Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.
1) What will Lakers do without Davis? Go smaller.
There were understandable reasons the Bulls beat the Lakers Sunday night. First, the Bulls are an outstanding team — 18-10 after the contest, the No. 2 seed in the East with the eighth-best net rating in the league. Chicago was at home. The Bulls, while still shorthanded, had fresh legs after a week off due to COVID protocols. And finally, Chicago got DeMar DeRozan back, he wanted to show Rob Pelinka what the Lakers were missing, and dropped 38 including this dagger.
DeMar in the 4th? Welcome to death row. pic.twitter.com/WChE2mNoW9
— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) December 20, 2021
But we learned a lot about what life will be like for Los Angeles for the next month — at least, likely a little longer — as the Lakers adjust to life without Anthony Davis, who is out with a sprained knee.
While Lakers fans have been frustrated this season that Davis hasn’t stepped up and looked like the No. 1 option on a championship team — because he’s not shooting as well as he did in the bubble, plus the effort is not there every night — Davis is still elite. The Lakers are flat-out better with him on the court. He is averaging 23.3 points and 10 rebounds a game. More importantly, he was their best defender and rim protector. After a rough start to the season on the defensive end, the Lakers had crawled back into the top 10 defenses in the league thanks to Frank Vogel and Davis — the Lakers defense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better with Davis on the floor.
That defense will be the biggest issue without Davis, especially as the Lakers go smaller and smaller.
Over the past two weeks (seven games), the Lakers’ defensive rating was 104, fourth-best in the NBA. They were getting stops — until Sunday. The Bulls had a 112.9 offensive rating for the game. Again, fresh legs at home and DeRozan was going off, there are excuses if you want them, but until Davis returns the Lakers will go as their defense goes, and it was not great on Sunday.
The Lakers also were at their best going small — LeBron at center lineups specifically — and Los Angeles will need to lean into that.
Vogel went with his instincts to start the game, going bigger and starting DeAndre Jordan at center and LeBron at the four. That didn’t last. By the second half, Carmelo Anthony was in the starting lineup and LeBron slid over to center. Expect a lot more of that — this Lakers’ roster was not built to handle the loss of Davis for long. Jordan and Dwight Howard (once he’s returned from COVID protocols) will have to play a stepped-up role and be better, but when it gets tight the Lakers will lean on LeBron (and sometimes Anthony or Trevor Ariza) at the five.
Those smaller lineups will mean more effort from LeBron defensively every game, which is the other big concern for the Lakers through all of this — wearing LeBron down midseason. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport, he knows his body and is focused on recovery like few others. Still, he’s about to turn 37 and has the second-most total minutes played in NBA history (regular season and playoff combined). The hope was to reduce his minutes this season, but Westbrook is not taking on that load and injuries have gotten in the way. It’s on LeBron.
Specifically on LeBron, the center.
2) No, the NBA isn’t going to be postponing games. But COVID is hitting hard.
The NBA announced the postponement of five games, three of them on Sunday, because COVID hit the league so hard several teams could not suit up eight healthy players to play. That’s likely getting worse before it gets better, considering how many players are entering protocols.
Before last Tuesday, the single-day high for NBA players entering H&S protocols: five.
But there have now been double-digit additions for 4 straight days — and 5 of the last 6 days overall.
As of this writing, 64 players and a coach have entered protocols in the past 6 days.
— Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) December 19, 2021
It’s why the NBA will ramp up testing and go back to more strict mask mandates (after Christmas, of course, don’t want to mess with those showcase games). It’s why the NBA will start to require teams sign players to 10-day contracts as they lose roster players to COVID protocols — to have enough bodies to keep the games going (and the schedule on track, and the money rolling in).
All that has led some to call for the NBA to shut the league down, including Boston’s outspoken Enes Kanter Freedom.
How many @NBA players have to test positive for the league to postpone the season?
— Enes Kanter FREEDOM (@EnesFreedom) December 19, 2021
That’s not happening.
Reaching out to multiple sources in the last 24 hours to ask about a shutdown, the league does not appear headed in that direction — for a couple of reasons.
First, does anyone think sending players home to stay inside with their families and friends through Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties would lessen the number of players who get infected? Are players more likely to stay at home and avoid public clubs/bars/restaurants if sent home? Shut things down and the league sends players to spend more time in the places they are most likely to get infected.
Second, what exactly is the guarantee that things will be better in two weeks? The uptick in NBA players testing positive mirrors the uptick in people nationally becoming infected, with hospitals filling up again (primarily with the unvaccinated and people at higher risk, such as the elderly). With two weeks of parties at homes and the Omicron variant spreading through the nation, there’s no reason to think a few weeks off puts the NBA in a better space.
The NBA is not near ready to hit pause on the season right now. Don’t bet on that changing.
3) Pistons snap 14-game losing streak with win against Heat
It doesn’t matter that Miami was without Jimmy Butler (tailbone), Bam Adebayo (thumb), Tyler Herro (quad), Markieff Morris (neck), and that P.J. Tucker had to leave the game with an injury.
A win is a win and the Pistons will take it, a 100-90 victory for Detroit that snaps a 14-game losing streak.
It helped that the Heat’s remaining primary offensive drivers, Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson, shot 5-of-23 for the night. And that the Heat as a team shot 30.2% from 3 for the game.
The Pistons starters were better than the Heat’s first five, with Saddiq Bey scoring 26 and Hamidou Diallo adding 15.
Miami clearly had rookie Cade Cunningham at the top of the scouting report, they blitzed and trapped him all night long, and he ended up with just four points. However, in the fourth, when the Pistons put the game away, Cunningham started to use the Heat defense against them, drew the defenders to him, then found Bey for a couple of key threes. The rookie is learning.
Highlight of the Night: Coby White is a little too fast for LeBron chase-down block
LeBron’s chase-down blocks are the thing of legend — he sealed a championship with one. Sunday night he tracked Coby White looking to get another one but the Bulls’ guard was a little too quick and got the dunk.
Last night’s scores:
Detroit 100, Miami 90
Portland 105, Memphis 100
Sacramento 121, San Antoni0 114
Chicago 115, LA Lakers 110
Minnesota 111, Dallas 105
Phoenix 137, Charlotte 106
Cleveland at Atlanta, postponed
New Orleans at Philadelphia, postponed
Denver at Brooklyn, postponed