LeBron plays through illness to help Heat take care of Suns

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PHOENIX — A little more than 90 minutes before tip-off, the status of LeBron James was still uncertain. With Dwyane Wade already ruled out for the second straight game with a foot injury, Miami may have been in trouble if James too was unable to go.

Thankfully for the Heat, James found a way to push through.

While he wasn’t quite his usual self, a half-healthy James is better than most at 100 percent. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, a few assists, and a couple of steals, while playing almost 41 minutes in the Heat’s 97-88 win over the Suns in Phoenix.

“Well look, he doesn’t miss much,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “I can’t even remember the last time he’s missed a practice or a shoot around. So when he missed today, obviously that makes you wonder, and you know that it’s pretty serious. We knew yesterday that he hadn’t had any food, so he went through the whole day. In the late afternoon he was starting to be able to keep down Gatorade but that was about it.

“He said it was no hesitation, that he’d never leave those guys out there. But it was a little bit in doubt with us.”

How effective James would end up being on the night was in doubt as the game got started. He began with eight first-quarter minutes that were devoid of any statistical contributions, save for a rebound and a turnover, as he tried to involve his teammates early on. He then had to leave the court to head to the locker room, as he began to feel weak once again.

“Yeah, I got a little sick,” James said of his first quarter trip back to the locker room. “So I came back here to just try to get a little more fluids in me.”

Shane Battier knocked down a few wide open threes in the first, and Chris Bosh was big with 16 first-half points. But whatever nutrition James was able to get during that brief intermission paid immediate dividends.

James played the entire second quarter, and got himself going with a few jumpers and some trips to the free throw line. But as the game wore on, he picked his spots, and was able to close the game out when his team needed him the most.

This game was largely a sloppy one from both teams at times; Miami played loose with the basketball to the tune of 19 turnovers, while the Suns weren’t much better with 17 of their own. Both teams were able to put together sizable runs that swung the game in their favor for short bursts, but neither team could keep it going for a long enough stretch to pull away before the game’s final minutes.

Phoenix came back from seven down with three and a half minutes to play, cutting the Miami lead to just two after a huge steal from Goran Dragic and a layup in transition. The Suns had a chance to tie on a jumper from Michael Beasley, but after it seemed to be just about all the way down it rimmed out, and Bosh converted two free throws to push the lead to four.

After Sebastian Telfair missed a five-footer in the lane off the back of the iron, it was closing time for Miami. And James was the one who had the ball in his hands.

As the Heat held onto that four-point lead with under a minute to play, James dribbled down the clock above the three-point arc, before making his move and driving to the basket. He spun around Marcin Gortat as if the Suns center was standing still, and calmly laid the ball in to seal the win for his team.

What made the performance from James on this night so memorable is that the outcome of this single game in November is ultimately so forgettable. For the defending champions who will measure this season’s success based on what happens five or six months from now, James could have easily sat this one out, and no one would have thought any less of him, even if his team were to have suffered a loss.

But as we know by now, James is a special player who feels a responsibility to his teammates to be out there if at all possible — even in a relatively meaningless game taking place so early in the regular season.

“It takes a lot for me not to play, for me not to be out there with my teammates,” James said. “Me at 50 percent or 60 percent is better than me not playing at all, and I was able to get a little bit of rest this early morning and afternoon. I didn’t have much energy but I wanted to be out there on the floor with my guys, and I’m happy I was able to make a couple plays to help us win.”

Watch Dillon Brooks pick up 18th technical, will get suspended another game

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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Dillon Brooks sat out the Grizzlies’ March 5 loss to the Clippers after reaching 16 technical fouls this season — hit that number and the league gives a player an automatic one-game suspension. After that, with every two more technicals a player earns another suspension.

Brooks had gotten another and was up to 17 heading into a critical game Monday night against Dallas, when he did this:

Brooks will likely be suspended by the league Wednesday against Houston, the game where it appears Ja Morant will return to the court. Don’t look for the Grizzlies to appeal and try to get this technical rescinded, as coach Taylor Jenkins said, via Joe Varden of The Athletic.

“At this point, I don’t think we even try anymore,” Brooks said.

What was Brooks doing? Telling Theo Pinson he was a cheerleader.

Brooks’ rough night included him trying to do a jersey swap with Kyrie Irving after the game, but Irving not accepting Brook’s jersey (Brooks stepped on Irving’s foot during the game, aggravating an injury and had Irving leaving the building in a walking boot). After the game, Brooks admitted he needs to rein things in a little.

“I’ve got to tone it down and get back to my mindfulness practice and find ways to channel it better,” Brooks said.

Brooks needs to do this for the sake of his pocketbook — this is two game checks lost to suspension, and that doesn’t even include the $35,000 fine for shoving a cameraman.

Brooks plays with an edge, it’s part of what makes him effective — he’s the guy that gets under the other team’s skin. However, it’s one thing to walk the line and another to step over it constantly. Brooks needs to do better at knowing where that line is.

The good news for the Grizzlies and Brooks is the technical count gets wiped out for the playoffs and starts over (with suspensions starting at seven).

Three things to Know: Breaking down East playoff race

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breaking down East playoff race

Unlike the wide-open West, the Eastern Conference has settled into pretty clear tiers in the playoff race. Still, there are some races to follow with just three weeks until the play-in tournament starts. Let’s break it down, and start by looking at the standings.

• No.1 seed: The Milwaukee Bucks have this as long as they don’t trip on the way to the finish line. The Bucks have a 2.5-game lead (three in the loss column) over Boston with 11 games to play, and the Bucks don’t have a particularly difficult schedule. The road to the Finals will go through Milwaukee this season, and maybe more importantly, getting the top seed keeps the Celtics and 76ers on the other side of the bracket.

• No.2-3 seeds: Boston and Philadelphia are in a race for the two-seed and home court in the second round (although the two seed could have the more dangerous first-round matchup if Miami is seventh, more on that later). The 76ers have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, another advantage for the Celtics in holding on to the No.2 seed and being home in the second round.

The 76ers slipped to third after their double overtime loss to the Bulls on Monday where the teams combined to shoot 25% from 3. It was not James Harden‘s night (2-of-14 shooting, but with 12 dimes) and when Joel Embiid fouled out in the second overtime the game was all but over.

• No.4-5 seeds: This appears locked in — we are going to have New York vs. Cleveland in the first round. The Cavaliers have the No.4 seed by three games and the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they’d completely have to fall apart for the Knicks to get home court in the first round. The gritty Knicks, with Jalen Brunson back in the rotation, have a two-game cushion to hold on to the No.5 seeds, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Tom Thibodeau deserves credit for getting as much out of this roster as possible — and the Knicks will be a tough first-round out.

• No.6-7 seeds: Brooklyn is clinging to the final playoff spot, but the Heat are just one game back (two in the loss column). There are games one watches the Heat and thinks, “this team is catching the Nets,” like the recent win over Memphis. Then they go out and look flat against the Bulls and it’s hard to picture this team avoiding the play-in. The Nets after the trade deadline are a .500 team, but can the Heat play up to their potential and pass them? Or will Miami keep shooting itself in the foot?

• No. 8-10 seeds: The Hawks, Raptors and Bulls are all within a game of each other and it’s going to be a race to see who gets the eighth seed and has to only win one game to get out of the play-in and into the playoffs. Atlanta has the easiest schedule of the three, but the Bulls have been the hottest team with wins over the Heat and 76ers recently. All three are destined for the play-in unless one collapses, but getting the eighth seed matters.

• No.11-12 seeds: The Wizards and Pacers will need some help — and to help themselves — to get into the play-in. Making up a couple of games with 11 to play is a big ask and it means getting on a run and winning games, and Indiana has the second toughest remaining schedule in the East. fivethirtyeight.com gives the Wizards a 5% chance of making the playoffs, so it’s not impossible, but they need Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis to carry them to a lot of wins the rest of the way, then get a little help from a team above them.

2) Julius Randle puts on a show with 57, it’s not enough against hot-shooting Wolves

This game was a shooting clinic.

The night’s high scorer was the Knicks’ Julius Randle, who finished the game with 57 points, while hitting 8-of-14 from 3, knocking down shots that should have come with extra points for the degree of difficulty. He was impressive.

Then there was the Timberwolves, who were more balanced but equally hot, shooting better than 70% as a team in the first half. They also had Taurean Prince — getting the minutes of the injured Anthony Edwards — who was 8-of-8 on 3-pointers and finished with 35 points.

It was close and dramatic late, but the Timberwolves held on for a 140-134 win. This is a quality win for a Timberwolves team fighting to hand on to a top-eight seed in the West (and an easier path out of the play-in).

3) Warriors win on the road! (It still counts if its Houston)

The Warriors needed a road win, they got a road win. Who cares if it came against the team with the worst record in the West, it counts just the same. Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things on his way to 30 points and the Warriors got the 121-108 win in Houston.

Klay Thompson added 29 for Golden State, which slid above Dallas (losers in Memphis) and into the No.5 seed in the West with the victory. Big showdown is coming Wednesday when the Warriors head to Dallas and face those Mavericks (Luka Dončić could be back for that game).

Watch Julius Randle score 57, Knicks still fall to Timberwolves

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NEW YORK — Julius Randle scored 57 points in one of the greatest nights in Knicks history. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the most sizzling start in the NBA this season.

Even in an era where the scoreboard totals seem to balloon higher all the time, this spectacular display of shooting and scoring felt different.

“It was a movie,” Minnesota’s Taurean Prince said.

The Timberwolves overcame Randle’s performance by riding a sizzling start and a steady finish to beat New York 140-134 on Monday night.

Prince scored a season-high 35 points and went 8 for 8 from 3-point range for the Timberwolves, while Mike Conley added 24 points and 11 assists. His three free throws gave Minnesota the lead for good with 2:17 remaining.

Randle’s final basket, a three-point play with 42 seconds remaining, cut it to 137-134, but he was beaten to a rebound by Kyle Anderson on Minnesota’s next possession, and a cutting Prince scored inside with 10.1 seconds left before Conley made a free throw after Randle was called for a technical foul.

That left Randle kicking himself for not making the defensive play on the night the offenses ruled.

“Jalen (Brunson) got a defensive stop, we’re down three, it’s my job to come up with that rebound, 14 seconds left,” Randle said. “If we do that, we have a chance to win the game – or not win the game, but at least tie the game. So I didn’t get the job done.”

The Timberwolves made more than 70% of their shots in the first half and led by 17, before Randle carried the Knicks back with a franchise-record 26 points in the third quarter.

He finished tied with Richie Guerin behind the only two 60-point games in Knicks history, Carmelo Anthony’s 62 on Jan. 24, 2014, and Bernard King’s 60 on Christmas Day in 1984. But the Knicks had their three-game winning streak snapped.

The All-Star forward threw down a powerful driving dunk in the first quarter but did most of his damage from much farther away. Randle made eight 3-pointers in surpassing his previous career high of 46 points.

The Wolves made their first 10 shots and didn’t cool off much the rest of the game, finishing at 61.4% and snapping a three-game skid despite playing without Anthony Edwards for a second straight game because of a sprained right ankle.

“We’ve got shooters, baby,” center Rudy Gobert said.

Gobert’s basket made the Wolves the first team this season to make its first 10 shots, and Knicks fans loudly cheered when Jaden McDaniels missed Minnesota’s next attempt, nearly seven minutes into the game. The Wolves led 42-32 after one, shooting 16 for 22 (72.7%).

Prince’s 3-pointer made it 70-53 with 4:35 left in the first half, but the Knicks finally put together some stops to cut it to 79-70 at the break.

Then Randle came back and went 9 for 10 in the third, hitting 5 for 6 beyond the arc. He raised his hand to fault himself after the one miss, an ill-advised attempt that missed the rim by a couple feet. But he could hardly be blamed for trying the way almost everything else he threw up was going in.

Finch said Edwards hadn’t done anything besides get treatment thus far, but the Wolves didn’t rule him out until Monday, indicating his injury isn’t as bad as originally feared.

“For sure there’s some relief,” Finch said. “But you know Ant, like Ant always wants to play. He never thinks he’s hurt, so hopefully it is feeling better, which he says it is. But in terms of pain tolerance, range of movement, stability, all those things, I think we’re trying to figure out where that really is with him.”

Report: Lakers, Austin Reaves have mutual interest in new contract

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Austin Reaves is the latest in the impressive Lakers finds of role players. Undrafted out of Oklahoma, Reaves got a two-way contract from the Lakers, which was eventually turned into a regular minimum deal — he is making $1.6 million this season.

He had far outplayed that deal, averaging 12 points a game, becoming a key part of the Lakers’ rotation, and he dropped a career-high 35 on Sunday night. Reaves is up for a massive pay raise this summer, the Lakers want to give it to him and there is mutual interest, reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic.

He will be a restricted free agent this summer, and will undoubtedly have multiple suitors looking to pry him from the Lakers — especially after stat lines like Sunday’s. Both the Lakers and Reaves’ camp have interest in Reaves re-signing in Los Angeles, according to multiple league sources who were granted anonymity so that they coud speak freely. The max the Lakers can offer Reaves is a four-year, $50.8 million contract if they chose to use his Early Bird Rights, but they also have the power to match any contract he signs with another team.

While the Lakers can match any offer, it’s a little more complex than that because Reaves is an Arenas Rule free agent (named after The Hibachi himself). I’ll let our friend Keith Smith of Sportrac explain it.

When a player is an Arenas free agent, opposing teams can still offer whatever salary they are able to give, but the incumbent team is given an avenue to match the offer. What happens in these offers is that the first-year salary for an Arenas free agent is limited to either the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (NTMLE) or what a team can match using their Early Bird exception…. That results in what is often referred to as a “poison pill” structure for a contract.

In the case of Reaves, let’s say a team looking for a well-rounded guard — the Orlando Magic — offer something like four years, $60 million. On the Orlando books, that would look like $15 million a season. However, under the Arenas provision, on the Lakers’ books the first year of that deal can only be for the $11.4 million the Lakers can offer right now, and Reaves would make less than $12 million in the second year (still far more than he makes this season). However, in the final two years of this hypothetical offer Reaves would make $17.9 million and $18.8 million on the Lakers’ books, a considerable jump. (If this were an $80 million offer from the Magic, the first two years would be the same but the last two would hit the Lakers’ books hard for more than $27 million a season, hence the poison pill name.)

The Lakers might well match that offer anyway, they still feel the sting of losing another of their young finds, Alex Caruso, and don’t want to let Reaves leave and then thrive somewhere else. Reaves isn’t looking to leave, he has said he loves Los Angeles and playing for the Lakers. However, this is a business and Reaves is not in a position to leave money on the table.

While everyone’s intentions are good, the Lakers have a lot of free-agent decisions to make this summer: D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schroder, Troy Brown Jr. and more (plus Jarred Vanderbilt is extension eligible). There are going to be roster changes, and the Lakers can’t spend like the Warriors or Clippers who don’t appear to care about the tax — the Lakers are a family business and there is a budget.

Two things are for sure: It will be a wild offseason in Los Angeles, and Austin Reaves will get paid. By whom is the question.