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Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook gets last staredown against Joel Embiid

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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) Russell Westbrook gets the last staredown against Joel Embiid, Thunder beat 76ers.
It got a little personal between the All-Stars Westbrook and Embiid on Sunday — but Westbrook had the last staredown.

There’s history here, remember these teams played a triple-overtime thriller back on Dec. 15 — you remember, the game where Joel Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams after the latter fouled out, then Russell Westbrook told Embiid to go home — and they didn’t disappoint in this game either. It started in the first quarter when Joel Embiid drove the lane and threw it down hard putting Russell Westbrook in the poster.

Embiid even took to Instagram to gloat about that one a little (and notice the location).

Tough loss #TheProcess

A post shared by Joel "The Process" Embiid (@joelembiid) on

It made Westbrook angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. The game was close much of the way, and when the Thunder went on a 15-0 third-quarter run the Sixers showed resilience bouncing back to make it a game again. However, midway through the fourth quarter when Paul George returned to action, the Thunder went on a 21-9 run that sealed the win.

Westbrook finished with 37 points and 14 assists — and stared Embiid down as he dribbled out the clock.

That ends the season series between these teams, with the Thunder up 2-0, but I’d like to petition the league for a third game. At least.

2) Painful weekend injuries to DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Roberson will change playoff picture. Whenever asked on radio interviews or elsewhere how the bottom half of the West would shake out the second half of the season — where the six-seed and nine-seed are separated by two games — I have gone to a stock and rather boring answer: The team that suffers the most injuries will be the one on the outside looking in.

New Orleans suffered maybe the most significant injury of the season late in their biggest win of the season (vs. Houston) Friday night — DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles and is done for the season. The Pelicans had been leaning heavily on the All-Star starter Cousins — maybe too heavily. An Achilles injury is an overuse injury (built up over time but usually exacerbated) and as Tom Haberstroh of Bleacher Report noted Cousins played 52 minutes Monday against the Bulls, had been in four OT games in a nine-day span, and Cousins had averaged a very high 39.8 minutes per game in his previous 10 contests.

Without him, the Pelicans blew a 21-point second-quarter lead (not that crazy, but certainly not good) to the Clippers and lost on Sunday. The general concern after Cousins went down was the load now on Anthony Davis and how the team would do when he sat (without Cousins there to stagger with him). For the second part of that, the Pelicans were fine, they were +12 in his second-quarter rest — but Davis played the entire second half. Davis and Jrue Holiday played well, but without Cousins nor enough shooting on the roster, the Pelicans face a tough battle to stay in the playoffs. They had a three-game cushion over the nine-seed Clippers before the injury, but already that is down to two games with half a season to go. The Pelicans are in a fight to hold on to that playoff spot.

The other significant injury over the weekend is not going to impact who gets into the playoffs, but it will have an impact once the playoffs start — OKC’s Andre Roberson blew out his patellar tendon in his knee and is done for the season. Roberson is not one of the Thunder’s “big four” but is a key part of their top-five NBA defense: The reason is he was a long, switchable, quality defender who could share a big load on that end with George. When Roberson is on the court this season, the Thunder defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. He is long and switchable and alongside Paul George gave OKC defensive options in big games. Not anymore. They will miss him against (probably) Minnesota in the first round, and especially if it’s the Warriors in the second round. If the Thunder get bounced in the first round or crushed in the second, how much will that impact Paul George’s decision over the summer?

One other injury note: Mike Conley also is out for the season, the Grizzlies announced, and he will have surgery to fix his chronic Achilles issues. Unlike Cousins and Roberson, the Conley news doesn’t change the playoff picture — the Grizzlies are well out of it at this point. They may impact the playoff chase with a trade of Tyreke Evans — the hot rumor is to Boston — however, they are not moving Marc Gasol. Still, this injury sucks. Conley only played in 13 games this season, and the Grizzlies were 7-6 with him.

3) Tyronn Lue sits Isaiah Thomas for the fourth quarter, Cavaliers go on a 31-17 run to win going away. Isaiah Thomas isn’t the reason the Cavaliers defense is second worst in the NBA, but he isn’t helping things, either. Cleveland’s defense had been awful this season while Thomas was out the first months of the season, but upon his return it is a disturbingly poor 117.2 points allowed per 100 possessions when he is on the court.

On Sunday, coach Tyronn Lue went to stagger the minutes between Thomas and LeBron James more. In the first half, Thomas sat midway through the first quarter, then came back in to start the second quarter while LeBron rested. In the second half, it got more interesting — LeBron got about five minutes of rest at the end of the third quarter while Thomas stayed on the court. Then to start the fourth Thomas sat and it was the “LeBron and the bench” lineup that has worked so well this season and did again — the Cavaliers went on a 23-7 run near the end of the game to get the win.

It wasn’t just Thomas — Tristan Thompson didn’t play the fourth either. Kevin Love and J.R. Smith barely got in. Lue is looking for any rotation that can spark this team, and sometimes right now that’s going to mean a lot less Thomas on the court. He is looking better, but he is still not moving that well or looking all that much like his old self this season. It’s something to keep an eye on.

Also, LeBron James is really good — he finished with 25 points and 14 assists.

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

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Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.