Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.
1) Welcome to the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend. The conventional wisdom from NBA pundits — and their sources inside the game — is that there are three teams on the top tier in the NBA as we approach the playoffs: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers.
Every other team with title dreams — Boston, Denver, Houston, Toronto — are trying to prove they belong on that level.
This weekend, we may get a sense of the pecking order in that top tier. Friday night, the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks. Sunday, the Lakers and Clippers face off in the last meaningful game between them this season.
This is the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend.
The Lakers have been the best team — and the most consistent team — in the West all season long. After years of conserving energy during the regular season in preparation for a deep playoff run (where he had to carry lesser teams), LeBron James has gone all-out in an MVP-level season. LeBron averaged 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and an NBA-best 10.7 assists a game, all while playing strong defense night in and night out. Mix in a season from Anthony Davis that will get him down-ballot MVP votes — 26.6 points and 9.5 rebounds a game — and you have the best duo in the NBA.
Those two, with just a little help, can get the Lakers a win most nights.
This weekend for the Lakers is not most nights.
The Milwaukee Bucks come to town with the best defense in the NBA this season by a longshot, one predicated on taking away shots in the paint and corner threes. That will be the most interesting thing to watch in this game: The Lakers have great size and length, and they average 53.7 points in the paint a game (second in the league), while the Bucks surrender just 38.6 points a game in the paint, fewest in the league. Can the Bucks turn the Lakers into a jump-shooting team? If they do, Milwaukee wins. If the Lakers get to the rim, they win.
Then there is the MVP-proxy battle. The Bucks are led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been better this season than last and is in the mix for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year again. At this point, talking to voters, LeBron is the only real threat to Antetokounmpo’s MVP repeat. One game does not an MVP-case make, but this subplot will be watched.
Then on Sunday, the finally-healthy-and-rolling Clippers will host the Lakers. The Clippers come in having won six in a row, including demolishing the Houston Rockets on Thursday night — they have looked dominant of late. The Clippers have been a paper tiger all season, with injuries holding them back — Doc Rivers has had to go with 28 different starting lineups. Finally the Clippers are whole, they added Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson at and after the deadline, and they have looked like a team living up to their potential. The Clippers are long, play good defense, have the deepest bench in the league — Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are both in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year again — and they have guys who can get shots whenever they want in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Regular season games in March do not decide playoff series. If these three teams meet, as expected, in the playoffs it will be in late May and June, and every team will have evolved some by then. Things will be different.
But this weekend we get to take the measure of the best teams in the NBA going against one another. For a Lakers’ team that has questions to answer, this weekend is the first big test.
Come Monday, we’ll have a slightly better idea what the top tier of the NBA looks like.
2) Clippers continue to roll, this time right over small-ball Houston. When the Rockets fully embraced small-ball, the intuitive counter argument was always “they will struggle with size.” However, that never meant “just post up Rudy Gobert” — the Rockets are good against that.
The real question was what would happen against a team with size all over the court, one can use that size and a little ball movement to get clean looks over the top of the undersized defense?
Thursday night, one of those teams — the Clippers — demolished the Rockets in a win in Houston. The final score of 120-105 makes this game seem a lot closer than it was, the Clippers led by more than 20 midway through the second quarter and kept that lead most of the way, going up by 30 at points in the fourth quarter, before garbage time kicked in.
Kawhi Leonard led the way for the Clippers with 25, but this was a balanced attack where Ivica Zubac had 17 points and Montrezl Harrell had 19 (size does matter).
Part of what went on here is Houston had an ice-cold shooting night, just one of those fluke off games. The Rockets were 7-of-42 from three on the night, at one point missing 20 in a row. That’s not going to happen again.
The Clippers, however, are finally healthy and are looking on the court like the contender they have been on paper all season. They get a good test come Sunday against the Lakers.
3) Stephen Curry drops 23 points in return, but Warriors still can’t beat Toronto. The Raptors have a way of spoiling big games in the Bay Area. Last June, it was the final game at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, which saw the Raptors celebrating a title.
Thursday night, it was Stephen Curry’s return.
Curry was back on the court after missing 58 games over four months with a broken hand. After a rough first quarter, he adjusted and looked pretty good. Curry finished with 23 points on 6-of-16 shooting overall and 3-of-12 from three, plus seven assists and seven rebounds.
That wasn’t enough to get the win. The Raptors backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell dominated this game, combining for 63 points and getting to the rim seemingly at will. Thanks to some key late plays from guys such as Pascal Siakam, the Raptors held on for the 121-113 win.
Still, it was great to see Stephen Curry back on the court. The Warriors just got a lot more interesting for the next five weeks.
BONUS THING TO KNOW: Jamal Murray drains the fadeaway game-winner for Denver. The Nuggets are trying to keep pace with the red-hot Clippers and hold off the charging small-ball Rockets. Denver needs every win it can get right now.
Which is why Jamal Murray’s game-winner to beat Charlotte matters.
Murray finished with 18 points to lead a balanced Denver attack where seven players scored in double figures. Nikola Jokic had another strong night with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, but the officiating got in his head over the course of the game.