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10 takeaways from a thrilling Martin Luther King Jr. Day spectacle

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day extravaganza did not lack for games and storylines driven by some of the NBA's best and brightest.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Nets made another statement with their victory over Giannis and the Bucks.

There was one postponement and one delayed tipoff, but otherwise the NBA schedule stayed full and somewhat fun on the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day extravaganza, highlighted by a potential Eastern Conference finals preview between the Nets and the Bucks.

When the day turned into night and the results were finalized, there was a solid debut in Houston, an uplifting Memphis win against the Suns spurred by Ja Morant, a thrilling finish in Brooklyn, where the Nets had one superstar too many for the Bucks, and Golden State’s wild comeback over the defending champs.

Here are 10 takeaways from Monday’s games …

Giannis Antetokounmpo: OK, so we get this marquee showdown, Bucks vs. Nets, Eastern Conference’s best record vs. the big threat from Brooklyn, Kia Defensive Player of the Year vs. … Jeff Green?

Yes, that’s who Giannis guarded in this anticipated game. It strikes you as odd, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t Giannis check Kevin Durant, who by the way sank the go-ahead 3 in the final minute with Giannis about 15 feet away? No offense to Khris Middleton, a pretty fair defender himself, but there’s no good reason why Giannis isn’t on KD, period. Giannis can match KD’s length, and is far more athletic than Middleton, and has a deserved reputation for defense. Besides, didn’t the Bucks just give him the biggest contract in NBA history? Shouldn’t he earn that and his reputation for defense by being assigned to one of the game’s all-time scorers?

Let’s hope, for Milwaukee’s sake, that coach Mike Budenholzer has a change of heart should these teams meet in the postseason.

KD & James Harden: Officially, this is a problem for the rest of the league. They combined for 64 points against a top-shelf defensive team, and took turns throwing daggers at Milwaukee in the closing moments of a tight game. Even better, Joe Harris, as expected, saw a handful of open looks and finished with 20 points.

This was the duo’s second game together after combining for 74 against Orlando a few days earlier. Whenever Kyrie Irving returns, and assuming everything’s good in his world when he does, the Nets will put three players on the floor who command double teams. Do the math: Opposing teams will need six defenders total against the Nets Big Three, and last we checked, that’s illegal.

Kevin Durant and James Harden were too much for the Bucks.

Blake Griffin: It’s always tough to watch a former franchise player in rapid decline, and such is happening in Detroit. Monday was more of the same for Griffin, who’s fading on a team that’s 3-10. It was 36 minutes, five points, five rebounds against the Heat for Griffin, who just a few years ago — and also several knee surgeries ago —  was a premier player in LA with a fresh max contract. Now he’s shooting 38.3% and yielding to Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee. He has a $38 million option for next season, more than anything he’d get on the open market. So most likely he’s in Detroit for another season.

Victor Oladipo: Much like Harden, Oladipo wanted to move on from his team. Unlike Harden, Oladipo didn’t put his teammates on blast. Anyway, Oladipo’s debut with the Rockets, Harden’s former team, couldn’t have gone smoother. Well, OK: Houston did lose to the Bulls.

But lost in that result was the welcome Oladipo received from his new teammates. They yielded to him at times, allowed him to flourish and take charge with 23 shots. For most players, especially someone who isn’t a superstar, there’s usually a transitional period of getting-to-know-you. In this case, the Rockets allowed Oladipo to lead them, which could be taken as an in-your-face to Harden.

Whatever. Oladipo looked frisky and happy to be in Houston, scoring 32 points with nine assists, both season highs, and seems comfortable. He’s in his walk year but maybe this is now home.

Victor Oladipo did everything except win in his Rockets debut.

Rajon Rondo: Can someone remind us again why the Hawks signed Rondo? And even better, why Rondo agreed to sign with the Hawks? His playing time and production are steadily declining. He’s averaging less than 15 minutes a night and, for the fourth straight game, he went scoreless. Additionally, he’s being passed in the rotation by Brandon Goodwin, a two-way contract player last season who (despite shooting 1-for-10 against the Wolves) has sparkled lately as Trae Young’s backup. Rondo would be a better fit on several teams than the one he’s with now and would be the starting point guard for the Clippers.

Julius Randle: He’s the solution, but for whom? Easily the most positive sign for the Knicks is the elevated play of Randle, who recorded his 10th double-double of the season in New York’s win against Orlando. Randle is once again a tough matchup when he’s charging the rim with his natural left hand, but the 6-foot-8 forward is also getting brave with his outside shooting and hitting a very respectable 35.5% on 3-pointiers.

He’s one reason the Knicks have upgraded from lousy to mediocre this season, and ordinarily Randle at age 26 would be a foundational block for a team in transition. But would he benefit the Knicks more in a trade? Either way, they’re in a good place with Randle. Remember, the Knicks’ top pick, Obi Toppin, plays the same position, and trading Randle for help elsewhere — maybe point guard where Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina haven’t quite worked out — might be ideal. Randle leads the Knicks in assists because the offense is running through him, which says more about the point guard situation than Randle.

Chris Boucher: It’s not a coincidence how Toronto’s turnaround has coincided with the rise of Boucher. He scored 20-plus points for the fourth straight game, of which the Raptors have won three and lost fourth by one point. Boucher’s development is similar to the one by Paschal Siakam a few years ago; both are long and athletic, but Boucher brings a better shot. Boucher is in the running for Kia Most Improved Player with the Rockets’ Christian Wood.

Chris Boucher continued his strong play with another 20-point outing.

The Spurs: They had four players score 20 or more in the win against the Blazers, and all four are veterans in their walk year — DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay. Which of course begs the question: Will the Spurs, who almost never make trades, ship one or more of them before the trade deadline?

They all have value to various degrees. Of the three, Mills is the only “true Spur” and because of that he’s likely to stick around beyond this season. (Mills is also having the best year of his 11-year career, which doesn’t hurt). The Spurs are clearly in a youth movement and ready to turn the page on the next era, which will belong to Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson. The Spurs are a Draft-and-hold franchise that subscribes to player development. Do they surrender the four veterans now, or wait until this summer?

Draymond Green: During a break in the action against the Lakers, he had an animated discussion with rookie James Wiseman, coaching up the young center and telling him what he did wrong. Draymond’s voice does carry weight … but thus far this season, his own play seems lacking a bit. He’s at near or career lows across the board and hasn’t had the same impact with a non-contender (this season and last) as he did when the Warriors were a dynasty. This feeds the belief that Green was always more of a complimentary player — albeit a great one — than a star.

MLK Day: Give the Hawks the edge, in terms of presentation, over everyone else. Atlanta always does it up big on this day, from the choir to the court markings and this year, the “MLK” jerseys, marking the first time in history that a team wasn’t represented on the front. Of course, the Hawks should be No. 1 on this day; they’re in the birthplace of Dr. King, who died the same year the Hawks moved to Atlanta from St. Louis.

Inside the NBA looks at how the NBA honored MLK on Monday.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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