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Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard is back, but Spurs have work to do fitting him in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. We’re coming to you a little later in the morning in than usual due to the breaking news about the 2021 All-Star Game going to Indiana.

1) Kawhi Leonard is back with the Spurs, but loss to Mavericks shows they have work to do fitting him in. There were moments when Kawhi Leonard looked like his fearsome self Tuesday night: Tipping a rebound to himself then knocking down a midrange jumper off it, draining a pull-up three in transition, hitting some runners as he attacked off the pick-and-roll. Leonard was back, a bit rusty as one would expect, but had 13 points in 15 minutes against the Mavericks on Tuesday night.

That was the good news. Leonard also showed a lot of rust, as is too be expected, and he didn’t play after midway through the third quarter after he hit his minutes limit near 15.

There’s going to be an adjustment period on offense. Through the first 27 games of the season, everything flowed through LaMarcus Aldridge while he was out there. Gregg Popovich promised Aldridge over the summer they would use him more and in spots where he was more comfortable, but that was easier to do when he was their best player on the floor. Now Aldridge and Leonard — and the rest of the Spurs — have to figure out a new dance. That will take a little time.

The good news is the Spurs racked up so many wins to start the season, they have plenty of cushion to lose a few — like to a feisty Dallas team on Tuesday 95-89, in a game where the Spurs offense looked out of synch for long stretches — and be just fine. As always, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are looking at the big picture.

2) Young Knicks, Lakers put on a show in Madison Square Garden. Knicks win in overtime. ESPN trained its cameras on the rising stars of the NBA Tuesday night — and those teams have been the most entertaining ones this season. We know that the Warriors and Cavaliers will be playing late into May (and probably June), but both are picking their spots right now.

The Lakers and Knicks are trying to figure it out and get better every night. There’s an energy around teams like those two (and Philadelphia, who we get to in our third thing) that we don’t see from the big guns right now. These teams are just fun to watch, and they put on a real show in Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, a game that went to overtime before the Knicks pulled out the win. There was Kyle Kuzma‘s three to force OT, Lonzo Ball looking more and more comfortable ( 17 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists), Knicks rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina not looking like a newbie with 13 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds, and finally there was a whole lot of Kristaps Porzingis, who dropped 37 points and had five blocks on the night. The end of the game was just back-and-forth entertainment.

The Lakers aren’t making the playoffs, and the Knicks could but likely will not stick around long if and when they do, but during the regular season teams like these on the rise are the fun ones to watch.

3) Joel Embiid dropped 28 and 12 on the Timberwolves, but Game of Thrones theory is more interesting. I think Joel Embiid is right about Game of Thrones… oh, wait, we should probably talk about basketball first for a bit. Embiid is really good at that, too.

Embiid went head-to-head with Karl-Anthony Towns in a showdown of the best young bigs in the game Tuesday, and Embiid came out on top. Towns finished the night with 19 points (6-of-16 shooting) and 16 boards, but Embiid dropped 28 points (also on 16 shots) and had 12 rebounds and 8 assists. Plus, Embiid led his team to the win (with a little help from J.J. Redick‘s 25).

Now on to the important stuff. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne — a big Game of Thrones fan herself — talked about the HBO cultural phenomenon with Embiid during a car ride interview she did with him.

“I’ve studied the whole show,” he says, and it’s clear to Embiid that Kit Harington’s character, Jon Snow, will not end up on the Iron Throne.

“That’s what everybody thinks is going to happen,” Embiid says. “But the whole show has been that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Jon Snow will not be the king.”

The show seems to be pointing toward some kind of Daenerys Targaryen/Jon Snow power sharing structure when it ends after next season, but Embiid is right in that what the show does is not reward the characters that the audience likes or thinks will do their jobs well. Just ask Ned Stark… well, you could ask him if his head were still attached. There are some serious twists still to come. Personally, I want to see Sansa Stark on the throne with Arya Stark next to her, but that’s not going to happen either. Which is the best part of the show.

Embiid is right — Game of Thrones trolls its fans. And Embiid knows trolling, so I trust he’s right on this.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.

Tyronn Lue doesn’t hold back with retort to heckling Pacers’ fan

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It’s a part of the NBA experience that most fans don’t get to hear — some fans courtside heckling opposing players and coaches, and those guys occasionally firing back. We only tend to hear about it when things cross a line.

Sometimes the interactions are just funny, such as this one passed along by J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Well played, Lue.

Although is Cleveland really a city at the forefront of fashion? Well, I suppose if you went to college in Nebraska…

Report: Pelicans picked up Alvin Gentry’s option for next season before sweep

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Last summer the buzz was all over the league: Pelicans GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry were given a “playoffs or bust” mandate by management. If the Pelicans were not in the postseason — and just barely getting in and then blown out in the first round might be good enough — there was going to be a housecleaning.

The Pelicans made the playoffs as the six seed with 48 wins despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles midway through the season.

That alone was good enough to get Gentry another season in New Orleans, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As noted, this happened before the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers out of the first round and into a summer of re-evaluation. This option season is the last of Gentry’s original deal with the Pelicans.

Gentry has the Pelicans playing fast, using the elite defense of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to get stops, and right now Davis is leading an offense that is just getting it done, with guys such as Nikola Mirotic stepping up. Gentry has earned another year, and a shot to integrate Cousins into this style and level of play, to see where that could take New Orleans next season.

It will be interesting to see if Demps can add more shooting and versatility with a capped out roster.