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Three Things to Know: Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come

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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) Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come. Back on Oct. 18, in the first game of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers comfortably handled a Laker team still stumbling around with new faces and a lack of identity. That night, Portland’s continuity and shooting were a stark contrast to a Lakers team with neither.

Nearly a month later, LeBron and the Lakers look dramatically better.

LeBron played by far his most aggressive and best game as a Laker Thursday night, dropping 44 on the Blazers — passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list in the process — along with 10 rebounds and nine assists, leading the Lakers to a 126-117 win at home.

Wednesday night LeBron reminded everyone that when he decides to take over there is nobody like him Anywhere. Especially when he is hitting threes from a Curryesque range, which he did from the game’s opening minutes. LeBron was 5-of-6 from three on the night.

One key to the Lakers’ turnaround is they are playing much better defense, and they did for stretches against Portland. This isn’t just about Tyson Chandler — although he helps — but over the past seven games, the Lakers have allowed an average of 104 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA. The Lakers are pressuring better and higher to stop penetration off the pick-and-roll, jumping in gaps and generating steals (9.6 per game in their last seven games), and getting blocks from their bigs at the rim. All of that is a dramatic change from the beginning of the season when the Lakers played matador defense and were letting teams walk to the rim at will.

The Laker offense has come a long way, too, and it isn’t all LeBron. The Lakers generated good chances by having Lonzo Ball as a screener, with Brandon Ingram getting isolated on a smaller defender (C.J. McCollum much of the time), and with JaVale McGee as a rim runner. The Lakers are still generating chances playing at pace, too, something that has become a key part of their identity.

There was one bit of bad news for Los Angeles out of this game: Rajon Rondo broke his hand and will be out weeks. The Lakers will miss him on the second unit.

2) Jimmy Butler plays his first game with Philadelphia and… it’s going to be a process. “The process” is over in Philly. The arrival of Jimmy Butler as a Sixers makes them a “win now” team.

Now just starts another process: Fitting Butler into the Sixers offense and schemes.

This process could take some time, too.

Orlando proved that point, went on a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a 16-point Philadelphia lead and ultimately spoiled Butler’s debut, 111-106.

Butler had moments but was not the aggressive player we know, he let the game come to him more, something to be expected with a player on a new team who has been through one practice. He did show off his midrange game and defense at points, but expect him to be more aggressive as he gets more comfortable.

The game showed that there will be a lot of adjustments needed from Philadelphia to make this work.

That starts with Simmons, who had to work off the ball more when Butler created looks. The problem is Simmons is not a shooter so the Magic didn’t have to respect him until he made a cut or got close to the rim, allowing them to pack the paint more and provide help. Simmons can make those cuts and finish, but coach Brett Brown would prefer Joel Embiid coming out of the dunker’s spot and so the spacing becomes an issue. Embiid also didn’t look quite in sync for stretches of the game, although he did rack up his first career triple-double with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Those assists came when the Sixers were moving the ball the way Brown wants — fast side-to-side ball reversal that gets guys like J.J. Redick clean looks (he had a team-high 22). The Sixers did more of that in the third quarter. However, the ball movement was inconsistent as the Sixers tried to fit Butler into the offense. Late in the game when it was close, Butler was not taking over as much as serving as a decoy on the weak side for the Simmons/Embiid two-man game we have seen before.

It’s just going to take time. It’s a process. A fully healthy Wilson Chandler will help, he had 14 points on 10 shots and the offense flowed much better with him out there rather than Mike Muscala.

The Sixers have other questions to answer: Should they stagger Simmons’ and Butler’s minutes so each has longer stretches as the primary ball handler? If so, where does that leave Markelle Fultz, who is coming off the bench now and had eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Jimmy Butler with the Sixers is not going to be a plug-and-play instant contender. The loss in Orlando made that clear. What matters now is how much better the Sixers look in a week. Then in a month.

3) Dwane Casey went back to Toronto and drew up a beautiful game-winner. Dwane Casey, the best coach in Raptors’ franchise history, got a warm welcome from the Toronto fans Wednesday. As he should. The man presided over the best years of basketball in Raptors history and won Coach of the Year last year.

Then, with the game on the line, he reminded those fans why he is so good — he drew up a beautiful game-winning play that got Reggie Bullock a clean look. The play had Blake Griffin coming off a double screen, one set by Bullock, and when his man Pascal Siakam slid over to help on the Pistons’ biggest threat, Bullock slid into a scoring position.

Well done for Casey and a quality win for the Pistons. One they needed.

Tyson Chandler clears waivers, signs with Lakers

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When JaVale McGee is on the court, the Lakers are 6.3 points per 100 possessions better on defense. Or, look at it this way: When he is on the court the Lakers have allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth in the NBA.

But then he has to sit. The Lakers’ most used non-McGee lineup — Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, LeBron James, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Kuzma – gets outscored by 24.6 points per 100. When McGee is out, the Lakers are a bottom 10 defense.

Which is why the gamble on Tyson Chandler makes sense for them. Chandler may not have much left in the tank, we shall see, but the Lakers need to do something.

Chandler cleared waivers, as first reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then, as expected, he signed with the Lakers.

His contract with the Lakers is for the veteran minimum of $2.1 million — which not-so-coincidentally is how much of a discount he gave Phoenix off the $13.5 million they owed him this season.

Chandler is a big body, a guy who can call out coverages, gets rebounds, and on a veteran team may be able to stake out a role as a backup big off the bench who helps the interior defense. Or maybe not — the past two seasons the Suns’ defense was not appreciably better when Chandler was in the game. Once a very active and mobile defender, at age 36 he is not that anymore, and the players going against him can either pop out off a pick or force a switch, either way he struggles to defend in space anymore. He certainly is not going to be able to run the floor like the Lakers prefer.

Maybe Chandler works out well for the role the Lakers need him. If not, this is a low-risk gamble and the Lakers can just move one. Come the buyout season next February there likely will be some quality big men (Robin Lopez‘s name comes to mind) who could be on the market.

Three Things to Know: Lakers’ Kawhi recruiting pitch unimpressive as Raptors win in rout

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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) Lakers’ Kawhi recruiting pitch unimpressive as Raptors rout Lakers without him. Whatever Kawhi Leonard decides to do next summer, it will not be based on the outcome of one game in November.

However, this one game in November was a microcosm of why sources around league front offices believe the Lakers are an increasingly longer shot to land Leonard — way more think the Clippers are a likely destination — and the Raptors have a chance to keep him. One of the teams playing in Staples Center Sunday night was complete and ready to compete for a ring now. And it’s not the one from the land of palm trees.

Leonard sat out Sunday night in Los Angeles after jamming his toe at the end of Friday night’s win in Phoenix — Laker fans did not get to make their “we love you, come here” pitch during the game. Even without him, Toronto raced out to a 41-10 lead in the first quarter, Serge Ibaka made his first 14 shots scoring 20 in the opening frame (and a career-high 34 points for the game), and the Raptors routed the Lakers 121-107 (and it wasn’t that close).

There were two keys to this blowout. One, the 9-1 Raptors are very good. Ibaka couldn’t miss, but Kyle Lowry is what makes the Raptors’ offense work — he had 21 points and 15 assists, continuing his red-hot start to the season. Lowry is averaging a league-best 11.6 assists per game, which is way up from his previous career high of 7.4. With the shift in the Raptors offense — new coach in Nick Nurse, no DeMar DeRozan — Lowry has thrived as a playmaker, one who had nine assists in the first quarter Sunday.

The Raptors raced out to that big first quarter exploiting two things: Brandon Ingram could not keep up with Danny Green as he came off multiple picks, and the Raptors would run a pick-and-pop with JaVale McGee’s man setting the pick because he could/would not come out and contest.

Which brings us to the second part of this blowout: The Lakers’ defense is terrible.

The Lakers have the 23rd ranked defense in the league, allowing 111.6 points per 100 possessions, but when you combine that with their fast pace (106.2 possessions per game, third in the league, via NBA.com) you end up in a situation where the Lakers have given up at least 110 points in every game. (Jack in the Box is safe — they give out two free tacos to Lakers fans if L.A. wins and holds the other team under 100 points, that’s not happening this season.) The Lakers were going to be a work in progress this season, a team that would have to learn to win, but the defense has been the slow part of that process.

Los Angeles’ wins this season have come in shootouts, and while their point differential is better than their record early (the Lakers should be a .500 team by that metric), Los Angeles has a long way to go to reach the NBA’s elite. Luke Walton had a young, scrappy Lakers team playing solid defense last season (12th in the league) but right now, despite athleticism and some length on the roster, the communication, recognition, and flat-out effort are not there.

Unless those things start to show up, the playoffs will not be there for the Lakers, either.

2) Greek on Greek crime: Giannis Antetokounmpo with a dunk of the year candidate. This is just filthy, the Greek Freak dunking on countryman Kosta Kufos.

Antetokounmpo was almost apologetic afterward. Almost.

3) Suns Devin Booker owns the fourth quarter, drains game-winner against Grizzlies. Devin Booker played the entire fourth quarter Sunday with five fouls, but they needed him on the court to spark a 21-7 fourth-quarter run to make it a game again. Booker had 14 points in the final frame.

And they needed him to hit clutch jumpers down the stretch, including a 17 footer with 1.7 seconds left to secure the 102-100 Phoenix win against Memphis.

Booker has bounced back this season. He missed all of the preseason due to a broken hand, then missed the start of the season with a  left hamstring injury. Still, he has found his form averaging 25.7 points per game with an impressive True Shooting Percentage of 60.5. It’s impressive. The Suns and Booker really want him to be an All-Star guard this season, and if he were in the East I’d say “done deal,” but in the West — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell — it’s tough to crack the club.

 

Reports: Suns to buy out Tyson Chandler; Lakers will be landing spot

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With Deandre Ayton in town, there is almost no role for Tyson Chandler in Phoenix, and he’s playing limited minutes a night in a backup role (89 for the entire season). The sides had talked buyout before, but Chandler was not about to surrender any of his $13.6 million salary unless he had a team that could take him on and give him a quality role.

Enter the Lakers, a team in desperate need of a solid, veteran backup big.

The buyout is happening and Chandler will soon land with the Lakers, according to multiple reports, with Marc Stein of the New York Times breaking the news.

What do the Suns get out of this? They save cash, whatever discount Chandler gives them on the buyout is money they keep.

For the Lakers, this is a solid pickup. How much Chandler has in the tank remains to be seen — he is 36 and hasn’t been asked to play much of a role for years now. He may not be able to help that much, but for the same reason JaVale McGee is thriving in a very defined role Chandler may as well. For Los Angeles, this is a good role of the dice because if he can give them 15 minutes a night Chandler brings precisely what they need.

When the Lakers have the rim-protecting JaVale McGee on the court, their defense is 17.2 points per 100 possessions better, and has the numbers of a top five defense. However, when he sits they are dreadful, and the result is a defense that is bottom 10 overall. The hope is Chandler can provide some defense and rim protection with the second unit and help keep McGee’s minutes under control. The Lakers have gotten some solid minutes out of rookie Johnathan Williams, but the rookie is inconsistent (as rookies tend to be).

Three Things to Know: Butler who? Derrick Rose drops career-high 50

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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) Derrick Rose drops 50 helping everyone forget about the Jimmy Butler nightmare for a while. We can all use a good distraction once in a while — and nobody could use a distraction like Timberwolves fans. They spent their day learning that Jimmy Butler was not going to play against the Jazz that night because he wanted to send a message about trading him… or, he’s just sore and needed a night off. Whichever. The Timberwolves are still Chaos.

Then Derrick Rose took the court.

With Butler and point guard Jeff Teague both out, Rose was thrust into the role of starter and primary ball handler. It was his night from the start — 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting plus two assists in the first quarter alone — and it kept piling up. Rose hit the go-ahead shot for the Timberwolves with :30 seconds left, then sealed the game with :13 seconds remaining, hitting a couple of free throws.

Rose finished with 50 points on 19-of-31 shooting, including 4-of-7 from three.

He was hitting from everywhere — at the rim, midrange, and from three.

After the game, it was an emotional Rose who talked about his long journey — an ACL surgery, two meniscus surgeries —  and how he could have easily walked away from basketball kept fighting because he loved the game and just wanted to play.

That’s a story everyone can get behind.

For a night, until the chaos of the Jimmy Butler situation returns.

2) Shot of the night: Paul Millsap hits putback jumper to get Nuggets a win in OT. Give the Chicago Bulls credit, they played one of the five best teams in the NBA to start the season to a standstill, forcing overtime. Zach LaVine continues to light it up this season with 28 points and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. added a career-high 25.

It was just a point short. In overtime, Denver was down a point with 3.5 seconds left, they got the ball to their star Nikola Jokic who got a pretty clean look at a 19-footer and back rimmed it, but Paul Millsap was there.

Denver is 6-1 on the season

3) This time, LeBron James gets bailed out by a veteran two guard making a mistake. The Lakers had this, a 14-point lead with four minutes to go in the game, they just had to close out the Dallas Mavericks on the road with a couple of buckets and a couple of stops…

And it’s never that easy for the Lakers. Los Angeles didn’t score a field goal the final 4:15 of the game and were just 3-of-6 from the free throw line. A Luka Doncic drive and baseline eight-foot fadeaway tied the game at 113-113 with seven seconds left. The Lakers gave the ball to LeBron, who brought it up and… Wesley Matthews fouls him on the dribble 35 feet from the basket. The Lakers were in the bonus, LeBron got two free throws with :02 seconds left, hits the second and ballgame. Lakers win, 114-113. Matthews foul led to a lot of these memes on NBA Twitter, because why would you foul that far from the basket unless you thought you had a foul to give?

Matthews said after the game he knew the Mavericks didn’t have a foul to give, but he was trying to be aggressive and make a play, to force a turnover. He also admitted it was not a smart move.

Either way, LeBron and the now 3-5 Lakers will take it. Also, all of that paled in comparison to JaVale McGee talking to the media after the game in a custom-made, full-size Grinch costume.