Will Barton

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Nikola Jokic scores 20 points, grabs 15 rebund to spark Nuggets win vs. Clippers

Leave a comment

DENVER — The Denver Nuggets put an ugly loss behind them with a statement win over a top-tier team.

Nikola Jokic had 20 points and 15 rebounds, and the Nuggets withstood a big rally to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 114-104 on Sunday night.

This bounce-back performance was just what they needed to soothe their psyche after a clunker the night before against a struggling Cleveland squad.

“We looked like a totally different team less than 24 hours later,” guard Monte Morris said.

The moral was easy to decipher: “We have to come to play against teams we’re supposed to beat,” Morris said. “Because we always show up against teams we know that can beat us.”

Trailing by as many 20 points in the second half, Los Angeles had pulled within six with 1:11 remaining when Patrick Beverley was called for a foul on Jokic. After the Nuggets big man made a pair of free throws, Clippers coach Doc Rivers argued with official Nick Buchert. He was given two technical fouls and tossed from the game. Jamal Murray hit both free throws to restore some much-needed breathing room.

“Listen, coaches can lose their composure, so can officials,” Rivers explained. “There’s no way I should have been thrown out of the game.”

Rivers had simply reached his boiling point. He was still seething from a crucial call earlier in the quarter when Montrezl Harrell got whistled for an offensive charge when he stepped in front of Jerami Grant as Grant guarded Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers were in the midst of a 10-0 run at the time.

“The pick was solid,” Rivers said. “The bottom line is I shouldn’t get a tech. That’s No. 1. That’s on me.”

Murray finished with 19 points and reserve Michael Porter Jr. provided a spark by scoring 13 for the Nuggets, who made their last field goal with 6:12 remaining. They went 9 of 10 on free throws from there.

The defensive standout of the game was Grant, who had two big blocks on Leonard.

“A couple of great blocks at the rim you don’t see very often against Kawhi,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Leonard finished with 30 points, while Lou Williams had 26 and Harrell added 25.

The Clippers played without star forward Paul George, who missed a second straight game with a strained left hamstring. Los Angeles dropped to 8-6 this season when George doesn’t play.

This contest marked the first of three between two of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference.

Gary Harris showed signs of breaking out of a shooting slump by scoring 15 points but didn’t play late. He’s been diligently working on his jumper after shooting 25.6% over his last four games. He was 5 of 9 against the Clippers.

“When he makes shots, the guys need to chase him and it’s a little different story,” said Jokic, whose team led by as many as 20 points in the second half.

Denver had quite a sequence midway through the fourth when Will Barton blocked a shot and Jokic grabbed the rebound. He quickly threw it ahead to Barton, who then dished it off to Morris for a 3-pointer. Denver was up 18 and seemingly cruising along before the Clippers made things interesting down the stretch.

“The focus was there. The energy was there,” Jokic said. “It was a big victory for us.”

Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid could miss Boston game after finger dislocation

Mitchell Leff/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) Joel Embiid could miss the Boston game after nasty finger dislocation Monday night. When you first saw Joel Embiid’s finger, you probably gasped, then thought he was done for the night. Ben Simmons said this after the game, “I nearly threw up when I saw that.”

In the first quarter Monday night, Embiid suffered a nasty dislocation of the ring finger on his left hand. Below is the video (and the reaction of Simmons and Josh Richardson), but if you’re at all squeamish don’t watch it.

After X-rays showed nothing broken, Embiid had the finger popped back into place, taped up, and went back out there to start the second quarter. That didn’t mean everything was fine, as he told Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“It was pretty bad. I was basically playing with one hand,” Embiid said. “It’s pretty bad, but in the midst of the losing streak I just wanted to make sure that I do everything possible to try to get us a win, and I’m glad we got the win.”

Philadelphia did beat Oklahoma City 120-113 to snap a four-game losing streak, and while Embiid shot just 7-of-17 (saying the finger impacted his shooting), he had nine rebounds and a season-high eight assists. That’s the good news.

The bad news is Embiid’s status for future games, including Boston on Thursday, is up in the air. While he played through it on Monday, the medical staff may want to give his finger a chance to heal without the pounding of basketball getting in the way. Both Embiid and coach Brett Brown said that they didn’t know what the big man’s status would be going forward.

It would suck to lose Embiid for a showdown game Thursday night, but the fact he came back out Monday showed the kind of toughness that will make him even more of a legend in Philly.

2) Nikola Jokic drops career-high 47 on Atlanta in Denver win. The Atlanta Hawks are bad at defense, third-worst in the NBA. Nikola Jokic is very good at offense and has been rounding into top form in recent weeks.

Combine those two things and you get a 47-point night out of Jokic, a new career-high for him.

Jokic owned the game. He got those 47 points on a very efficient 16-of-25 shooting, hitting 4-of-8 from three (and going 11-of-16 from the free-throw line).

When Jokic is engaged and active like that, the Nuggets are tough to beat, and they knocked off the Hawks 123-115. Will Barton added 28 for Denver.

3) Trae Young needs to be in the All-Star Game. The Atlanta Hawks are a terrible basketball team. It’s a verifiable fact. Yet their sophomore point guard Trae Young leads the Eastern Conference fan All-Star Game voting.

And I’m good with that. He probably will get my vote to be a starter as well.

The All-Star Game is an exhibition, a showcase. It’s cotton candy. It’s as serious as a Kevin Hart monologue — we just want to sit back and be entertained. No thinking or defense involved. Trae Young entertains. He is a walking highlight reel. This is from the loss to Denver Monday.

He drains shots like this almost every night.

Young puts up numbers (28.9 points and 8.4 assists per game), and while we could discuss his defensive shortcomings or debate just how good the Hawks can ultimately be building around him, that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the fluff entertainment that is the All-Star Game.

Put Trae Young in the All-Star Game because he will put on a show.

Nikola Jokic scores career-high 47, Denver picks up road win in Atlanta

Leave a comment

ATLANTA — Nikola Jokic scored a career-high 47 points, Will Barton added a season-best 28 and the Denver Nuggets held off the Atlanta Hawks 123-115 on Monday night.

The Nuggets, coming off a surprising loss at Washington two nights earlier, have won four of six to improve to 25-11, second-best in the Western Conference. Atlanta, worst in the NBA at 8-29, has dropped 11 of 13.

Trae Young finished with 29 points and Kevin Huerter had 22 for the Hawks.

Jokic surpassed his previous career high of 41 points with a putback that gave Denver a 114-109 lead with 3:14 remaining.

Jamal Murray followed with a turnaround jumper in the lane and Barton put back his own miss to put the Nuggets up 118-109 at the 1:57 mark.

That essentially ended all hopes for the Hawks, but it wasn’t entirely easy for Denver.

After John Collins’ dunk cut the lead to 91-88 just 22 seconds into the fourth quarter, Nuggets coach Michael Malone called a timeout. But then Monte Morris followed with a runner and Michael Porter Jr. jammed in a putback to make it 95-88.

The Hawks cut the margin to one before Barton found Morris for an alley-oop and hit a 3-pointer to make it 106-100 with 6:54 remaining. Atlanta pulled within two on Young’s 35-footer with 4:24 remaining, and Malone called another timeout. The move worked as the Hawks made just three field goals the rest of the way.

Huerter’s second straight 3 cut the lead to two at the 6:07 mark of the third, and Malone called a timeout. Jokic quickly followed with a jumper, then stole the ball in the lane from Alex Len to set up Murray’s two free throws.

Jerami Grant’s three-point play made it 36-34 at the 9:37 mark of the second, and the Nuggets didn’t trail again. About three minutes later, Grant rebounded a missed Hawks shot and drove for a layup that gave Denver its first double-digit lead.

Murray’s layup in the final second put the Nuggets up by nine at halftime.

Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

Devonte' Graham
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

image

Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

image

Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.

Joel Embiid was having fun, dancing at mid-court in another Sixers win at home

3 Comments

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid scored 22 points, including two key free throws with 15.3 seconds left, and Tobias Harris added 20 to keep the Philadelphia 76ers perfect at home with a 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Embiid was having fun going against Nikola Jokic, and after Embiid hit a circus shot he was out at center court doing a little shimmy and exhorting the crowd.

Matisse Thybulle added 13 points for the Sixers, who are 13-0 in Philadelphia. They have won three straight and seven of eight.

Will Barton had 26 points to lead the Nuggets, who have lost three in a row and five of six. Leading scorer Jamal Murray was injured with 6:49 left in the first quarter when he collided with Ben Simmons and didn’t return.

The Nuggets set a franchise record for largest fourth-quarter comeback when they rebounded from 19 points down to start the final period in a 100-97 win over Philadelphia in Denver on Nov. 8. They tried again, but couldn’t come all the way back this time.

The 76ers led by 10 early in the fourth after Josh Richardson‘s deep 3-pointer from the top of the key made it 88-78 with 8:54 remaining. The Nuggets scored the next eight, capped by Barton’s three-point play with seven minutes left, to pull to 88-86.

But then Thybulle hit a pivotal 3 and grabbed a big offensive rebound on Philadelphia’s next possession, which ended with Al Horford‘s jumper that put the 76ers in front 93-86 with 4:36 to play.

Denver had chances from that point on but went cold from the field, making just one field goal until Nikola Jokic’s runner made it 95-92 with 18.9 seconds left. Embiid then sank both free throws after being fouled for a five-point lead before Barton missed a 3 from the top of the key.