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Three Things to Know: Kristaps who? Lauri Markkanen drops 33 and 10 on Knicks.

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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) Kristaps who? Lauri Markkanen drops 33 and 10 on Knicks. In a season of surprise rookies having significant impacts — Donovan Mitchell in Utah, Kyle Kuzma is the Lakers’ best rookie, and OG Anunoby starting for a very good Raptors team, to name a few — Lauri Markkanen might be the biggest surprise of all. There were plenty of doubters — I’ll admit, myself included — about how well his game would translate from Arizona to the NBA, and Markkanen’s poor play at Summer League seemed to confirm that. However, he found his footing playing for Finland at EuroBasket then carried the momentum over to the NBA season, seemingly improving with each game.

Markkanen formally announced his arrival Wednesday, dropping 33 points and 10 boards on the Knicks — and doing in the face of Kristaps Porzingis, the guy Markkanen is most often compared to. Markkanen knocked down eight threes (the only other 7-footer to hit that many in a game is Dirk Nowitzki) and that wasn’t even his biggest highlight. The poster dunk of Enes Kanter was.

Markkanen had a monster game, but Bulls fans can chill on the “I’d rather have him than Porzingis” talk — KP is the better defender and has proven to be more diversified and efficient on offense over time. This was one game…. but what a game. Markkanen can shoot the three and most teams now body him up at the arc to try to take that away, but he has shown the ability to play in the post (exploiting mismatches off a switch), finish with his left hand in the paint, and even run the occasional fast break. Markkanen has some real versatility on offense, he’s not just a shooter. That’s why Nowitzki said Markkanen has the potential to be as good as Porzingis and the rookie lived up to that in Madison Square Garden.

Although he faded as the game wore on — Markkanen was just 1-of-9 in the fourth quarter and the two overtimes. The Bulls don’t stay in the game through three quarters without Markkanen, but in the fourth it was David Nwaba early and Justin Holiday late who made plays. Then in the OTs, it was Robin Lopez who had 6 points and 5 rebounds.

For a Knicks team two games out of a playoff slot in the East, this was the kind of game they need to win. And they didn’t.

2) Kevin Durant reaches 20,000 point milestone, but Lou Williams owns the night. Back after missing three games with a strained calf, KD returned to the court at Oracle Arena Wednesday night and became only the 44th NBA player in history to reach 20,000 points — and he is the second youngest to do it (LeBron James.

Durant is going to go down as one of the best pure scorers the game has ever seen. He’s rounded out his game — he can defend, run an offense, rebound, and do so much more — but few if any in the history of the game could create and score with him.

However, the night wasn’t Kevin Durant’s, it was Lou Williams’. The Clipper guard — by far the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year this season (although he started this one) — dropped 50 on the Warriors, leading the Clippers to a 125-106 road win that snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Warriors. Williams just knows how to get buckets, but this was a career high and came at a time the Clippers need it — no Blake Griffin and the Clippers are trying to stay relevant in the playoff race.

Williams’ name has come up in trade talks — a lot of playoff-bound teams could use a guy who knows how to score like that — but a report came out after the game that Williams and the Clippers have had talks of an extension. Maybe that’s trying to pump up his trade value (“if you’re not going to offer us much, we’ll just keep him”) but the idea the Clippers keeping the band together, re-signing DeAndre Jordan next summer, and trying to win with this core is not out of the question. Steve Ballmer and L.A. could have blown up the team and started a rebuild last summer when Chris Paul left, and they didn’t, so why start now?

3) Minnesota beats Oklahoma City in what may have been a first-round playoff preview. The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost three in a row and are 2-5 in their last seven — they went from looking like a team that had turned the corner to a team that was just making a U-turn. There are reasons for that — Andre Roberson has missed the last six games and they need his defense, plus the Thunder have little depth — but things still shouldn’t be this bad.

It was against the Timberwolves, players not named Russell Westbrook shot 17-of-56 (30.4 percent). That’s not going to cut it, and the Timberwolves won handily 106-88. Minnesota has played good defense of late and Jimmy Butler has looked like a bottom-of-the-ballot MVP candidate (not the top couple slots, but in a five-deep ballot he’s got to be considered), but you expect more out of the Thunder. As for the Timberwolves, they have been the best team in the NBA over the past 10 games (statistically), they have gotten healthy and found an identity, the only question is can they sustain it with the number of minutes Tom Thibodeau plays his starters?

Nothing is set in stone, but coming into Wednesday night this would have been the first-round 4/5 playoff matchup in the West. And that should make the Thunder worried because these teams are trending in opposite directions.

Zion Williamson looks in incredible shape, says he’s focused for restart

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson credits his mother’s wisdom with helping him manage life’s unanticipated twists and inevitable assortment of successes and setbacks.

It has served the NBA’s top overall draft choice well during a highly unusual debut season that has gone nothing like he imagined, yet still holds plenty of promise.

“The last 12 months have been a different experience,” Williamson said Thursday, projecting his typically affable, smiling, easy-going manner during a video conference at the New Orleans Pelicans’ practice headquarters. “My mom tells me, ‘Life is life. You may go through a lot of bad times. You may go through a lot of good times. It’s just: Try to prepare yourself as best as you can.’”

Thursday was an “up” day for Williamson and the Pelicans, at least online, where an image of Zion in the gym had NBA Twitter buzzing.

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Now Williamson and the Pelicans are preparing to make a “playoff push,” something that appeared highly unlikely when he was sitting on the sidelines with a surgically repaired knee, watching New Orleans labor through a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak that left the club with a record of 6-22.

“I think this team can be really special when we’re all healthy,” Williamson said.

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson was expected to be out six to eight weeks when he had surgery to repair his torn right lateral meniscus the day before the regular season. He wound up missing about three months and 44 games. When he finally returned on Jan. 22, fans packed the stands and Williamson routinely delighted them with around-the-rim highlights.

Williamson averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in the 19 games he played. New Orleans won 10 of those games and looked to be gaining momentum when the season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, that stint kept the Pelicans close enough to the playoff picture – 3 1/2 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference — to be included among 22 NBA teams that will finish their regular seasons at a central location in Orlando, starting July 30, when New Orleans plays the Utah Jazz.

Pelicans guard Josh Hart said Williamson’s addition to the lineup “made us a more aggressive, more dynamic.”

“If we had him in the beginning of the year, the story wouldn’t be fighting for the eighth seed,” Hart continued. “It would have been, we’re the four or five seed in the West, honestly.”

Williamson quickly developed an on-court synergy with creative, play-making, up-tempo point-guard Lonzo Ball. Williamson was praised by teammates and coaches for an unselfishness that has allowed other players like Pelicans leading scorer Brandon Ingram to continue to flourish.

Because Williamson’s surgery and rehab had occurred this season, he qualified for an exception that allowed him to continue to seek treatment and work out at the Pelicans’ practice center after team training headquarters around the NBA had been closed to most employees and players.

But Williamson said he remained vigilant about not exposing himself to the coronavirus, performing on-court work only with his stepfather until this week, when the NBA allowed team facilities to reopen to all virtually players except those with positive coronavirus tests.

“At first, it was very tough because even now you don’t fully know what’s going on” with the virus, Williamson said. “Me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition on the court, off the court, wherever we could find it. I do feel like I’m in good shape right now.”

Pelicans general manager David Griffin has caught glimpses of Williamson’s workouts. He said he couldn’t say for sure how Williamson’s game looked because he wasn’t able to work against other NBA caliber players.

“I can tell you he is handling the ball awfully well, and his shooting looks great,” Griffin said. “In terms of his preparedness and fitness for basketball, I can’t give you any indication of that at all.”

Williamson said his early priorities will include bonding with teammates again.

“We’ve got to stick together, keep our emotions high together and I think we’ll be fine,” he said.

Williamson’s eagerness to take on a leadership role comes despite his youth and relative inexperience in the NBA. He turned pro after one season of college basketball at Duke and doesn’t turn 20 until Monday. But he became a global internet sensation while he was still in high school and has been flooded with endorsement offers since his college career ended.

He also encountered another side of the sports business when he was

by his first marketing agent after he fired her in favor of another. That case is ongoing.

“In a weird way I haven’t felt like a teenager in a long time,” Williamson said, “so I feel like it’s not going to be anything different.”

Meanwhile, Williamson indicated that his disappointment over no longer playing in front of fans this season is outweighed by his enthusiasm for returning the sport he loves in games that matter.

“It’s definitely going to be different. You know, I love the fans,” Williamson said. “It’s crazy, man. We’re actually about to go. It’s a lot to process for sure, but I am excited.”

 

Clippers reportedly shut down practice facility after positive coronavirus test among traveling party

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The Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets shut down their practice facilities after positive coronavirus tests among players and/or staff members.

Add the Clippers to that coronavirus list, they shut down their facilities on Thursday after a member of the traveling party tested positive, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Woj’s phrasing implies that a staff member, not a player, tested positive.

Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, just 24 hours earlier, told reporters that “to his knowledge” nobody with the team had tested positive for the coronavirus. Rivers also said he believed that all the players — including Lou Williams — intended to join the team in Orlando.

This isn’t a knock on Rivers, it’s a sign of how fast things change in a coronavirus world.

It is possible the Clippers re-open their facilities before the team heads to Orlando a week from today, July 8.

The Clippers head to the NBA’s Orlando restart as one of the three-favorites to take home the title (along with the Lakers and Bucks).

Anthony Davis: Lakers’ title chances “higher” after long rest

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It’s completely unpredictable how teams will respond to a long break, a short ramp-up, and playing without fans in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando.

Anthony Davis tried to play Nostrodamus anyway — he says the Lakers will be better after an extended rest.

Here’s how he phrased it Thursday in a conference call with reporters, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Actually, I think our chances are higher just because we’re all rested and we’re all ready to go,” Davis said Thursday on a videoconference call with reporters. “If anything, our chances got higher and it’s going to be about just who wants it more…

“It’s been good for me to kind of let some of them lingering injuries I had towards the time when the NBA stopped to kind of recover and heal and get back into the best version of myself,” he said. “I feel 100 percent healthy. Well, I don’t feel, I am [100 percent healthy]. I feel like I’m ready. Ready to go.”

One theory on how teams would come out of the break — and all anyone has are theories — was that older, veteran teams would benefit from the rest. Teams such as the Lakers. Others think the condensed schedule, from mini training camps through playoff games every other day, would favor younger teams with more bounce in their legs.

Davis being healthy is critical for the Lakers. He averaged 26.7 points with an impressive 61.4 true shooting percentage, plus 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game. On the other end of the court he was a force, averaging 2.4 blocks a game and playing at a level that will get him on a lot of Defensive Player of the Year ballots.

Davis will be ready to ball in Orlando. LeBron James will be focused and a force as well. Whether the Lakers have enough around their stars to match the Clippers, Bucks, and any other challengers is the question. One we will start to answer July 30.

 

 

Adrian Wojnarowski: Jacque Vaughn likely to coach Nets next season

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The Nets have two stars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the ammo to get a third star. Expectations are rising quickly in Brooklyn. Merely qualifying for the playoffs isn’t enough. Nobody felt that more than Kenny Atkinson, who got ousted historically late in the season for a postseason-bound team.

The next logical step: Hiring a blue-chip coach.

Former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, Irving’s reported preferred choice, was considered favorite. Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were also high-profile candidates.

Or maybe the Nets will just keep Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Atkinson.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

People sometimes are treating Jacque Vaughn like he was named the interim coach when Kenny Atkinson and the Nets split up. But he’s not. He’s the head coach. They didn’t make him interim coach. And while I think the Nets are considering the possibility of a search, I would still give Jacque Vaughn, I would take Jacque Vaughn against the field right now to keep that job.

“Interim” is just a label. The Nets can call Vaughn whatever they want. He’s coaching the team right now, and no job is permanent.

But unless hearing otherwise, there’s an expectation a team will conduct a coaching search the offseason after an in-season coaching change.

This might be the otherwise.

Vaughn reportedly has a legitimate opportunity to win the job. But Brooklyn will be without Durant, Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton and maybe Spencer Dinwiddie as the season resumes in Disney World. That’s not a recipe for impressing.

That’s especially true because Vaughn doesn’t fit the marquee image the Nets were reportedly seeking. In his only previous head-coaching position, Vaughn went 20-62, 23-59 and 15-37 with the Magic before they fired him in 2015.

One thing Vaughn has going for him: He reversed Atkinson’s strategy of starting Jarrett Allen over Jordan, who’s close with Durant and Irving. It’s practically impossible to see Brooklyn picking a coach – especially Vaughn – without the support of Durant and Irving.

The Nets should conduct a full coaching search. If Vaughn emerges as the best choice, great. But he hasn’t done enough to warrant Brooklyn ignoring other candidates.