Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Nikola Jokic’s leaner at buzzer tops Luka Doncic dunk

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) Nikola Jokic’s leaner at buzzer beats Luka Doncic dunk in Denver win. Dallas may have lost six in a row and 11-of-12 coming into Thursday night, but do not question how badly Luka Doncic wants to win these meaningless games (or Dallas) down the stretch. Doncic doesn’t do tanking. He may be slumping (shooting 21.6 percent from three in his last five games) but it’s not because he’s mailing it in.

Just ask Denver, who watched him put up 24 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Thursday — and he threw down a dunk over two Nuggets with 5.8 seconds left that looked like a game winner.

Then Nikola Jokic topped it.

Denver came from 10 down in the fourth quarter, tied it on a Paul Millsap bucket that gave him 33 on the night, got lucky Doncic missed a free throw after being fouled on his clutch dunk (that and-1 point would have had Dallas up two), then gave the ball to their star with everything on the line and he hit a well-defended leaner for the win.

That shot crushed Doncic.

Denver’s win keeps them just one game back of Golden State for the top seed in the West, maintaining pressure on the Warriors not to mail in the rest of the season.

2) Pacers will not go quietly, beat Thunder to hang on to three seed in East. Indiana is not folding. First, Victor Oladipo went down and people expected the Pacers to crash and burn, but they just kept on finding ways to win. Then the Pacers hit (and are still in the middle of) a brutal patch of the schedule, but they refuse to roll over. If Philadelphia is going to be the three seed, it will have to pry it from the Pacers’ cold, dead hands. Indiana is not going away.

Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Pacers held on to the three seed for another night, coming from 19 down in the second half for a clutch home win. They can thank Wesley Matthews, the guy they picked up to fill some of Oladipo’s minutes. Matthews was the closer. First, he played good defense on Paul George.

Then he had the putback game winner (Russell Westbrook watched the ball, slid into the middle of the lane and didn’t put a body on him).

As always with the Pacers it was a team effort — Domantas Sabonis scored 26 and keeps making his Sixth Man of the Year case. Coach Nate McMillan may have found something with a lineup of Matthews, Sabonis, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Darren Collison. That group outscored the Thunder 23-10 down the stretch. The group played so well Thaddeus Young told coach Nate McMillan not to sub him in and break up what was working.

It was too much for OKC despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double and Paul George dropping 36 points.

Indiana is half-a-game up on Philly for the three seed, with Boston 1.5 back. Indy still has work to do — six of their next seven are on the road, all against playoff-bound teams — but don’t expect them to fold.

3) Kyrie Irving triple-double leads Boston to a gritty win. Pretty or ugly, the wins all count the same. And the Celtics need those wins.

The first-half Thursday was ugly for the Celtics. Boston’s shaky transition defense was getting abused by a Kings’ team that always plays in fifth gear. Plus, the Celtics shot 1-of-12 from three. Sacramento led by as many as 17 and seemed in control.

Then the second half saw toughness from Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown getting buckets on his way to 22. Then when Boston needed it, Kyrie Irving stepped up, finishing with a 31 point, 12 assists, 10 rebound triple-double.

Boston remains the five seed in the East, but the Celtics may be playing the best ball of any East contender entering the playoffs. In the postseason, grit goes a long way, and Boston has shown it has plenty when needed.

Danny Ainge: Brad Stevens deserves least blame ‘by far’ for Celtics’ problems

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
5 Comments

The Celtics are reeling. They’ve gone 1-5 since the All-Star break and face chemistry issues.

How much blame does Boston coach Brad Stevens deserve for the team’s struggles?

Celtics president Danny Ainge on 98.5 The Sports Hub, as transcribed by Darren Hartwell of NBC Sports Boston:

“There’s blame to share for everybody, but I will say this: He’s the least, by far, of anybody that there is to blame,” Ainge said of Stevens.

“Because I know that Brad is going to be prepared, and I know that Brad is putting in the work to do whatever he can to try to help this team and fix this team. So, that is the very bottom of the rung.”

“I know that he takes more responsibility than anybody, in my opinion, as to the success and lack of success,” Ainge added. “He takes ownership in the things he needs to do better.

“Anyway, he’s the least of all the problems that we have on our team right now.”

Ainge could have easily left it at, “There’s blame to share for everybody.” His strong support for Stevens seems like a message to Celtics players to get in line behind the coach.

I wonder how that goes over in the locker room.

Stevens remains a highly respected coach. He did an excellent job in Boston the previous four years.

But, at Butler and with the Celtics previously, he has largely succeeded by overachieving with moderate talent. He develops strong equalitarian-leaning game plans, communicates them well and gets his players to buy in.

The challenge in Boston this year is different.

The Celtics are loaded with at least theoretical talent. Kyrie Irving is a star. Gordon Hayward was a star before he got hurt. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier played big roles on a team that reached the conference finals without Irving and Hayward last year then have had to take backseats this year. Al Horford and Marcus Smart can’t be ignored, and the way he played until lately, neither could Marcus Morris.

Irving’s leadership has been turbulent. His impending free agency casts a cloud over everything. Rozier and Morris are also in contract years.

It’s a lot for a coach to manage. Stevens not totally flourishing in this situation is not necessarily an indictment of him. This is new ground for him, and he can learn on the job.

But it does seem Stevens must coach better for Boston to realize its potential.

Three Things to Know: James Harden drops 42; Celtics roll over in face of adversity

4 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) James Harden drops 42, Celtics roll over in the face of adversity. Again. James Harden puts unique pressures on a defense. He’s physical and knows how to use his shoulder to create space going to the rim. He’s got ridiculous handles. He’s got the best step-back in the game. He is a good passer who can find shooters when you collapse on him. And it helps when he gets away with this.

When faced with those pressures Sunday, on national television, the Celtics just folded. Again. Houston was in control almost the entire game and won 115-104, handing the Celtics their fifth loss in six games since the All-Star break (and now Boston heads out on a four-game road trip through the West). Harden finished with 42.

Once again the Celtics played like a bunch of individuals, and that is more obvious on defense than anywhere else. Houston’s Eric Gordon had 20 points in the first half, yet early in the third quarter Boston lost him off cuts on consecutive possessions. It forced Brad Stevens to call a timeout. Who led the team after that? Semi Ojeleye yelled at them in the huddle. Jaylen Brown had another high-energy outing off the bench (he’s got to start for the struggling Marcus Morris).

Kyrie Irving? Sure he had 24 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but after the game he seemed a combination of angry, frustrated, and detached. He didn’t sound like a leader.

There is plenty of blame to go around — Irving, Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge, frankly every player gets a little — but what the Celtics need is leadership. Someone to unify them. Someone to get them to believe in themselves. Someone to get them to put out a focused effort nightly.

I’m just not sure that person is in the locker room. I’m not sure there is time for them to pull this all together before the playoffs.

2) Trae Young hits ridiculous three then gets even more ridiculous ejection for stare down of Kris Dunn. I get why NBA referees are frustrated — players seem to complain about every call, even the obvious ones, and will try to incite the crowd with gestures while doing it. The referees feel more targeted than they have in a long time.

But overreaction calls like this one don’t help. This is just ridiculous.

Atlanta’s Trae Young hit a deep three over Kris Dunn then starred down Dunn a little — and got tossed for taunting.

Even the Bulls players were at a loss.

It’s an emotional game. It’s entertainment. Let the players show that — it’s why we tune in. We want them to care, to be passionate, to talk a little smack and stare some guys down. Some lines should not be crossed, but Young was nowhere near that.

If you want the referees perspective.

That wasn’t the only overly eager technical handed out Sunday.

3) Detroit beats Toronto in OT improving to 9-2 in last 11. Suddenly the Detroit Pistons are emerging as a team the elite would like to avoid in the first round of the playoffs in the East.

It started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Add to that point guard Reggie Jackson started to find his groove. And Blake Griffin has stepped up in the shot-creating/leader role, and is even hitting circus shots like this (although this one didn’t count).

Sunday the Raptors sat Kawhi Leonard (load management) but the team still came in 13-4 without him, they are still deep with talent (Kyle Lowry had an impressive 35 on the night). The Pistons were deeper for a day. Griffin had 27 points, Drummond added 15 points and 17 rebounds, Jackson had 19 including a clutch three in overtime, and Luke Kennard added 19 off the bench, too.

The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league).

With Sunday’s win, the Pistons are at .500 (31-31) and are the sixth seed now in the East. Keep playing like this and Detroit will make life difficult for some team in the first round of the playoffs.

Three Things to Know: Playoff Lakers activated, come from 19 down to upset Rockets

Associated Press
5 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) Lakers activated, come from 19 down to beat Rockets — now can they sustain it. Led by “playoff mode activated” LeBon James, Thursday night was exactly the kind of win the Lakers need if they are going to climb back into the postseason in the West.

But only if can they build on it. Remember that the Lakers’ biggest win of the season, on Christmas Day over the Warriors? That was followed up by losing 5-of-6. LeBon lifted up his teammates and his team on Thursday night — now he needs to do it again. And again. One good win is not enough at this point.

However, make no mistake: Thursday night was a good win for Los Angeles. Trailing by 19 midway through the third quarter, LeBron James (16 points in the game’s final 18 minutes, 29 for the game) and Kyle Kuzma (18 points on the night) sparked the comeback.

Los Angeles won 111-106, moved back to .500 (29-29), are just 2.5 games back of the Clippers, and it helps that the Kings lost, too (now just one game up on the Lakers).

James Harden kept his streak of 30-point games alive with a floater late in the fourth (32 in a row now at 30+), but he shot just 2-of-7 overall and 0-of-4 from three in the fourth quarter and fouled out late in the game. Harden was frustrated with the calls — and had a right to be. Harden picked up three offensive fouls late, one on a nothing contact at midcourt with Rajon Rondo that Rondo sold, and one on a charge call where Kuzma slid under Harden while he was in the air. The Rockets are convinced referee Scott Foster is out to get them (Chris Paul fouled out, too) and the game film from this one will fuel their paranoia for a while.

Of course, the referees didn’t force the Rockets to miss wide open shots down the stretch, either. The Rockets finally had their full team back — Clint Caplela and Chris Paul played — but looked like a team rusty after a week off.

LeBron and the Lakers got an aggressive, attacking game from Brandon Ingram — something else that has come and gone this season — on his way to 27 points. Reggie Bullock knocked down a key three and — in something incredibly rare for the Lakers — hit his free throws when it mattered on his way to 14 points. Josh Hart looked healthy and moved well, he had his best game in a while.

The Lakers’ next two games are winnable — at New Orleans and at Memphis — and if they are serious about making the postseason, those are games they have to pick up. For a night playoff mode was activated, but the real test for LeBron and company remains ahead of them.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks every bit the MVP — especially on defense — and the Bucks remind everyone they are for real. In an often-sloppy one-point game every play matters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo not giving up on this one and getting the chase down block on Jayson Tatum was one that mattered a lot.

That was an MVP-level play. Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 13 boards on the night and was just rock steady on a night little else was.

With the 98-97 win in a sloppy game, the Bucks improved to 8-3 this season against the other elite teams in the East (Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Boston). Milwaukee has won 15-of-17.

It’s fair to wonder what happens in the playoffs when the defensive pressure is cranked up on Eric Bledsoe (he’s struggled before), and will the Bucks’ shooters keep hitting through the smaller windows afforded them in the postseason. But don’t doubt this — they are capable of hitting those shots and playing under pressure. They are more than capable of winning. The Bucks are real contenders and want to show that on the biggest of stages.

Boston was frustrated not getting some calls, including thinking the Greek Freak fouled Tatum on that breakaway dunk above. Then on the final play, with Boston down one, Brad Stevens drew up something where Kyrie Irving set a backscreen and Marcus Morris cut to the rim and he was coming open — until Khris Middleton fouled him. The Bucks ended up just getting the ball to Irving, who drove and put up a wild shot that missed, but Morris was hot after the game about the no-call. He was right. However: 1) The Bucks had a foul to give so it still would have been ball out of bounds; 2) That one play was not why they lost the game — Irving was 9-of-27 shooting and the Celtics as a team shot just 38.2 percent on the night. The Celtics had their chances but just missed.

3) Stephen Curry dunks! Oh, and hit 10 threes in Warriors win. Stephen Curry had zero dunks this season (according to Basketball-Reference), but he ended the All-Star Game in Charlotte with a reverse throwdown, then on Thursday night he did this.

The bench’s reaction is the best.

Curry also did Curry things — 10-of-16 from three on his way to 36 points.

The Warriors won 125-123 and swept the season series from the Kings — but every game was close, every game hard-fought and the Kings made the Warriors work. It would make a fun first-round playoff series. Sacramento had a chance to steal this game but Buddy Hield passed up a three from a spot he’d hit one 12 seconds before to drive the lane and miss the floater to tie. If the Kings are going to get into the playoffs and face the Warriors in the first round they can’t hesitate — Hield has to take that shot.

The Kings are now 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the final playoff slot in the West, and LeBron and the Lakers are one game behind the Kings. It’s going to be a wild ride the rest of the way at the bottom of the West.

Three Things to Know: New lineup doesn’t change fact Boston is problem for Philadelphia

Associated Press
4 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) New stars, new lineup doesn’t change fact Boston is a problem for Philadelphia. The Celtics came into Tuesday night off two big blown leads and ugly losses to the teams from Los Angeles. Philadelphia, on the other hand, was riding high, the addition of Tobias Harris into the starting lineup had led to wins showing off crisp ball movement and offensive versatility. The Sixers were talked about as a Finals threat, while people wondered if Boston was now the fourth best team in the East.

Then they played a game that looked a lot like last season’s 4-1 Boston playoff win.

Al Horford bothered Joel Embiid much of the night, and the Celtics’ big man scored 23 to match Embiid. There was no Kyrie Irving, but Jayson Tatum stepped up with 20 and was a shot creator all night. Plus, the man can finish around the rim.

Meanwhile, Marcus Morris backed up his words calling out his team and scored 23 on 16 shots. Gordon Hayward had 26 points on 8-of-11 shooting off the bench.

Boston hunted out and exploited mismatches all night, and the result was a 112-109 Boston win on the road that reminded everyone the Celtics are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

For the 76ers, there are concerning signs out of this loss. Once again, when slowed down and easy transition buckets are taken away, the Sixer offense can bog down in the half court against a good defense. Embiid was 2-of-8 from three, and more than the percentage the problem is that’s more attempts than a guy who is a beast inside should have in a game. Also, Embiid will be writing a check to the league for his postgame comments that “the referees f****** suck” (he was frustrated about being in foul trouble most of the night and not getting a late foul call on Horford).

Ben Simmons had 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting and was attacking, but he was 2-of-7 from the free throw line and in the playoffs teams will exploit that by fouling him (he’s shooting 58.7 percent for the season). Harris struggled, shooting 4-of-14 overall and 0-of-6 from three for Philly. When T.J. McConnell was on the floor the Celtics went at him to expose his defense — and it worked.

On the bright side for Philly, their star-studded starting lineup was +4 in 22.7 minutes on the night. Looking ahead to a potential playoff matchup, the Philly may need more Jimmy Butler in this matchup, he had 22 points on 7-for-12 and was the most consistent shot creator the team had.

A pre-All-Star game will have little meaning if these teams meet up in the East playoffs again. Both teams will continue to evolve, the Celtics will get Irving back, and the 76ers should figure out how to make their new-look roster flow more smoothly.

Mostly, this game was a preview of how intense and close the East playoffs are going to be.

2) Lakers look like a team that needs the All-Star break, fall below .500 with an ugly loss to Hawks. Remember how LeBron James was going to come back from his groin injury and the Lakers were going to surge back up the standings and into the postseason? Yea… not so much. They are now 2-3 since his return.

Tuesday night, Los Angeles looked like a team that needed a vacation. With Magic Johnson looking on in person, the Lakers ended their Grammys road trip with a 117-113 loss to an Atlanta team that has shown growth and potential of late (they got 22 points each from Trae Young and John Collins).

If the Lakers don’t come back from their nine days off now for the All-Star break looking rested and refreshed, they are going to get a much earlier, much longer vacation than they planned on this summer. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Lakers a 30 percent chance of making the playoffs right now — it likely will take 45 wins or more to get a playoff spot in the West, the Lakers would need to go at least 17-8 down the stretch to hit that number.

Tuesday, the Lakers looked disinterested on the defensive end and their rotations were late, while on offense there was a lot of standing and ball watching. The Lakers didn’t act like a team that needs to make a playoff push, they acted like you do at work the day before your vacation starts.

Tuesday’s problems started at the top. LeBron James had a triple-double with 28 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds (and he played a lot more of this game at center than we’ve seen), but he also had some rough moments when it mattered. For example, there was when Trae Young blew past him for a key and-one bucket late.

Young missed the ensuing free throw, but LeBron’s man outworked him to get the offensive rebound and the Hawks got another shot. Earlier in the night, Young even nutmegged LeBron.

Plus, the Hawks fans heckled LeBron with “Kobe’s better” chants.

And LeBron was the best Laker on the floor. The Lakers miss Lonzo Ball (especially on defense), and the rest of the young core had one foot out the door on Tuesday.

The Lakers have the talent and could — even should — be able to make a run and get in front of the Kings and Clippers for a playoff spot in the West. But it’s not going to be handed to them, the Lakers need to earn it. Tuesday night they did not, they were not the hungry team on the court.

3) Klay Thompson dislocates a finger, pops it back in place, comes back in red hot and Warriors beat Jazz. It looked ugly. Midway through the first quarter, Klay Thompson dislocated his left ring finger, it was pointing a way fingers simply should not.

Thompson had hit popped back in place, taped up, then shot 8-of-11 the rest of the way in the Warriors win over the Jazz, 115-108.

The Jazz, with Rudy Gobert in the paint (he should have been an All-Star) have been a tough matchup for the Warriors, and that was the case again. What the Warriors got was a strong defensive game from Draymond Green, enough from Kevin Durant, and the Warriors got the win because they got 74 points out of their big three.