Three Things to Watch in Playoffs Thursday: Don’t bet on a cold Durant, Westbrook again

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These have been the most lopsided NBA playoffs in history so far. Maybe tonight’s games will bring us some drama. Did you hear that Basketball Gods, we want a close game! What must we sacrifice to please you? Anyway, here’s what to keep an eye out for on Thursday.

1) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not going to go a combined 15-55 again. As Steve Clifford reminded the media — or as Terry Stotts would be happy to tell you as he watches Damian Lillard struggle — it’s a make-or-miss league. In Game 2 Durant and Westbrook missed a lot — missed early, missed good looks late, missed potential game winners. That’s not going to happen again. There’s more drama around if the Mavs will try to break up Westbrook’s pregame dance routine again than there is about whether KD will shoot better. For Westbrook, the bigger questions surround his disinterested and poor late-game defense in Game 2 — when his offensive game was off, he was unfocused (to put it kindly) on key plays down the stretch. Don’t expect that to happen again, either.

The series is 1-1 and going back to Dallas, but the Mavs are going to have to play better because you can be sure the Thunder will. It took a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by the Thunder for Dallas to win by one point — and now the Mavs could be without Dirk Nowitzki who is questionable with a knee injury (although he joked it’s not going to impact his game because he doesn’t move well anyway). Wesley Matthews and Raymond Felton will need to come up big (again). Expect a storm of energy from the Thunder early, but if Dallas can withstand it at home — or just come back on the Thunder in the fourth like everyone does — this series may get very interesting.

2) At home, with their backs against the wall, with maybe no Stephen Curry against them, can Houston play like they care? Through two games, it has felt like the Houston Rockets are treating their first-round playoff series against Golden State like I used to treat the last week of school before summer vacation. It’s a countdown. Nothing more. James Harden is putting up offensive numbers but serving as little more than a traffic cone for Warriors to dribble around on the other end. Dwight Howard is floating through contests and rarely getting touches. Defensive rotations are late to non-existent. Communication is non-existent. The Rockets have just been a mess.

Curry is officially questionable with his ankle injury, and what motivation do the Warriors have to rush him back? There were flashes this season — a half here, a game or two there — where the Rockets would play close to all the talent on their roster. They would look like the team we all thought preseason was a potential contender. That team likely still would not beat the Warriors, but they could challenge them, make them work for it. I would love to see those Rockets for a night. I just fear they have checked out for summer vacation.

3) Can Toronto get DeMar DeRozan going? The Indiana Pacers have a game plan to shut DeMar DeRozan down — put Paul George on him, have help when he drives, and be physical. It’s worked. Through two games DeRozan is shooting 27 percent, is hitting just 44 percent inside the restricted area, has attempted just six free throws, has one more assist than turnovers, and has a PER of 1.7. DeRozan’s lack of a three ball (0-of-5 in two games) invites some of this pressure. Through two games, the Raptors are 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. On the road, in a tough place to play like the Fieldhouse, the Raptors are going to need DeRozan to be better. Dwane Casey needs to come up with sets to get him some space going downhill (they had some success with staggered screens in Game 2).

The Pacers have a different defensive problem — how will they slow Jonas Valanciunas? He has averaged 17.5 points and 17 rebounds a game through the two contests, and the Pacers have no natural matchup to slow him. He’s getting a steady diet of easy shots at the rim because the Pacers’ bigs and help defenders are getting pulled farther and farther out on the floor. The Pacers have options, but each comes with potential consequences — play off screens, have the guard go under, and you better hope Kyle Lowry doesn’t start draining threes. Pre-rotate on plays just leaves another guy open to a smart pass. And on down the line. But the Pacers need to pick a strategy and execute it because JV is killing them inside.

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).

Three things to Know: Who were biggest All-Star Game snubs?

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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) Who were biggest All-Star Game snubs? Siakam, Harden and…

The All-Star Game rosters need to be expanded — teams carry 15 players into a regular season game, but there are just 12 roster spots for the All-Star Game. J.J. Redick does a brilliant breakdown of this worth watching.

Don’t bet on it happening. The league knows the small roster leads to big-name snubs, it generates controversy and gets everyone talking — which the league loves. This system works just fine for them.

The All-Star Game reserves were announced Thursday, as selected by the league’s head coaches (or the assistant it got passed down to in more than a few cases), and there were snubs. Here are the five biggest.

James Harden. He’s averaging 21.4 points and 11 assists a game (which will lead the league, once he qualifies by playing enough games and minutes). While he has missed a few games, he’s still played in 34, and is the primary ball handler and second-leading scorer on the team with the fourth-best record in the league. The Beard deserved to be in Salt Lake City. He knows it and wasn’t subtle about his frustration, and Joel Embiid had his back.

Pascal Siakam. I don’t see how the coaches could leave him off the list. It likely goes back to the struggles of the Raptors team, but that is not on Siakam has played in 43 games and averaged 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a night, plus he’s a quality defender. He has played at an All-NBA level, not just All-Star.

Anthony Davis. You can see why coaches left the Lakers’ big off the list, he’s only played in 29 games this season. Still, that’s just six fewer than Jackson Jr. and Davis has been much better when he has played — 26.9 points and 12 rebounds a game, plus elite defense. When healthy, Davis’ name got thrown into the MVP conversation, and Thursday night he showed why with the game-winning bucket and then game-saving block for the Lakers against the Pacers.

Devin Booker. This is the same case as Davis, a guy who is clearly an All-NBA player when healthy — 27.1 points and 5.6 assists a game — but misses the cut because he’s missed time and played in just 29 games. Isn’t the All-Star Game supposed to be filled with the best players in the league? It’s not MVP or some award where games played should matter that much, if you’re in half your team’s games that’s enough to play in this exhibition.

Jalen Brunson and Jimmy Butler. We’re combining them because it is the exact same issue: Both are deserving, but the coaches only wanted to give their team one spot so it went to the big on their rosters (Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo), not them. They got squeezed, which goes back to the need to expand the All-Star Game rosters.

2) Antetokounmpo’s 54 sparks Bucks comeback as Clippers collapse

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been making his MVP case the past couple of weeks — and it is strong.

The Clippers seemed to be in control of this game — up by 21 in the second half and specifically up 19 with 2:30 left in the third quarter — and Ivica Zubac was giving Antetokounmpo as much trouble as any human could.

Then Antetokounmpo took over. From that 2:30 mark on, the Greek Freak scored 23 points, the Bucks outscored the Clippers 41-21 — Antetokounmpo himself outscored the Clippers — and Milwaukee stormed back to get a 106-105 win.

Antetokounmpo finished with 54 points, his third 50+ game in the last month. So about that MVP case…

The flip side of this game shows why I am off the Clippers bandwagon. You could see it in the recent loss to the Celtics and this game. There are moments (like the first 36 minutes in Milwaukee) where if you squint and look at Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, you can see the outline of a contender. But when the pressure of a real contender ramps up the holes in their defense, their roster, and their style get exposed. Part of it is this team hasn’t played enough games together with a healthy roster to develop the good habits — sharp defensive rotations, good ball movement on the offensive end under pressure — but is there really time left to do it considering Leonard and George are going to miss time on back-to-backs and other spots.

The Clippers closed this game shooting 0-of-9, with a to of isolation ball from Leonard and no passing out of it. That doesn’t work against elite defenses, the kind the Clippers will see come the playoffs. Adding a point guard isn’t going to solve all these issues, but in a West where nobody is running away with anything the Clippers’ dreams are alive.

3) Donovan Mitchell calls out Dillon Brooks as dirty after both are ejected

How many games suspension should the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks get for what looked like an intentional shot to Donovan Mitchell’s, um, “groin area?”

The incident came with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, Brooks drove the lane and right into the body of Michell, knocking him back (a physical but not unreasonable play). The Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley rotated over and blocked the shot, knocking Brooks to the ground. That’s when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, shall we say, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself, and calling out Brooks.

This incident sparked the Cavaliers, who pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland. The Grizzlies are reeling right now, having lost 7-of-8.