Russell Westbrook accepts Magic Johnson's damning assessment of the Los Angeles Lakers' form, but says the legendary figure does not know what is going on internally.

The Lakers slumped to a third defeat in a row with a heavy 133-96 loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Frank Vogel's side, who were without injured Carmelo Anthony for a third straight game, now have a 21-22 record for the season and are seventh in the Western Conference.

The defeat to a Nikola Jokic-inspired Nuggets was the second biggest of LeBron James' 19-year career, and one fellow Lakers icon Johnson felt showed a lack of effort.

"After being blown out by the Nuggets, we as Lakers fans can accept being outplayed but we deserve more than a lack of effort and no sense of urgency," Johnson tweeted. 

"Owner Jeanie Buss, you deserve better."

Westbrook, who scored 19 points on 7-for-15 shooting, did not want to be drawn into a war of words with Johnson when asked for his reaction to the social media post.

"I do not have a reaction," he said. "Everybody is entitled, in this world, to their opinion – regardless of what that it is. 

"You can either take it and run with it or you can take it and put it in one ear and out the other or you cannot respond to it.

"Magic's entitled to his opinion. And he's not here every day. He's not around us every day. He's not aware of what's going on internally with us and trying to figure things out. 

"But I have no response to that. Like I said, everyone in this world is entitled to their opinion and that's that."

Reigning MVP Jokic recorded another triple-double as the Lakers slumped below .500 again in their defeat to the Nuggets.

Jokic finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists as Denver piled on 73 first-half points before restricting the Lakers to only 36 points in the second half.

And on the back of a humiliating loss, Westbrook concedes his side have to step up ahead of back-to-back home games with the Utah Jazz and the Indiana Pacers. 

"We just got to play hard," he said. "Sometimes, the schemes and how you play doesn't really matter. 

"You got to just play hard sometimes. Teams are playing harder than us, simple as that."

Dwight Howard, whose average of 5.4 points-per-game through 33 outings this season is the lowest of his career, echoed the thoughts of Westbrook.

"It's not too much I can really say about it. We've been saying it all year. I shouldn't have to keep saying. But, you know, he's right," Howard said.

"You can't stop believing that you're gonna win and just say, 'Ah, f**** it, let's give up.

"We know we've put ourselves in a pretty tough predicament, but all it takes is a couple games and some good energy and some positivity. We've just got to stay positive."

The Lakers' 37-point loss to Denver was their largest ever in this fixture and follows defeats to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Sacramento Kings in the past week.

"We've got to get back to the drawing board and get our defense right," head coach Vogel said. "We haven't performed well enough in the last two games on that side of the ball."

The new NBA season is two weeks in and narratives are already forming.

The Golden State Warriors are back, the Chicago Bulls' rebuild was a success, and several top teams – including defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks – are toiling.

Those themes may not hold for the entire regular season, but we have now seen enough to recognise some patterns – and the same is true on an individual level.

Which players have made flying starts to this campaign, and which are yet to find their feet? Stats Perform takes a look with the first 2021-22 edition of NBA Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT...

Miles Bridges

The Charlotte Hornets were already a fun watch last year thanks to LaMelo Ball, but the second-year point guard has help in 2021-22. Bridges has been one of the key men in lifting the Hornets to an exciting 5-3 start.

Playing alongside Ball, Gordon Hayward and surprise 2020-21 star Terry Rozier, Bridges leads Charlotte in scoring with 23.1 points per game. Now in year four, his previous best had seen 13.0 in his sophomore season.

Bridges' shooting from the field (47.2 per cent) and from three-point range (34.4 per cent) is actually down on last year, while he is only marginally more accurate from the foul line (88.2 per cent).

But the forward is thriving on having been given increased responsibility this season. He is back to being a regular starter, up to 35.5 minutes per game from 29.3, and attempting almost twice as many shots. Through Monday's games, only seven players in the NBA had attempted more shots from three (61).

With assists (3.4), rebounds (7.9), steals (1.8) and blocks (0.9) also on the rise, the Hornets could have a major asset if Bridges maintains these standards.

Ja Morant

If Bridges' development has represented a major shock, Morant's has not. The Memphis Grizzlies sensation was the Rookie of the Year two seasons ago and dumped the Warriors out in the play-in round last year.

Still, Morant's performances have been mightily impressive. His 28.3 points per game trail only Stephen Curry and Paul George. Having played more games than both, his 198 total points lead the league. Morant also tops the charts for field goals made (75).

After a 2-0 start, Morant had 40 in a losing effort against the Los Angeles Lakers and soon added 30 against the Warriors to return the Grizzlies to winning ways.

The 22-year-old is certainly not the finished article – only Russell Westbrook has had more turnovers than his 34 and a plus/minus of -6.1 suggests his scoring is not making up for shortcomings in other areas – but the rate of improvement indicates Memphis will be rewarded soon enough for sticking by their man.

Harrison Barnes

Barnes has seen what elite looks like, having been drafted by the Warriors in 2012 and started every game across the regular season and playoffs when they won the title three years later.

But Barnes was merely the fourth or fifth scoring option on that team and, through moves to the Dallas Mavericks and then the Sacramento Kings, has taken time to establish himself as a leading man.

This could well be the year, though. Barnes is the Kings' top scorer with 23.3 points per game, boosted by a career-high 36 against the Portland Trail Blazers on opening night.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the forward's scoring output has fallen with each passing performance since that stunning display, but he is bringing more to Sacramento than just scoring. Last year's 6.6 assists were a career high, only to be topped by a staggering 10.3 this time.

Although Barnes' Kings team-mates suggested after the Portland game they were always confident he could produce such displays, his progress at 29 has come as a surprise to everyone else.

GOING COLD...

Damian Lillard

Numerous players have explained away their below-par outputs by complaining about the NBA's new interpretation of the foul rule this season – a "change in the officiating of overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves by offensive players with the ball in an effort to draw fouls" essentially meaning fewer trips to the foul line for certain stars.

Trae Young, one of those prominently affected, named Lillard as another who was suffering more than usual.

Lillard is attempting only 3.9 free throws per game this year, in line with his career-low rookie year. His 18.6 points are below 19.0 he offered the Blazers in 2012-13. He had 28.8 last season.

But those foul calls are not Lillard's only issue, with his shooting from the field also hugely underwhelming through seven games.

The point guard is making only 34.9 per cent from the field and, having previously scored 4.1 three-point attempts per game, 23.1 per cent from beyond the arc. Those are also career lows and sources of major concern for Portland.

Dwight Howard

The Lakers made significant changes to their roster in the offseason and a number of the new recruits have not yet hit their stride.

It figures that Westbrook, now the third man in LA, should have seen his points (18.3), assists (8.7) and rebounds (8.7) take a hit along with his usage rate (28.5 per cent) after averaging a triple-double on the Washington Wizards, but Howard's slow early-season form was less predictable.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year played a key bench role in the Lakers' title success in 2019-20, even starting seven playoff games, before joining the Philadelphia 76ers for a season.

Back at Staples Center, Howard is proving far less effective to this point. Both his points (4.3) and, most concerningly, rebounds (4.0) have reached career lows. His minutes are down from 17.3 last year to 15.2 this, but his averages per 48 only further display a decrease in performance – 23.3 rebounds becoming 12.7.

With Howard also involved in an altercation with Anthony Davis during a defeat to the Phoenix Suns, it is fair to say his Lakers return has not so far gone entirely to plan.

Dwight Howard's row with Anthony Davis is already squashed, with the Los Angeles Lakers duo exuding a calm that was not present during their on-court confrontation in a loss to the Phoenix Suns.

The Lakers, aiming to regain the title they won in the NBA bubble in 2020, fell to 0-2 as they were beaten 115-105 by last season's Western Conference champions.

Their defeat was highlighted by a disagreement between Howard and Davis in the first half, which saw the latter shove his team-mate during a timeout.

However, both men were quick to insist the incident had been put behind them.

"We just had a disagreement about something that was happening on the floor," said Howard. 

"We're both very passionate about winning. We didn't want to lose this game. We got it out of the way. We're grown men. Things happen.

"But we already talked. We squashed it. There's no issues between me and him. And that's my brother. That's my team-mate."

"It's over with," Davis added. "After the situation happened, me and DH talked about it ... and we left it in the locker room at half-time."

Meanwhile, LeBron James made it clear there is no panic among the Lakers after following up their opening-night loss to the Golden State Warriors with another disappointing display.

"There's a process along with building something to become the team you want to become, and I know it firsthand," James said.

"It doesn't happen overnight, as much as you want it. It just takes time, and we'll know when that time is. Right now, we've got to continue to just push."

The Phoenix Suns soared to a 115-105 victory as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were condemned to back-to-back defeats to start the 2021-22 NBA season.

Chris Paul fuelled the Suns with 23 points and 14 rebounds in Los Angeles, where the Lakers were no match for last season's NBA Finals participants and fell to 0-2.

Paul became the first player in NBA history with 20,000 points and 10,000 assists.

Devin Booker (22 points) and Mikal Bridges (21 points) also impressed for the Suns, while double-doubles from Anthony Davis (22 points and 14 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (15 points and 11 rebounds) were not enough for the Lakers.

James finished with 25 points in front of the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Justin Bieber at Staples Center.

The Lakers' woes were compounded by a row between team-mates Davis and Dwight Howard on the bench during the second quarter as the pair had to be separated.

 

 

Durant's Nets spoil 76ers' opener

The Philadelphia 76ers looked in control and on track for victory but they were upstaged 114-109 by Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant posted a triple-double of 29 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists as the Nets used a 16-1 run to stun the 76ers in their first home game of the season in Philadelphia. James Harden had 20 points, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 23 points off the bench on 10-of-12 shooting. Seth Curry made all four of this three-pointers to finish with 23 points, the same amount as 76ers team-mate Tobias Harris.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic showed why he was crowned the league's best player last season, scoring 32 points, collecting 16 rebounds and supplying seven assists in a 102-96 win against the San Antonio Spurs. It was his eighth 30/15/5 game, doubling the rest of the Nuggets franchise history combined.

The Chicago Bulls' new-look team improved to 2-0 thanks to a 128-112 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans. Lonzo Ball inspired the win behind his triple-double (17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds), while Zach LaVine (32 points) and DeMar DeRozan (26 points) also came up big.

The Utah Jazz stayed unbeaten courtesy of dominant displays from All-Star duo Donovan Mitchell (27 points) and Rudy Gobert (17 points and 20 assists) in the 110-101 road win at the Sacramento Kings.

Myles turner joined James, Harden, Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady as the only players in NBA history to score 40 points, 10 rebounds, five three-pointers and three blocks in a game. The Indiana Pacers still lost 135-134 to the Washington Wizards in overtime.

 

Celtics lose again

The Boston Celtics were booed off the court at half-time and throughout the second half in their 115-83 defeat against the Toronto Raptors. Jaylen Brown was three-for-13 shooting for nine points and five turnovers, while Marcus Smart ended the game scoreless on 0-for-six shooting in 29 minutes as the Celtics fell to 0-2.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said no decision has been made on Joel Embiid's status for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals in the NBA playoffs.

The top-seeded 76ers are set to open their second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday with doubts over the fitness of All-Star Embiid.

Embiid suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee during Monday's Game 4 loss to the Washington Wizards, forcing him to sit out Wednesday's Game 5 as the 76ers won 129-112 to clinch the opening-round series 4-1.

As the 76ers continue their championship bid against the fifth-seeded Hawks, Rivers was asked about MVP finalist Embiid – who missed 10 regular-season games due to bone bruising in his left leg – on Friday.

"He went through a lot of the stuff today," said Rivers. "He didn't do a lot of live stuff obviously, we're not gonna allow that yet.

"Nothing's changed. He's got to go through his treatment, but as far as when we were doing shooting and stuff like that, he looked great.

"It's too early [to rule him out]. I don't want to say one way or the other. We'll just find that out."

It has been a stellar season for Embiid, who has averaged career highs for points (28.5), field-goal percentage (41.3), three-point percentage (37.7) and free-throw percentage (85.9).

The 27-year-old has also been averaging 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and a career-best 0.98 steals per game to lead the 76ers – eyeing a first NBA title since 1983 – to their first Eastern Conference championship since 2001.

Philadelphia team-mate Dwight Howard, gearing up for a reunion with former team the Hawks, added: "He looked good. His movement looked good and laterally, he was able to move around so he looked good.

"I think he should be ready to go. Now he can make sure he gets his body right and I don't want him to rush back or anything like that because we need him.

"We want to make sure we hold down the fort until he's back, but he looked great."

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers did little to disguise his irritation after Dwight Howard was ejected on his return to the Staples Center.

Howard and fellow former Los Angeles Laker Danny Green were presented with their 2020 championship rings before Thursday's encounter, which the Sixers won 109-101.

That was little thanks to Howard, who was dismissed by referee Jane Fitzgerald between the first and second quarters after intentionally walking into the Lakers' Montrezl Harrell.

Howard and Harrell had already been called for double technical fouls and the former's punishment as the altercation resumed meant an automatic disqualification

"Clowns. Guys just joking around. It's ridiculous on both parts. I didn't like, it, bottom line," Rivers said in an immediate reaction on the court and victory over the slumping Lakers did not soften his view too much.

"I just thought it was a very selfish play," he said, per ESPN.

"You got one tech, you can't get another one. We just have to have better discipline.

"I get it. I know there's a lot of emotion. But we had one center on our team, and he got thrown out.

"I was not very happy with that one. I know it's an emotional game. But he's a veteran. We got to have better discipline."

Harrell joined the Lakers in the immediate aftermath of Howard's surprise switch to Philadelphia.

Although the source of their bad blood remains unclear, Harrell was unrepentant afterwards, having theatrically waved Howard off the court as he remonstrated with Fitzgerald.

"I'm not backing down from nobody, man. I don't take that lightly. I don't take none of that disrespect," he said.

"You're not gonna push me all around the court and just feel like you're gonna big-boy me and just attack me or whatever.

"It's not in my blood, it will never be in my blood. I don't care what nobody feels about it, I don't care who don't like me. It is what it is."

"Is there something wrong with having fun?". That was Giannis Antetokounmpo's response after Dwight Howard and the Philadelphia 76ers took exception to his celebration in the Milwaukee Bucks' overtime win.

Antetokounmpo fuelled the Bucks to a hard-fought 109-05 victory against the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers behind a game-high 32 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in NBA action on Wednesday.

The Bucks had trailed by 19 points in the second half before two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo led the rally, capped by his 10 points in overtime.

After starring in OT, Antetokounmpo celebrated a turnaround jumper by sitting down on the court at Wells Fargo Center and smiling into the camera – drawing boos from the 76ers fans in attendance.

76ers big man Howard, whose team's six-game winning streak was snapped, said post-game: "I wanted to go and Stone Cold Stunner [a popular wrestling move in the WWE] him, but I had already got one tech.

"It's basketball. He wanted to have fun, but we'll see these guys again. Today we allowed them to get back into the game. We did it. We can't control that.

"But he had a hell of a game. Hit some tough shots late at the end of the game, reigning MVP, and he had a great game. I'm not one to talk trash or say anything negative, but we'll see them again and it'll be a different result."

In response to Howard's comments, Antetokounmpo told reporters: "I don't think there's anything wrong with having fun. I just like to have fun. In the first half, I was not having fun.

"I kind of talked to myself at the half and said, 'No matter how bad the game is, you can't forget what you have to do, which is have fun'.

"Obviously, there's a couple times where I exaggerate, but I don't want to take anything back. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to sit down.' I was having fun. I was talking to my team-mates -- I was talking to them. I was just trying to be in the moment. But I was just having fun."

The Bucks were held to their lowest-scoring first half of the season by the 76ers, before fighting back to take down the hosts on the road.

Milwaukee are within one and a half games of the 76ers in the Eastern Conference amid a five-game winning streak.

"When the game starts, you try to get into your rhythm, but you're not stepping the right way. ... It's just hard to get into a rhythm," said Antetokounmpo, who scored 28 points in the second half and overtime. "And the way I try to get into a rhythm is to get everybody involved.

"I try to move the ball a little bit, move my legs, move my body a little bit. But going into the second half, I wanted to be a little more aggressive, but I knew I could not come right out of the gate and be aggressive. I had to slowly build up to it.

"But going down the stretch, I was just trying to be aggressive. ... My teammates need me to keep making the right play, and they need me to stay aggressive, so that's what I tried to do."

A second defeat in three days was rather easier to take for the Philadelphia 76ers as their depleted roster went down fighting against the Denver Nuggets. 

Philadelphia fell to 7-3 for the season but could take great heart from their latest loss, perhaps at odds with Thursday's reverse at the hands of a Brooklyn Nets team missing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. 

This time it was the Sixers' turn to go without their star men in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, while Seth Curry was absent after he tested positive for COVID-19 - he was told of his result as he attended the Nets game. 

Contact tracing left Doc Rivers with just eight players to choose from, though one of them - Mike Scott – did not feature due to a knee issue.

The Nuggets' 115-103 success came as no surprise then, but the relatively narrow margin was just reward for a makeshift Philadelphia team.  The Sixers led in the game as late as midway through the second quarter and never let Denver get away from them, even if the result scarcely seemed in doubt.

Gary Harris' 21 points led the way for the Nuggets, while Nikola Jokic was just shy of another triple-double with 15 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds. 

Three of the Sixers' five 2020 draft picks were among the seven players involved, with Tyrese Maxey in particular rising to the occasion, given the responsibility to lead the team despite Rivers jokingly suggesting before the game that center Dwight Howard would play at point guard. 

Maxey, selected 21st in the first round out of Kentucky, had not previously started in the NBA and had averaged 6.9 points in 15.7 minutes over his first nine games. 

Remarkably, the 20-year-old put up a massive 39 points in 45 minutes, along with seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. 

Maxey not only outstripped his previous NBA high of 16 - against Brooklyn - but also his best performance in his single college season with Kentucky (27 points). 

Since 1963-64, only Allen Iverson - on 11 occasions in 1996-97 - and Andrew Toney - once in 1980-81 - had previously scored 35 points or more in a game as a rookie for the franchise. 

Second-round picks Isaiah Joe (13 points in 45 minutes) and Paul Reed (six in 26 off the bench) also enjoyed their unlikely opportunities, showing Philadelphia's strength in depth.

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