Three Things to Know: Toronto is best team you’re not talking about

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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) DeMar DeRozan drops 45 on Sixers, and the Raptors are the best team you’re not talking about. The Toronto Raptors have won 11-of-12, same as the Warriors and Rockets in that stretch, and they have a better net rating (+13) in those dozen games than either of those much-discussed powerhouses. Toronto has the best defense in the NBA and the third best offense in the league in that stretch. The Raptors have been flat-out destroying teams.

It’s time to talk about just how good the Raptors are this season.

You can ask the Sixers. DeMar DeRozan dropped 45 on them Thursday — while TNT was showing other teams — and Toronto beat Philadelphia 114-109. DeRozan is evident of the changes the Raptors have made on offense, hitting a career-high six threes Thursday night.

DeRozan thrives in the midrange, he has taken 62 percent of his shots there this season (hitting a very good 48 percent of them), but last season he took 71 percent from there — now he’s getting to the rim more and taking more threes, leading to the highest true shooting percentage of his career, 58.7. He’s become more efficient, a microcosm of Toronto as a whole. Last season as a team the Raptors took 41 percent of their shots from the midrange, this year that is down to 30.3 percent, and what is up are shots at the rim some and three pointers a lot. DeRozan is isolating less, getting a few more buckets in transition, and the Raptors are moving the ball more — last season only 22 percent of DeRozan’s buckets were off a teammate’s assist, this season that’s up to 29 percent.

Toronto looked on paper like a team that would step back this season — Patrick Paterson and Cory Joseph were gone hurting their depth, and this team’s lack of ball movement made them defendable. Now, the ball moves, C.J. Miles and rookie OG Anunboy have stepped up with tremendous seasons, the depth is fine, the defense is better, and the Raptors haven’t missed a beat. Record wise, they are right there with Cleveland and Boston at the top of the East, but nobody is talking about them that way. Maybe it’s time to do that.

The Raptors have made this 11-of-12 run against a softer part of the schedule, something that will change as the calendar flips to 2018, but on the season they have the same strength of schedule as the Warriors (middle of the NBA pack). The Raptors are legit, knocking on the door of the top two teams in the East this regular season. Can they break through that door in the postseason is the question, but I wouldn’t count this team out.

2) Michael Beasley goes off for 32 as Knicks beat Celtics. Every team has rough stretches over the grind of an 82-game schedule,  a few games of terrible performances on both sides where any of 29 other NBA teams could beat them. Boston seems to be in one of those. The ballet that was their switchable defense seems off, the offense is inconsistent and relying too much on Kyrie Irving, and the rebounding problems are back. Blame a busy part of the schedule, blame injuries, blame the new Republican tax plan if you want, these things happen to teams.

Thursday night you can blame the Knicks’ Michael Beasley, who dropped 32 on the Celtics and was getting MVP chants at the Garden.

The Knicks got that despite Kristaps Porzingis going 0-of-11 from the field. This is the kind of quality win the Knicks need as they fight to stay ahead of Miami and Philly for one of the final playoff slots in the East. It’s also a reminder that the Knicks are good at home (15-5 this season) but need to find a way to win on the road because those games are coming (2-9 so far away from MSG).

As for the Celtics, they need to snap out of this by Christmas Day, when they will be showcased against the inconsistent Wizards (who you know will bring it that day).

3) Bulls win streak ends at six, but I guess the Cavaliers are pretty good. The Bulls couldn’t keep winning forever. The dream had to die. And like so many dreams of opponents in the last decade, they died in the hands of LeBron James.

Cleveland beat Chicago 115-112 Thursday in a game where the Bulls were competitive most of the night but it ended with the Cav’s 12th straight home win. That ended Chicago’s win streak at six, and for Bulls fans it’s a little bitter to see Dwyane Wade making plays to beat them after he bolted after one season in the windy city. It was Wade and the Cleveland bench outplaying everyone on the Chicago bench not named Nikola Mirotic that got Cleveland the win. For the Bulls, they fought hard on the road on the second night of a back-to-back, but in the end, like every other team in the league, they did not have an answer for LeBron James, who had 34 points and 9 assists.

Some Bulls fans will lament that with this little win streak, the Bulls would now be fourth in the NBA Draft Lottery (Atlanta, Memphis, and Dallas are worse), but you can’t ever blame a team for playing hard and winning. That’s the sign of a good culture being built amid the rubble. If you’re rooting for your team to lose, that’s a hard life as a fan.

Three things to Know: Latest NBA trade rumors roundup

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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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) Latest NBA trade rumors roundup

We are officially nine days away from the NBA trade deadline, and the rumors and transactions tend to pick up speed when the calendar flips to February. Let’s round up the latest trade talk around the league, starting with the fact that this trade deadline may be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

• This is shaping up to be a dud trade deadline. Trade chatter has picked up in the past couple of weeks, but those talks do not seem to be gaining traction in most cases. Blame the play-in tournament and compact standings — teams that see a path to the postseason are less likely to be sellers. And, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on Monday on NBA Countdown, “I also think there’s more of a reluctance than ever to put 1st round picks for players.”

• If you want an action-packed deadline, you are begging the Toronto Raptors to become sellers (if not, the best player traded could be Jae Crowder). The Raptors change that in an instant if they make a player such as Fred VanVleet, or especially someone like Pascal Siakam, available. However, right now when teams call they are being told Toronto is going to make its decision on how to approach the deadline — sell, stand pat or buy — closer to the Feb. 9 date. (The Raptor most likely to be traded, whatever they decide, is Gary Trent Jr.)

• If the Raptors do jump in and decide to trade multiple players, the Knicks will be at the front of the line for O.G. Anunoby (a very Thibodeau-style player). That said, there will be a lot of interest in the defensive wing, and the price to get him will start at a couple of first-round picks.

• Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was crystal clear Monday: Myles Turner is off the trade market. (His two-year contract extension made that kind of obvious, although technically he could be traded.)

• The Milwaukee Bucks may be the frontrunner in the Jae Crowder sweepstakes, they are the only team given permission by the Suns to talk to the disgruntled forward, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic. The sides are still working out the parameters of a deal, but it will not include Grayson Allen, Phoenix isn’t interested.

• The Sacramento Kings — who sit third in the West and look sure to break their 16-year playoff slump, but don’t have the defense to be a serious threat in the postseason — are monitoring to see if Philadelphia makes defensive wing Matisse Thybulle available in a trade, according to Marc Stein.

Dallas is all in on finding a second star to go with Luka Dončić. Good luck with that, as noted above there is not a star on the market. However, the Mavericks are open to throwing in Dorian Finney-Smith in the right package to get a star, something they rebuffed when teams called before.

• There is increasing buzz that neither the Hawks’ John Collins nor the Pistons’ Bojan Bogdanovic will be traded. The new front office in Atlanta led by Landry Fields is higher on Collins as a long-term fit in Atlanta (even if Collins doesn’t feel that way) and is more likely to keep him than trade him. The Pistons are keeping their price high on Bogdanovic — an unprotected first-round pick — because they would be happy to keep him for next season, and have told the player precisely that.

Denver is very open to trading second-year point guard Bones Hyland for some defensive help, to the point Stein said he’s one of the most likely players to be traded now (clashing with your coach over playing time will speed your trip out the door).

• There are a lot of teams watching the Timberwolves waiting to see if Jaden McDaniels becomes available. The Pacers, Spurs, Raptors and Jazz are among the interested teams.

2) Luka Dončić returns to court, drops 53 on Pistons in win

Don’t make Luka Dončić angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

The Pistons bench, led by assistant coach Jerome Allen, started chirping at Dončić from the opening tip, Dončić chirped back and admitted after the game the trash talk got him going. The result was a 53-point night in his return after missing a game with a tweaked ankle.

The list of players who have had five or more 50+ point games in their first five seasons in the league now consists of LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Luka Dončić (with four of Luka’s coming this season).

For Dallas, the win moves them up to sixth in the crowded West right now and out of the play-in (a place they expected to be all season). For Detroit, trade target Bogdanovic scored 29 points while Saddiq Bey added 18.

3) Kings’ De'Aaron Fox is clutch again, leads team to OT win

De’Aaron Fox is unquestionably one of the frontrunners to win the NBA’s new NBA Clutch Player of the Year Award (which the NBA league office not-so-helpfully defined as the player who “best comes through for his teammates in the clutch”). Fox leads the NBA in total clutch points scored (in the last five minutes of a game within five points) with 119, and is shooting an impressive 60% in those minutes. (If you’re curious, the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan is second in points scored in the clutch and Dončić is third.)

That was evident on Monday night when Fox took control of the Kings’ offense late, started getting to the rim and creating out of that, scoring 12 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, leading the Kings to an overtime win on the road against the Timberwolves.

In the overtime it was a lot of Trey Lyles for Sacramento, he scored eight of his 11 points in OT, playing because Domantas Sabonis had fouled out.

Anthony Edwards has been making a leap in recent weeks and scored 33 on Monday, the fifth time in the last six games he has scored 30+. However, he is still learning hard lessons and had six turnovers, mostly when facing double teams down the stretch.

“He’s drawing a big crowd,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said, via the Associated Press. “For the most part, he’s trying to make the right play. Maybe he needs to see it a little earlier.”

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
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One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.