rightly say, “we’re better shooters than this.” As a team the Lakers shot 5-of-32 from three (15.6%) in Game 1, and Lakers not named LeBron James shot 32.5%. That was not about Portland’s defense — which was third-worst in the bubble, and fourth-worst in the regular season before that — it was about the Lakers literally shooting hit-the-side-of-the-backboard badly.

The Lakers are in a real danger zone because Damian Lillard can do this every night.

Portland should scare Los Angeles. The Lakers are in trouble because they have little margin for error in this matchup. This is no typical 1-8 matchup for the Lakers, they don’t have the luxury of coasting through and get their legs under them. With Jusuf Nurkic back in the rotation and CJ McCollum moving better than a guy with a fractured back has a right to, this is the core of a Portland team that won 53 games last season and went to the conference finals. This team is outstanding, even if their defense is not.

Frank Vogel and the Lakers can’t play around. Vogel needs to sound like Apollo Creed’s trainer in “Rocky” — “they don’t know it’s a damn show, they think it’s a damn fight.”

The Lakers can’t play their way into form, Vogel and company need to make ruthless adjustments to get their best players more minutes. Maybe start Kyle Kuzma or Alex Caruso over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Less JaVale McGee (who started but played just 12 minutes) and more Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris.

Ultimately, however, that is tinkering on the fringes.

Anthony Davis has to shoot better than 8-of-24. He was drawing fouls and getting to the line (28 points on the night), but he has to dominate the Nurkic/Zach Collins/Hassan Whiteside front line of Portland.

Then there’s LeBron James. It’s hard to criticize a guy who just had a 23 point, 17 rebounds, 16 assists triple-double — making him the first player in NBA history with a 20+, 15+, 15+ playoff game — but with this roster, with these shooting woes, the Lakers need more scoring out of him. Portland has no wing players who can begin to guard him (Gary Trent Jr. tries, but he’s just undersized for the task). LeBron has to rack up points.

The Lakers were better than this before the break and there’s reason to believe they can get back to that level of play — a championship level. But LeBron may need to carry them until the rest of the team can catch up with him.

LeBron and Davis have to do this quickly because Portland is for real — and now their confidence is even higher. Portland believes it can win this thing.

2) New season, same old questions for Milwaukee

It is a new season, a new playoffs, but in Game 1 it was the same old questions — and a couple of new bubble-related ones — that haunted Milwaukee in its Game 1 to Orlando. It’s fair to question if the Magic can maintain this level of play, but the questions about the Bucks are real:

• How do they counter when the other team builds a wall and cuts Giannis Antetokounmpo off from getting to the rim? Orlando did just that in Game 1, following the blueprint Toronto laid out 15 months ago, and Milwaukee still did not have an answer. The Bucks were not dreadful from three as a team (33% for the game), but when teams wall off the Greek Freak, then Khris Middleton (4-of-12 shooting), Eric Bledsoe (5-of-11) and Brook Lopez (2-of-9) need to make them pay. Orlando paid no price in Game 1.

Remember, that was a Magic team Tuesday without Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, or Aaron Gordon. Even if the Bucks win this series, what happens when teams with better defenders start building their wall?

• The Bucks need to get their defense back. Milwaukee was clear and away the best defense in the NBA before the interruption to the season, but was 10th out of 22 teams at the Orlando restart. Milwaukee gave up 9.5 more points per 100 possessions in the bubble than they did in games before the All-Star break this season. Worse defense means fewer transition opportunities where this team shines.

• Mike Budenholzer has to change his rotations. Antetokounmpo played fewer than 35 minutes in Game 1. Why? He’s your MVP player in his prime, play the man 40 minutes in a close playoff game. The list goes on: Middleton 31 minutes. Bledsoe 28 minutes. There is no more conserving players for the playoffs — this is the playoffs. Ones after an unprecedented four-month break. It’s win or go home.

It’s too early to panic about the Bucks. While Nikola Vucevic absolutely can sustain this level of play, I’m not convinced the rest of the Magic can. What we know is a Steve Clifford coached team will play hard and smart, they will not role over.

Orlando will pose questions, it’s time for Milwaukee to show it can answer them.

3) Houston’s defense is better than you think

James Harden can drop 37 points and set up teammates any time he wants. We know that.

Houston quietly started playing pretty good defense during the restart in Orlando — it had the seventh-best defense of the 22 teams at the restart, with a 109.1 defensive rating.

That defense carried over to Game 1 against Oklahoma City, a game the Rockets won going away, 123-108. They did that without Russell Westbrook, still recovering from a quadriceps issue. OKC could not use Steven Adams and good ball movement to punish the small-ball Rockets.

If Houston’s defense is for real (and nine games in Orlando is not enough for me to call it real, it’s still a small sample size) watch out.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.


So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.


Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz


This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games


Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).