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Three Things to Know: Jahlil Okafor gets his chance. What will he do with it?

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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) Jahlil Okafor gets his chance. The #FreeJah movement got what it wanted on Thursday — Jahlil Okafor has been traded, and landed in about as good a situation for him as could be found, Brooklyn. The trade is Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and the Knicks 2019 second-round pick to Brooklyn, while Philly gets Trevor Booker.

The Sixers needed to move on from Okafor, the former No. 3 pick, he was not part of their future and was wasting away on their bench. Okafor did not play well next to Joel Embiid (in limited minutes) or Nerlens Noel, who also is gone. Okafor has a throwback game that is not the direction the NBA has moved with its bigs — he doesn’t have to be guarded more than 10 feet from the rim, he plays below the rim, and he struggles defensively both in space and protecting the paint. But he can score around the bucket.

Okafor is going to get his chance in Brooklyn, there are minutes to be had because the center spot is thin (Tyler Zeller has been starting, Jarrett Allen could be part of the future but is a project, and Timofey Mozgov is basically out of the rotation). The question is what will Okafor do with his second chance? He has to prove he can be an efficient scorer — through his career in Philly his true shooting percentage of 53.9 is basically league average. He has to be a better playmaker passing out of the post when doubled, and he has to be stronger on the boards. Assuming his defense is what it is at this point and not going to improve much, he needs to show he can be the efficent offensive force we saw at Duke, not the rather meh player he’s been at the NBA level. Guys like Zach Randolph and Enes Kanter have made nice careers playing below the rim and not defending much in the NBA, but they are incredibly efficient on offense. That’s what Okafor needs to be. Do so and he will find a nice contract next summer (probably in Brooklyn). Don’t and the market for him will be slim.

I like this trade for Philly, Booker adds solid depth up front off the bench. The Sixers didn’t give up much — neither Okafor nor Stauskas was part of their future — and they get another pro’s pro veteran who can come in, play with energy, be a glue guy and help them both make the playoffs and be a difficult out once there. Pair him with Richaun Holmes off the bench and you have a solid rotation that works for Philly.

2) If this Lakers/Sixers game is what we see in the NBA Finals in four or five years, I’m good with that. This game was fun, played at a good pace and with long, young athletes figuring their game out. There was a lot to like. The young and playoff-bound Sixers had Ben Simmons with a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 15 assists) although he turned the ball over four times and didn’t do a great job getting the Sixers into their game plan and sets early in the clock. Joel Embiid was a beast with 33 points. Robert Covington (19 points) and Richaun Holmes had good games for the Sixers as well, but Philly came out flat (down 13 in the first quarter) and, like a lot of young teams, tends to play to the level of their competition. Philly has lost back-to-back games to the Suns and Lakers, the kinds of games playoff teams win.

With the Lakers, Brandon Ingram is turning the corner. He wants to be the team’s closer, and showed why Thursday on national television.

As for the game winner, we all thought Lonzo Ball was going to take this shot, right? With the game tied 104-104, Brandon Ingram passed the rock to Ball who was wide open in the right corner — where Ball is 0-of-6 shooting on the season. Ball said earlier in the season he would have taken the shot, but this time he drove past the Joel Embiid closeout, got close to the paint and sucked all five Sixers defenders in with him — then Ball whipped the pass to a wide-open Ingram at the arc. Ingram shot it like a closer, like the guy with the killer instinct he wants to be.

I’ve written here before in recent weeks (and posted on Twitter) that Ingram is making big strides. He’s still got to get stronger, but he’s confident now and uses his length and more strength than people realize to get his shot. He had 21 points in this game (on 21 shots) and still goes more in isolation than I would prefer, but he is starting to develop into the key cornerstone piece the Lakers hoped for.

3) And the Oscar goes to… Andrew Bogut for the flop of the season so far. Either this was a great flop, or Andrew Bogut was shot by the second gunman in the grassy knoll. Either way, no way he went flying like this based on the contact involved — but it worked. Bogut got the foul call.

Three Things to Know: It’s Joel Embiid’s world, Lonzo Ball has to live in it

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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) Battle of the young point guards turns into career night for Joel Embiid, who dominates. Don’t make Joel Embiid angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry… unless you’re a Sixers fan. Embiid had a Twitter beef with LaVar Ball, that (as has happened to him more than once) Lonzo Ball got sucked into but tried to avoid.

There were a lot of steps in the process, but it included Embiid getting a $10,000 fine for language from the league for saying “f*** LaVar Ball” on his Instagram account after LaVar was on a Philly radio station saying the crap he always said. Before the Sixers and Lakers met for the first time, Embiid said it was “all love” and just for fun.

Then he went out and destroyed the Lakers Wednesday night — 46 points on 14-of-20 shooting, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 7 blocks. The Lakers defended him (Andrew Bogut got a lot of extra run in that role), but he was 8-of-10 on contested looks. It was a historic stat line, and they weren’t empty calories — Philadelphia was +19 in Embiid’s 34 minutes and -13 when he was on the bench. Apparently, 69 percent of Embiid is this good.

WHAT A NIGHT !!!!! #TheProcess

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

Ben Simmons dominated the point guard battle with 19 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. The Lakers matched their own star rookie on Simmons — Kyle Kuzma. Who did you think we were talking about? Kuzma had a career-best 24 points, and Brandon Ingram had 26. They kept the Lakers in it.

Lonzo Ball had 2 points on 1-of-9 shooting, with 2 assists and 5 rebounds. It’s been a rough week for the Ball family, on and off the court. Maybe that quiets LaVar for a while… Nah, that’s just the dream, it won’t happen.

This was a game won inside the arc as the teams combined to shoot 10-of-52 from three, and that included an uncharacteristic 0-of-8 from deep for J.J. Redick.

The Sixers looked like a playoff team and the kind of team on the rise the Lakers still aspire to be. Mostly though, consider this a reminder that Joel Embiid can be a dominant force, and it turns out he plays well angry and motivated.

2) Sixers also about to make Robert Covington quite wealthy. When the Philadelphia brass talks about their young core, they talk Simmons and Embiid and the injured No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, but they also always mention Robert Covington. When Sam Hinkie was just rotating cheap contract young players through the end of the bench (rather than putting a solid veteran or two on the roster), he was panning for gold. The Sixers found something in Covington as “3&D” specialist, who at age 26 is just entering his prime.

Now they are going to pay him a lot of gold. The Sixers and Covington are about to agree to a renegotiation and extension that will pay him about $62 million over this season and the next four. While the details are not yet known, the 76ers can bump his salary up to $16.7 million for this season (using existing cap space), then extend him off of that. Which sounds like the plan (if you want the salary details, our own Dan Feldman has them here).

Good for Covington, and smart of the Sixers to lock up another quality player, they still have cap space and flexibility going forward.

3) We spent much of Wednesday looking forward to Thursday in the NBA. Thursday night is going to be must-watch television for the NBA.

The first TNT game is the Golden State Warriors going into Boston for a showdown of the top teams in each conference right now. Call this a potential Finals preview if you want, although LeBron James will have his say about that. The Celtics have won 13 in a row and have the best defense in the NBA. The Warriors have won seven in a row, all by double-digits, and the best offense in the league, and have looked like their dominating selves again. Consider this a measuring stick game for the Celtics — we know what the Warriors are and what they will be come the playoffs, but the Celtics are still figuring that out about themselves. Boston as beaten Toronto and Milwaukee and San Antonio during its streak, but Golden State is something else entirely. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have looked great, but going against Kevin Durant and Draymond Green is a different level of challenge. The crowd in Boston will be pumped, but will one of the Warriors’ patented third quarter runs turn this game into another comfortable win for the champs?

The late TNT game doesn’t look like much, the Rockets should handle the Suns easily despite Devin Booker putting up good numbers, but it became far more interesting with the news Wednesday that Chris Paul will return to the Rockets lineup for the game. CP3 will start next to James Harden and play about 20 minutes, coming off resting a sore knee. We haven’t seen Paul since a rough opening night of the season when he didn’t look himself, now we can see where he stands and how he starts to mesh with Harden.

Former Warriors executive: Golden State tanked to get Harrison Barnes

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The NBA is so concerned about tanking, it passed lottery reform – to curb actual tanking or at least the perception of it.

But people in the league keep admitting to tanking.

The latest: Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, who was previously the Warriors’ assistant general manager

In middle of March 2012, Golden State had a better record than two Western Conference teams and every Eastern Conference team outside playoff position. Continuing at that pace would have given the Warriors just a 4% chance of keeping their first-round pick, which was top-seven protected. Far more likely, they would have conveyed the No. 10 pick to the Jazz.

So, Golden State traded its consensus best player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut, lost 17 of its last 20 games and “fell” to the No. 7 seed in the lottery – nabbing a 75% chance of keeping its pick. The Warriors stayed at No. 7 and drafted Harrison Barnes.

Schlenk, via the CBS Sports Flagrant Two podcast:

We made that deal knowing two things. One, we’d never had a center in Golden State or a rim protector, when I was there anyway. So, with eyes on the future, if we can get him healthy, get him back. We shut Steph down at the time. And we knew that we had to fall into those bottom seven spots to get our pick, and that was really important to us. Tanking? I guess. It was a conscious decision we made to shoot for next year.

I think you have to, as a franchise, do what’s best for the franchise. And sometimes, that means securing your draft pick if you can.

I think the problem with tanking or the perception of tanking is when teams go out there from day and don’t show any intention of winning. We’re not doing that here in Atlanta.

Bogut was central to the Warriors’ defensive resurgence, and they sent Utah the No. 21 pick the next year. Barnes became a key player on Golden State’s 2015 title team, and the franchise’s rise with him and Bogut helped lure Andre Iguodala and eventually Kevin Durant in free agency.

This is the problem with tanking: It works.

It’s not the only way to win, and it doesn’t always work, though I’d argue that many teams that fail while tanking would fail through other methods of team-building because they’re poorly managed. There are also different types of tanking, Golden State’s seen as more permissible.

I define tanking as any decision a team makes that is at least partially driven by a desire to lose more in order to improve draft position.

The Warriors’ trade (and subsequent strategies down the stretch) clearly fit. So does the most-egregious example – the 76ers’ Process. But setting out a season to tank is rare. Doing it multiple years was unprecedented.

Yet, Philadelphia gets so much attention in these tanking discussions. What Golden State did – wasting the final quarter of its season once the first three quarters produced mediocre results – happens far more often. That’s what the league ought to fight against.

One possible solution: Eliminate the ability to protect draft picks within the lottery. That’d remove incentive for teams to nosedive for artificial – and highly important – cutoff points.

But I’m also unconvinced this is a huge problem. As Schlenk said, his Hawks aren’t tanking (not yet, at least). He wants to develop a winning culture. We’ll see whether that strategy is to their benefit, but many general managers take a similar approach. There’s a level of self-policing happening – even by prior tankers.

Three things to watch: Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Cavaliers are the Eastern Conference favorites, but the last time these teams met it was one of the best games of the season, a double -OT thriller the Cavs won 125-130, where LeBron James and Paul George had a classic duel. Will we get more of that? Let’s break it down.

How focused with the Cavaliers be on defense? The malaise that enveloped the Cavaliers the second half of this season has become part of the narrative of the postseason — just how vulnerable are the Cavaliers? They had a defensive rating of 111.6 over their final 26 games, a number worse than the Lakers’ season average (and LA was dead last in the league in defense). Tyronn Lue said he has a fix for the team’s defense and when Kevin Love and other Cavs are asked about it they’ve said they can fix it. I’m not sold, they haven’t built good defensive habits, Plus they are going to miss Andrew Bogut in the paint on defense.

The other half of that equation is do the Pacers have the tools to exploit that defense? Expect Paul George to have some huge games because he’s that good, but the Pacers are going to need Myles Turner to put up big numbers (and pull Tristan Thompson out of the paint), plus have Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young have big games as well. The Cavaliers are going to score, can Indiana keep pace?

Who will LeBron James for the Pacers? And who is going to guard Paul George for the Cavaliers? Both teams in this series defensively will want to “cut off the head of the snake” and make someone other than the best player on opposition beat them. Which is a sound strategy — although the Cavaliers have legitimate other top scoring options — but leads to another problem: Who is going to guard these key guys? Who gets the LeBron assignment? Who gets the George assignment.

LeBron torched the Pacers this season, averaging 32.3 points per game on 60 percent shooting in the three meetings where he played (the one game Indiana beat Cleveland LeBron rested). LeBron was able to get into the restricted area and finish at a high rate this season, and the Pacers lack a rim protector who can make him think twice. George will certainly get some time on LeBron, but he shot 52 percent when PG13 was on him this season (stats via Sports VU and the NBA). Of course, there is the drama of Lance Stephenson, and he likely will get some time on LeBron, but Stephenson has lost a step and that’s a bad matchup for the Pacers.

Also, the Pacers do not have a good defender to match up on Kyrie Irving, who could have a big game or two in this series.

Who on the Cavaliers will draw the Paul George assignment? In crunch time that will be LeBron, we saw that at the end of the double-overtime game (remember LeBron and Tristan Thompson yelling at each other over a missed assignment in that stretch?). But it could be too taxing on LeBron to carry the offense and guard George for 40 minutes a game. Expect some Richard Jefferson, but if guys like J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert draw the assignment for a while George is going to put up big numbers. And he has to for the Pacers to have a chance in this series.

Is this the last time we see Paul George in a Pacers’ uniform? George has been brilliant over the last month of the season and reminded everyone why the Pacers’ primary goal this summer is to keep him in Indiana. If George makes the third-team All-NBA — and that’s a coin flip, one that will not land until June 26 at the NBA awards ceremony — then the Pacers can offer him the designated player contract of five years and more than $200 million, and he will stay put.

However, if George doesn’t make that team, the Pacers have to consider trade options this summer. Larry Bird may not pull the trigger, but he can’t lose George for nothing to free agency in the summer of 2018, so there will be pressure this summer if a team steps up with a good offer (and Boston has the pieces to do that, among others). What George wants to do is win, and if the Pacers have a strong series against the Cavaliers and push this to six or seven games, Bird can say to George that this team is close and to trust him to build a contender around George. How this series goes will have some impact on the summer

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. The Pacers starters can hang with the Cavaliers starters, but once these teams start going to the bench the Cavaliers will pull away. The Pacers don’t have the shooters to hang in this series.

Warriors barely hold off Sixers 106-104 to snap three-game skid

Associated Press
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Even after a series of misses from deep where he makes his money, Stephen Curry kept letting it fly from long range.

Then, at last, the ball started falling.

Curry scored 29 points on his 29th birthday, Klay Thompson added 28 and the Golden State Warriors used a frenetic fourth-quarter rally to snap a three-game skid and beat the Philadelphia 76ers 106-104 on Tuesday night.

“That’s what I love about Steph is that he’s never going to stop shooting and he never loses confidence,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s the mark of a star, when it’s not your night and you still hit big shots to help your team win.”

Dario Saric intentionally missed his second free throw with 2.6 seconds remaining to try to give the Sixers one last shot, but Curry secured the ball.

Curry struggled to knock down open 3-pointers again but came through from deep with 5:38 left and again with a key baseline 3 at 3:42. Matt Barnes hit one a minute later from the opposite corner for a 104-99 lead.

“He found it at the right time and he came through for us when we needed it the most,” Draymond Green said of Curry.

Curry’s jumper with 9:55 to play pulled the Warriors within 90-86 after Golden State trailed 90-78 to begin the final quarter. Green’s 3 at 8:04 made it a one-point game, and Shaun Livingston gave Golden State the lead the next time down.

Green had 20 points with 11 free throws, eight assists, eight rebounds and six blocks for the Warriors, who trailed by as many as 16 in the third.

He reminded his teammates during one timeout it would take everything to pull out of this recent rut.

“The only way to change that is to grind your way out of it. It’s not going to be pretty,” Green said.

Saric had 25 points in the Sixers’ eighth straight loss to Golden State. The Warriors’ winning streak in the series matches their longest ever, along with a stretch from Dec. 16, 1971, to March 11, `73.

Curry shot just 8 for 23 and 5 of 13 from 3-point range, making him 26 for 89 from deep in his past eight games.

The Warriors aren’t worried. Thompson and others remind him of all his incredible feats.

“He’ll have a huge breakout game coming soon,” Thompson said. “He’s better missing now than come May or June.”

Earlier in the day, Curry refused to call his shooting of late a slump, and Kerr insists nobody can expect the two-time reigning MVP to match his NBA-record 402 3s last season.

“I never really use that word, because a slump to me almost (seems) like you’re losing confidence,” Curry said.

The Warriors returned to the Bay Area following a brutal road stretch – which included losing Kevin Durant to a sprained left knee – and barely bounced back to avoid their first four-game losing streak since Feb. 26, 2013, to March 2, `13.

Golden State moved a half-game ahead of the idle Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference.

KD’S HEALTH

Durant took set shots and moved around the court earlier in the day without his knee brace and soon could add jumpers. He is scheduled to be re-evaluated late this month to determine whether he might return before the regular season concludes.

TIP-INS

76ers: The Sixers shot 56 percent in the first to stay within 35-34. … F Robert Covington started after he missed Sunday’s win at the Lakers with soreness in his right knee. … Philadelphia has lost five straight at Oracle Arena since its last win in Oakland, 104-97, on Dec. 31, 2011.

Warriors: Green became the 11th player in franchise history with 400 blocked shots. He moved past Andrew Bogut for 10th place on the franchise list. … The Warriors are 11-1 at home vs. the Eastern Conference with three in a row against the East at Oracle this week. … Curry, playing on his birthday for the fourth straight year, has scored at least 25 points on his past four birthdays. … Rookie Patrick McCaw made his first shot after going 0 for 12 and missing all six of his 3-point tries in Saturday’s loss at San Antonio.