Three Things to Know: LeBron is energized again, which should scare league

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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) Two games in for the new-look Cavaliers and they look dangerous again. Go ahead and make all the “small sample size” alert warnings you want after two games of the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers — both wins after the Cavs knocked off the Thunder in OKC Tuesday 120-112 — but there are two clear takeaways so far:

LeBron James is energized again — and that should scare the league. For the first 10 weeks of this season, LeBron was a serious MVP candidate playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He carried the Cavs as far as one man could, but that was only the three seed because of the injuries/abysmal defense/lack of effort from everyone around him. LeBron wore down and became part of the problem, settling for jumpers on offense and not getting back or rotating sharply on defense.

With a new crew healthy (except for Kevin Love, still out with a broken hand) and putting in effort around him, LeBron looks like his vintage self again and dropped 37 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Thunder Tuesday.

• The bench play is suddenly legitimate for Cleveland. For all LeBron’s brilliance, the Cavaliers were -1 when he was on the court in this game, the Thunder starters were +5 as a unit in their 18 minutes. The difference was Cleveland has a bench now, one that extended the lead at the start of the fourth while LeBron rested and created a gap Oklahoma City could never close. Jordan Clarkson has the ball in his hands driving and making plays, Larry Nance Jr. is bringing energy and some high IQ play, and with Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood on the court there is plenty of shooting. That second unit, with Jeff Green making shots, started the fourth on a 9-0 run and created the separation the Cavs needed. Granted, the Thunder bench is an issue for them (and will be come the playoffs), but this is a good sign for Cleveland.

It’s just two games, let’s see what happens as the scouting reports pile up and teams adapt, but Cleveland looks like a real threat again. And with an engaged LeBron, this could be the team to beat in the East again.

2) James Harden looks every bit the MVP dropping 34 points on Minnesota. If the season ended today, James Harden would be your MVP. At least he’d have my vote (and I sense a lot of others).

It’s a recognition Harden wants badly, he feels he was robbed last year (a two-man race that Russell Westbrook won) and after a few seasons near the top of that race he wants his. Don’t expect him to let up now, with 26 games to go in the season. As evidence, look at the 34 points and 13 assists he dropped on Minnesota Tuesday night in another Houston win.

There is no simple formula to determine MVP, each voter has his or her own criteria, but most of the time the award ends up in the hands of the best player on a team with 55 or more wins, the guy having an elite season even by those standards. Houston is on pace for 63 wins and Harden leads the NBA in points per game (31.4), and he’s doing it efficiently which has him on top of a number of advanced stats categories (from the more basic PER to things like win shares per 48, and value over replacement player). After LeBron’s mid-season mental vacation, Harden has emerged as the man to beat in the MVP race.

3) Nuggets beat Spurs, and the back half of the West playoff race is stupid close. As of Wednesday morning, the San Antonio Spurs at 35-24 are the three seed in the West. (As a side note, if you’re one of the “disgruntled” Spurs fans trolling the team on Twitter for not being good enough this season despite doing this basically without Kawhi Leonard, you need to get outside, breathe some fresh air, and get a life. This team has overachieved.)

The Los Angeles Clippers are the nine seed and currently out of the playoffs — and they are just four games back of the Spurs. The 10th seeded Jazz are just five games back of the three-seeded Spurs, and the Jazz have won 10 straight and are the league’s hottest team now that they are healthy.

After the Warriors and Rockets, who are running away with the top two seeds, anything could happen in the West. The margins are slim and every game matters. Which is why Denver knocking off San Antonio 117-109 behind a triple-double from Nikola Jokic — 27 points 11 rebounds, 11 assists — matters. Denver is in the middle of that morass in the West and needs all the wins it can get — ones like this over the Spurs (or another recently over the Warriors) matters.

Let’s be clear, the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Thunder almost certainly hold on to their playoff slots (3-5) barring major injury (or, for the Spurs, another major injury). But after that, it’s five teams for three spots — Denver, Portland, New Orleans, the L.A. Clippers, and Utah — and they are all separated by two games. It’s the definition of wide open. Fivethirtyeight.com predicts the Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers will come out on top, but even the Clippers and Pelicans have a 50/50 chance (or slightly better) of getting into the postseason. It’s that close. For these teams, the playoffs start the day after the All-Star break.