Three things to know: Without LeBron, Lakers blow big lead, lose to Thunder. Again.
Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.
1) Without LeBron, Lakers blow big lead, lose to Thunder. Again.
This is a key reason the Lakers traded away so much depth to get Russell Westbrook: To win the minutes and games LeBron James is out. To take some pressure off the 36-year-old four-time MVP with all the miles on his legs, maybe reduce his minutes a little so that he (and Anthony Davis) is fresh and ready for the playoffs and a title run.
Instead, the Lakers are 1-2 in games LeBron has missed, with both losses being blown big leads against the rebuilding Thunder. Thursday night, the Lakers led by 19 in the first half but were outscored by 11 (35-24) in the fourth quarter and fell to the Thunder, 107-104. Oklahoma City is now 2-0 against the Lakers and 0-6 against the rest of the league.
The Lakers will be without LeBron a few more games due to an abdominal injury that will sideline him for at least a week. That puts more pressure on Westbrook — and the rest of the Lakers — to find wins without the team’s best shot creator. That lack of shot creation was evident on Thursday night in the loss.
This season, the Lakers have a +3.8 net rating when LeBron is on the court but -3.1 when he is off (with most of the drop-off on the offensive end, stats via Cleaning the Glass). That jumps to -5.6 in minutes Westbrook and Anthony Davis play together without LeBron.
This Lakers’ loss Thursday certainly was not all on Westbrook. He scored 27 points and had his jumper working — 7-of-12 on shots outside the paint, 3-of-6 from 3 — and he finished the game +6. However, he had a key turnover late in the game, missed a shot to tie where Frank Vogel said they needed to get a better look, and on defense, lost Luguentz Dort late on a play that became a Dort dunk to put the Thunder up 4 with :17 remaining.
Of ongoing concern is the Lakers’ defense, which struggles to contain dynamic guards at the point of attack and is counting on Davis to clean up a lot of the mess. Ja Morant torched them before. Thursday night it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished with 28 points — 11 in the final seven minutes — and was hitting shots like this no team was going to defend.
For the Thunder, Dort added 17 points. This young team continues to grow and show some grit, which is all you can ask of a rebuilding squad.
Anthony Davis continues to have a tremendous start to the season and had 29 points and 18 rebounds in this one, starting 7-of-7 from the floor and coming back from a sprained thumb to finish the game. Carmelo Anthony put up 21 points and drained five three-pointers — he is 31-of-49 from 3 at Staples Center (63.3%) but 1-of-12 on the road.
Again, it is far too early to panic about a Lakers team taking a long-term, we’re-figuring-things-out approach to the regular season. The Lakers will not only get LeBron back but also Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker will return from injury and bring skill sets the Lakers need to the table. LeBron has paced himself for years, while the past couple of seasons Westbrook has been much better in the second half of the season than the first.
But the Lakers are 5-4 during the home-heavy, soft opening part of their schedule and now face a few more games without LeBron. Things are not going to get easier for Los Angeles later this season.
2) What’s comes next with the Robert Sarver, Suns investigation.
When news of an “Animal House"-style toxic work environment on the Dallas Mavericks’ business side became public, owner Mark Cuban hired a law firm to investigate and made changes. To say he owned the problem would overstate it — he denied having any knowledge of how his top lieutenants on the business side treated women and the working environment there. We can debate if he and the franchise paid enough of a price. However, he made personnel changes in the organization bringing in a new CEO mandated to change the culture, he instituted new policies, and Cuban paid $10 million (four times what the league could have fined him) with the money going toward organizations that help women in the sports industry or combat domestic violence.
Suns owner Robert Sarver shows no such penitence.
He wants a fight that will unquestionably be a black eye for the league (at best) no matter what.
Since even before the ESPN story landed Thursday, detailing reported racist and misogynistic behavior by Sarver, and highlighting the toxic work environment in Phoenix, he decided to fight back. Every step of the way. Deny, deny, deny. Here is the statement he released Thursday:
“I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from Baxter Holmes. While there is so much that is inaccurate and misleading in this story that I hardly know where to begin, let me be clear: The n-word is not part of my vocabulary. I have never called anyone or any group of people the n-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by that word, either verbally or in writing. I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in. The way I lead my personal and professional life makes that clear. Instead of reporting the truth, Holmes’ story is based on misrepresentations from former Suns coach Earl Watson and other unnamed “sources.” Mr. Watson created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization. He is clearly not a credible source. Despite hearing from witness after witness that disputed Mr. Watson’s stories, Mr. Holmes completely disregarded the truth here. Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen.
“At this point, I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.”
The league has launched an investigation and hired the Wachtell Lipton law firm to do it — but if the findings of that investigation are not to Sarver’s liking, will he see it as impartial? The NBA’s official statement said, “Once the investigation is completed, its findings will provide the basis for any league action.”
Expect that investigation to be thorough but to take a reasonably long-time. This is going to be a dark cloud hanging over the league for a while.
I will refute one part of Sarver’s statement: I know Baxter Holmes, I know what a diligent person and reporter he is, and the notion he twisted all these facts to fit a preconceived story is just flat-out BS. That’s not how he operates. Also, you can be sure an army of lawyers vetted this story before it was published. This is simply Sarver and supporters going scorched earth in an effort to salvage his reputation, but it reeks of desperation. Also, I believe Earl Watson.
Sarver is not a guy who has earned the benefit of the doubt with many around the league. Sarver’s problem is once the dam breaks, other people come forward, other stories get out. For example, Vince Carter talked about the time he heard Sarver tell Suns players to “take him out” in a game Carter was playing well.
There will be more revelations over time.
Sarver will not come out unscathed, but will he face any meaningful punishment?
While it’s impossible to predict what ultimately happens, the odds of him facing a Donald Sterling-like reaction from the other owners are long (there is no video, no recording like in that case, and players were about to revolt against Sterling but here they have remained quiet and neutral). That’s because those other owners want to keep a low profile and are loath to vote that one of their own must sell the team—it sets a precedent they don’t like. There are a lot of skeletons in a lot of closets around the NBA.
What happens to Sarver will ultimately come down to one simple question: “Is it hurting the bottom line of the league?” If Sarver’s ownership is costing the other owners money, they will react differently than if they can say this is just an internal problem in Phoenix.
3) Philadelphia wins fifth straight, moves to top of East… Ben who?
We mentioned this yesterday — maybe it’s time to put Philadelphia up with the elite of the East again. Especially with Boston picking up a signature win over previously hot Miami.
Philadelphia beat Detroit Thursday 109-98 behind a balanced attack: 23 from Seth Curry, 20 from Tyrese Maxey, and Joel Embiid — still playing through a sore knee — adding 19 points and nine rebounds. This team is more than Embiid, and it is playing without Tobias Harris (health and safety protocols).
Philadelphia beating Detroit is not news; it’s expected.
But that is their fifth-straight win and gives Philly a 7-2 record, the best in the East so far.
It also gives Sixers GM Daryl Morey breathing room in the Ben Simmons trade saga — Simmons’ absence isn’t hurting the team in the win column, and the distraction feels managed. The pressure to “do something right now” is, if not gone, at least lessened. Morey can continue to wait for an offer that includes a “difference maker” player in return.
Simmons has reported to the 76ers but told the team he is not mentally ready to play yet. While he gets himself right, the 76ers continue to have the leverage in the situation and can play a longer game. At least as long as they keep on winning most nights.
Highlights of the night:
Hawks fans didn’t have much to cheer for Thursday night — Utah ran away and hid from Atlanta in the fourth quarter — but they did have this Trae Young alley-oop off the backboard to Clint Capela.