CJ McCollum

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Three Things to Know: At 26-12, Clippers still trying to mold championship identity

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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) At 26-12, Clippers still trying to mold championship identity. Doc Rivers was blunt. Nearly halfway into the season, does the Clippers’ coach know what his team’s identity is?

“No. And that’s a concern,” Rivers said Saturday after a frustrating blowout loss at home to Memphis.

We know is the Clippers are good — 26-12, on pace for 56 wins and home court in the first round — with a couple of victories against the measuring stick team in the West, the Lakers.

What we don’t know, what we haven’t seen consistently, is a team identity. That leads to losses to Memphis or giving up 132 points Sunday to the Knicks (a game the Clippers won by scoring 135, led by Harrell’s 34 off the bench). Those kinds of games should be wakeup calls.

“We’ve had a lot of wake up calls,” Kawhi Leonard said after the Memphis loss. “I feel like it’s the middle of the season and some of the mistakes that we’re making, we shouldn’t be making at this time.”

“We’re not a great team. We’re not a great team…” Harrell said more bluntly in a frustrated rant after the Memphis loss. “I think that’s what we need to realize and wake up. We’re a team that still has to figure out things to win night in and night-out.”

When the Clippers are at their best they are a gritty, defense-first team that can shoot the three and has ball handlers in Leonard and Paul George who can create shots and get to their spots on the floor in crunch time. At their heart, this is a lunchpail squad that wants to outwork opponents — even their stars are not anointed top picks, they didn’t go to elite college programs (George at Fresno State, Leonard at San Diego State), but they outworked everyone to maximize their talent and get where they are

Patrick Beverley — the ultimate lunchpail guy and the emotional heart-and-soul of the Clippers — said in no uncertain terms Sunday the Clippers know who they are, they just haven’t put it together consistently.

Injuries and keeping players healthy is a part of that — Doc Rivers has had a fully healthy core of his roster for exactly one game this season. Paul George and Leonard have played fewer than 500 minutes together (461) across 18 games, although the Clippers have a +10.7 rating in those minutes. (For comparison LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played 817 minutes together this season, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray at are at 977 minutes together in Denver).

“It’s been tough, I won’t deny that. It’s been tougher than I thought it would be because of (the injuries)…” Rivers said.

“The continuity that we need to be a champion, to me, it’s hard to work on that or even have, because you don’t have time. I’m not worried about it yet, but it’s actually on my mind.”

There is time, 46 games to be exact. As an organization, the Clippers have played the long game this season, being willing to sacrifice wins now to have Leonard and the rest of the squad rested and healthy when the games really matter in April. The focus is the ultimate prize, one that is earned in May and June.

But that prize requires sweat equity be put in on dull January days, and Rivers knows it. Good habits need to be built, chemistry worked on. The little things come together in those games, not by Rivers snapping fingers in May. That’s where the Clippers are right now, still trying to put things together. They need to put in the work now to mold that championship identity. They have time, but unlike that team down the hall, the Clippers are not far down that road yet.

2) Hassan Whiteside returns to Miami, gets booed, Heat shrug and pick up win. It seemed a bit of an overreaction from Miami fans, but they booed Hassan Whiteside upon his return to Miami Sunday. Booed him when he was introduced and when he touched the ball most of the game. Whiteside may not have lived up to the hype (or his contract) in Miami, but he was himself. He put up numbers — 14.1 points and 11.9 rebounds a game average in his five seasons — but they were mostly empty calorie numbers.

The “we got shooters” chant by Heat fans in the second half was clever. (When Whiteside was traded to Portland over the summer, he posted a video reaction on social media where he praised Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum saying, “We got shooters,” Heat fans didn’t forget.) This season, Miami has plenty of shooters.

Jimmy Butler was out on Sunday, but Miami still had enough shooters to get the win. The Heat got 29 points and 13 assists from Goran Dragic, while Bam Adebayo added 20 points and eight rebounds. Derrick Jones Jr. chipped in 19.

Part of Miami’s leap forward this season has been their play in the paint, with Adebayo and Meyers Leonard giving the Heat quality minutes and points. The fans may have had animosity toward Whiteside, the team has shrugged it off and moved on.

3) The Lakers blocked 20 shots in a win against Detroit Sunday. The Lakers are a long team up front. The Detroit Pistons learned that the hard way Sunday.

Anthony Davis led the way with eight blocked shots, and as a team the Lakers rejected 20 Pistons’ shots on their way to a 106-99 win.


Davis had eight blocks, JaVale McGee six, and Dwight Howard five (four of those came in the fourth quarter). Laker guard Avery Bradley had the other block. Los Angeles had given up 60 points in the paint in their last game (against New Orleans) and Davis said the focus on protecting the paint was a reaction to that.

Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo lift Heat past Trail Blazers

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MIAMI — James Johnson scored on his first possession in more than a month. Dragic either scored or got somebody else points pretty much every time the ball was in his hands.

As often is the case for Miami, bench guys came up big.

Dragic had 29 points and 13 assists, Bam Adebayo added 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting and the Heat — without Jimmy Butler — never trailed in a 122-111 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night.

“It doesn’t matter for us who’s playing or not,” Dragic said. “We don’t use excuses.”

Dragic tied a career best with seven 3-pointers. Derrick Jones Jr. scored 19 points for the Heat, who got 14 from Kendrick Nunn and 12 in 22 minutes from little-used Johnson — who was called upon largely because Miami was without Butler.

It was Johnson’s first minutes since Nov. 27.

“I’ve been in every situation that this league can offer, honestly,” Johnson said. “I know for sure it can be worse.”

Tyler Herro scored 11 points for Miami, as did Meyers Leonard in his first game against his former team.

Damian Lillard led Portland with 34 points and 12 assists. Former Heat center Hassan Whiteside, booed almost every time he touched the ball, finished with 21 points and 18 rebounds for Portland.

“It felt weird at first,” Whiteside said of playing against his former club. “But a lot of them guys I haven’t played with. There were a few guys out there that I actually knew.”

Both teams were missing starters unexpectedly. Miami was without Butler, ruled out because of back soreness. Portland played without the services of CJ McCollum for the first time this season; he was out with an upper-respiratory infection.

“Any time one of your best players is not on the floor you’re going to be less of a team,” Lillard said. “We’re professionals and that’s when you turn to the next guy. … It’s tough not having him but they didn’t have their best player.

Anfernee Simons scored 19 points off the bench for Portland, which cut a 24-point deficit to nine in the third quarter but no closer.

“Whatever word you want to use, we didn’t compete hard enough in the first half,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They had us on our heels from the outset.”

The Heat improved their NBA-best home record to 17-1 — that’s only two wins shy of their home total for 41 games last season — and are 10-0 after losses.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he still roots for Whiteside, who spent five years with Miami and got traded this summer as part of the series of moves that allowed the Heat to land Butler.

“We invested a lot into him and he invested a lot into us,” Spoelstra said. “For whatever reason — it just happens in this business — it was just time to turn the page on that team and it’s not anyone’s fault.”

Watch Damian Lillard’s driving and-1 game winner for Portland

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Damian Lillard is clutch.

We knew that already — ask OKC — but he showed it again against Phoenix on a driving layup in the final minute where Aron Baynes blocking foul on gave Lillard the and-1 and eventually a 111-110 win against Phoenix.

Phoenix challenged the blocking call, and while Baynes was outside the restricted area, the referees decided he was moving. The call stood.

The Suns got one last shot at a game-winner but Ricky Rubio missed a three and Portland got the win.

CJ McCollum had 30 to lead Portland, carrying the team while Lillard battled foul trouble for parts of the game. Kelly Oubre Jr. had 24 to lead Portland, including a clutch four-point play in the final minute that had the Suns up two. Until Lillard’s heroics.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo must be in your MVP discussion

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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) Giannis Antetokounmpo must be in your MVP discussion. Just ask Utah. LeBron James is playing his best regular-season basketball since his Miami days. James Harden is putting up historic numbers. Luka Doncic has exploded on the scene in his second year and is racking up numbers we haven’t seen in a 20-year-old since LeBron.

Those guys have dominated the early MVP buzz.

Do not leave Giannis Antetokounmpo out of that talk. Just ask the Utah Jazz and Mike Conley.

“He got to the free throw line. When he started making the long-range shot, that really makes it tough,” Conley said postgame (via the Associated Press).

The Greek Freak and reigning MVP hit 3-of-8 from three Monday night. More importantly, he got to the rim at will — finishing 12-of-16 shots there — on his way to dropping 50 on the Rudy Gobert-less Jazz in a 122-118 Bucks win.

While other guys are making headlines, Antetokounmpo has been making history, too.

Last season Antetokounmpo earned MVP honors, edging out Harden (it was Antetokounmpo’s defense that put him over the top on most voter’s ballots).

This season the Greek Freak is scoring 31.1 points, pulling down 13.9 rebounds and dishing out 6.4 assists a game — all numbers that are up from his MVP season. He remains an elite defensive player on one end and an efficient scorer on the other with a 61.5 true shooting percentage.

And he’s led the Bucks to a 14-3 record that has them on top of the East.

Somehow this all feels expected in a way, which is why the surprise of LeBron’s renaissance or Doncic’s emergence grabs more attention. It shouldn’t. Antetokounmpo is as good or better than anyone. He’s the guy who can best challenge LeBron for the “best player on the planet” title. He remains a force of nature who keeps getting better, seemingly nightly

Just remember to give Antetokounmpo some of that MVP-talk shine, too.

2) Joel Embiid goes scoreless in return to Toronto, where Raptors beat the Sixers. Again. Toronto coach Nick Nurse clearly learned a crucial lesson during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals:

Match Marc Gasol’s minutes up to Joel Embiid’s.

Much like he did in the playoffs last year, Gasol was in the right position, was physical, and kept Embiid in check — Embiid went scoreless for the first time in his career Monday. Zero points. Embiid was 0-of-11 from the floor, opening up room for the door for a 101-96 Toronto win.

That wasn’t all Gasol, Embiid was 0-of-3 at the free throw line, but the Spaniard forced Embiid into more midrange shots, where he was 0-of-6.

This was the Sixers’ fourth game in six nights and it showed, it wasn’t just Embiid’s legs that looked a little tired. Still, the Sixers wanted some revenge for last playoff exit, Kawhi Leonard obviously isn’t in Raptors colors anymore, and Kyle Lowry was out (fractured left thumb). Still, the outcome was the same as last May.

Pascal Siakam continued his impressive play this season and had 25 to lead Toronto.

3) Carmelo Anthony looks more comfortable, especially facing the Bulls “defense,” scores 25 in Portland win. Carmelo Anthony just looked more like his vintage self on the court. He’s more comfortable four games in. The entire Portland team just looked more comfortable Monday night with Damian Lillard back in the lineup and running the show.

The result was a comfortable 117-94 road win in Chicago that snapped Portland’s four-game losing streak.

“It’s starting to get my feel and my flow back,” Anthony told reporters on Monday.

Anthony has given the Blazers a boost in terms of shooting — 16 points a game and hitting 39.1 percent of his threes (which is impressive after starting 0-of-8 from deep) — which has started to open up driving lanes for Lillard and CJ McCollum. More than just that, Anthony has provided Portland with a player the rest of the team can rally around. As was the case in Oklahoma City and Houston, the other players love and respect Anthony. He’s popular, and guys are rooting for him. That emotional boost matters.

Let’s not pretend this is a fairy tale with a happily ever ending. Anthony is still a liability on defense, and he’s got a dreadful 47.7 true shooting percentage overall. Anthony is getting buckets and hitting threes, but he has not been efficient overall.

He has been, however, what Portland needed along their depleted front line.

Carmelo Anthony scores 25 to help Portland snap four-game losing streak

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CHICAGO (AP) — Carmelo Anthony scored 25 points in just his fourth game of the season, CJ McCollum added 21 and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Chicago Bulls 117-94 on Monday night.

Damian Lillard had 13 points and 12 assists as Portland snapped a four-game losing streak.

Anthony was 10 for 20 from the field, including 4 of 7 on 3-pointers. He now has 25,615 career points to move ahead of Alex English (26,613) into 18th place on the NBA’s career scoring list.

Zach LaVine had 18 points for Chicago, which has dropped two of three. LaVine was just 1 for 5 on 3-pointers two days after making 13 of 17 while scoring a career-high 49 points Saturday at Charlotte.

Anthony, who signed with the Trail Blazers on Nov. 19, got off to a fast start with 12 points in the first 6½ minutes of the game.

Chicago led 28-27 at the end of the first quarter before Portland took command early in the second. The Blazers led by as 13 points before the Bulls scored 11 straight to pull within 50-48.

Portland closed the first half with a 12-6 spurt for a 62-54 halftime advantage.

The Trail Blazers further stretched the lead in the third, taking a 90-68 advantage — their biggest to that point — on Anthony’s three-point play with 1:27 to go in the quarter.

Early in the fourth, Anthony hit a 3-pointer to move past English and give Portland a 100-77 lead.

The 35-year-old exited the game for good shortly after that. The United Center crowd started chanting “We want Melo! We want Melo!” midway through the fourth.

The Trail Blazers led by as much as 28 points.