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Three Things to Know: Rajon Rondo, Vince Carter have throwback nights

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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. Here’s what you missed while trying to figure out how to pay your $2.8 billion electric bill.

1) Vintage version Rajon Rondo dishes out career-high 25 assists, leads Pelicans past Brooklyn.
When the Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo over the summer, even Pelicans fans rolled their eyes. The move was seen as something to appease DeMarcus Cousins, the singing of a declining player who can’t shoot and doesn’t defend like he once did on a team that needed more shooting and defense.

However, what Rondo has always had is a high hoops IQ and a gift for passing angles — things that have helped smooth out the Pelicans’ offense as it finds mismatches and moves the ball better of late.

Thursday night he did that to the tune of 25 assists — the most in a game since Jason Kidd did it in 1996. It was a career high for Rondo and a new Pelicans team record.

There are two parts to an assist — the pass, and then the guy catching the ball has to knock down the shot. The other Pelicans were doing that Wednesday night against Brooklyn, hitting 17-of-33 from three (52 percent) and hitting 53.3 percent of their shots overall. Anthony Davis scored 33 points plus grabbed 11 rebounds, Cousins had 27 points, and both Jrue Holiday and  E’Twuan Moore broke 20. The Pelicans starters turned this game into a rout, the kind of win the Pelicans needed.

Once healthy this season, Rondo also has hit his threes (35.7 percent on four attempts a game) and has helped quarterback the Pelicans defense (which is the end of the court holding this team back, but their D has looked better the last week or so). Rondo has been solid for them. On a team where the mandate is making the playoffs, the Pelicans are relatively comfortably in (3.5 games ahead of the nine-seed Clippers, and history suggests they will hold on to that slot). I’m not sure I’d call it a revival for Rondo, but he’s found a role that fits.

2) Vince Carter jumps in hot tub time machine, outscores LeBron James, and Kings upset Cavaliers. LeBron James can’t be frustrated with the officials for this one.

Quietly the last few weeks, the Cavaliers defense has regressed to the disaster it was early in the season — in the last 10 games Cleveland is giving up 111.7 points per 100, 29th in the NBA (only ahead of a Jazz team without Rudy Gobert). The latest evidence of that was Vince Carter going off, scoring 24 points — the first time he has scored more than LeBron in a game in a decade.

As a team, the Pelicans shot 40 percent from three, finished well at the rim, and were simply efficient in the halfcourt when the Cavaliers defense was set. Also, it was the Sacramento bench that won the game, completely dominating the Cleveland bench — Carter had 24, Willie Cauley-Stein 17, and Bogdan Bogdanovic 16 all coming off the pine (or, cushy folding chairs in the NBA case).

Cleveland showed on Christmas Day that thanks to LeBron and his MVP level of play, it can hang with Golden State and the best in the NBA. Then games like this one in Sacramento — and the recent run of poor defensive performances — remind everyone that this Cleveland team has some systemic issues that teams are going to pick at in the playoffs. It’s going to be an issue.

3) Thunder win sixth straight, beat Toronto with Russell Westbrook, Paul George combining to score 63. Oklahoma City is a hot team, and while Toronto was as well it was on the second night of a back-to-back and it showed — they looked flat. This is the kind of game where the Raptors flush the video and move on, seeing it as a one-off of a bad game against a good team. It happens.

For Oklahoma City, their confidence is growing. Carmelo Anthony said after the game the Thunder are at their best when Russell Westbrook is not deferring but looking for his own first and creating off it. That’s the Westbrook we have seen more of lately, and he had 30 points and 13 assists on Wednesday night. He and Paul George were too much for the Thunder.

The Thunder were better than their record showed to start the season — they had a positive net rating despite the losing record, they just kept falling short in close games — and they’re not as good as this recent run has suggested. They’re good, probably they win around 50 games and end up the four seed in the West (maybe fifth if the Timberwolves keep winning despite their defense). That makes for a rough road in the playoffs, and the questions about whether George and Anthony stay past this season are still out there (with those playoff results impacting the decisions), but right now the Thunder are finding their groove. They are finding their identity. It just took a little while.

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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