Getty Images

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook makes history, Paul George has 47 in comeback win

1 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) Russell Westbrook makes history, Paul George scores 47 in Thunder’s dramatic comeback win. There was a point, right when Oklahoma City’s Terrance Ferguson missed a three with 7:16 left in the game keeping Brooklyn ahead by 16, that the Thunder’s win probability was down to 1.4 percent — there was a 98.6 percent chance the Nets would pull the upset.

But this was to be OKC’s big night.

It was that night because Russell Westbrook would finish with 21 points, 15 rebounds, and 17 assists — his 108th career triple-double, moving him past Jason Kidd into third on the all-time list.

It was OKC’s night because Paul George — having arguably the best season of his career so far — dropped 47 points, including hitting the game winner. (As a side note: How do both Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson go with Westbrook and nobody slides over with George when George slips the pick> He was wide open because of it.)

The Thunder are one of the NBA’s hottest teams, having won four in a row and 9-of-11, with the NBA’s best defense as the cornerstone of what they do. Built on that defensive foundation, and between their two superstars, the Thunder find a way to get enough offense to rack up the victories. This was the Thunder team management there pictured a season ago, and this year they still get Andre Roberson back at some point.

The Thunder are one of the best teams in the West and look to be a threat next April and May when the playoffs roll around.

2) Toronto’s win shows they are the current class of the East, while Philadelphia has work to do. In the latest PBT Podcast we did a deep dive on the Sixers with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters — the team’s sideline reporter if you are watching on League Pass — and I asked her if the Sixers believed that they were right there with the East’s best. She said the team felt like right now it was half a step behind the elite, but that they could get there before the season ended.

Wednesday night that played out.

Toronto was clearly the better team in a 113-102 victory. It was a lot of things adding up.

• Philadelphia turned the ball over 21 times — 20.4 percent of their possessions or one in five trips down the court — as Toronto’s length and athleticism on defense threw the Sixers off their game.

Kawhi Leonard had his best game as a Raptor, looking like an MVP-level player again, scoring 36 points on 24 shots, hitting 5-of-6 from three, and on the other end disrupting Ben Simmons on offense and making five steals. Leonard was the best player on the floor.

• The Raptors have three big men they can throw at Joel Embiid, giving the Sixers cornerstone both different looks and keeping a fresh body on him at all times, plus really make Embiid work on both ends of the court. Embiid finished the night with 10 points on 5-of-17 shooting. In contrast, Jonas Valanciunas had 26 points in 17 minutes of play.

• The Toronto guards — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and in spots Fred VanVleet — also did a great job of digging down and helping on Embiid in the post and still getting back out to challenge J.J. Redick and other Sixers shooters.

• Toronto’s bench was back to its dominant ways for a night, outscoring the Philadelphia bench 41-18, led by OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and VanVleet.

There were bright spots for the Sixers — Jimmy Butler had 38 points and impressed.

As Winters’ said, the Sixers can get to the level of the elite by the end of the season, maybe with more time for their core to gel, maybe with some trade/waiver wire pickups just to bolster the depth. Philadelphia is good and they are close.

But right now, Toronto is the class of the East.

3) LeBron James takes over the fourth quarter for Lakers, but is that part of the problem in L.A.? Magic Johnson may want a more egalitarian offense for the Lakers, with multiple playmakers and scorers, but that ignores one fact:

Nobody takes over a game like LeBron James.

LeBron had 20 points in a dominant fourth quarter, leading the Lakers past the struggling Spurs 121-113. The Lakers have won four in a row and are 15-9 now on the season because LeBron is playing at a level that puts him in the MVP conversation.

The question Thursday became: If LeBron is that dominant, does it make it harder for the Lakers to attract a second superstar?

Kevin Durant said yes it can, for some players. It wasn’t a dig at LeBron, it was an honest statement — not every superstar in the NBA is at a place in their careers where teaming up with LeBron in Los Angeles is what’s best for them. It wasn’t for Paul George, who last summer decided he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City, when one summer before his people were saying he was destined to be a Laker.

More importantly, the Lakers may not be a fit for free agents coming up this summer. Look at Durant, for example. He struggled to find a balance of alpha status in OKC with Westbrook, in Golden State he may well be their best player (he has been in the last two NBA Finals) but that is Stephen Curry‘s culture and team. If KD wants to carve out his own legacy now is playing next to LeBron how to best do that? Durant notes playing with the greatness of LeBron forces even elite players (Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, etc.) to change their games to fit around him. Plus, the combination of LeBron in the celebrity culture of Los Angeles creates an off-court environment that is not for everyone (Durant called it “toxic”).

The Lakers will get their next superstar to pair with LeBron. Maybe next summer, maybe in 19 months, but it will happen. Just don’t assume that every superstar wants to rush to play with LeBron on the Lakers — it’s just not a fit for everyone.

No matter how amazing it is to watch LeBron take over games in the fourth quarter.

Three Things to Know: Fred Hoiberg wasn’t problem in Chicago, wasn’t answer either

Getty Images
3 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) Fred Hoiberg wasn’t the biggest problem in Chicago, wasn’t the answer either. You can spin the firing of Fred Hoiberg as the coach of the Chicago Bulls a couple of ways — and both are true.

Hoiberg wasn’t the reason for the Bulls’ slow start, but he wasn’t showing himself to be the answer to turning it around, either.

Blaming Hoiberg for the 5-19 start for this team is wrong. Team president John Paxson explained the firing by saying the Bulls lacked “energy” and “spirit” but what they really lacked was talent — and that’s on him. And much of the talent they did have on the roster has been injured: Lauri Markkanen just played his first game Saturday, Kris Dunn has played in one game, Bobby Portis four, Robin Lopez has missed time, and on down the line. This was a team that was never going to win many games anyway, and if the front office went into the season truly believing this roster could hang around and compete for a playoff spot — even at the bottom of the East — then those were not your standard gummy bears they were eating.

This year’s Bulls’ roster followed a pattern — Fred Hoiberg was brought in to run a modern pace-and-space offense then was never given a roster that fit well with his principles. Not with Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and Pau Gasol. Not with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. And not with this young team, which had potential but was never fully healthy.

However, Hoiberg also never commanded this team and was not the coach to lead them into the future either — which makes this firing the right move.

What exactly was the Bulls’ identity this season? That’s on the coach.

Hoiberg is simply not a strong personality and not the master psychologist who could get players with big egos to all pull on the rope in the same direction. From the day just 25 games into his rookie season as a coach when Jimmy Butler basically stepped over him after a dunk — saying the team needed to be “coached harder” — Hoiberg never had the locker room. At one point Wade and Butler complained about the effort of the young players to the media, Rondo stood up for them on social media, and the only thing that was clear was Hoiberg had lost the locker room. That trend continued.

Can Hoiberg be a quality NBA coach? Who knows. I’d love to see what he could do with a roster that actually fit his style of play.

Jim Boylen gets the head coaching job — and not on an interim basis, he’s the man (and no, this is not the Jim Boylan that took over for Scott Skiles when the Bulls fired him years ago, different spelling). Chicago wants the veteran to coach the rest of this season, plus he’s under contract for next season, they hope he earns sticking around. Maybe he can, the roster is finally getting healthy and, while it is not going to be good, it should be better than the six-game losing streak they are on. Can Boylen get some traction on the spinning wheels of the Bulls’ franchise? Maybe.

But the bottom line is Paxson and GM Gar Forman need to get a lot more talent on the roster before they blame the coach for wins and losses. The Bulls have made some smart moves to start building this franchise up again in the past couple of seasons, but they have a long way to go still. Regardless of who is the coach.

2) Denver goes into Toronto and picks up a “we’re for real” win on the road. Toronto gave up two dead-ball points late in the game that cost them a chance for the win at home. Well, the 3-of-22 shooting from three in the first half had a lot to do with it too — it’s never just one thing, a lot of things go into a close loss — but let’s focus on the two dead ball points at the end of the game.

The first came when Raptors coach Nick Nurse earned — and we mean EARNED — a technical foul with this reaction to a closeout foul call on Jonas Valanciunas.

Nurse was lucky not to be tossed for that reaction. As for the foul, Nurse has a point — while that’s a late and sloppy closeout by Valanciunas (why was he in a deep help position on Plumlee, leaving a shooter open) Monte Morris does jump forward with his shot, Valanciunas did not slide under him on a vertical leap. That said, Nurse has to own his reaction and giving up a point late in a close game is a mistake by the coach, regardless of what he thinks of the call.

Then there was the one Nurse can’t argue: With the game tied at 103-103 and :07 on the clock, Serge Ibaka unquestionably holds and hooks Nikola Jokic on an inbound play as Jokic is trying to come around a Jamal Murray pick. Because the ball was not inbounded it was one free throw plus the ball for Denver, but that changed everything (the game was no longer tied, it forced the Raptors to play the foul game).

Maybe last season this doesn’t get called (the Utah Jazz wish it wasn’t getting called) but that was not some subtle hold off the ball. Ibaka grabbed him and impeded Jokic’s movement. If you’re going to emphasize freedom of movement calls, you have to call that blatant one late in the game.

For Denver, this is their best win of the season — they have won six in a row, four of those on the road, and it includes wins at Oklahoma City, Portland, and now Toronto. On the big stage, against a good defensive team inside, Jokic looked All-NBA with a triple-double of 23 points, 15 assists, and 11 rebounds. He is brilliant, and the 16-7 Denver Nuggets are tied for the top seed in the West, and they are legit.

3) Timberwolves show how much things have changed since last playoffs with a 103-91 win against Houston. Last season, the Houston Rockets easily swept aside the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first-round of the playoffs, 4-1.

Right now, the Rockets are scuffling and don’t look like the same team, but how Minnesota played in Monday night’s win shows how much the script has flipped.

Remember last playoffs how Karl-Anthony Towns had trouble posting up against Clint Capela (and took a lot of grief for it)? Towns beasted inside Monday night, attacking much more forcefully out of post-ups, and he shot 8-of-12 inside eight feet of the rim. One thing that helped with that, however, is it was harder for Houston to bring help on those post-ups because they had to stay closer to Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and the shooters around Towns now.

The other big thing, Minnesota’s defense since the Butler trade has been much better — thank Covington for that. He has Towns focused and energized on that end, the Timberwolves have the second-best defense in the NBA since the trade (101.2 points per 100 possessions) and are 8-3.

The Rockets helped out that defense with a terrible shooting night, they missed their open looks, too. Houston scored just nine points in the fourth quarter, which is ugly and speaks to other issues. That said, bad shooting ights nights happen. The difference is last season Houston had a defense that could keep it in games when the offense stumbled, this season they get crushed. They have a bottom-10 defense on the season that has been worse lately (third worst in the NBA over the last 10). That is the end of the floor that is holding the Rockets back.

Three Things to Know: Blake Griffin has been NBA’s hottest player so far

1 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) Blake Griffin remains red-hot, drops 50 on Sixers in Pistons win. On the latest edition of the PBT Podcast, guest Keith Smith pointed out Blake Griffin as one of the players who had left a big impression on him to start the season. Often overlooked in the discussion of the game’s best forwards, Griffin had 26 points and 8 rebounds, against the Nets and 33 points and 12 boards against the Bulls (torching Jabari Parker) in his first two games.

And he was just getting started.

Griffin dropped 50 points — including hitting the game-winner in overtime — on the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night, keeping the Pistons undefeated.

Great play design by coach Dwane Casey on the game-winner (he had run that before with Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto). The key is the ball-fake to Reggie Bullock is enough of a threat to draw over Joel Embiid, but Amir Johnson isn’t in place for the switch on Blake Griffin, which leaves an open lane to the hoop. Griffin may not jump-over-cars explode like he used to but the man still knows how to attack the rim and Robert Covington wasn’t going to stop him. All night long the Pistons ran their offense through Griffin — sometimes at the elbow, sometimes bringing the ball up as a point forward — and all night long he responded. It was the kind of night that had Pistons fans chanting MVP for him.

Griffin is averaging a league-leading 36.3 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting overall and 61.1 percent from three, plus grabbing 11.3 boards and dishing out 5.7 assists a night. If he can stay healthy this season (and that’s a big ask, based on history), the Pistons are a playoff team, and Griffin is an All-Star. Long way to go, but that’s the dream in Detroit.

Also from that game, watch Joel Embiid flop and then draw a technical foul on Andre Drummond, which gets the Pistons’ center tossed (it was his second tech of the game). All night long Embiid was yelling “you can’t guard me” at Drummond on his way to 33 points and 11 rebounds. After the game Embiid said “I feel like I own a lot of real estate in his head.”.

Drummond, however, got the “W.”

2) Anthony Davis, Pelicans keep on rolling. If anyone is going to challenge Griffin for the hottest player in the league to start, it’s Davis — 30.3 points a game while shooting 59 percent, and grabbing 13 rebounds a game. And he has the led the Pelicans to an undefeated start.

That continued Tuesday night when Davis had 34 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks to lead the Pelicans to a 116-109 win over the Clippers.

The Pelicans have scored 396 points in three games.

3) The (verbal/social media) fight after the fight: Rajon Rondo calls Chris Paul bad teammate, Daryl Morey has a perfect retort. The fight that left Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Ingram suspended just will not go quietly. Well, Ingram tried to do that, offering the standard “I have to know better” apology after getting a four-game suspension.

Rondo, however, was defiant. Rondo and CP3 don’t like each other and have had a running feud for a decade. (Heck Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife don’t like each other.) So when asked about the incident Rondo said first Paul is “a horrible teammate. (Fans/media) Don’t know how he treats people)” and that he didn’t spit at Paul, it’s just that with his mouthpiece in when he talks some spittle flies out. Not sure I believe him, but that’s Rondo’s case and he’s sticking to it.

Daryl Morey, the Rocket’s GM, then Tweeted.

Well played — and you’ve got to love a league where a GM Tweets this and the league loves it. Can you imagine if an NFL GM did this?

Rondo is right on one level, there are plenty of former teammates who have issues with the highly competitive, constantly critical, hard-driving style of Chris Paul (Blake Griffin had his problems with it). However, the list of teammates/coaches/executives who are no fan of Rondo and his attitude is plenty long as well, as Morey points out brilliantly.

Circle Dec. 13 on your calendar, that’s when the Rockets and Lakers face off again.

Report: Greg Monroe signing with Raptors

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
6 Comments

Greg Monroe – according to his agent, David Falk – had max-contract offers from the Knicks, Lakers, Trail Blazers and Bucks in 2015. Monroe reportedly could have chosen his contract length, from one to four years. He picked a three-year deal with Milwaukee.

Three years later, instead of entering the final season of a max contract, Monroe will settle for about a minimum salary.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Monroe’s minimum is $2,165,481. I bet he gets that, especially because if he gets any more, the Raptors would have to pay and be taxed at his full salary. With Monroe on a minimum deal, Toronto would have to pay and be taxed at just $1,512,601 (the league covering the rest).

Monroe is a skilled interior scorer, strong rebounder and heady passer. But has neither the leaping ability to protect the rim nor foot speed to defend on the perimeter. It’s hard to build a sound defense with him at center, and that becomes especially problematic deeper into the playoffs. Monroe – who was sent to the Suns in the Eric Bledsoe trade, got bought out then signed with the Celtics – fell out of Boston’s playoff rotation fairly quickly last season.

With Kawhi Leonard, Toronto is definitely eying more postseason success. But Monroe was also the best free agent left on the market, and the Raptors needed depth behind Jonas Valanciunas. This is a minimum (or so) signing. Toronto needn’t panic about Monroe’s role in hte postseason. He should help in the regular season and in some playoff matchups.

Monroe might even allow the Raptors to trade Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors are reportedly looking to trim salary, and Valanciunas (two years and $34,157,302 remaining) is a logical candidate to be moved. Toronto would miss him, but Monroe provides a value version. Deep in the playoffs, Serge Ibaka might become the Raptors primary center regardless.

Pistons’ Andre Drummond says he’ll shoot 3-pointers next season

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
4 Comments

The NBA’s 3-point revolution is spreading to centers.

Even ones who’ve shown no mid-range game and an awkward stroke on free throws.

Pistons center Andre Drummond, via Joseph Casciaro of theScore:

“I don’t do stuff (on the court) just to have fun,” Drummond told theScore when questioned about his 3-point shenanigans. “If I’m taking those shots, (it’s because) I’m working on it for the upcoming season. Those are shots that I’m gonna be taking.

“I make at least 200 corner 3s every day before I leave the gym. I’m getting them up. I’m getting the same shot up over and over again, so I’m getting more comfortable with it. It’s been great so far,” he explained.

Drummond, like most players, likes to be involved offensively. For years, that meant terribly inefficient post-ups. Last season, Detroit found a clever solution – using Drummond in the high post as a passing hub. But then the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin, who pushed Drummond out of that role.

So, Drummond spotting up for 3s could get him shots that keep him engaged in other aspects of the game, like defense. He could also pull a big out of the paint and make it easier for his teammates to attack the rim. He needn’t hit a high percentage of shots to make this strategy worthwhile, but he must hit enough to warrant taking them and to draw a defender to him.

Will he?

Drummond loves to take halfcourt heaves at the end of quarters, and maybe that somewhat translates. His problems on free throws are partially mental, and he won’t necessarily bring that block to 3-pointers. New Pistons coach Dwane Casey had success turning Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas into more of a 3-point shooter.

But I’m skeptical. Drummond’s stroke free throws, even massively improved last year, is still often so ugly. Other bigs showed more propensity from mid-range before expanding their shot selection beyond the arc. This could be another situation like post-ups, where Drummond’s eagerness far outpaces his ability.

Drummond has made himself a star by leveraging his awesome combination of size and athleticism. Adding reliable 3-point shooting could take his game to a far higher level. The upside is so high.

But, for now, I’m in wait-and-see mode.