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Three Things to Know: Rajon Rondo, Vince Carter have throwback nights

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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. Here’s what you missed while trying to figure out how to pay your $2.8 billion electric bill.

1) Vintage version Rajon Rondo dishes out career-high 25 assists, leads Pelicans past Brooklyn.
When the Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo over the summer, even Pelicans fans rolled their eyes. The move was seen as something to appease DeMarcus Cousins, the singing of a declining player who can’t shoot and doesn’t defend like he once did on a team that needed more shooting and defense.

However, what Rondo has always had is a high hoops IQ and a gift for passing angles — things that have helped smooth out the Pelicans’ offense as it finds mismatches and moves the ball better of late.

Thursday night he did that to the tune of 25 assists — the most in a game since Jason Kidd did it in 1996. It was a career high for Rondo and a new Pelicans team record.

There are two parts to an assist — the pass, and then the guy catching the ball has to knock down the shot. The other Pelicans were doing that Wednesday night against Brooklyn, hitting 17-of-33 from three (52 percent) and hitting 53.3 percent of their shots overall. Anthony Davis scored 33 points plus grabbed 11 rebounds, Cousins had 27 points, and both Jrue Holiday and  E’Twuan Moore broke 20. The Pelicans starters turned this game into a rout, the kind of win the Pelicans needed.

Once healthy this season, Rondo also has hit his threes (35.7 percent on four attempts a game) and has helped quarterback the Pelicans defense (which is the end of the court holding this team back, but their D has looked better the last week or so). Rondo has been solid for them. On a team where the mandate is making the playoffs, the Pelicans are relatively comfortably in (3.5 games ahead of the nine-seed Clippers, and history suggests they will hold on to that slot). I’m not sure I’d call it a revival for Rondo, but he’s found a role that fits.

2) Vince Carter jumps in hot tub time machine, outscores LeBron James, and Kings upset Cavaliers. LeBron James can’t be frustrated with the officials for this one.

Quietly the last few weeks, the Cavaliers defense has regressed to the disaster it was early in the season — in the last 10 games Cleveland is giving up 111.7 points per 100, 29th in the NBA (only ahead of a Jazz team without Rudy Gobert). The latest evidence of that was Vince Carter going off, scoring 24 points — the first time he has scored more than LeBron in a game in a decade.

As a team, the Pelicans shot 40 percent from three, finished well at the rim, and were simply efficient in the halfcourt when the Cavaliers defense was set. Also, it was the Sacramento bench that won the game, completely dominating the Cleveland bench — Carter had 24, Willie Cauley-Stein 17, and Bogdan Bogdanovic 16 all coming off the pine (or, cushy folding chairs in the NBA case).

Cleveland showed on Christmas Day that thanks to LeBron and his MVP level of play, it can hang with Golden State and the best in the NBA. Then games like this one in Sacramento — and the recent run of poor defensive performances — remind everyone that this Cleveland team has some systemic issues that teams are going to pick at in the playoffs. It’s going to be an issue.

3) Thunder win sixth straight, beat Toronto with Russell Westbrook, Paul George combining to score 63. Oklahoma City is a hot team, and while Toronto was as well it was on the second night of a back-to-back and it showed — they looked flat. This is the kind of game where the Raptors flush the video and move on, seeing it as a one-off of a bad game against a good team. It happens.

For Oklahoma City, their confidence is growing. Carmelo Anthony said after the game the Thunder are at their best when Russell Westbrook is not deferring but looking for his own first and creating off it. That’s the Westbrook we have seen more of lately, and he had 30 points and 13 assists on Wednesday night. He and Paul George were too much for the Thunder.

The Thunder were better than their record showed to start the season — they had a positive net rating despite the losing record, they just kept falling short in close games — and they’re not as good as this recent run has suggested. They’re good, probably they win around 50 games and end up the four seed in the West (maybe fifth if the Timberwolves keep winning despite their defense). That makes for a rough road in the playoffs, and the questions about whether George and Anthony stay past this season are still out there (with those playoff results impacting the decisions), but right now the Thunder are finding their groove. They are finding their identity. It just took a little while.

Report: NBA opened investigation into free agency tampering

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Summer in the NBA is always the most interesting time in the league. Free agency lets us see where players have not only decided to land, but which have schemed together in order to play with each other.

The term “preagency” has been coined to mark the period in which teams and players work out deals before free agency officially opens, and well before the moratorium ends.

It’s been thought that these rules have been circumvented as part of a gentlemen’s agreement between all teams with equal ability to navigate around the written rules. But according to a new report, several team owners are upset about the way things are going in the player empowerment era.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst reported on the NBA’s Board of Governor’s meeting this week, saying that the league has even opened an investigation into what went on this summer in terms of potential tampering.

Via ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The league has the power to punish teams it finds to be guilty of tampering ahead of June 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time — the first minute that teams are allowed to speak with representatives of free agents. It also might seek information on the timing of negotiations so that any revised free-agency calendar might better align with what is actually happening.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, speaking as the head of the labor committee, discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement, sources said.

I have two thoughts about this.

First, even if something does come of this, the fine has to be puny. Adam Silver has not strayed on the disciplinarian side the way David Stern did — much to his credit — and any reprimand is unlikely to satisfy upset parties.

Second, there will definitely be sweeping changes in the next CBA. So much has changed since the last lockout, and the money has gotten so big it’s inevitable that people want to make things better for their side. The players got themselves in a hole since 2011. They mishandled the cap jump in 2016, and the max contract rules didn’t create a rising tide that floated all boats. Star players benefited, but low-level guys are even more disproportionately compensated.

This stuff seems like the most boring part of the league, but in reality it’s what makes everything tick.

I won’t be surprised if the NBA levies tampering charges against one or even several teams. I’d be surprised if the league did much about it, though.

Wizards owner says John Wall ‘probably won’t play’ in 2019-20

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It was always likely that Washington Wizards star John Wall would be out for much of next year’s regular NBA season. The team has even filed for a disabled player exception for the 2019-20 season.

Now we have confirmation that the team is expecting Wall to miss significant time.

According to NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said that they are going to take things slow with Wall, and that he will miss serious time.

Via Twitter:

Washington is still trying to figure out what to do with Bradley Beal, and with Wall’s contract on the books, they don’t really have much of anywhere to go. The Wizards used their No. 9 overall pick on Rui Hachimura, which raised a few eyebrows.

But the team at least does have a GM in Tommy Sheppard, and they’ve made several hirings in the front office to try and out-think their competition. Washington has made a few moves, including trading for Davis Bertans and signing Isaiah Thomas.

Expect to see the Wizards at the bottom of the East next year. Still, that doesn’t mean they won’t be entertaining.

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.