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Three Things to Know: Kemba Walker, Hornets latest team to expose problems in Boston

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Kemba Walker is destroying everyone, including the Celtics Monday night. But Boston has issues. The Boston Celtics, the team that was the favorite in the East going into the season, the team everyone thought they had to beat, is getting beat. A lot more than we expected at 9-8 to start the season. What started as “don’t freak out they just need to get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward meshed into what they do” has become legitimate reason for concern because the Celtics can’t get key boards, and that elite defense is not slowing their opponent’s best scorer often enough.

Monday night that opponent was maybe the hottest player in the NBA: Kemba Walker. He certainly is the most entertaining player in the league right now he and dropped 43 on the Celtics and yelling “this is my s***” after a big bucket.

Walker is a fringe MVP candidate right now (the way Damian Lillard jumped into the conversation a year ago) and he should thank new coach James Borego. His new Spursian offense has spaced the floor for the Hornets (not having Dwight Howard in the post and clogging the lane helps, too) and Walker is driving into that space and making plays. And if you play back on him, he will destroy you with off-the-dribble threes.

All of that does not change the fact Boston has issues compared to where we thought they would be right now. We went into the season knowing rebounding would be a concern but it has been worse than expected (like at the end of the Hornets’ game, when Charlotte was getting key offensive boards to keep plays alive). The Celtics have the 27th ranked offense in the NBA this season because the ball stops too much — Terry Rozier has been a problem here — plus the team is just not knocking down jumpers (Boston is third in number of three pointers taken a game but 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent). Brad Stevens can’t find a rotation he likes — Aron Baynes started in place of Gordon Hayward Monday — and Stevens just can’t find the toughness we expected from this team on a nightly basis.

Maybe we will get to March and April and shake our heads thinking “why did we worry about Boston?” They can still put this thing together and get up to be a top two or three seed (they are currently four games back of the Raptors, ground not easy to make up because Toronto is good).

But we are now 17 games in, approaching a quarter of the season, and these issues have not gone away in Boston. It’s time to admit this team is flawed right now and it might not be able to put it all together like we expected.

2) The Wizards are a disaster, they are open to trades… and it’s not going to be that easy. The dumpster fire in our nation’s capital… wait, let me be more specific, there are a lot of dumpster fires in our nation’s capital right now.

The dumpster fire in Washington D.C. that is the Washington Wizards got a little hotter Monday when it was reported that GM Ernie Grunfeld would listen for trade offers for anyone on the team. Including the “not exactly that big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. That came just days after a blow up in practice where Beal yelled at Grunfeld and Wall told coach Scott Brooks “f*** you.” That earned Wall an internal fine.

Being open to breaking up its core is something Washington should have been doing last summer (if not earlier) — the chemistry issues around this team are not new. They’re worse right now, but they are not new. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis kept doubling down on the core guys and thought they could fix the chemistry issues by changing coaches or role players (Marcin Gortat was the guy shipped out last summer and was seen as the chemistry problem… the Clippers look really good with him on the roster, by the way, great chemistry there). But the real problem was the core itself.

Grunfeld has come around to that, but now the trade value is down for all of those guys because of the team’s struggles. Talking to sources around the league there is by far the most interest in Beal, who is just 25 and an All-Star player at a position of need around the league. He’s also the one of the three the Wizards least want to trade, so that will take a massive offer (the kind more often seen in July than mid-season).

Second on the list, but well behind, is Otto Porter, a guy playing average basketball this season but on a max contract for two full seasons after this one. There is interest there, with the Pelicans rumored to be kicking the tires on a trade.

Last in interest from teams is Wall. We can talk about how Wall’s contract will make him very difficult to trade — his designated veteran max contract kicks in next season, he has four years at an average of more than $42 million a season left on his deal after this one — but that may not even be the worst part right now. Wall is coasting on the court too much right now, not playing like an elite player at all, and the bigger problem is the best player on the team sets the culture. Stephen Curry set the “fun but work hard” tone in Golden State. LeBron James sets the tone for the Lakers and that tone won titles in Cleveland and Miami. Tim Duncan set the tone for the Spurs for two winning decades and five rings. What culture is Wall setting right now as he jogs through plays and has his hands on his hips? Forget the money, nobody wants to trade for that player, period. (Well, don’t forget the money, but the combo of the money and his attitude make him almost impossible to move right now.)

3) Joel Embiid backs up his trash talk and puts up 33 on Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. This summer, Joel Embiid said No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton would get his a** kicked this year once the games got real. Embiid lived up to that on Monday night, almost doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9). Embiid was making plays on both ends of the floor.

But it was not all perfect for Embiid — this missed dunk is not something Ben Simmons is going to let Embiid forget.

Kemba Walker drops 21 in fourth, 43 overall on Celtics to take down Boston 117-112

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Often when fans are chanting MVP for their favorite player, it’s laughable. The guy’s not close to the conversation.

Kemba Walker is in that conversation, maybe on the fringes of it but in the conversation. He deserves those chants.

And he got them, scoring 43 against Boston Tuesday night in the game after he scored 60 (in a loss to Philly). Walker was on fire. Again.

The Boston Celtics have issues, rebounding and otherwise, but for now let’s celebrate Walker.

New Hornets coach James Borego has brought Spurs-like spacing to the Charlotte offense, there’s no Dwight Howard clogging the lane either, and Walker is eating up that space and destroying teams. And if you lay back on him to take away the drives it will rain threes down on you.

Walker might be the most entertaining player in the NBA this season.

Kemba Walker scores 60 but Jimmy Butler hits game-winner with .03 in OT, Sixers win

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Kemba Walker was putting on a “how dare you leave me off your list of top free agents next summer” kind of show in Charlotte, dropping 60 on Philadelphia while Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler trying to stop him. It was a virtuoso performance.

And then Jimmy Butler did this.

This is why the Sixers wanted Butler (or at least one reason). When it got to the end of games Joel Embiid cannot really create his own shot, Ben Simmons can create but his lack of shooting has defenders playing off him and daring him to take jumpers while clogging the lane. J.J. Redick can create a little, but that’s not what he does.

It is what Butler lives for.

And it’s not the only big play he made late, look at this block and save on Walker to set up the game-winner.

Joel Embiid’s 42 points, 18 rebounds outduels Kemba Walker in 76ers’ OT win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid scored 16 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter to help the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Charlotte Hornets 133-132 in overtime Friday night.

The Hornets fought back from a 21-point deficit and led by five with 1:18 remaining in regulation before the Sixers forced extra time.

Kemba Walker scored 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter for the Hornets.

Embiid also had 18 rebounds, and hit a tying 3 with 34.4 seconds to go.

The Hornets committed a shot-clock violation with time winding down in regulation, missing an opportunity.

Ben Simmons had 22 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds for the 76ers.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets, Trail Blazers early season surprises in Top 5

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The Warriors being on top is not a surprise, but the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Bucks all being in the top five? That is not what we expected coming in. The Cavaliers remain in dead last in these rankings, but the Suns are pushing hard for that spot.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (10-1, last week No 1). It is far, far too early to talk about the MVP race… but if one did, one would say Stephen Curry has been fastest out of the gate in that race. Curry, hunting his own shot like it’s 2015 again, has averaged 31.3 points per game while shooting 50.8% from three, with a PER of 30. He just changes the game when he’s on the court and it’s been a joy to watch this season. Fun showdown Thursday night against the red-hot Bucks.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (10-1, LW. 3). Kyle Lowry has found a comfort level as a playmaker in Nick Nurse’s system — he is averaging 11.5 assists a game and is assisting on 45.6 percent of his teammates buckets when he is on the floor this season, both career highs by a country mile. Lowry and teammates beat the Lakers and Jazz on the road, back-to-back, without Kawhi Leonard (foot injury, hopefully he and the team can stay on the same page about treatment). That speaks to the depth of this roster. Toronto is top six in both offense and defense.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (9-1, LW 4).. Jamal Murray dropping 48 on Boston was a statement — both for him and for the Nuggets, a one-loss team that has now beaten both the Warriors and the Celtics this season. Note to Kyrie Irving, if you want to stop Murray from going for 50 points with a meaningless shot at the end of the game, do something about the first 48. Interesting early tests coming up against the Bucks (Sunday) and a Rockets team finding itself again (Tuesday).

Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (8-3, LW 5). While the Portland starting five — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman, Jusuf Nurkic — is outscoring teams by 8.4 points per 100 possessions so far this season, it has been the team’s strong bench play led by Zach Collins and Evan Turner that has keyed the team’s fast start. When that bench struggles, as it did against the Lakers, the Blazers fall (also they just couldn’t buy a three against Los Angeles). McCollum dropped 40 on the Bucks and make a statement, now the Clippers and Celtics are up next.

Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (8-2, LW 2). The Celtics and their hot three-point shooting knocked the Bucks from the ranks of the unbeaten, but we’re more interested in seeing how Milwaukee fairs on a tough four-game West Coast swing that started with a loss in Portland Tuesday where they had no answer for McCollum. Next up are the Warriors. Also, we need to revisit the Greek-on-Greek crime of this Gianni Antetokounmpo’s dunk of the year entry over Kosta Kufos.

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (7-4, LW 9). Just a friendly reminder that back in 2013 the Cavaliers picked Anthony Bennett No. 1 in the draft over Victor Oladipo (most teams did not have Bennett near that high). Ouch. The Pacers are now built around Oladipo, who has averaged 23 points and 7.2 rebounds a game this season, but maybe more importantly has been a force of nature in the clutch (8-of-11 shooting this season) and is doing things like this to the Celtics.

Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-3, LW 12). The offense, with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge knocking it down from the midrange, has always been fine, but the recent four-game winning streak was sparked more by a defense that has moved from last in the league to middle of the pack during those games. Well, the D was at least until it regressed at home against Orlando. Now things get tougher with 9-of-11 coming up on the road (and the first home game in that stretch is a Rockets team now finding itself).

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (6-4, LW 6). The Celtics have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. Their offense has been improving, but it’s not yet intimidating — 27th in the NBA for the season but 15th over the last three games. Late in games, Brad Stevens has trusted Marcus Morris over Gordon Hayward, and that’s the right play because Hayward is still struggling to start the season (as we should expect, remember that a year ago his leg was literally shattered).

Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (6-4, LW 11). The Clippers are better than their record would indicate (and their record is better than many expected). This is a top 10 team in offense and defense, and they are outscoring teams by 6 points per 100 possessions (meaning they should be 7-3 at least). Tough next four: At the Blazers, then home to the Bucks, Warriors, and Spurs.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (5-4, LW 22).. Oklahoma City catches a break with Russell Westbrook’s sprained ankle not being as bad as it looked, so he will not miss much time. The Thunder, winners of five in a row, also catch a break this happened as they hit a soft spot in the schedule: Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, and Sacramento are six of next seven. The Thunder should keep on winning and making up for the slow start.

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (6-5, LW 14). Charlotte has been the least lucky team in the NBA — they are one game over .500 but with a +8.9, that of an 8-3 team. This is not a new problem, last season the Hornets struggled to close out close games, too, and it was one reason they missed the playoffs. Interestingly, the Hornets are +15.2 per 100 when Tony Parker runs the point and Kemba Walker is at the two, that may be a way James Borego tries closing games.

Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (5-4, LW 13). The Grizzlies continue to defend well but their offense — especially with Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the starting lineup — is struggling mightily. Mike Conley has not found consistency with his jumper, and that is part of the offensive issues, too. Memphis needs to figure out how to get buckets quickly because they have lost two in a row and the next four games — Denver, Philadelphia, Utah, and Milwaukee — are against quality teams.

Kings small icon 13. Kings (6-4, LW 16). Why are the Kings playing so well? They found an identity in pace — last season the Kings averaged 95.6 possessions a game, dead last in the league, this season they are at 108.1. That’s 12.5 possessions a game faster, a ridiculous leap. Synergy has them getting 21.9 percent of their offense in transition and scoring 128 per 100 on those chances. The real test of their new identity comes this month with a brutal schedule.

Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (6-5, LW 15). With all the focus on how Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons can’t play together (to his credit, Brett Brown is playing them as a tandem less and less), it’s been overlooked by some that Joel Embiid has been an absolute beast carrying this team. He is averaging 28.4 points and 12.6 assists per game, and he even has time to build condos in Andre Drummond’s head. Right now, the Sixers go as Embiid goes, but that is not going to get them where they want this season.

Rockets small icon 15. Rockets (4-5, LW 23). Winners of three in a row, the last two of those with James Harden back from injury. The Rockets are looking much better. Carmelo Anthony’s offense is coming around as well, but it’s not making up for his defense — the Rockets are 10.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the court. Great news that Jeff Bzdelik is returning, a sign the Rockets are going to focus on defense again, but his switching style is still going to run into a personnel problem when Anthony is on the court.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (4-5, LW 17). Josh Richardson is the rare case of a player forced to take on more offensive responsibility — his usage rate has jumped from using 18.2 percent of the team’s possessions when he is on the court to 24.1 percent, however, his true shooting percentage also is up to 57.1 (from 55.1), his PER is up to 17.4, and he is now scoring 21.4 points per game (up from 12.9 last season). He dropped 31 on Miami, 32 on Atlanta, and 27 points on Detroit. However, he can’t get the team wins unless they clean up the defense, which has been bottom 10 the last five games, in a very un-Heat kind of way.

Jazz small icon 17. Jazz (4-6, LW 7). No team has had a harder time adjusting to the “freedom of movement” rules on defense than the Jazz. Utah is giving up 109.3 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the league this season and 6.4 per 100 worse than last season. The Jazz like to be physical on defense, slowing guys off picks with a bump and grab, but that draws a whistle this season, and the Utah defenders have not mastered getting their feet in the right place and making the play that way. They need to if this team is going to reach its goal of being home for the first round of the playoffs.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (4-5, 10). Detroit has played the fourth easiest schedule in the NBA so far, and as it has gotten tougher the team has dropped five in a row. The problem in the losing streak has been the offense, which is scoring less than a point per possession in those five games. Teams have started to adjust to Blake Griffin having the ball in his hands as a playmaker, and Detroit has yet to counter.

Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (4-6, LW 21). Magic gave Luke Walton a stern talking to about the offensive system and defense, but at the same time he should be taking a look in the mirror — what did he expect with this roster. When you add LeBron James, he is the system. Also, the pace the Lakers are playing at is a system. Los Angeles picked up Tyson Chandler to help on defense, but it’s fair to ask if he still has that in him at age 36. Either way, it’s a low-risk move for Los Angeles.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (4-6, LW 8). Won their first four, but then dropped their next six, all against quality teams in the West (and five of those losses are on the road). During the losing streak New Orleans has had a bottom-10 offense, but the real problem is on the defensive end where they surrendered 116.7 per 100. Games against the Bulls and Suns next give them a chance to right the ship.

Nets small icon 21. Nets (5-6, LW 24). The most up-and-down team in the NBA — they got blown out by the Knicks, but turn around and blow out the Sixers. That said, the inconsistency has still been good enough — if the playoffs started today the Nets would be the seven seed. Tuesday’s win in Phoenix is the start of 7-of-9 on the road, with some rough stops against the West at the start of the trip.

22. Timberwolves (4-7, LW 18). Jimmy Butler is missing time for “precautionary rest” and “general soreness” which everyone around the league sees as pressure to force a trade, no matter what Butler and the team try to sell. There are times it looks like the Timberwolves are close to figuring it out (Lakers) and other times they look close to imploding. At least Derrick Rose dropping 50 was a great distraction and one of the best stories of the season.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (4-6, LW 26). They have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence it happened when Jonathan Isaac had to sit (ankle), so Aaron Gordon could move back to his more natural spot at the four and the offense could start to flow. Coach Steve Clifford may have to stick with this rotation for a while. Orlando has 6-of-8 coming up at home — if they are going to make a push up into the East playoff discussion, it has to start during this homestand.

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (3-8, LW 23). There have been stretches this season where the Knicks have started to show some spark and have looked competent — and then they lose to the hapless Wizards, and then drop a punch-to-the-guy double OT game to the Bulls. It’s fun to watch Mitchell Robinson play, there are reasons to tune in some nights, but with 6-of-8 coming up on the road it feels like the losses could start piling up even faster.

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (3-7, LW 20). Dallas has played the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far, so their slow start should be even more concerning. So is the fact there seems to be tension between Luka Doncic — who keeps putting up good numbers — and some of the veterans on the team. It’s not just DeAndre Jordan going over Doncic’s back to get a rebound, just watching their interaction gives one the sense some veterans aren’t sure Doncic has yet earned his status. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki should be back in about three weeks.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-7, LW 25). Atlanta has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to date, just to put the early record in perspective. That said there are things to like (besides the up-and-down play showing the potential of Trae Young), for one moving Omari Spellman into the starting lineup. That worked well against Miami. Also, Dewayne Dedmon is back and averaging 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks a night — he is going to generate trade interest from contenders as we get closer to the deadline.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (3-8, LW 27).. Zach LaVine continues to prove his doubters wrong, the latest example the 41 points — including the game-winning free throw — Monday against the Knicks. That was a deserved win for the Bulls, they had been competitive but lost three home games to good teams (Denver, Indiana, Houston), Monday the basketball gods smiled on them. There are winnable games coming up at home against Cleveland and Dallas.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (2-8, LW 28). Washington earned a win over the Knicks and if they are going to turn things around it is now — the Wizards enter a soft part of the schedule with five more games against teams below .500. Of course, they dropped one in Dallas on Tuesday in another game where there was just a lack of effort on defense. No team has worse body language around the league than the Wizards.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (2-8, LW 29). Devin Booker’s return almost makes this team watchable again, and he had 14 fourth-quarter points in a win over the Grizzlies. He also had 20 points against Brooklyn but needed 21 shots to get there. Let the Suns be a lesson: In today’s NBA you need a decent point guard to run the show. The Suns front office remains incredibly active trying to land a decent point guard, the problem is there are not many available right now, plus everyone around the league knows how desperate the Suns are for one, which leads to teams trying to fleece them in a trade.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (1-9, LW 30). Cleveland finally reached a deal to turn Larry Drew from “the voice” into an actual coach of the team. That’s great, he gets a team where Kevin Love is out with foot surgery for a couple of months, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver want to be traded, and the veterans don’t think Collin Sexton knows how to play the game. Congrats on that new gig, Drew. Have fun storming the castle!