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Shootaround (Dec. 27): Nights off help LeBron James' MVP case Staff

Dec 27, 2016 9:24 AM ET


LeBron's MVP case bolstered every time he rests | Thunder finding their way without Oladipo | Cousins carries the Kings ... on defense, too | Jazz big man Ingles dialed in from deep

No. 1: LeBron's MVP case bolstered every time he rests -- Making a case for any player to win the NBA's most coveted individual honor usually revolves around the work said player does on the court. But for four-time KIA MVP LeBron James, the strongest evidence in his case comes when he's not in uniform for the reigning NBA champs. The Cavaliers dropped another game without him Monday night in Detroit. Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer argues LeBron's case as the league's true most valuable player:

In games with James, the Cavaliers are 129-43, which is a winning percentage of .750. Without him, they are 0-3 this season and 4-18 since he returned to Cleveland. That's a winning percentage of .182 -- worse than the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks this year.

Of the 18 losses, 10 have been by double digits.

"I'm pretty sure it's going to be the blame on me and Kev and how we can't win without Bron," Kyrie Irving said following the game. "It's the same sentence that goes on no matter what."

Well, duh. Who else is the "blame" going to fall on? DeAndre Liggins? Tristan Thompson? Iman Shumpert?

The attention goes to the other All-Stars, the two max players. I mean, it's the highest payroll in NBA history and yet the team can't seem to function without James. It's only a minor issue, but baffling nonetheless.

"We still have enough talent to win, that goes without saying," Love said. "But take the best player in the world off your team, he just means so much to us. His usage is so high in what we do with both units that whether it's the starting unit or the second unit, you take him away from our team and we lose a lot, naturally."

Following each loss with James resting, the Cavs -- and Irving -- seem to brush it off. That makes sense. There's no reason to envision life without James long term. And if something were to happen, there would be no way for the Cavs to make up for that loss anyway. They would collapse quickly and be out of title contention in a blink.

"We expect to have LeBron (in the postseason)," Love said.

But he's going to rest more as the season progresses to stay fresh for the playoffs, which means the Cavs will likely lose more games because of it. They could even possibly fall out of the Eastern Conference's top spot. But, as frustrating as it can be, does it truly matter? They are great with him, having just four losses.

That's the true definition of value, the key word that voters should focus on when determining the award recipient.

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No. 2: Thunder finding their way without Oladipo -- When the Oklahoma City Thunder hit the floor tonight against the Miami Heat (8 ET, NBA TV) they'll do so without Victor Oladipo in uniform. He'll sit to his eighth straight game nursing a wrist injury that interrupted not only his transition but also the Thunder's flow as Oladipo was just finding his groove playing alongside Russell Westbrook. But what looked choppy early on looks much different as of late. Brett Dawson of the Oklahoman shares the details of the Thunder's solved identity crisis:

After losing the first two games Oladipo missed — at Portland and Utah — by a combined 39 points, the Thunder has won four of five. Coach Billy Donovan moved Anthony Morrow into the starting lineup after starting Jerami Grant against the Blazers and Jazz, and Alex Abrines has seen his playing time increase.

It's all part of the process of making due for Donovan, who said one of the responsibilities of a coach is to “deal with what's there.”

“I think anytime you lose a really good player, you've got to find different ways sometimes to play,” Donovan said. “And I don't mean necessarily changing a style of play, but you got to do different things.”

That means tweaking the rotation, finding a committee of subs who can each take on a piece of replacing Oladipo's offensive and defensive productivity.

Abrines, who's averaging 12.9 minutes this season, has played an average of 18.4 in the past four games, averaging 10 points per game, well above his season-long average of 4.8

And with one of its offensive facilitators missing, the Thunder has found new ways to generate offense — particularly with Russell Westbrook off the court — while Oladipo recovers. One has been to feed Enes Kanter in the post and let him deal out of double teams.

He's averaging two assists in Oklahoma City's past four games — more than double his season average — and “making our offense a little more dynamic,” Morrow said.

“Maybe in some way, in Victor's absence, we've found more out about our team,” Donovan said. “We've found maybe different things that we can do that maybe we wouldn't have had the opportunity to explore, to experiment with. Hopefully when he gets back, his absence has made us better and helped our team grow in a way that we can continue to move in a positive direction.”

When Oladipo returns remains up in the air.

Oladipo takes part in some noncontact portions of practice, and he can dribble with his right hand. But it still hurts to catch, shoot and in some cases pass.

“Victor's a guy to me, just being around him, that would play hurt,” Donovan said. “He's that kind of guy to me as a competitor. He'd want to be out there, but I also think he understands right now ‘As much as I want to be out there, I can't.'”

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No. 3: Cousins carries the Kings ... on defense, too -- Love him or loathe him, and there is definitely a divide among fans, insiders and general observers, DeMarcus Cousins gets the job done for the Sacramento Kings. Cousins shined in the Kings' win over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers Monday, and as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee explains, he carried the Kings on both ends:

There’s usually a caveat when discussing DeMarcus Cousins’ place as the NBA’s most dominant big man.

He’s the league’s best big man on offense. Pundits are quick to point out the impact the likes of DeAndre Jordan have on defense as a knock on Cousins’ stature in the game.

It’s not that Cousins cannot play defense, but when your team is known for being one of the NBA’s worst on defense during your career, it’s not a surprise pundits aren’t attaching defensive excellence to Cousins.

A constant in the Kings’ four-game winning streak – as in Monday night’s 102-100 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Golden 1 Center – has been a key late-game defensive play by Cousins.

Cousins blocked Joel Embiid’s attempt to win the game with a 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds to play. Embiid’s heave from 25-feet out after Cousins’ block was an airball.

“It was (a nice block),” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “Inititally you’re looking at it wondering if it was a foul. We’ve seen it and it didn’t seem like it was a foul.”

And with that, the Kings (14-17) have their longest winning streak of the season.

Cousins made his mark on offense, too. He scored a game-high 30 points to go with seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks.

Cousins’ 3-pointer with 20.9 seconds to play gave the Kings the lead for good at 99-97.

But lately, Cousins has been making his mark on defense with blocks, steals and solid contesting of shots late in games.

“He’s really locked in doing a great job defensively, and talking about where guys should be and helping each other from the back line,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “It’s always difficult as a big because you are going to switch everything else, but you put the biggest guy in the pick and roll – he ends up defensively being in a lot of pick and rolls and that’s not easy; that wears you out too (but) he did a great job down the stretch again.”

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No. 4: Jazz big man Ingles dialed in from deep -- When the conversation about the NBA's best and most accurate 3-point shooters cranks up, names like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick come to mind. But the man who currently sits atop the heap as the most accurate 3-point shooter in the league resides in Utah. Jazz forward Joe Ingles is that man, and while he's thriving for the Jazz this season (who visit the Los Angeles Lakers tonight at Staples Center, 10:30 ET, NBA TV), Ingles doesn't appear to be interested in testing himself against the competition during All-Star Weekend. Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune has more:

When he was asked the question this week, Joe Ingles didn't hesitate with his answer. Does the Utah Jazz forward have any desire to be in the 3-point contest at all-star weekend?

"They can put someone else in," he said. "I'll happily watch from the sidelines."

Decisive, selective.

That's exactly why Ingles finds himself atop the list of the NBA's most accurate 3-point shooters.

A third of the way through the season, Ingles is knocking down a league-leading 47.7 percent of his long bombs. That's better than any of the contestants in last year's 3-point shootout: Marco Belinelli (45.3), Kyle Korver (41.1), J.J. Redick (44.9), Stephen Curry (39.9 percent), Klay Thompson (38 percent), Wesley Matthews (37.3 percent) and James Harden (34.8 percent).

“Once we go on the road, we get in the element where we feel it’s us against everybody else,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We carry that over to the floor, having that sense of urgency throughout the whole game, having the crowd against us, being on the opponent’s home floor and that seems to put us more mentally engaged in every thing we need to do.”

Ingles, of course, isn't a volume shooter like most of the stars on that list. The reserve Jazzman plays 19 minutes a game and hoists up roughly three triples in that time. He has taken a total of 86 shots from behind the arc. Curry, the league's preeminent deep threat and leader in 3-point makes, has hit on 120 of his 301 attempts.

But Ingles' approach requires its own expertise.

"He doesn't shoot nine threes a game. He shoots three," said Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger, who tried to lure Ingles to Memphis in 2013. "… and it's hard when you're not getting up nine balls to get in a rhythm with a whole bunch of shots. I really respect that."

Ingles entered this season as a 37-percent shooter from deep over his first two NBA seasons. But in his third year with the Jazz, the Australian wing has found his range.

"He's more aggressive," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "He's shooting the ball more quickly, but more on time. There isn't a hesitation. I think that's improved his confidence. He knows he's shooting it. Don't think about it."

Ingles has added to his long-ball arsenal. The 27-year-old Aussie relied on catch-and-shoot opportunities, especially from the corners, last season. This year, Ingles has been more willing to pull up off the dribble and he is shooting a scorching 32-of-64 from above the break.

Ingles attributes some of his success to his conditioning and an intensive offseason spent with the Australian national team.

"Working one-on-one all summer is great, but there's obviously nothing like five-on-five and getting up and down the court," he said.

But Ingles said the biggest change has been in his head.

"Two years ago, I think everyone saw how much I would give up open looks to try to get better looks," he said, "and sometimes that doesn't work."

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The high-scoring Rockets used defense to take down the Suns ... Paul George believes the Pacers are getting the "little brother" treatment from the league's officials ... Alec Burks is back to practice in Utah for the first time in months ... Minnesota's Big 3 handled their business and the Atlanta Hawks ... Moving Anthony Davis to center worked for Pelicans against the Mavericks ... Raptors survive their own cool shooting in triumph over Trail Blazers ... Nuggets rally, take advantage of shorthanded Clippers ... Magic get a little revenge, crush Grizzlies ... John Wall and the Wizards got physical against the Bucks ...

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