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Three Things to Know: C.J. McCollum will kill you from the midrange, just ask the Bucks

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) C.J. McCollum destroys from the midrange with 40, Portland shows up big with a win over red-hot Milwaukee. Under new coach Mike Budenholzer’s simplified, clear system the Milwaukee Bucks have become an outstanding defensive team, allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions (third best in the NBA). They have done it by protecting the rim (bigs dropping back on the pick-and-roll to take away the drive) while trying to run teams off the arc. The goal is simple: force teams into less efficient midrange shots.

That works until you run into a guy who can drain midrange shots all night long.

Meet Portland’s C.J. McCollum. He was 10-of-12 between eight feet out and the arc on his way to dropping 40 on the Bucks and leading Portland to an impressive 118-103 win at home.

McCollum has gotten off to a rather “meh” start to the season — the Blazers were 7-3 coming into this game because Damian Lillard has been playing at a “you better throw my name in your too-early MVP talk” way, while Zach Collins and Evan Turner have sparked a surprisingly strong Portland bench. Tuesday night, it was McCollum’s turn to break out — and break the ankles of rookie Donte DiVincenzo.

It wasn’t all midrangers, these teams combined to chuck up 85 three-point attempts.

The Bucks were doing Bucks things. Giannis Antetokounmpo had nine — nine! — dunks and was putting up numbers with 23 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Brook Lopez drained six threes.

Milwaukee played its defensive system well, it’s just that dropping the big on the pick-and-roll opens up the midrange and some guys will destroy you from there. McCollum is one of those guys, and it showed on Monday night. Especially in the second half Portland made McCollum the pick-and-roll ball handler with Lopez’s man Jusuf Nurkic setting the screen, so when he dropped back McCollum could find his midrange shot. As Milwaukee adjusted, the Blazers got Nurkic and others shots at the rim. That was your ballgame.

2) Poster Dunk: Hornets rookie Miles Bridges gets up high and Dewayne Dedmon isn’t going to stop him. This is how you attack the rim.

Kemba Walker loved it in a gif worthy way.

3) Luka Doncic continues to put up numbers, make an early Rookie of the Year case. It’s far too early to have a serious Rookie of the Year conversation — that award, in particular, is often won in the second half of the season, with the player who adjusts and improves racking up votes. That said, already Atlanta’s Trae Young and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton have put up impressive numbers.

As has Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who had 23 points, six rebounds, and three assists to lead the Mavericks past the early season pinata that is the Washington Wizards Monday night, 119-100. On the young season, Doncic is averaging 19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. Doncic reads the play and attacks like a veteran.

It wasn’t just Doncic in this game, Wes Matthews had 22 and Dallas had a well-rounded night.

There feels to be a weird transition going on in Dallas with not all the veterans comfortable having Doncic as their best player (DeAndre Jordan going over Doncic’s back for a rebound recently is a perfect example). Just being around the team for a day you get the vibe that some of the veterans on this roster want Doncic to earn his status a little more, not just walk in the door as the Golden Boy. Okay, but watch him play and to me he is earning it.

• Bonus Thing To Know: Russell Westbrook’s nasty looking ankle sprain from Monday night turned out to not be that bad. After some rest and treatment, the Thunder are calling it a regular sprain, and while Westbrook is out Wednesday night he’s not going to miss extended time. There’s never a good time to have an injury, but if there was this is a good spot for OKC to be without Westbrook — Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, and Sacramento are six of the team’s next seven games. The Thunder have hit a soft spot in the schedule, where they can still get some wins without the former MVP.

Vince Carter is still dunking on dudes in the post

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Atlanta Hawks guard Vince Carter will turn 42 years old in January. He shouldn’t reasonably be able to play basketball at a high level anymore. He certainly shouldn’t be able to dunk off of a spin move to the baseline like we saw on Tuesday night.

But that’s exactly what he did.

The play came late in the first quarter as the Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets squared off in the North Carolina. Carter was being guarded by Jeremy Lamb, who was in tight with a forearm to the veteran’s back. Carter used that feeling to give Lamb the quick turnaround toward the left baseline for the one-handed dunk.

Via Twitter:

Was that even the best dunk of the night from this game? Miles Bridges had one that brought down the house over Dewayne Dedmon Just a couple of minutes later.

Hard to say, but either way I’ll take Old Man Carter dunks any time of the year.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

Check out Kyrie Irving dropping 20 in preseason home opener

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Back in Boston, Kyrie Irving looked at home.

It was the Celtics’ second preseason game, their first at home, and Irving looked comfortable scoring 20 points on 14 shots. He was finding a little space coming off picks and was pulling up, was dishing to the open man, and just looking like he was in midseason form.

Gordon Hayward was back in the lineup and had four points but struggled with his shot, going 1-of-7 from the floor. He looks rusty these first two games, which is understandable after missing last season.

Meanwhile, rookie Miles Bridges of the Hornets dropped 23 in the game and looked good.

 

Hornets’ offseason not quite a joke, but not much better than that

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

At least Mitch Kupchak avoided the most biting wisecracks at his expense.

After getting fired by the Lakers in part for giving Mozgov a ridiculous four-year, $64 million contract, Kupchak’s first roster move as Hornets president was… trading for Mozgov. And maybe Kupchak is that delusional about Mozgov.

But Charlotte later flipped Mozgov to the Magic for Bismack Biyombo, who’s much better and paid only slightly more. That deal might have just fell into Kupchak’s lap, as Orlando is overloaded at center anyway and needed to aggregate salary to acquire Jerian Grant.

Still, Kupchak’s original sin with the Hornets stands. He traded Howard’s expiring contract and wound up with Biyombo, who’s due $17 million each of the next two seasons. That extra year of high salary could be disastrous.

Kemba Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and Charlotte has even fewer means now to upgrade its roster around him. Maybe a max contract and loyalty will convince him to stay, but at this point, Walker’s max salary might push the Hornets into luxury-tax range. That has always been a no-go for owner Michael Jordan, which means Walker returning could force downgrades elsewhere.

How appealing is any of this to him?

Charlotte could argue just shedding Howard’s presence will help, and it might in some ways. But he was also pretty productive on the court, and that counts, too.

Charlotte could also point out it got a couple second-rounders (plus $5 million) in the Howard-Mozgov trade and a couple more in the Mozgov-Biyombo trade. (The Hornets also got two more-second rounders by taking known Clippers target Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at No. 11 then trading him to L.A. for the No. 12 pick, used on Miles Bridges.) But those second-rounders don’t near the going rate for accepting $17 million of 2019-20 salary. The Hornets would have been better off just buying out Howard and ending their salary commitment after this season.

At least all those second-rounders are already going to good use. Charlotte traded two for No. 34 pick Devonte’ Graham, who looked good in summer league.

Graham could help with the Hornets’ biggest weakness, backup point guard. So could Tony Parker, who received $5 million guaranteed with an unguaranteed salary next season.

But that’s a high price for the over-the-hill Parker, and that money probably could have lured a more productive player. Surely, part of Parker’s appeal was his ability to help new Charlotte coach James Borrego – hired from the Spurs – install his system.

Borrego replaces Steve Clifford, who’s a good coach but wasn’t Kupchak’s guy. Kupchak is clearly putting his stamp on this team.

Kupchak is one of the most accomplished general managers of all-time. He built multiple championship teams in Los Angeles. But he also appeared out of touch late in his tenure there. Is he a good general manager whose bad breaks just happened to have come most recently, or has he fallen behind? It’s a question he’ll settle in Charlotte.

The early returns are not encouraging.

Offseason grade: D