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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.

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.

Reports: Jazz might trade Rodney Hood before deadline

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Rodney Hood has been a solid shooter for the Jazz this season, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from three. Of course, you remember him better for this.

Hood is in the final year of his rookie contract, and with the rise of Donovan Mitchell it’s not exactly clear what Hood’s role would be for the Jazz going forward.

Which means Utah might trade Hood, according to multiple reports.

Hood isn’t going to net much in return because he’s in the final year of a contract and because he misses time with nagging injuries (he was out the end of Friday’s game against the Knicks with a lower leg contusion), but considering the number of teams who could use another shooter in the mix there will be interest. More than the big name deals — Kemba Walker, DeAndre Jordan — this is the kind of trade likely to get done at the deadline.