CJ McCollum

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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.

Three Things to Know: Has 5-11 Portland fallen too far back to make playoffs?

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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) Have the 5-11 Portland Trail Blazers fallen too far back to make playoffs? We’ve all heard a coach say it: “You can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it.”

That might apply to the Trail Blazers this season. After losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday 137-129, Portland is now 5-11 and the 14 seed in the West, ahead of only the one team possibly more decimated by injuries than themselves (the Warriors). Portland has gone 2-9 in November.

This was a team with Western Conference Finals expectations before the season started, now the question has to be asked:

Has Portland’s slow start to the season dug too big a hole to climb out of and even make the playoffs?

No. But things need to turn around sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, while the Trail Blazers may be six games below .500 they are also only three games back of eight-seed Phoenix and the final playoff spot. They also have a point differential that suggests the Blazers should have at least one more win, maybe two, meaning they are a little better than their record indicates. Get Damian Lillard healthy (he missed the last two games with a back issue but is expected to play Saturday against Cleveland), rack up some wins to change the momentum, and make a late push up the standings once Jusuf Nurkic returns (there is no timeline, but whispers say maybe around the All-Star break)..

Portland is not out of it.

Also on the positive side, Portland has got a run of games at home coming up. And the franchise has some history on their side: The 2007-08 Trail Blazers started 5-10, but went on a 13-game win streak and eventually finished 41-41 and made the playoffs. (The 2017 Jazz and 2016 Wizards both started 6-10 and made the playoffs.)

It’s also not going to be easy to turn things around — there are no nights off in this West, no gimme wins (outside maybe Golden State, until they get healthy again). Also, unlike in 2008, 41 wins will not be enough to make the playoffs. It may not be too big to climb out of, but Portland has dug itself a hole to start the season.

One can’t mention Portland’s struggles without talking injuries, particularly along the front line. Nurkic is out, and the Blazers were counting on Zach Collins to step forward into that role, except he is now out months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol never got healthy from his foot injury and was waived. Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere have both missed time with ailments. That has placed a lot on the shoulders of Hassan Whiteside, who has done what he’s always done — stuffed the stat sheet with empty calories, given inconsistent effort, and not set good picks. The injuries up front are why Carmelo Anthony was brought in. Add in a slow start to the season from CJ McCollum (who has turned it around) and Lillard’s injury, and here we are at 5-11.

Portland’s biggest issues are on the defensive end, where they are currently a bottom 10 team. Teams are running a lot on Portland, and while statistically the team has defended well in transition, teams still get too many easy buckets.

Portland was an average defensive team last season, but a top-three offense covered it up. This season we’ve seen how much Nurkic — as a strong pick setter and short-roll option who could facilitate a little — meant to the Blazers offense. Portland is 13th in offensive rating, basically league average. The Portland offense no longer can hide their defensive flaws.

Time has not yet run out on Portland, it’s still early. However, the Blazers need to find some wins. Fast. The first rule of climbing out of a hole is to stop digging.

2) Carmelo Anthony scores 18, but we need to see him next to Lillard; Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 15 assists, gets triple-double in win. There were some individual games worth discussing in Milwaukee’s 137-129 win over Portland Thursday.

Carmelo Anthony had 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting, and he looked better than his first game back. You can see what you want in his numbers, he took six midrange shots, but is now also 5-of-8 from three in two games in Portland.

Here’s the reality with Anthony: This is Lillard’s team and he missed the two games ‘Melo played. It’s too early to judge the Anthony gamble in Portland because we have not seen him yet next to the guy whose team this is and who runs the offense. Lillard is expected to return from his back issues Saturday against Cleveland, we need to watch Anthony in that and the next few games, then see how this marriage is working.

This is how good Giannis Antetokounmpo has played this season: He struggled against the Blazers shooting 9-of-27 (1-of-7 from three), looking a little worn having to play 37 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.

His numbers on the “off” night: 24 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists.

That would be the first ever 20+ point, 15+ rebound, 15+ assist game in Bucks franchise history — and that history has Oscar Robertson in it. Antetokounmpo looks every bit like an MVP player again to start the season.

Finally, CJ McCollum seems to be out of his slump and had 37 points and 10 assists.

3) J.J. Redick, Brandon Ingram lead New Orleans to win, hand Phoenix it’s third straight loss. Brandon Ingram scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter Thursday, leading the Pelicans to a 124-121 win on the road. Ingram is a restricted free agent this summer and has been putting up “pay the man his money” numbers this season.

J.J. Redick added 26 and was killing it from three.

After a hot start, the Suns have come back to earth losing three in a row and 4-of-5, and now they head out on the road to take on two teams playing well in Minnesota and Denver.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Watch Carmelo Anthony’s first bucket as a Trail Blazer

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That Carmelo Anthony started the first game he played for Portland speaks to why they signed him in the first place — this team is so shorthanded along the front line that the guy they just signed got thrown into the fire.

Anthony responded with a solid level of play. His first bucket was a wing three where both defenders went to CJ McCollum and left ‘Melo wide open.

Anthony played 12 minutes in the first half and had 7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block, and three fouls. The team was looking to keep him at around 20 minutes for his first game back.

Portland led New Orleans 54-53 at the half.