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Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook gets last staredown against Joel Embiid

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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.

1) Russell Westbrook gets the last staredown against Joel Embiid, Thunder beat 76ers.
It got a little personal between the All-Stars Westbrook and Embiid on Sunday — but Westbrook had the last staredown.

There’s history here, remember these teams played a triple-overtime thriller back on Dec. 15 — you remember, the game where Joel Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams after the latter fouled out, then Russell Westbrook told Embiid to go home — and they didn’t disappoint in this game either. It started in the first quarter when Joel Embiid drove the lane and threw it down hard putting Russell Westbrook in the poster.

Embiid even took to Instagram to gloat about that one a little (and notice the location).

Tough loss #TheProcess

A post shared by Joel "The Process" Embiid (@joelembiid) on

It made Westbrook angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. The game was close much of the way, and when the Thunder went on a 15-0 third-quarter run the Sixers showed resilience bouncing back to make it a game again. However, midway through the fourth quarter when Paul George returned to action, the Thunder went on a 21-9 run that sealed the win.

Westbrook finished with 37 points and 14 assists — and stared Embiid down as he dribbled out the clock.

That ends the season series between these teams, with the Thunder up 2-0, but I’d like to petition the league for a third game. At least.

2) Painful weekend injuries to DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Roberson will change playoff picture. Whenever asked on radio interviews or elsewhere how the bottom half of the West would shake out the second half of the season — where the six-seed and nine-seed are separated by two games — I have gone to a stock and rather boring answer: The team that suffers the most injuries will be the one on the outside looking in.

New Orleans suffered maybe the most significant injury of the season late in their biggest win of the season (vs. Houston) Friday night — DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles and is done for the season. The Pelicans had been leaning heavily on the All-Star starter Cousins — maybe too heavily. An Achilles injury is an overuse injury (built up over time but usually exacerbated) and as Tom Haberstroh of Bleacher Report noted Cousins played 52 minutes Monday against the Bulls, had been in four OT games in a nine-day span, and Cousins had averaged a very high 39.8 minutes per game in his previous 10 contests.

Without him, the Pelicans blew a 21-point second-quarter lead (not that crazy, but certainly not good) to the Clippers and lost on Sunday. The general concern after Cousins went down was the load now on Anthony Davis and how the team would do when he sat (without Cousins there to stagger with him). For the second part of that, the Pelicans were fine, they were +12 in his second-quarter rest — but Davis played the entire second half. Davis and Jrue Holiday played well, but without Cousins nor enough shooting on the roster, the Pelicans face a tough battle to stay in the playoffs. They had a three-game cushion over the nine-seed Clippers before the injury, but already that is down to two games with half a season to go. The Pelicans are in a fight to hold on to that playoff spot.

The other significant injury over the weekend is not going to impact who gets into the playoffs, but it will have an impact once the playoffs start — OKC’s Andre Roberson blew out his patellar tendon in his knee and is done for the season. Roberson is not one of the Thunder’s “big four” but is a key part of their top-five NBA defense: The reason is he was a long, switchable, quality defender who could share a big load on that end with George. When Roberson is on the court this season, the Thunder defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. He is long and switchable and alongside Paul George gave OKC defensive options in big games. Not anymore. They will miss him against (probably) Minnesota in the first round, and especially if it’s the Warriors in the second round. If the Thunder get bounced in the first round or crushed in the second, how much will that impact Paul George’s decision over the summer?

One other injury note: Mike Conley also is out for the season, the Grizzlies announced, and he will have surgery to fix his chronic Achilles issues. Unlike Cousins and Roberson, the Conley news doesn’t change the playoff picture — the Grizzlies are well out of it at this point. They may impact the playoff chase with a trade of Tyreke Evans — the hot rumor is to Boston — however, they are not moving Marc Gasol. Still, this injury sucks. Conley only played in 13 games this season, and the Grizzlies were 7-6 with him.

3) Tyronn Lue sits Isaiah Thomas for the fourth quarter, Cavaliers go on a 31-17 run to win going away. Isaiah Thomas isn’t the reason the Cavaliers defense is second worst in the NBA, but he isn’t helping things, either. Cleveland’s defense had been awful this season while Thomas was out the first months of the season, but upon his return it is a disturbingly poor 117.2 points allowed per 100 possessions when he is on the court.

On Sunday, coach Tyronn Lue went to stagger the minutes between Thomas and LeBron James more. In the first half, Thomas sat midway through the first quarter, then came back in to start the second quarter while LeBron rested. In the second half, it got more interesting — LeBron got about five minutes of rest at the end of the third quarter while Thomas stayed on the court. Then to start the fourth Thomas sat and it was the “LeBron and the bench” lineup that has worked so well this season and did again — the Cavaliers went on a 23-7 run near the end of the game to get the win.

It wasn’t just Thomas — Tristan Thompson didn’t play the fourth either. Kevin Love and J.R. Smith barely got in. Lue is looking for any rotation that can spark this team, and sometimes right now that’s going to mean a lot less Thomas on the court. He is looking better, but he is still not moving that well or looking all that much like his old self this season. It’s something to keep an eye on.

Also, LeBron James is really good — he finished with 25 points and 14 assists.

Jeremy Lin: I believe J.J. Redick

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76ers guard J.J. Redick explained then apologized for saying what sounded like a slur for Chinese people, claiming he was tongue-tied.

Nets guard Jeremy Lin:

Lin’s Asian-American heritage helps make him very popular with the same people most offended by Redick. Lin vouching for Redick will likely go a long way in diffusing tension.

Hornets dropping GM Rich Cho, will reportedly pursue Mitch Kupchak

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Update: Hornets release:

The Charlotte Hornets announced today that the team will not extend the contract of General Manager Rich Cho. The Hornets will begin a search for a new general manager immediately.

“I want to thank Rich for all of his hard work with the Charlotte Hornets organization through the years and wish him and his family the best in the future,” said Hornets Chairman Michael Jordan. “Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization. We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

 

Last spring, the Hornets exercised their option on general manager Rich Cho for this season. It wasn’t exactly a strong vote of confidence without a contract extension.

Now, it’s becoming even more clear he’s a lame duck.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Cho has had plenty of hits and misses as general manager, including a year with the Trail Blazers. But the misses have added up in Charlotte. The Hornets’ next general manager will inherit:

Kemba Walker helps, but he can’t do it alone. This bloated payroll leaves little flexibility for roster upgrades – necessary to lift Charlotte into strong playoff contention. Walker will become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, and affording him could be tricky.

This is not a good job (relative to the other 29 NBA general manager jobs, of course).

Hornets owner Michael Jordan certainly plays into that. In one of the biggest gaffes of the Cho era, Charlotte rejected the Celtics’ offer of four first-round picks for the No. 9 pick in the 2015 draft, just to pick Frank Kaminsky. (Boston wanted Justise Winslow.) Was that Cho’s call or Jordan’s?

Cho takes the fall, though. That’s how this works.

Jordan’s ownership also means he gets to pick the replacement. It’s surely not a coincidence he’s leaning toward Mitch Kupchak (who played at North Carolina) and Buzz Peterson (who played with Jordan at North Carolina).

Kupchak fizzled late, but his overall tenure with the Lakers was a success. Has the game passed him by, or did recency bias unfairly paint him unfavorably? We might get to find out.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: I told players we’re better off losing

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban admitted the Mavericks tanked last season, but said they wouldn’t this season until they’re eliminated.

Apparently, he’s loosening the restriction – and getting even more brazen about discussing it.

Dallas (18-40) is not officially eliminated, but with the league’s third-worst record, it’s only a matter of time.

Cuban on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J:

I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again. This was a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me.

But being transparent, I think that’s the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability.

This is why it’s not completely accurate to say players don’t tank.

Sure, they don’t go on the court and try to lose. Some would have their job for the following season jeopardized by a higher draft pick.

But when management wants to lose, that flows throughout the entire organization, including to players. Workers don’t perform as well when their boss prefers failure. A feeling of apathy (or wore) sets in, intentionally or not.

The message isn’t always this direct, and it’s practically never publicly revealed like this. Cuban marches to his own drum, and he’s absolutely right: NBA commissioner Adam Silver – who disliked last year’s comments – certainly won’t like these.

However Silver responds, Cuban can at least take solace in being right. The Mavericks are better off tanking, and telling the players can build trust. They would have figured it out for themselves, anyway.

Kevin Love says about a month until he’s back on court with new-look Cavaliers

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LOS ANGELES — Kevin Love had some of the best seats in the house for the new-look Cavaliers and their 2-0 push before the break, and he wants back on the court to be part of it.

“I’m probably about two weeks out from getting this movable cast off for good, and then from there about a few weeks after that before I get back,” Love told NBCSports.com about his recovery from a fractured left hand. “So I have a good amount of time, about a month.”

Love was in Los Angeles all last weekend, where he had been voted onto the All-Star team by the coaches for the fifth time, but for the second consecutive year had to sit out due to injury. Love seemed to be at all the events in his former home Los Angeles — working with Kevin Hart for the “Closer Than Courtside” with Mountain Dew Kickstart, at the Beats by Dre party in Hollywood, and courtside for the All-Star Game itself sitting next to Kyrie Irving and LeBron James — but not on the court where he wants to be.

When he does get back on the court, it will be a very different team in Cleveland he’s playing with — and he thinks that’s a good thing.

“Just clearing out… I shouldn’t say that, just getting new faces and getting new energy in the locker room has been big for us,” Love told NBC Sports Saturday. “Even in the last two games, you can just see the energy is different, you can see guys are really competing on both ends of the floor, and that bodes well for us the second half of the season.”

The changes were needed.

“It might not have been a bad thing to get some fresh faces in there and guys from situations where they really wanted to win,” Love said during media day. “I think first and foremost, seeing those (new) guys in Atlanta, they didn’t play, but they got there right after the trade and they just said they want to win.

“You can tell when somebody says it, you can tell when somebody means it. They really meant it and it felt good to have that there.”

In Los Angeles, Love was having fun working with the other guy who seemed to be everywhere all weekend, comedian Kevin Hart. Love was working with Hart on the Mountain Dew Kickstart “Closer Than Courtside” Contest – a nationwide search to find Hart new “CourtsideKick” where fans tell Hart on social media why they think they’re courtside ready for a chance to sit with him during the NBA Playoffs.

“I’ve been drinking Code Red Mountain Dew, and Baja Blast forever,” Love said of this partnership. “My friend and I were just talking about how long we’ve been drinking Code Red, which is kind of a throwback flavor now.”

He’s just drinking it with his right hand. His left — his off, non-shooting hand — is still in that soft cast.

But having been down the injury road before, Love knows what it takes to get back.

“Just look at it from an optimistic point of view,” Love said of his mental process. “Even last year I missed the New Orleans All-Star Game because I just had my knee scoped, so just knowing that I’ve been there before, knowing that I’ve had success coming back, and just getting over that mental hurdle of coming back from an injury.

“Looking at it glass half full, it’s my left hand, so I can still do a ton of stuff out there on the floor and be ready to play in a month.”

A ton of stuff includes both cardio work and being able to do some strength and lifting with bands so that when the cast does come off his return to the court is faster. Once he gets there, Love expects that even with the new players he’ll be back in the same roles playing both the four and a lot at the five with these smaller, speedier lineups.

“I know we will supplement different guys in the lineup,” Love said. “I’ll hopefully be able to come back quite easily, I’ll have my legs under me — like I said, just because it’s my left hand — and I’ll be able to get back into rhythm here really fast.”

The Cavaliers hope so, too.