Three Things to Know: It’s Lillard time. Damian Lillard’s 19 in fourth buries Lakers

Associated Press
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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) It’s Lillard time. Damian Lillard’s 15 straight and 19 in fourth buries Lakers. The Lakers had quietly gone 17-8 in their past 25 games and have done so with a combination of good defense using their athleticism and length to challenge shooters, and playing at the fastest pace in the league and getting better in transition. It had the Lakers up double-digits over Portland at home on Monday night

Then suddenly it was Lillard time, and the Lakers had no answer.

Damian Lillard scored 15 straight points and 19 total in the fourth to spark a comeback and beat Los Angeles 108-103.

Portland is one of the teams fighting to stay off the playoff bubble in the West and this is their seventh-straight win, moving them all the way up to the three seed in the conference (as San Antonio and Minnesota stumble, but Portland is still just three games ahead of the nine-seed Clippers in the crowded West). Fivethirtyeight.com now has Portland with a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs, something that didn’t seem nearly as certain a couple of weeks ago.

Fueling that run is Lillard, who in his last 10 games is averaging 33.5 points and six assists per game, shooting 38 percent from three in that stretch. When Portland has needed him most this season, he has played at a near MVP-discussion level, and that — plus an improved defense this season — makes Portland a tough team in the first round come the playoffs.

2) Too much Bojan Bogdanovic (you read that right) lifts Pacers over Bucks in a key game for Eastern playoff seedings. This sums up Monday night in Indianapolis: In a game featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bojan Bogdanovic was the best player on the court.

On a night where both teams were on a back-to-back and it showed — both Victor Oladipo (14 points on 19 shots with 10 turnovers) and Antetokounmpo (18 points on 16 shots) were off their games — Bogdanovic’s dropped 29 points on 13 shots, hit 5-of-7  from three, and with the game in the balance stole a tip-off ball headed to Eric Bledsoe then drained clutch free throws to secure the Pacers’ win.

With the Pistons crumbling (keep reading down to item three) and the Hornets out of it, the playoff teams in the East are set, but the seedings are not and key games like this between Eastern playoff teams go a long way in determining the order. With the win, the Pacers remain the four seed, just half-a-game back of the Cavaliers for the three seed. Meanwhile, Milwaukee falls to the eight seed — they are tied with Miami record-wise but have lost all three head-to-head meetings so the Heat have the tiebreaker. Starting the playoffs on the road in Toronto would a tough way to go for Milwaukee.

3) Larry Nance Jr. goes off as Thompson-less Cavaliers get a win over crumbling Detroit. Tristan Thompson is out for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle, and with that Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue tweaked his starting lineup: Cedi Osman went to the bench and Larry Nance Jr. got the start at center with Rodney Hood also in the starting lineup.

It worked on Monday night — Nance had 22 points 22 on 9-of-15 shooting plus 15 rebounds, both career-best figures.

Now comes the real test for this Cleveland lineup: the team heads out on a six-game road trip without Thompson where they will face three teams fighting for the playoffs (Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers) plus a Lakers team playing well. Can they hold on to the three seed with a hot Pacers team just half a game back?

Meanwhile, Detroit has fallen apart. The team is 2-8 in its last 10 games, being outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions, with the 27th ranked offense and 23rd ranked defense in the league in that stretch. The Pistons have yet to beat a team not on the second night of a back-to-back since the Blake Griffin trade. In those 10 games Griffin is averaging 18.3 points on just 40.2 percent shooting overall and 30.2 percent from three — not exactly team leader numbers.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.