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Three Things to Know: Young Lakers figuring it out

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LOS ANGELES — 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) While we were busy trying to tune LaVar Ball out, young Lakers have developed into a quality team on the rise. Heading into this season, reasonable Lakers fans (there are a few) had goals for their team of mid-30s in wins, improvement and growth as the season wore on, and building the kind of foundation that will attract free agents because they see they can win there down the line.

Since Jan. 8, the Lakers are 18-9, with the ninth best offense and 11th best defense in the NBA, and they have outscored teams by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in that stretch. Los Angeles is on pace for about 38 wins, Brandon Ingram has emerged as a reliable scorer, Kyle Kuzma surprised everyone with a strong rookie season, Julius Randle is a beast, and Lonzo Ball has found his shot (39.7 percent from three in his last 20 games) and brings the intangibles needed to push this team to new heights.

Through all the distractions and drama, the Lakers are right on schedule.

It all came together Sunday night as the Lakers ran past the Cavaliers 127-113, a game where Isaiah Thomas got a little revenge on his old team with 20 points and nine assists. A couple of things were clear sitting at this game. First, the Lakers thrive playing up-tempo, something that left the Cavaliers defense scrambling. It’s not just Lonzo Ball (although he is a catalyst), the Lakers play at the fastest pace in the league for the season and guys like Kuzma, Randle, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope thrive in it. Cleveland was cross-matching and lost in transition defense, the Lakers were moving the ball, attacking the rim and all of that led to good looks.

“We knew if we got out in transition on this team, we could have some success,” Randle said. “So that’s what we tried to do.”

The other thing evident on Sunday: Julius Randle is going to get PAID this summer. Sources say are multiple teams have set their targets the restricted free agent big man (Dallas is near the front of that list), and his play is forcing the Lakers to reconsider their plans. Los Angeles has hoarded cap space to go after two max salaries this summer, but to do so meant letting Randle walk (or he would have to resign for far less than he’s worth). That two max guys strategy has risks, starting with can the Lakers land two guys worth that money? But Randle’s play has raised the question, should Los Angeles go after one max player and then use that money to re-sign Randle?

Sunday night Randle showed exactly why other teams are getting in line to make offers in July.

Randle has limitations to his game (no jumper, for one) but Luke Walton has done an excellent job at putting him in spots to play to his strengths — playing downhill attacking the basket, being physical, and getting rebounds. With teams switching everything on picks, it creates mismatches for a physically strong player to attack one-on-one. Randle just powered through Jeff Green multiple times Sunday night, and the small-ball Cavaliers had no other answer, so Randle racked up a career-best 36 points.

“Everybody’s had a hard time with him of late,” LeBron James said of Randle.

That’s true of the entire Lakers team.

2) Kyrie Irving misses second half with knee soreness, Pacers beat Celtics, move ahead of Cavaliers to three seed. The biggest news to come out of Sunday was this: Kyrie Irving did not play the second half against Indiana due to general knee soreness, and it sounds like he is going to get some rest down the stretch. Irving has had concerns about his knee since breaking his kneecap in the 2015 NBA Finals, and now he needs to get it some rest. We’ll see if he plays Wednesday for Boston vs. Washington, but the Celtics need him at full power for the playoffs — Boston’s already pedestrian offense is 7.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Irving sits this season.

Without Irving, the Celtics shot 38.9 percent in the second half and could not hold off Victor Oladipo (27 points) and the Pacers Sunday, falling 99-97. Combine that with the Raptors rolling the Knicks, and the Celtics are now 3.5 games back of Toronto and not likely to make up that ground for the top seed in the East heading into the playoffs.

However, if getting the top seed to avoid Cleveland in the second round is the goal, the Raptors may be in trouble. With Indiana’s win and the Cavaliers getting swept in Los Angeles over the weekend, the Pacers are now the three seed in the East and Cleveland has fallen to fourth. We’ll see if that lasts, the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, but the idea of the Cavaliers as the four seed is not out of the question.

3) Out West, Anthony Davis returns to starting lineup, posts a triple-double with 10 blocks, and it’s not enough vs. Jazz. Also, the Timberwolves beat the Warriors. Out West, things got a little tighter on Sunday. If that’s even possible.

It was good news for the Pelicans that Anthony Davis only missed one game with a sprained ankle, and he returned with a vengeance scoring 25 points and blocking 10 shots.

But that wasn’t enough — Utah’s defense held New Orleans down and Ricky Rubio had 30 points on the way to a 116-99 win. That win kept the Jazz in a virtual three-way tie with the Clippers and Nuggets for the final playoff slot in the West. All three of those teams are just 3.5 games back of Portland in the three seed.

The other big game in the West was Minnesota getting 31 from Karl-Anthony Towns and beating the shorthanded Warriors 109-103. That moved Minnesota up to the five seed, in a virtual tie with New Orleans for fourth.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.

Report: Pacers interview former Thunder coach Billy Donovan

Billy Donovan coaches Thunder vs. Pacers
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
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The Pacers were reportedly expected to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach.

But if set on the former Rockets coach, Indiana isn’t acting like it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Former Thunder coach Billy Donovan interviewed for the Pacers last week, sources said. The Pacers are expected to interview a pool of around 12 candidates, trim the candidates approximately in half, and conduct in-person interviews.

Donovan joins a list of known candidates that’s already way longer than 12:

  • Former Thunder coach Billy Donovan
  • Former Kings and Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger
  • Former Pistons and Nuggets star Chauncey Billups
  • Warriors assistant and former Cavaliers and Lakers coach Mike Brown
  • Nets assistant and former Magic coach Jacque Vaughn
  • Spurs assistant Becky Hammon
  • Spurs assistant Will Hardy
  • Heat assistant Dan Craig
  • Heat assistant Chris Quinn
  • Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley
  • Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas
  • Bucks assistant Darvin Ham
  • Bucks assistant Charles Lee
  • Magic assistant Pat Delany
  • Timberwolves assistant David Vanterpool
  • 76ers assistant Ime Udoka
  • Trail Blazers assistant Nate Tibbetts

Leaving the potentially rebuilding Thunder, Donovan clearly expected to land on his feet. The Pacers are equipped to win now, but maybe only moderately.

Donovan has shown impressive adaptability to his roster. That’d come in handy if Indiana is set on continuing the talented but challenging Domantas SabonisMyles Turner pairing.