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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.

Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

Chris Paul launches ball off Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler runs over CP3 in response

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Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler didn’t need fans to ramp up their intensity Wednesday night.

Just before half of Oklahoma City’s dramatic win over Miami (which cost the Thunder a first-round pick), Paul was getting into it with Miami’s Duncan Robinson. They were jawing back and forth, with Paul draped all over the Heat shooter. Then, on a poor inbounds pass, Paul ripped the ball away from Robinson, lost his balance in doing so and was falling out of bounds, then full-on fired the ball at Robinson to get the out-of-bounds.

Jimmy Butler was having none of that — next time down, he got the switch then intentionally ran over CP3.

“You’re not gonna throw the ball at my teammate like that. We don’t do that here. You mess with one of my guys, especially one of my shooters, then you gotta deal with me and everybody else.”

That was Butler after the game, when asked about the incident.

Paul, for his part, sees a steal on time down the court and drawing an offensive foul the next — two trips down the court the Heat didn’t get off a shot in a tight game. He’ll take that.

Unfortunately for us fans, that’s it for Heat/Thunder matchups for this season (unless you’re picking that as your NBA Finals matchup). I’ve got a feeling Butler and Paul are the kinds of guys who will remember a grudge like this across an off-season.

Every 2020 NBA playoffs first-round matchup set except one; West play-in scenarios

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The first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs is set.

Almost.

Seven of the eight first-round matchups are locked in, but there is still the matter of the eighth seed in the West. The Suns, Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs are still alive; which two teams make it to the play-in tournament over the weekend will be decided Thursday.

First, here are the first-round playoff matchups for the NBA restart bubble (times and dates for games have yet to be announced).

EAST

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Philadephia 76ers
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

WEST

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

For that eighth and final matchup, we know the Los Angeles Lakers are the top seed in the West.

The only 2020 NBA playoffs spot remaining is the Lakers’ opponent, the eighth seed in the West, which will be determined by a play-in series Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday. In a unique rule set up just for the NBA restart (because of the shortened season), if the ninth-seed team is within four games of the eighth seed (something that will happen in the West), the eighth and ninth seeds are put into a two-game play-in series. The eighth seed team needs only to win one of those games, the ninth seed needs to sweep both. The winner advances on to face the Lakers.

Here are the standings entering Thursday:

Portland and Memphis control their own destiny — win and they are in.

Let’s look at the play-in scenarios for each team.

• Portland: Beat the Nets and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. If Portland loses, it only remains the eighth seed if everyone else loses (which is highly unlikely). Portland can lose and still be the nine seed if two of the other three teams also lose.

• Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — which is without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis becomes the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose to the Bucks, they need both the Suns and Spurs to lose to stay in the playoffs.

• Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks and go 8-0 in the bubble or they are out. Even that may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eighth, just one and they finish ninth).

• San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and their 22-season playoff streak ends. Even with a win, San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is an extreme longshot).

That’s a lot of options, but ultimately Damian Lillard and Portland are in the driver’s seat — and the way he’s playing it’s tough to imagine them losing Thursday, or two in a row after that.

Thunder’s Mike Muscala hits game-winner, costs Thunder their first-round pick

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The 76ers traded Mike Muscala last year.

Is Muscala a secret agent for Philadelphia?

Now with the Thunder, Muscala hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Oklahoma City’s 116-115 win over the Heat on Wednesday. That result ensured the Thunder will send their 2020 first-round pick to the 76ers.

Oklahoma City owed its first-rounder only if it landed in the top 2020. Otherwise, the Thunder would’ve conveyed their 2022 and 2023 second-rounders.*

*The 76ers originally got the protected pick by trading Jerami Grant to Oklahoma City in 2016. The pick then went to the Magic and back.

The Thunder could pivot into tanking by then, and high second-rounders in 2022 and 2023 might be more valuable than a high-20s pick in this especially unpredictable draft. But the first-rounder is the safer bet. There’s also value in not waiting two and three years for the return.

Philadelphia helped its own cause by losing to the Raptors, 125-121. The 76ers own first-round pick (which the Nets own) will be ahead of Oklahoma City’s, pushing that Thunder pick into the unprotected range.

These results – along with the Pacers beating the Rockets (108-104) and Clippers beating the Nuggets (124-111) – mean seven of eight first-round playoff matchups are set.

Eastern Conference

1. Bucks vs. 8. Magic

2. Raptors vs. 7. Nets

3. Celtics vs. 6. 76ers

4/5 Heat vs. 4/5 Pacers

Western Conference

1. Lakers vs. play-in winner

2. Clippers vs. 7. Mavericks

3. Nuggets vs. 6. Jazz

4/5 Thunder vs. 4/5 Rockets

Though neither 4/5 seeds are determined, both matchups are. The seeding differences don’t really matter without homecourt advantage in the bubble.