Marcus Smart

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and more

Leave a comment

The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like an MVP with 32 points, 17 boards vs. Boston

Leave a comment

MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 17 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 23 and the Milwaukee Bucks held off the Boston Celtics 128-123 on Thursday night.

With the victory, the NBA-leading Bucks (37-6) extended their winning streak to five games.

Kemba Walker scored a game-high 40 points to lead the Celtics, who took the floor without Jaylen Brown. The 6-foot-6 forward suffered a sprained right thumb in a 13-point loss to Detroit on Wednesday.

“We saw a play late in the first half and we think that might have been when it happened,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “Maybe it got worse as the game went on. He didn’t say much about it at halftime. Certainly, after the game it was sore. Today, more sore.”

Stevens said they will do more tests on Brown’s thumb on Friday.

Marcus Smart, who started in place of Brown, had 24 points.

Antetokounmpo, who also had seven assists, had his 35th double-double of the season.

After trailing by as many as 27, the Celtics outscored Milwaukee 36-22 to pull within 127-123 with 38 seconds to play. But Smart missed a 3-pointer and Middleton knocked down one of two free throws to seal the victory.

Antetokounmpo scored the first basket of the night and the Bucks never trailed.

Milwaukee hit seven of their first 10 shots, including their first four attempts from 3, and led 36-20 after the first quarter. Brook Lopez had three of those 3-pointers and had 11 points in the opening quarter. Lopez finished with 16 points.

Milwaukee set a new season-high with 76 points in the first half. The Bucks had a 76-58 lead at the break.

Boston stormed out in the second half, cutting Milwaukee’s lead to 87-81 with 5:16 left in the third. But the Bucks ended the quarter on a 19-6 run.

Gordon Hayward, who finished with seven points on 1-of-10 shooting for the Celtics, scored his only field goal on a 3 at the end of the third.

Jayson Tatum had 17 points and Daniel Theis added 12 points and 10 rebounds in the loss.

Donte DiVincenzo had a career-high 19 points off the bench for Milwaukee.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks, Lakers hold on to top two spots heading into showdown

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Bucks and Lakers both dropped a game this week but kept the top two slots in these power rankings heading into their showdown Thursday night. Dallas has climbed to third, but it will be tough to stay there with Luka Doncic out for a couple of weeks.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Their 18-game win streak came to an end with an off night against Dallas, but they got that win streak with elite play on both ends: The second-best defense and the second-best offense in the NBA over the last 15 games. Even with that, Thursday night against the Lakers is the real measuring stick. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James in a potential Finals preview (except for Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Kuzma, and others out injured, plus the fact both teams will evolve a lot before the playoffs even start).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (24-4, LW No. 2). If anyone needed evidence of what Anthony Davis means to this Lakers team, watch the video of the loss to Indiana from Tuesday night (which snapped the Lakers 14-game road win streak). Indiana grabbed the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots without Davis there to clean up the glass, and without those rebounds Los Angeles couldn’t get out and run to transition points like it normally does. Their spacing was off, too. We could go on, but you get the idea. If the Lakers want to prove they belong on top of this ranking, they get the chance Thursday night against the Bucks.

Editor’s note: Tickets to Bucks-Lakers? Click here

Mavericks small icon 3. Mavericks (18-8, LW 4). No Luka Doncic for two weeks (at least, due to a sprained ankle) is a huge test for Dallas — they passed the first part beating Milwaukee on the road. The Mavs offense will not be the same without the guy giving them 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, the guy who runs their pick-and-roll based game. Where Dallas can make up for it is on the defensive end (they are 6.1 per 100 better defensively when he sits this season), and with Kristaps Porzingis stepping up.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (21-8, LW 5). Paul George has become as dangerous a three-point shooter as there is in the league. PG13 is hitting 40.3% from three on 9.8 attempts from beyond the arc per game (only James Harden and Buddy Hield attempt more). The Clippers face the Rockets Thursday night in what will be an interesting chess match: Last time these teams met the Clippers doubled and trapped Harden out near the mid-court line, and while the Clippers won the game (122-119) Harden still had 37 points and the Rockets’ offense was not slowed. What strategy does Doc Rivers test out this game?

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (20-8, LW 6). Philadelphia is Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to being in the Wells Fargo Center or on the road. Philly is 14-0 at home, 6-8 on the road, and the real difference is on defense — the Sixers allow less than a point per possession (98.9 defensive net rating) and play with more emotion and energy at home. The Sixers have a +12 net rating at home and -2 net rating on the road. The Sixers have 4-of-5 coming up at home including the Bucks on Christmas Day.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (17-7, LW 3). How much Marcus Smart means to the Celtics defense was evident in losses last week to Indiana and Philadelphia, games where they gave up at least 115 points to teams outside the top 12 offenses in the league. Those games — particularly against the Sixers — exposed the lack of bench depth outside Smart on this team, the challenge is the Celtics do not have great options to trade for more depth at the deadline. Boston also doesn’t have a good answer for Joel Embiid (few teams do), and that will be a playoff challenge if they meet.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (19-9, LW 10). The Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis big man combo is starting to work: In the last 15 games, they have played nearly 300 minutes together and the Pacers have an impressive 100.3 defensive rating and an impressive +9 net rating in those minutes. How well it worked showed up against the Lakers (without AD) when Turner was switching onto LeBron an others late and holding his own defensively, while Sabonis scored 26. The Pacers have won four in a row and have a fun showdown with the Bucks on Sunday.

Rockets small icon 8. Rockets (18-9, LW 7). Once again, James Harden is right at the front of the discussion for MVP, scoring 38.9 points per game. Once again, he scoffs at the idea of load management and taking a night off. And, once again, he is second in the league in total minutes played (only he and Devonte' Graham are over 1,000 already) and usage rate (38.6, tied with the Greek Freak for the most). That’s a lot on his shoulders and it’s fair to wonder if he will be able to hold up physically. The Rockets have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, starting with the Clippers Thursday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (17-8, LW 11). Denver is a team to watch heading into the trade deadline, with them trying to package players such as Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to get an upgrade to their rotation. Both of them are expiring contracts, if there’s a team seeking some cap relief, but finding a deal that gets them quality back will not be easy. After losing 5-of-6 and struggling on the road, Denver came home and has strung together three straight wins (against a soft schedule, but still wins). Good test in Los Angeles Sunday against the Lakers.

Heat small icon 10. Heat (19-8, LW 8). Bam Adebayo is on a tear and is putting up All-Star numbers of late: 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 7.4 assists a game over his last five, all while shooting 58.1% from the field. There are no moral victories in the NBA, but the Heat’s three-point loss to the Lakers where they hung with an elite team all game was a good sign for this team heading forward. Another good test Wednesday night in Philadelphia (where the Sixers remain undefeated).

Raptors small icon 11. Raptors (18-8, LW 9). After losses in the past weeks to quality teams (Heat, Rockets, 76ers, Clippers), Toronto may want to step back, assess where they are in the East (and NBA pecking order), and see if they can make deadline trades for Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. The challenge is the money — Gasol makes $25.5 million, Ibaka $23.2 million — because teams don’t have cap space, but expect Toronto to be active and at least talking to teams. Good test next Monday against Indiana.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (15-12, LW 12). Kyrie Irving has been out 16 games now, the Nets are 11-5 with a top-10 defense in the league during that stretch. Wilson Chandler is back from his 25-game PED suspension, and while he has come off the bench and played a limited role, he ads some much needed veteran depth at the forwards spots.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (16-11, LW 13). Donovan Mitchell took over late against Orlando Tuesday, which bailed out another rough performance by the Utah bench (Royce O’Neale had 11 points but the bench as a total had just 14, and they are wildly inconsistent night to night). Winners of three in a row (against a soft part of the schedule) the Jazz now head on the road for 7-of-9. Away from home the Jazz are 5-8 and are getting outscored by 2.4 PPG.

Thunder small icon 14. Thunder (12-14, LW 16). Billy Donovan doesn’t go to a three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all that much — he’s used it in 26 games but for fewer than six minutes a game — however, when he does, they destroy teams. That trio holds teams to less than a point per possession and has a net rating of +25.9 points per 100 possessions. Expect a lot of Danilo Gallinari trade rumors between now and the deadline, he is going to be on the move.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (11-16, LW 14). We learned this week that Andre Drummond has a strong Avocado allergy and some ceviche in Mexico sidelined him for a few days. Throw in Blake Griffin’s painful knee and you have a team that has lost two-of-three. Derrick Rose is trying to keep them afloat, averaging 16.6 points and 6.1 assists a game off the bench, and keeps making his case for Sixth Man of the Year.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (12-15, LW 15). The Magic have dropped 4-of-5 through a difficult part of the schedule, with games at Denver and at Portland still ahead. Orlando is banking n the return of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to start their lowly offense (25th in the league). Even with all that, the Magic sit as the current eight seed in the East.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (12-15, LW 19). De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III are back in the lineup, and while that didn’t mean a win in Charlotte Tuesday it does mean Sacramento is close to whole again. Even with the loss, Sacramento has won 4-of-6, they got their best players back, and starting Dec. 23 (against Houston), the Kings have 10-of-12 at home. Make a run there and the Kings can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West (for the first time in 13 years).

Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-16, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s defensive reputation was both well earned and the thing that made other teams slow to sign him this summer. However, watch him play now and he is putting in the effort on that end of the floor — he had three blocks and two steals against the Suns on Monday night. He’s active and trying, and that’s a good start. Portland starts a run of 6-of-7 at home on Wednesday against Golden State, if the Blazers are going to turn their season this is the time to do it.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (13-17, LW 22). Charlotte remains the team playing the most over its head this season, Cleaning the Glass has them as a 10-win team (9.6, to be specific) but the Hornets keep winning close games. Charlotte is 4-1 in their last five but they are just +8 in those games (and have a 1.2 net rating). Devonte’ Graham continues to impress every time he steps on the court, including dropping 40 on Brooklyn a week ago.

Suns small icon 20. Suns (11-15, LW 17). Deandre Ayton returned from his PED suspension Tuesday and put up 18 points and 14 rebounds in loss to the Clippers. It’s a good start, they need his offensive production in the paint. The Suns have lost four in a row and 5-of-6, with their struggling offense being the main reason for the slide.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (10-16, LW 21). Nobody on the Spurs was happy making history by playing in four straight overtime games, but the Spurs won three of them. Even with that it looks like they will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years this season, which leads to the next question: Will San Antonio be a seller at the trade deadline? Even if they want to be, is there much of a market for the big contracts of DeMar DeRozan ($27.7 million) or LaMarcus Aldridge ($26 million, but only $7 million guaranteed next season)?

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (10-17, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup and the Grizzlies have won 4-of-5 (with the only loss coming to Milwaukee. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are -6.4 per 100 possessions when paired together this season, and not particularly strong on either end of the court. That comes with being a young team. Morant’s dunk over Aron Baynes may be a week old, but you can’t see this one enough.

23. Timberwolves (10-15, LW 18). Losers of seven in a row, with a frighteningly bad 123.5 defensive net rating over that stretch. Just for some context, the Wizards have the worst defense in the league this season and their net rating is 116.7. Minnesota has slid back so far they might become sellers at the trade deadline, but the play of Robert Covington during this stretch — on both ends of the court — is going to make teams hesitant, and if nothing else will lower what they could get for him.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (10-19, LW 23). Looking for a bright spot on a team that is stumbling along, having lost 5-of-7, a team that keeps blowing big leads? Zach LaVine has added to his offensive arsenal, becoming a far more consistent three-point shooter this season, hitting 40.5% from beyond the arc on 7.6 attempts per game.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (8-17, LW 25). New GM Tommy Sheppard is going to get a lot of calls before the trade deadline about the availability of Davis Bertans, who was a steal from the Spurs this past summer. He’s averaging 15.4 points a game, shooting 45.7% from three as a stretch four, and is on an expiring contract. Sheppard has said he doesn’t plan trade Bertans, but if a good enough offer comes through he has to consider it.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (7-21, LW 30). The Knicks got Elfrid Payton back seven games ago and the Knicks are 3-4 in those games with an offense that just looks smoother (in part because rookie R.J. Barrett doesn’t have to play out of position at the point). Their defense is still dreadful, but at least New York is competitive. Marcus Morris trade rumors are going to heat up fast as we get closer to the deadline, a lot of teams could use his toughness and shooting.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (6-22, LW 26). Losers of five in a row, there is disappointment and frustration in the Atlanta locker room, which has led to questions about the job safety of coach Lloyd Pierce. For now he is safe, according to reports. But there were expectations Trae Young (who has been streaky this season), John Collins (suspended for PEDs), and company would take a step forward this season. If anything, it feels like their regressed, and the defense is a disaster. Not living up to expectations is often what leads to a coach being let go.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 29). Cleveland’s only win his their last 11 games was in overtime against the Spurs. The Cavs will be one of the most discussed teams in the run-up to the deadline, but Kevin Love’s contract makes him very difficult to trade. Tristan Thompson makes more sense for a lot of teams, if he is made available.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (5-23 LW 28). Looking for a positive? Alan Smailagic, the No. 39 pick in the last draft, just had a 29-point game for Santa Cruz in the G-League. Expect a lot of D’Angelo Russell trade discussion in the run up to the deadline in February, but I keep hearing from sources that is far more likely a summer trade, not one rushed in February.

Pelicans small icon 30. Pelicans (6-22, LW 27). Brandon Ingram has played his way into a max contract this summer: 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Sources say he is not available via trade (J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday, however, are). Is Ingram someone the Pelicans, or any other team, should feel comfortable maxing out? No. But in a down market, a guy who can get buckets the way he can is going to get paid. Also, nobody should blame the Pelicans for not extending him, considering health risks (blood clots last season) and they weren’t sure how he would fit next to Zion Williamson (and still aren’t).

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

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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.

Three Things to Know: Warning about Lakers’ future arrives in the form of Luka Doncic

Associated Press
3 Comments

LOS ANGELES — 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) Warning about Lakers’ tough road ahead arrives in the form of Luka Doncic. Dallas entered Sunday with the best offense in the NBA — not just this season, but in NBA history. The Mavericks had an offensive rating of 116.1 (which would best even the recent Warriors offenses, if Dallas can sustain it).

LeBron James seemed to take that as a personal affront.

He has picked his spots on defense in recent seasons, and those spots were never 20 games into the season. Sunday was going to be his spot — he was active, physical, all over the court and disrupting Luka Doncic at every turn. He had three early steals and got into the body of Kristaps Porzingis to force one of them.

However, the Lakers couldn’t sustain it — and that spotty effort has been a thing the past week plus. While Los Angeles had won 10 in a row, they had faced a softer schedule of late and that allowed them to get away with flipping the switch. Los Angeles trailed Memphis by 15 and New Orleans by 16 recently but were able to come back against those overmatched teams.

The Lakers could not do that against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a couple of holes the past week or so,” guard Danny Green said. “Eventually, it’ll catch up to us. It did.”

By halftime, the Mavericks bench had changed the tone of the game — and the Lakers were struggling enough for LeBron to call a huddle on the court to cuss at his teammates.

This time there would be no L.A. comeback and the reason was Doncic — 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists in the third quarter alone. Dallas made an adjustment that worked beautifully: When the Lakers blitzed Doncic off the pick-and-roll he quickly gave up the ball but then got it right back and attacked again before the defense could reset. Give the young star that kind of space and he will carve a team up.

In the third, the Lakers made a run to get the lead down to 10, but then Doncic found a cutting Delon Wright for a layup, drained a three, hit another layup when Doncic himself drove the lane, and by that point the lead was 17 again. Doncic was feeling it, and it showed with a step-back three over his idol LeBron in the fourth.

The Lakers are 17-3 this season, but the thing is they are 14-0 against teams below .500 when they faced them and 3-3 against everyone else (beating the bad teams is a sign of a good one, the dynasty Spurs were the kings of that). December is filled with a lot of everyone else — the Lakers have the toughest schedule in the league in December. That starts with a Denver/Utah road back-to-back Tuesday and Wednesday, kicking off 8-of-9 away from Staples Center.

The Lakers have been able to get away with some stretches of sloppy play the past few weeks because of their talent level and how much better that was than everyone they faced. When LeBron is playing at an MVP level — which he absolutely is — he can overwhelm weaker and even average teams. The good teams, like Dallas, can weather the storm and make a comeback. The Lakers have to be sharper, have to clean up their play on both ends, get back to playing at an elite level, or it’s going to be a long, cold December.

2) Concern about Marcus Smart injury overshadows another Boston win. Jayson Tatum scored 30 points and Boston did what good teams do on Sunday: They found a way to win on a day they weren’t as sharp as normal, rallying to beat the Knicks. Jaylen Brown added 28 in a win that improves the Celtics to 14-5 and keeps them as the three seed in the East.

That’s not the big story out of this game.

Marcus Smart went down with an oblique injury after a collision with Kevin Knox. Smart left the game not to return, but the real concern is this is the same injury — and Smart said the same spot — that caused him to miss about a month last season.

The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season and Smart is at the heart of that. He has been tenacious on that end, in a way that has to get him Defensive Player of the Year votes (although it’s too early to have that discussion just 20 games into the season). Smart has refused to take time off to heal a variety of smaller injuries this season, something that just comes with his all-out style of play, so a couple of games missed that gives his body time to get right is not the end of the world. However, Boston will miss him a lot if he has to miss any extended time. We should learn more on Monday.

3) Toronto is the best team you’re not watching, now with seven wins in a row. It’s considered the statistical sign of a title contender: Having a top-10 offensive and defensive rating. As you might expect, the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks all have that this season.

So do the Toronto Raptors — they actually have a top-five offensive and defensive rating.

While most fans have focused on the drama in Los Angeles or how Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken a step forward this season with the Bucks, the Toronto Raptors have quietly looked like a team ready to defend their title. Kawhi Leonard bolted for those bright lights in L.A., but north of the border Pascal Siakam has emerged as a true superstar, Fred VanVleet has stepped up and is scoring 18.6 points a game, Kyle Lowry is still the heart of the team and Marc Gasol is making plays on defense. The Raptors are a legit threat.

Just ask the Utah Jazz — Toronto blitzed the feared Utah defense for 77 first-half points (that was with Rudy Gobert back in the lineup) and led by a franchise-record 40 at the half. From there, the Raptors cruised to a 130-110 win, their seventh in a row to improve to 15-4 on the season. Siakam led the way with 35 points.

Toronto has been one of the great stories of the NBA season, and one not getting enough attention. The Raptors’ ability to develop players — like Siakam and VanVleet, and now rookie Terrence Davis — has not just kept them afloat this season but turned them into a genuine threat to the powers of the East.

Toronto is not going to just celebrate their title and quietly fade away this season. This is an outstanding team that is set on defending its crown. The league underestimated them, but no longer. The Toronto Raptors are turning heads. And winning games. A lot of games.