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Dee-troit Basket-ball Diary!
This week's Tuesday Newsletter Extravaganza is devoted to (almost) everything I saw, heard and (of course) ate on a trip to Motown to see two Eastern Conference powers and 2021's No. 1 overall pick
DETROIT — The early season media discourse in the NBA, until recent events in Phoenix and Portland, was dominated by two teams from the same division: Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
The chance to see them play on back-to-back nights last week was the impetus that convinced me to fly to Detroit to get an in-person gauge on how the 76ers and the Nets were dealing with their respective daily distractions: Ben Simmons' desire to play for anyone but Philly and Kyrie Irving's refusal to make himself available for all Nets games by taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
Here are my findings, diary-style, with a bonus entry on Pistons (they hope) draft savior Cade Cunningham:
Thursday: 76ers at Pistons
The Sixers transmitted the vibe of a demonstrably happy team when I crossed paths with them five days ago. If their main stakeholders are concerned about Simmons' ongoing absence, or the lack of clarity about when Simmons might be ready to start playing games for them again, or the gulf that has shown little signs of closing between what teams are willing to offer them in Simmons trade talks and what the Sixers are holding out for, they all hid it well.
Doc Rivers insisted that his team has been "void of distractions so far." Daryl Morey and Elton Brand watched proudly in the stands at Little Caesars Arena, directly opposite from the Sixers' bench, as Rivers' eight available players scrapped for a 109-98 victory over the Pistons to extend what would become a six-game winning streak.
Despite his serious shooting struggles (43.5% from the floor) so far this season, Joel Embiid looked the happiest. After consecutive fast-break baskets midway through the fourth quarter by Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle finally gave the visitors a decisive cushion, Embiid skipped to the bench with the sort of joy typically reserved for the playoffs, shouting "c'mon” to punctuate each of his triumphant fist pumps.
In the moment, I couldn't remember the last time I had seen Embiid so exultant. Maybe that was because the Pistons had granted me a press-row seat much closer to the action than I typically get except when I’m covering games in my home arena in Dallas, but I saw Embiid briefly afterward and asked him, from a distance, about his noticeable glee.
"We really fit," Embiid said, attributing it to his comfort level with teammates. "We've got great chemistry."
Said Rivers: "It's funny with us. We don't know we have problems. We don't talk about them, we don't voice them. There's no talk about all the stuff."
One team source confessed to me that the Sixers never expected to start so well given the Simmons saga that has hung over them since Day 1 of training camp on top of how shorthanded they've been. Morey’s favorite inside joke lately, which he decided to make public in a tweet Tuesday after the scorching Seth Curry was diagnosed with a left foot contusion, has been to invoke Casey Kasem every time the Sixers find out they’ve lost another player. For Generation Xers, Kasem was synonymous with his weekly American Top 40 radio countdown show.
Yet you inevitably wondered, taking in these in-game and postgame scenes, how the atmosphere Embiid lauded would be affected if Simmons actually were to rejoin the team full-time at some point because the Sixers can't find a trade to their liking.
There would be no trade on this night, either. Morey was pacing the halls outside the Sixers' locker room after the win, phone pressed to his ear, but he wasn't wheeling and dealing. Morey was getting the sobering word right after the victory that Thybulle was likely to be the next Sixer to join Tobias Harris and Isaiah Joe in the league's health and safety protocols.
That day in Detroit began with the whole Sixers traveling party being forced to undergo COVID-19 testing after Joe joined Harris in protocols. A few days later, on Monday, Embiid became the fourth Sixer, alongside Harris, Joe and Thybulle.
There are only four other players leaguewide known to be in protocols: Cleveland's Kevin Love and Lauri Markkanen, Milwaukee's Khris Middleton and San Antonio's Jakob Poeltl.
Friday: Nets at Pistons
There was a lot going on in the moments right before and after tipoff that wouldn't have been apparent to TV viewers.
For starters, Brooklyn's James Harden huddled with Detroit assistant coach Rex Kalamian at midcourt shortly before the teams lined up for the national anthem in a reunion of two old friends from their Oklahoma City days together. It was apparent, even from afar, that an animated Harden was showing Kalamian examples of the sort of contact that — much to Harden's and the Nets' dismay — isn't drawing whistles from referees this season.
Then, just as the game was getting underway and unbeknownst to any of the Nets on the floor, tweets began to circulate about an interview given by New York mayor-elect Eric Adams to CNN. Adams revealed that the city will not be relaxing its vaccine requirements when the calendar flips to 2022, meaning that Kyrie Irving will remain unable to play in Nets home games until he gets vaccinated.
The Nets, of course, sent Irving away last month after finally admitting to themselves on Oct. 12 how preposterous it would be to allow him to play only in road games. The larger problem they have right now is that they don't have the real Harden, either, unless — and this is the truly scary scenario for them — what we've been seeing lately is the new Harden.
Judgments made on any one-night basis in the NBA are generally dumb, but it was difficult not to be alarmed by Harden's performance against the Pistons. He displayed no lift, no explosion and none of the guile around the rim or the touch on lobs he is known for. He committed nine turnovers. The whispers that used to circulate in his Rockets days, raising concerns about how Harden's game would age given his apparent disinterest in taking better care of himself off the floor, certainly came to mind.
In this October piece, I wrote that the Nets would remain championship favorites without Irving because they had Harden to fill the void. I was jumping to the conclusion that the Nets would have the Harden who played so well last season before his hamstring issues and will end up looking foolish unless he gets back to that level. The most worrisome aspect about hearing, over and over, that Harden is still playing his way into shape is that he has produced at a much higher level in the past even when his conditioning was suspect.
Who can forget Harden, in the first game he played last season and nowhere near peak condition after staging a brief holdout in Houston, rumbling for 44 points and 17 assists in an overtime loss to Portland? The Nets haven't seen that Harden yet this season. He's averaging 18.3 points on 39.9% shooting and ranks third in the league in turnovers at 4.5 per game.
Whether it's a slow adjustment to the increased physicality referees are allowing or evidence that Harden's game might actually be starting to decline, what's clear is that the Nets cannot be what I (and every Las Vegas oddsmaker) thought they would be if Kevin Durant doesn't have more help.
As breathtaking as Durant has been at the start of the season, ranking as the first player in league history who has people wondering if he has legitimately somehow improved after sustaining the presumed catastrophe of a torn Achilles, Brooklyn is playing at a considerable size and speed deficit with its veteran-laden roster, no Irving and this Harden.
“We spent almost two weeks with a different team and then we lost Kyrie and that’s a totally different situation,” Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said. “We’re trying to build a new team and try to work with this group. That’s a big hole and everyone has to step up a level and a notch, in minutes and responsibility, to find out the best way to play this group.
"It’s a process and I’m really proud of the guys in the way they’ve engaged in what we’re asking them to do and in the improvements we’ve made, but it’s a totally different situation and we have to work our way through it.”
We’re trying to build a new team. That’s the sentence you inevitably heard the loudest.
The Cade Cunningham Experience
If Cunningham ends up becoming the franchise player that the Pistons project, or even if he doesn't, I'll be able to tell people that I was in the house to see his first career 3-pointer. From the logo at that:
In Motown, mind you, panic was tangible before that triple splashed home because Cunningham missed his first 18 3s as a pro. He is shooting just 23.2% from the field through four games after missing the bulk of training camp and the Pistons' first five games because of an ankle injury.
For what it's worth: I'm not worried. I'm an absolute sucker for passers, which I have never tried to hide, so Cunningham won me over almost instantaneously when he sucked in two defenders and found Jerami Grant with a nifty duck-in pass on the break in the opening minute in my presence to free Grant for an uncontested dunk.
I'd be fretting more about Cunningham's shot if the stroke looked bad or if his woeful start was messing with his aggressiveness. Based on what I saw over two games, he was unruffled by the misses. He also sees the floor, makes the right pass without much thought and gets where he wants to go more easily than most rookies.
The Pistons are shooting a hard-to-believe 39.4% as a team. It's not just Cunningham who's misfiring early. It also didn't hurt my opinion about Cunningham's future to see Durant enter the interview room for his postgame press briefing with Cunningham's No. 2. The two swapped jerseys soccer-style after the game.
"I love Cade's game," Durant said. "I think he's going to be a tough, tough cover for a long, long time.
"This is really one of my guys," Durant added.
It's not often that I can claim to have the same mindset as the best player in the world, but late Friday night in the Little Caesars Arena visitors’ interview room was one of those times.
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Games on both nights after my late Wednesday arrival in the Motor City left little play time on last week's trip.
I did manage to fuel up on some excellent Madcap and Roasting Plant coffee downtown. I found an interesting pretzel that looked like a mini-Challah loaf served out of a window called Twist attached to the Olin Bar & Kitchen. And I secured a decent slice of thin-crust pizza (as opposed to rectangular thick-crust pizza famed in Detroit) at Mootz.
Mostly, though, I pined for Canada. Being so close to one of my favorite countries was tantalizing, but even the very short trip to Windsor, Ont., wasn't possible given current COVID-19 restrictions and complex PCR testing regulations in place that make it difficult to understand exactly what is required to enter and exit on a tight schedule.
How tantalizingly close were we? Read on …
Travel Tease of the Week: When you stay at the Marriott in Detroit's Renaissance Center, you are apt to receive a text message notifying that you have actually crossed the border.
This is the greeting that blipped onto one of my phones when I stopped Friday to snap the above picture of the famed tunnel connecting Motown to Windsor.
There are four beat writers traveling with the Nets these days, but the struggles among all of us in trying to get a firm handle on the exact PCR testing requirements to travel back and forth led the quartet (The New York Post's Brian Lewis, Newsday's Greg Logan, The Athletic's Alex Schiffer and ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk) to proceed to Chicago or Orlando for subsequent stops on Brooklyn's six-game road trip while I returned to Dallas.
Culinary Dagger of the Week: A restaurant called Bucharest Grill with no Romanian food? That's the teasing state of affairs with one of Detroit's foremost shwarma outlets. I discovered the place on my unforgettable 2018 Motown ride with Cal State Fullerton for the NCAA Tournament and was downright giddy to stumble into a place that offered Romanian mititei and sarmale în foi de viță in a city I never would have expected. The shwarma sales at Bucharest Grill are apparently still booming, but I was naturally saddened to hear that the Romanian items have been removed from the menu as a casualty of the pandemic and staffing shortages.
Stop whining already, Stein: You're right. Let’s close this section out on a (slightly) more upbeat note. On Saturday morning, after a comprehensive victory in the Manchester derby and before my flight home, I was able to duck into The Brooklyn Street Local for brunch. It's a wonderful spot run by Canadians known for its poutine and I was grateful to make it in because the restaurant just announced a move from daily operations to weekend pop-ups in mid-October as a prelude to its looming closure. Tough, tough climate to be in any business these days … but especially the restaurant game.
Last week’s note about Alex English ranking as the only top-20 scorer in NBA history left off the league’s 75th Anniversary Team was incorrect. As spotted by the ever-vigilant Justin Kubatko, I somehow skipped right over No. 19 Vince Carter, who scored 25,728 points in his 22-season career. English is 20th with 25,613 points. The mistake likely stemmed from my determination to select Carter for the team when I assembled my unofficial ballot, but there’s a lesson here: Double-check with @jkubatko first before printing.
As mentioned in Monday’s column on the Robert Sarver situation, Phoenix is one of five teams in the league whose coach (Monty Williams) and lead decision-maker (James Jones) in the front office are both Black. The other four: Cleveland (J.B. Bickerstaff and Koby Altman), Dallas (Jason Kidd and Nico Harrison), Detroit (Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver) and Houston (Stephen Silas and Rafael Stone).
With attention focused leaguewide on the slump that has ensnared Portland’s Damian Lillard, Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. has endured even more alarming struggles since signing a five-year, $172 million max contract extension in October. Porter is averaging just 9.9 points per game while shooting 35.9% from the field and 20.8% from 3-point range and is now out indefinitely with a back injury after a history of back issues. The Nuggets are expecting All-Star-level production (or closer to it) from Porter with Jamal Murray sidelined indefinitely and after his highly efficient production last season. Porter averaged 19.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in 2020-21 while shooting 54.2% from the field and 44.5% on 3s.
When it appeared last week that Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns liked a tweet that featured a #FreeKAT hashtag, it sparked immediate concern among the locals that Towns is starting to think seriously about leaving the Wolves. Now in his seventh season, playing under his sixth GM (Sachin Gupta) and fifth coach (Chris Finch), Towns insisted he was hacked and also revealed that “only” three people have his Twitter password. Free advice, KAT: That’s two too many. No one else should have your Twitter password. That’s the safest policy.
You know how this works by now: If a statistic circulates that mentions the Buffalo Braves, chances are I’m going to seize upon it. Which is exactly what happened when the Celtics were outscored by 28 points in the fourth quarter of a humbling fall-from-ahead home loss to Chicago on Nov. 1. According to Stathead, it was only the third-ugliest fourth quarter in franchise history, trailing a win over Buffalo in October 1972 in which the Celtics were outscored by 35 points and a loss to San Francisco in December 1970 that featured a 29-point differential in the final period. All three games were at home.
Sunday marked 30 years since Magic Johnson’s unforgettable press conference on Nov. 7, 1991, in which he announced his retirement from the Lakers after contracting HIV. It was the first major NBA press conference that I covered as a reporter, leading to this remembrance piece I wrote in 2011 at the 20-year-mark.