Dwight Howard

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

Leave a comment

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 make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Wizards’ C.J. Miles has surgery on ligaments in left wrist, out indefinitely

Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

This is not a surprise, but it doesn’t make it any less of a blow to the already struggling Washington Wizards.

Forward C.J. Miles had left wrist surgery and is out with no timetable for a return, the team announced.

The injury happened when he fell taking a charge against Denver back on Nov. 26. Since then there have been questions about whether or not he would be out for the season, Washington saying there is no timetable leaves open the door to a return. What it does mean is that Miles is going to be out for an extended period of time. Miles is in the final year of his contract (he was acquired as part of the Dwight Howard trade).

Miles, 32, missed the first five games of the season coming off foot surgery, but since he returned was averaging 16 minutes a night off the bench for the Wizards, scoring 6.4 points per game.

Isaac Bonga has moved into the starting lineup and with the injury Troy Brown Jr. will see more run. Against bigger teams Rui Hachimura could be pressed into duty at the three. Miles’ injury could also open the door for rookie Admiral Schofield.

 

Three Things to Know: Is James Harden’s phantom dunk enough to get game replayed?

Associated Press
2 Comments

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) Is James Harden’s phantom dunk enough to get the final minutes of the Rockets’ loss replayed? In the end, I expect the Rockets will end up disappointed — and when they do they will have nobody but themselves to blame. This Rockets’ double-overtime loss is not going to get replayed.

Still, Houston has a unique argument, and it starts here: The referees blew the call on this dunk by James Harden with 7:50 left the fourth quarter.

This is why the NBA has replay and a coach’s challenge… except the officials on the court would not let D’Antoni make a challenge.

Goaltending and out of bounds plays can be challenged, but the explanation by the lead official James Capers after the game is D’Antoni took too long to make his challenge.

I’m not buying that, even though the timing issue is likely what the league falls back on to retain the game’s outcome. Capers mentions basket interference, but that was never the call on the court, it was ruled a missed basket. This sounds like Capers trying to cover for his guys. It clearly took time for the referees to figure out what happened and explain their call to D’Antoni, which is when the coach said he made the challenge. The 30-second rule is being used as a cover.

This gets to the interesting questions: What happens if the Rockets protest the game? Will they even have to?

The bad news for the Rockets is we have seen how the league handles blown calls through the Last Two Minute Report: They admit the mistake but change nothing.

There is zero chance the league just puts the points back on the board and gives the Rockets a regulation win. How the game played out late (in terms of strategy and more) would have been different if the Rockets were ahead by two. The league could order the end of the game replayed, but in the past have chosen not to do so even after owning up to a missed call. This is different in that it’s a clear missed call on a basket that took two points off the board, but still this is not how the league has handled situations in the past.

If this goes down as a loss — 135-133 in double overtime — the Rockets shouldn’t blame the officials, they need to blame themselves. And only themselves.

Houston was up 20 with 3:23 left in the third and by 10 with 3:53 left in the fourth but, as has followed a pattern with this team, could not hold the lead. They lost defensive focus. James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined to shoot 26.5 percent (18-of-68). Whether or not they let the lousy call get in their heads, the Rockets played terribly down the stretch.

Lonnie Walker IV played well and had his best NBA game, keying that Houston comeback. Walker finished with a career-high 28 points and scored 18 of those points in the fourth quarter — including eight straight to close the game and force overtime. DeMar DeRozan added 23 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

2) Anthony Davis plays through flu, scores 25, but it’s his defense late that gets Lakers win in Denver. After the Lakers got their heads handed to them by Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Sunday, the theme in the L.A. locker room postgame was that the Lakers needed to play a full 48 minutes — not flip the switch in the third quarter — against the better teams. Like the Denver game coming up.

Anthony Davis did just that. Battling the flu that had him in bed all day before the game — then taking IV fluids at halftime just to keep going — Davis had 25 points. However, it was his defensive plays late that earned the Lakers the win: There was a stuff block of Nikola Jokic, but more impressive was when Davis twice got switched onto point guard Jamal Murray late and was able to stay in front of the speedy guard and force him into bad shots.

Jokic has been up-and-down this season and Tuesday night was a down, with Davis (along with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard) holding the Denver big man to 13 points on 12 shots.

LeBron James also added 25 points.

The Nuggets have been one of the best clutch teams in the NBA this season (8-4 in games within five points in the final five minutes), but the Lakers were better and outdueled them down the stretch in this one (L.A. is now 9-1 in those five-in-five clutch games).

For those who doubt the Nuggets as a real threat to the Los Angeles teams in the playoffs, Tuesday was more fuel for the fire.

3) Jimmy Butler’s triple-double leads upstart Heat past Raptors in overtime. In a number of fundamental ways, when Miami plays Toronto it’s like looking in a mirror.

These are two franchises that emphasize culture first. They each have stars that have worked their way up — Jimmy Butler for Miami and Pascal Siakam for Toronto — and were not just anointed top picks. These are two franchises that find guys other teams overlook and turn them into valuable contributors — three undrafted players started in this game, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson for Miami, and Fred VanVleet for Toronto.

Also, both teams are now 15-5 on the season after Miami held on to beat Toronto in overtime, 121-110. The difference was Jimmy Butler, who scored 8 of his 22 points in overtime on his way to a triple-double.

This is what Miami needs from Butler. Some are calling for Butler to score more and lift up the Heat offense that way, but this kind of game — where he distributes and gets others involved, then takes over when he needs to — is exactly what the Heat need out of him. More games like this will mean more wins.

Jonathan Isaac could end Magic’s long-running star search

Getty Images
1 Comment

Even as the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Magic forward Jonathan Isaac considered himself a “project.” He was committed to developing, taking it slowly if necessary. Yet, he also wanted to perform well. And he was a 20-year-old adjusting to professional life. As much as he tried to stay balanced, pressure was mounting.

Then, Isaac suffered an ankle injury that November that would sideline him most of his rookie year.

“I could take a deep breath and just get my head right,” Isaac said.

Most players would be devastated by that setback. That Isaac found the blessing in disguise says something about him – and how he got where he is today.

Isaac has emerged as one of the NBA’s top young talents, a real candidate to become Orlando’s first consensus star since Dwight Howard. I already regret omitting Isaac from our list of the top 50 players in 5 years. He is especially a revelation for an expensive, stuck-in-the-middle Magic team.

Though it’s far too soon to shut the door on it, Aaron Gordon still hasn’t made the leap. Markelle Fultz has encouragingly found his footing as a helpful NBA player – but without a reliable jumper, which evaporates his high-end upside. Mo Bamba has struggled so far in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic (an All-Star last year, but likely a one-time All-Star), Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are too old to expect them to have significant untapped potential. Orlando is too good to tank into elite draft position.

If the Magic are going to get a breakthrough star anytime soon, Isaac is by far their best bet.

“I just want to be great,” Isaac said. “I just want to be an all-around player. I want to be able to help my team win every single night and be the reason why we win.”

That’s big talk for a player who has been content to blend in since entering the spotlight.

Isaac, who considered jumping straight from prep school to the NBA, enrolled at Florida State as a clear one-and-done prospect. Yet, he attempted just eight shots per game for the Seminoles as a freshman, often deferring to Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes.

“He came in and never talked about it, never said, ‘I’m one-and-done. I’m out of here,'” Bacon said. “He just played the game the right way every night. Just a great guy.”

One of Isaac’s biggest marks in Tallahassee was repeatedly blaring loud music early in the morning. Bacon even heard it across the hall.

“You can’t really complain to Jon, though, because he wasn’t a guy that did anything wrong,” Bacon said.

Isaac continues to push his limits.

He recently brought up Pascal Siakam, who won Most Improved Player, won a championship then signed a max contract extension with the Raptors. A ring is far-fetched any time soon, but those other goals are within reach for Isaac.

Isaac will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason. His projected max? About $181 million over five years. The way Isaac is trending, the Magic – even with all their bigs – might pay it.

A Most Improved Player candidate, Isaac has increased his PIPM from +0.2 last season to +2.3 this season – a jump of 2.1. That’s one of the biggest increases in the league.

Here are the biggest PIPM increases in the NBA, with the left side of the bar showing a player’s previous high, the right side of the bar showing his 2019-20 mark and the difference listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes):

image

Player Previous high 2019-20 Difference
Luka Doncic (DAL) +1.0 +6.2 5.2
Devonte' Graham (CHA) -1.9 +1.7 3.6
Jarrett Allen (BRK) +0.0 +2.7 2.7
Kelly Oubre (PHO) -1.6 +0.9 2.5
Wendell Carter (CHI) -1.6 +0.8 2.4
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.2 +2.3 2.1
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.1 +1.0 2.1
Collin Sexton (CLE) -4.3 -2.2 2.1
Evan Fournier (ORL) -0.1 +1.9 2.0
T.J. Warren (IND) -1.0 +1.0 2.0

Unlike most others on that leaderboard, Isaac is coming off a pretty reasonable year. Among rotation regulars who’d already posted a positive PIPM, only Luka Doncic and Jarrett Allen increased theirs by more.

Isaac rates so highly because of his defense. He has a shot at an honor that eluded Siakam – an All-Defensive team.

The 6-foot-11 Isaac covers a lot of ground with his mobility and length. He reads the floor well, especially for his age. His second jump is elite. He can bite on pump fakes and still re-elevate quickly enough to contest shots. His versatility allows him to guard players across the positional spectrum, and he’s an active help defender.

Now, his main-matchup individual defense has caught up with Isaac getting stronger over the offseason.

“Just watching film, I like the way that I look,” said Isaac, who leads the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game. “Like I said, you watch film just, ‘Man, you look good. You look bigger.'”

Isaac ranks second among forwards in defensive PIPM (minimum: 500 minutes):

image

The dramatic growth for Isaac could come offensively. He’s averaging 13.1 points per game (up from 9.6 last season), but his usage percentage remains below average (18.7).

Yet, Isaac shows flashes – dunks from way above the rim, smooth outside shooting, improved ball-handling.

Could he eventually become more of a go-to player?

“The nature of most players that you coach is this: They have a way that they play, and they improve, but the very nature of how they play doesn’t usually change much,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “A guy who builds his game around defending, rebounding – usually, that has to remain his strength. And then as he grows in say other areas, you become a more well-rounded player. He’s not going to go from being a great team defender with a defensive mindset to a guy who’s going to want the the ball every play to play in the pick-and-roll. I don’t think. It doesn’t usually happen.”

Isaac isn’t so sure.

Though he played the way Clifford described in college and in the NBA, it wasn’t always that way.

“In high school, I was the man,” Isaac said, beaming. “In high school, I was the guy. I remember, I was putting up – I had 44 one night. I was putting ’em up. All 3s, too.”

Does he want to shift toward that role again?

“Absolutely,” Isaac said. “I think every guy wants to be that guy. I want to continue to work until I am.”

Isaac said he’s experimenting offensively, testing his limits and getting increasingly ambitious. Creating off the dribble, posting up – what’s his ceiling?

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m out there and I can do whatever,” Isaac said.

So far, he hasn’t strayed too far for his coach’s liking. “Everything he does on the floor makes sense to me,” Clifford said. Isaac gets benefit of the doubt because he works hard and carries a positive disposition. His attitude is so welcome.

Even in a short interview, Isaac repeatedly brings up a mantra.

“I’m not where I want to be,” Isaac said. “But I’m much, much farther along than where I started.”

Lakers have little trouble with Wizards, pick up 10th straight win 125-103

Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis had 26 points and 13 rebounds, and LeBron James had 23 points and 11 assists before both superstars took the fourth quarter off in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 10th consecutive victory, 125-103 over the Washington Wizards on Friday night.

Quinn Cook scored 17 points and JaVale McGee had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the steamrolling Lakers, who have won 17 of 18 to soar to the top of the overall NBA standings. Los Angeles went 14-1 in November, posting the most victories in a month for this 16-time champion franchise since March 2000.

The up-tempo Wizards have been one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams this season, and the Lakers’ dynamic offense was far too much for them.

Los Angeles outscored Washington 84-36 during a 24-minute span extending from midway through the first quarter until James’ jumper midway through the third put the Lakers up 88-51. LA made runs of 17-0 and 18-0 during that one-sided stretch, showing off the remarkable chemistry already established in just the 19th game of the season for this newly minted superteam.

Bradley Beal had 18 points and nine assists for the Wizards, who have lost three of four. Washington got off to a solid start and had several good stretches against the Lakers, but committed 19 turnovers and lost for the second time in three stops on a four-game West Coast road trip.

Washington actually opened with a 15-4 lead before the Lakers woke up and put together 24 minutes of dominance.

Los Angeles jumped to a 21-point lead at halftime with 19 points from Davis, and the Lakers poured it on with an 18-0 run early in the third quarter, eventually taking a 90-51 lead with 7:15 left in the third quarter. The Lakers topped 100 points with 2:42 left in the third and cruised in from there.

Isaiah Thomas scored 10 points to lead the four former Lakers on Washington’s roster. Moe Wagner had seven points and eight rebounds, and the German big man also committed a flagrant foul on Dwight Howard, who responded by hitting both free throws and then dunking on Wagner’s head on the ensuing possession.

Wagner eventually went to the locker room favoring his left ankle with several minutes to play.