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Three Things to Know: LeBron James looks like MVP-level LeBron James again

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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) LeBron James looks like vintage MVP LeBron James again, has Lakers at 6-1. Is it because he just had the longest summer vacation he has had since 2005 and his body got a chance to rest? Is it the motivation of having Anthony Davis next to him? Is it because he doesn’t want Bronny walking around saying he’s the best basketball player in their house?

Maybe he just wants to send a message to his doubters.

Whatever the reason, LeBron James looks like MVP-level LeBron James again — and with that the Lakers are off to a fast start. He has racked up three straight triple-doubles — the last Laker to do that was Magic Johnson — and after an opening night loss to that team down the hall, the Lakers have rattled off six straight wins after beating the Bulls 118-112. The Lakers now have the best record in the NBA at 6-1.

Entering this season, the biggest thing to watch with the Lakers was the race between LeBron and Father Time. So far this season, LeBron is winning it. Again. It’s been a long time since we saw a player hold off the inevitable for this long, but at age 34 (and turning 35 next month), LeBron looks re-energized and like a man 10 years his junior.

On the season, LeBron is averaging near a triple-double — 26.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 11.1 assists per game (he leads the league in dimes) — and he is doing so efficiently to the point his advanced stat numbers are in line with his MVP seasons in Cleveland and Miami.

The other thing that’s back is his defense — the end of the court that had been more of an issue in recent years. With the shot blocking of Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard behind him to protect the rim — and with AD taking on more offensive load — LeBron has returned to the free-safety role he likes on defense, using his high IQ of the game to take chances, make steals, and be disruptive. He’s said he was motivated by the film out there of him taking plays off on defense the past few seasons (and he did). This season he’s back to being a force.

Seven games into the season is FAR too early to have any serious kind of MVP discussion, but if one did LeBron would be in the mix at the top of the list. Without question.

These Lakers have gotten in the habit of slow starts and furious comebacks — they trailed the Bulls by 19 and looked out of it for the first three quarters, only to go on a 16-0 run to start the fourth — but it’s building confidence in a roster that on paper resembles the Island of Misfit Toys.

But if they have LeBron James playing like an MVP (not to mention that Davis guy putting up career numbers) the Lakers will be in every game — and will be playing in games late into May. At the least.

2) Speaking of guys playing like their vintage selves, check out Gordon Hayward in Boston. The Celtics thought they were signing an All-Star, borderline All-NBA level player who had a well-rounded game in Gordon Hayward a few summers ago — and they had, until a devastating opening night leg injury set him back for a couple of seasons.

Gordon Hayward has looked more and more like his old self this season, the Utah version of himself. Just ask the Cavaliers, Tuesday night Hayward torched them for 39 points on 17-of-20 shooting, plus dished out eight assists in Boston’s 119-113 win on the road.

Hayward isn’t quite all the way back to form, but he’s looked closer and closer each game. You can see the confidence building. He’s playing 34 minutes a night, averaging 20.3 points, with an amazing True Shooting Percentage (65.6) because he is knocking down 50 percent his threes. Also, he may be the best playmaker for others on the Celtics.

Boston is off to a fast 5-1 start this season and if Hayward can keep this up they become a much bigger threat in the East.

3) Is there more of a Performance Enhancing Drug issue in the NBA than we realized? First it was Brooklyn’s Wilson Chandler before training camps opened. Then it was the Suns’ Deandre Ayton just one game into the season.

This time it was Atlanta’s impressive young big man John Collins — the guy seen as the inside to Trae Young’s outside for the Hawks — who tested positive for a PED. He will be suspended 25 games, although he reportedly will appeal the suspension.

“First I want to apologize to my teammates, the Hawks organization, our fans, partners and community as a whole for this situation,” Collins said as a statement. “I understand the impact this matter has on what we are trying to achieve together this season, and I am incredibly frustrated and disappointed in myself for putting all of us in this position. I have always been incredibly careful about what I put in my body, but I took a supplement which, unbeknownst to me, had been contaminated with an illegal component. I plan to fight my suspension in arbitration so I can get back on the court as soon as possible and continue to contribute to our 2019-20 campaign.”

Players almost always say they didn’t know they ingested the banned substance, take that claim with more than one grain of salt. For the record, if he serves the full 25 games this will cost Collins $610,582.

The NBA has had just three players suspended for PEDs between 2014-18. Now that is three just this season, in a little more than two months.

While the NBA may not have the depth of steroid issues facing other sports, the idea that it wasn’t going on at all around the NBA was always a fantasy (one the league was happy to sell). The reality is steroids help people recover faster, and the NBA is a recovery league because of the length and grind of the season (not to mention injuries). Plus, with the tens of millions of dollars at stake, some players will do whatever it takes to gain an edge (which is no different from baseball, football, or other sports).

When NBA players are with their off-season trainers and not around teams, they may try to push the boundaries. The NBA does not appear to be a league rampant with PED use, but the idea it is nonexistent — and something the association does not need to worry much about — has been blown up to start this season. PEDs are an issue to watch around the NBA.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum on Ujiri: ‘Masai is here to stay’

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Masai Ujiri-to-the-Knicks rumors are heating up.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum is throwing cold water on the notion of his team president departing.

Tanenbaum, via Michael Traikos of the Toronto Sun:

“We haven’t talked (about an extension) at this point in time, but if you ask him, his intentions are pretty clear.”

“Masai has a contract that goes for another two years — this season and next season — so there’s really no need at this point (to re-sign him),” he said.

“He is the best,” said Tanenbaum. “But no team can come to talk to him. That’s tampering. And every owner knows that. Masai is here to stay.”

Apparently, Tanenbaum isn’t among those in Toronto afraid of Ujiri leaving for New York.

Tanenbaum’s comments come on the heels of mixed reports of whether the Raptors offered an extension that Ujiri rejected. Though I don’t blindly trust Tanenbaum – who’d be incentivized to deny getting rejected – I appreciate him putting his name behind this information. That’s more credible than the previous reports that cited unnamed sources.

The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Ujiri. They can offer a more prestigious historical franchise, a bigger market, more connections for Ujiri’s foundation and maybe more money. They also have owner James Dolan, who is notoriously difficult to work for.

Tanenbaum sure sounds as if he knows New York won’t tempt Ujiri. The Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman is speaking in no uncertain terms. If Masai isn’t there to stay, Tanenbaum will have a lot of egg on his face.

If Masai is there to stay, Tanenbaum will have one of the NBA’s best executives.

Three Things to Know: Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start

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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) Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start. Sometimes the headline can miss the real story.

That happened Tuesday night in the NBA, where the headline out of the Hawks/Heat game was Trae Young calling game, waving his arms and saying it was over after his assist to Alex Len for a dunk put the Hawks up 6 with less than a minute to go in the game.

It was not over, Miami had been coming back all night long and did so again, capped by a Jimmy Butler three that sent the game to overtime.

Miami owned the overtime and went on to win 135-121. Butler took to Instagram after the game to say Trae Young is no Nostradamus.

That back-and-forth is entertaining, but it missed the real story of the night — Miami won that game because it’s young core bailed them out.

As it has all season. Jimmy Butler has been phenomenal and was in this game — a triple-double of 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists — but the Heat don’t win if their young core guys do not go off. Miami is 18-6 and third in the East because their young core is better than anyone predicted.

Just ask the Hawks. Bam Adebayo is playing at a near All-Star level and had a triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. Kendrick Nunn is in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race and led Miami with 36 points. Then there is Duncan Robinson, who drained 10 threes on the night.

This season Miami got back to its identity — Pat Riley’s team has always found young diamond’s in the rough and developed them into quality players as well as any organization in the league. That — and Miami’s ability to get veterans into great shape and raise their level of contributions — has fueled consistent excellence over the decades. Of course, the Heat also hunted and bagged star players (Miami is a place you can recruit big names to come).

The Heat got back to that identity this season — they went out and got Jimmy Butler, but it’s the young core of guys (and we didn’t even discuss Tyler Herro or Justise Winslow) that is at the heart of why the Heat keep on winning this season.

2) Joel Embiid was having a little fun again and the Sixers improved to 13-0 at home. Joel Embiid has been a little subdued this season. He’s still been one of the game’s elite centers, but his minutes, shot attempts, points per game, efficiency, and his trash-talking fun factor all have been down a little this season.

Which is why it was so much fun when the old Embiid broke out for a minute against Denver. Embiid hit a circus shot while being fouled and then ran out to center court to do a little shimmy for the crowd.

Last Sunday, Embiid explained his more subdued self this year this way, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The whole season it feels like I’ve been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I’m healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I’ve been part of I’ve not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I’ve been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body.”

After the win against the Sixers, Embiid said we may see more of the old-school, fun version of himself this season going forward, via Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that’s kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I’m having fun, I dominate.“

With the win, the Sixers improved to 18-7 on the season — 13-0 at home but 5-7 on the road.

3) Two guys vying for Most Improved Player — Davis Bertans and Devonte’ Graham — put on a show in Hornets win over Wizards. Of all the end-of-season awards, Most Improved Player is the one that usually takes me (and a lot of media and league followers) to settle on. It’s just the nature of the award. Most improved usually goes to a player nobody expected to make a massive leap doing just that, so you don’t see it coming. Then, guys come out hot to start the season, but can’t sustain it. For MIP, it just takes longer for the field to sort itself out.

Two guys in the discussion early on for the award are Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham and Washington’s Davis Bertans — and those two put on a show Tuesday night. Bertans had a career night, scoring 32 on 11-of-18 shooting off the bench, including 8-of-12 from three.

Graham, who has gone from a guy who played in just 46 games a season ago to Charlotte’s leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets.

Charlotte picked up the win, 114-107, and if you want to dream big, remain 2.5 games back of the eight seed and a playoff berth in the East.

Joel Embiid was having fun, dancing at mid-court in another Sixers win at home

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid scored 22 points, including two key free throws with 15.3 seconds left, and Tobias Harris added 20 to keep the Philadelphia 76ers perfect at home with a 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Embiid was having fun going against Nikola Jokic, and after Embiid hit a circus shot he was out at center court doing a little shimmy and exhorting the crowd.

Matisse Thybulle added 13 points for the Sixers, who are 13-0 in Philadelphia. They have won three straight and seven of eight.

Will Barton had 26 points to lead the Nuggets, who have lost three in a row and five of six. Leading scorer Jamal Murray was injured with 6:49 left in the first quarter when he collided with Ben Simmons and didn’t return.

The Nuggets set a franchise record for largest fourth-quarter comeback when they rebounded from 19 points down to start the final period in a 100-97 win over Philadelphia in Denver on Nov. 8. They tried again, but couldn’t come all the way back this time.

The 76ers led by 10 early in the fourth after Josh Richardson‘s deep 3-pointer from the top of the key made it 88-78 with 8:54 remaining. The Nuggets scored the next eight, capped by Barton’s three-point play with seven minutes left, to pull to 88-86.

But then Thybulle hit a pivotal 3 and grabbed a big offensive rebound on Philadelphia’s next possession, which ended with Al Horford‘s jumper that put the 76ers in front 93-86 with 4:36 to play.

Denver had chances from that point on but went cold from the field, making just one field goal until Nikola Jokic’s runner made it 95-92 with 18.9 seconds left. Embiid then sank both free throws after being fouled for a five-point lead before Barton missed a 3 from the top of the key.

Trae Young waved “game over,” after Heat comeback win Jimmy Butler mocked him

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In the NBA, a minute can be an eternity.

Trae Young didn’t think so, he thought Atlanta was going to get the upset after his assist to Alex Len for a dunk put the Hawks up 6 with less than a minute to go in the game.

Did we mention a minute can be an eternity in the NBA? Miami came back and a Jimmy Butler three sent the game to overtime. Butler finished the game with a triple-double of 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Miami owned the overtime and went on to win 135-121.

Butler didn’t miss the chance to mock Young on Instagram

It was a big night for the Heat’s young core. Bam Adebayo had a triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 36 points, and Duncan Robinson drained 10 threes.