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Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard drops 44, drops Warriors to second in West

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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) Kevin Durant drops 50, but Damian Lillard and Trail Blazers get win. The malaise — I’ve been calling it “senioritis” — that the Golden State Warriors have had of late (they have gone 4-4 in their last eight, with their defense falling to the middle of the pack in the league in that stretch) has finally cost them.

The Warriors have fallen to the second seed in the West after a loss Wednesday to the Portland Trail Blazers 123-117, where Damian Lillard went off for 44 points, and Kevin Durant had 50. It was one of the most entertaining fourth quarters of the season to see two of the best scorers in the game go back-and-forth.

Portland needed the win because they are playing for their playoff lives. With the win, the Blazers are now the six seed in the West — just one game up on the nine-seed Clippers and two up on the 10-seed Jazz, who won their 11th straight game Wednesday. The back half of the West is one of the most interesting races to watch for the final 20+ games of the season, just two games separate six seed Portland and 10 seed Utah. Evey win counts.

If the Warriors finish with the two seed, that doesn’t matter to them too much (it would matter more to the Rockets in a likely Western Conference Finals showdown). Steve Kerr has tried to find ways to spark his team of late — such as letting the players coach time-out huddles — but this is a veteran team that has been to three straight Finals and won two. They know when it’s time to flip the switch. After the All-Star break and some time away from each other, expect them to get their focus back. There is nothing wrong with the Warriors, let’s not go there.

2) Celtics fall to Clippers, is it time to worry about Boston’s offense? Here’s a little-discussed fact: While the Boston Celtics have the best defense in the NBA over the course of the season, their offense is bottom 10 in the league (21st). Remove garbage time from the equation (as is done at Cleaning the Glass) and the Celtics move up to 20th in offense, hanging around the likes of the Pistons and Knicks in the rankings. While the Boston offense is pretty good when both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are on the court together (and they will be more in the playoffs), the lack of a secondary playmaker is going to be an issue when teams can really dial in on what the Celtics do during the postseason.

Right now, like the Warriors, the Celtics just look a little mentally tired and in need of a break — Brad Steven’s team is all about effort and execution, and that has not been the same recently. For example, in Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers the Celtics gave up 129 points, the second consecutive game they have given up the most points they have allowed this season. The Celtics have dropped four-of-five, and Steven said after the All-Star break he will consider rotation changes to turn things around with his squad.

The seeming turnaround in Cleveland after the trade deadline provides a little urgency to Boston’s moves. Expect the team to be a little more focused when they get back to work next week.

Let’s give the Clippers some credit here — DeAndre Jordan owned the paint and scored a career-high 30 points, Montrezl Harrell make key plays late, Tobias Harris had 21 points, and the Clippers made good play after good play to get this win. Los Angeles is part of that clump of five teams within two games of each other battling for three playoff spots in the West, and they have a tougher schedule than most the rest of the way out. That makes wins like this — beating a top team in the East on the road — all the more crucial. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Clippers a 61 percent chance of making the postseason after this win, but it’s going to be close — Cleaning the Glass projects the Clippers, Pelicans, and Nuggets each to have 43 wins when the season ends while the Trail Blazers would have 42 (the Jazz are seen with 45, they have the softest schedule the rest of the way of the group). Every win matters. This was a big one for a Los Angeles team that looks good and deep enough to get into the dance.

3) Isaiah Thomas, Rajon Rondo ejected after getting tangled up. Was this really worthy of an ejection? Maybe the players said something, but it didn’t look that bad.

That said, there is a history of bad blood here — Rondo questioned if Thomas even deserved a tribute video in Boston. On Wednesday night, Rondo was guarding Thomas on an inbound pass — getting in his face — and the two got tangled up. That led to a couple of technicals, but Rondo (and both players) continued talking after being separated, and that was enough to get them tossed.

Still not sure that was ejection worthy.

Lakers coach Luke Walton was ejected later in the first half after storming on the court to protest a call against Kyle Kuzma. That was not enough to spark the Lakers’ defense, which was a mess and the Pelicans got the needed win 139-117.

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.