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Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard knows what time it is

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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) Damian Lillard knows what time it is, drains game winner to beat Lakers. Portland was hot all night from three, starting the game 6-of-7 from deep and racing out to an 18-point lead early. The young Lakers fought back to make it a game in the second and third (thanks in part to the fact Portland is terrible on defense), but more and more as the game went on Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts started calling Damian Lillard’s number, both as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and in isolation. The Lakers had no answer.

Lillard finished the night with 32 points on 18 shots, he got to the line 14 times, and when the game was on the line Stotts called for a Lillard isolation. Luke Walton countered with the very long Brandon Ingram on him (why not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?), but it didn’t matter. It’s Lillard time.

2) Bad news: Lakers’ Larry Nance Jr. breaks hand. Good news: this is team making strides. The news first: Luke Walton is going to have to find a new starting power forward for a while because Larry Nance Jr. fractured the second metacarpal in his left hand against the Blazers and is out indefinitely. Nance left the game in the third quarter after contact with Caleb Swanigan and did not return, the Lakers say he will be evaluated by team doctors Friday and a timeline will be established. Nance has averaged 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game this season. Walton has to now figure out who starts in his place. Julius Randle had the starting job going into training camp and could get it back, but Walton likes Randle as a spark with the second unit so my guess is Kyle Kuzma gets the call (he had 22 points vs. Portland, but he struggles defensively). If Walton wanted to go with a veteran, Corey Brewer or Luol Deng are available.

As for the Lakers, the team is getting a little better each game, but this is what learning hard lessons feels like. The NBA is an unforgiving place. The Lakers battled back from being 18 down early and led by as many as five points in the fourth, and that’s a good sign, but closing out the Trail Blazers in Portland is hard for any team. The Lakers still have a top 10 defense this season (10th now), and they are putting out effort on that end, but their rotations are not sharp and good offenses like Portland’s will pick that apart. The Lakers’ defensive numbers will get worse, but they are improved on that end.

Lonzo Ball was much more passive than normal (0-of-2 shooting, 4 assists), not pushing the tempo in transition and not looking for his shot off picks despite the Portland big man laying off and daring him to shoot. Ball can pass, but he has to become comfortable as a shooter/scorer, that includes being better at attacking off the dribble into that space when teams play back and scoring at the rim. He’s not a threat as a scorer most nights (he scored in single digits six of the eight Lakers game) and the league is adjusting to him. Ball and Brook Lopez also learned some hard lessons about playing pick-and-roll defense, where Jusuf Nurkic tore them up as the roll man and finished with 28 points (the Laker help rotations were slow all night) and in the second half Lillard torched them. It’s a process, but Lakers fans have reason to be optimistic.

3) Spurs come out strong, go up 19 on Warriors… and it doesn’t matter. Golden State is back. San Antonio came out with great energy — they were deflecting passes and knocking the ball out of Warriors’ hands, plus contesting everything. LaMarcus Aldridge had 11 first quarter points, and after a 21-3 run the Spurs had a 19-point lead before the quarter ended.

It didn’t matter. Golden State found its groove, went on a 15-4 run before halftime and a 20-8 run to open the third quarter and that was the ballgame. The Warriors shot 51.8 percent overall, 50 percent from three, and held San Antonio 35.9-percent shooting in the second half. The Warriors we all expected are back, they have cured their championship hangover, and the rest of the league is searching for answers they will not find.

Klay Thompson had 27 points, Kevin Durant 24, and Stephen Curry had 21. Draymond Green pitched in 16 plus was key defensively, as always.

Kawhi Leonard tries to downplay leg issue, “I’m good”

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Toronto won a gritty Game 3 at home — and are back in the Eastern Conference Finals — because of Kawhi Leonard.

From the opening tip, he was the man guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo (although in a game with a lot of switching plenty of others also got their shot). It was the biggest adjustment Toronto coach Nick Nurse made — and it worked. Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 16 shots in the game and, according to ESPN’s tracking, was 1-of-9 when guarded by Leonard. On the other end, Leonard had 36 points, nine rebounds, and played 52 critical minutes. He was the MVP of Game 3.

And he did it all through a noticeable limp.

He landed awkwardly on a first-quarter layup and all game this clearly limited his mobility.

When asked about it after the game, Leonard shrugged it off.

For much of the season, whenever Leonard was mentioned so was with the phrase “load management.” He had missed all but nine games the season before with quadriceps tendinopathy — the treatment for that, and whether it was a muscular injury or not, was at the heart of Leonard’s discord with San Antonio — and in Toronto he missed 22 games in the regular season to help keep that issue at bay.

That may not be related to what is bothering him now, but the Raptors and Leonard had gone to great lengths to get him rest during the regular season so he would be ready for the playoffs. He has responded, being the best player in the East through the postseason so far. That includes hitting the game-winner to send Philadelphia home, then on Sunday keeping Toronto alive against the Bucks by force of will. But he has played a heavy load of minutes — physical, playoff minutes — to get there.

Will that slow Leonard Tuesday night in Game 4?

It can’t if they want to even this series. Milwaukee will play better in Game 4, keeping Antetokounmpo bottled up may be near impossible, and other Bucks had off-games as well (they shot 37.3 percent as a team in Game 3). Toronto will have to play better to keep pace. Marc Gasol will need to continue taking and hitting the threes (shots the Bucks dared him to take in the first two games), Pascal Siakam will have to have another big game, as will the Raptors’ bench.

But mostly, Leonard needs to be the best player on the floor again, the guy doing this:

If not, Toronto’s season will be on the brink.

After coaching search, Minnesota reportedly settles on owner-favorite Ryan Saunders for job

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“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]… I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”

That was Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on his interim coach, Ryan Saunders, a statement made with about 20 games to go in the season. The Timberwolves reportedly negotiated the outline of a contract with Saunders, but when Gersson Rosas was brought in as team president, he was given the freedom to run a full coaching search.

He has settled on the guy the owner wanted, a story broken by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Rosas interviewed other candidates and ran a legitimate job search for the position, but it seems the smart political move for the guy new on the job to hire the guy the owner wanted, and the guy the star player bonded with.

That’s not to say Saunders is a poor choice, he earned this chance. Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler‘s sabotaging of the team’s season led to coach/GM Tom Thibodeau being shown the door. Saunders quickly developed a strong relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, who played much better under Saunders the second half of the season. There were other signs Saunders was up to the task and would be a good hire, not just a prudent one.

Now it appears Saunders has the job.

The real task for Rosas is to give Saunders a team that can live up to Towns’ potential. It will not be easy with a capped out roster and some anchor contracts (Andrew Wiggins).

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.