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Three Things to Know: LeBron James’ triple-double earns Lakers first significant win

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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) LeBron James’ triple-double earns Lakers’ first significant win. The Lakers picked up their first win of the season in Phoenix on Wednesday, but that felt more like a “we better beat this struggling young team” relief than a giant step forward.

Thursday night against Denver was more like the way the Lakers are going to win games this season: LeBron James was brilliant as both a facilitator and aggressive scorer when needed; the ball movement found capable finishers such as Kyle Kuzma (22 points); and while the Lakers are not a great defensive team they have players who can make defensive plays at times (Lonzo Ball on Jamal Murray at times, for example). It was enough. Los Angeles came back from eight points down midway through the fourth and got its first significant win of the season while handing Denver its first loss, 121-114.

It all started with LeBron, who did anything and everything asked of him on the night with 28 points (on 17 shots), 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. It’s his first triple-double as a Laker.

There was more to it than that for Los Angeles. Lance Stephenson was a fourth-quarter spark off the bench with a couple of threes and a key look-ahead pass to LeBron for a dunk (Stephenson has played surprisingly well for L.A. this season). The Lakers once again forced the pace — 105 possessions in this game, and 24 percent of Lakers possessions started in transition (they scored at an impressive 112 points per 100 possession pace on those, via Cleaning the Glass). The Lakers may have found their best five-man lineup is Ball, Josh Hart, LeBron, Kuzma, and JaVale McGee (+11.6 per 100 possessions so far this season).

This was not peak Nuggets. Their offense was not the incredibly efficient machine it is typically, and they do miss Will Barton. Nikola Jokic had good bottom-line stats — 24 points and 11 rebounds — but in a sign of how the Nuggets’ offense didn’t flow he had three assists to six turnovers. Jamal Murray went right at Lonzo Ball early (this is one of the NBA’s more fun beefs, and will be for a decade), but Lonzo was the one getting five steals and making some key plays late. And, Denver struggled to find an answer for LeBron.

The Lakers are counting on a lot more teams struggling to do that as they move through the schedule.

2) Did Boston find its offense in a second-half comeback? It’s become a topic of conversation around the NBA: What happened to the Boston Celtics’ offense? Not that it was a force of nature last season (18th in the NBA, basically middle of the pack) but it was timely behind Kyrie Irving (until he had to sit due to injury), it involved good player and ball movement, and combined with an elite defense it got the Celtics the two seed and then to the conference finals.

This season, the Celtics were the second-worst offense in the NBA coming into Thursday night’s game (just ahead of the team they were playing, the Thunder). The problems were everywhere, but they started with the fact the Celtics just could not knock down shots — they were generating a lot of open looks but hitting them at the lowest rate in the NBA. Boston was not driving the lane or getting to the rim and drawing fouls (and Irving was a big part of that problem). Gordon Hayward has not been his vintage self and players are still adjusting to new roles. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Celtics offense was broken and without flow.

That continued in the first half Thursday in Oklahoma City, where they put up just 34 points and went 0-of-11 from three.

Then came the second half.

Boston put up a 40-point third quarter, sparked by Al Horford knocking down three shots from beyond the arc in only 41 seconds.

Suddenly the Celtics seemed like they could not miss — Marcus Morris had 19 second-half points on six shots. The Celtics exploded for a 142 offensive rating in the second half, erased a 16-point deficit, and picked up the 101-95 win. Irving explained the transformation this way to NBC Sports Boston.

“Stop overthinking about how we’re supposed to be playing,… It’s a hard thing to hold onto of being a certain way for a certain amount of time in your career and then when you come into a situation like this where you’re playing with a lot of good players sometimes you can dim down how special you are or over think how you’re supposed to be playing. So I think for us we just all wanted to come out and just really have fun.”

Will this carry over to the Celtics’ next game Saturday versus the Pistons? By the way, about Detroit…

3) Detroit is the season’s surprise team, improving to 4-0. The Pistons have had a soft schedule to start the season — Brooklyn, Chicago, and on Thursday night Cleveland (Philadelphia is the one impressive win) — but they have executed well, Blake Griffin has been a 33.8 points a game beast, Reggie Jackson is knocking down threes (40 percent so far this season), Andre Drummond is dunking and grabbing rebounds (17.5 a game) and the Pistons just keep winning behind a top-10 offense.

Thursday night Drummond became the latest center to thrive against the Cavaliers, scoring 26 points and grabbing 22 boards, his second 20-20 game of the season. Griffin had 26 and 10. That said, this win may have been less about “damn the Pistons look good” and more “wow, the Cavaliers are terrible.” For example, nice spin move here by Griffin but look at the Cavs’ defense.

Saturday night the Pistons face the (possibly) rejuvenated Celtics. That should be a better test. The Pistons, however, have beaten the teams in front of them on the schedule, and plenty of good teams stumble in these kinds of stretches. That the Pistons are winning speaks to them looking like a playoff team early in this season.

Luka Doncic says he’ll definitely play for Slovenia in Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Luka Doncic
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Slovenia won the last EuroBasket, in 2017.

But in a stacked European region, Slovenia hasn’t even qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Mavericks star Luka Doncic will try to change that.

Donatas Urbonas:

Slovenia got a tough draw, landing in host Lithuania’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Only one team from each OQT will reach the Olympics. Even Poland in the group stage will be no pushover.

But Doncic is obviously a difference-maker. Not only is he one of the world’s best players, he’s also comfortable with international style of play.

Slovenia needs him after Goran Dragic retired from the national team following the 2017 European basketball championship.

Slovenia’s first OQT game is June 24 against Angola. Dallas seems bound for a first-round loss. So, that should work. But if the Mavericks make a surprising run deep in the playoffs, Doncic could always reconsider – though he sounds quite certain now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on playing with brothers: ‘Milwaukee, L.A., wherever – that’d be awesome’

Giannis Antetokounmpo in Bucks-Lakers
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Giannis Antetokounmpo – on the elite Bucks and nearing his super-max decision – has the NBA by the tail.

Teams are trying to impress the family-oriented superstar. Milwaukee signed his brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo. The Lakers added another brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo. (The Knicks drafted Thanasis, but Thanasis’ tenure in New York reportedly left a sour taste in Giannis’ mouth.)

Now, Giannis – who once said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles – is singing a slightly different tune

USA Today:

Antetokounmpo:

I think that would be amazing. Obviously, we’d spend more time together, and I’m 100 percent sure my mom would love that. But if we could team up on a team – Milwaukee, L.A., wherever – that’d be awesome.

Maybe Antetokounmpo is just paying lip service to the Lakers, because they added Kostas. But at this point, that’s progress for Los Angeles.

Considering Giannis’ agent just said “everything is open,” it seems Giannis could be planting the seeds for leaving Milwaukee. He could definitely stay. But by at least mentioning other possibilities, he’d soften the blow if he chooses to depart.

Giannis’ views on loyalty have always been more complex than people realized. Tastes change. It sounds as if Giannis isn’t quite as averse to Los Angeles as he once was.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between that and actually joining the Lakers. Giannis hasn’t suddenly transformed into a totally different person.

But this quote will keep the candle of hope burning in Los Angeles.

Report: All-Star fourth quarter featured more than 15 minutes of gameplay

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One overlooked feature of the NBA’s new All-Star game format: It seemed designed to shorten the game.

Sure, the league wanted to add an interesting wrinkle to a game that had grown stale. The exact details were tweaked to honor Kobe Bryant.

But – in the era of load management – shaving a few minutes off the exhibition game should be taken as a feature, not a bug.

This year’s game ended when a team scored 24 more points than the leading team had entering the fourth quarter. The last time a team had scored 24 or fewer in All-Star quarter: 2010, when the East scored just 23 in the fourth quarter.  In the decade since – including the first three quarters Sunday – All-Star teams averaged 24 points every seven minutes.

But Sunday’s fourth quarter took a while longer than the standard 12 minutes for LeBron James‘ team to outscore Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s team, 33-22.

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Defenses really turned up in the fourth quarter. Here’s how the teams’ shooting percentages changed from the first three quarters to the fourth quarter:

  • 2-pointers: 73% to 46%
  • 3-pointers: 34% to 23%

More shots being contested also led to more fouls. After attempting just 13 free throws in the first three quarters, the teams took 26 free throws in the fourth quarter.

In The Basketball Tournament, which first introduced the Elam Ending, the target score is eight more points than the leading team has at the first whistle inside four minutes. By turning off the game clock later, there’s less room for variance in gameplay length.

I suspect the NBA would have also turned off the clock later if not using the target score to honor Bryant. Because Bryant wore No. 24 last, the league has generally used that – not his other number, No. 8 – in tributes, including the All-Star jerseys.

With All-Star MVP now named for Bryant – a perfectly fitting lasting tribute – the league can alter the ending format next year.

The concept is sound. The exact execution just needs tweaking.

Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn may be out for season with knee injury

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Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn missed the last four games before the All-Star break with a sprained knee.

He could miss a lot more — like the rest of the season.

From K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

But sources said there’s a growing belief that Dunn will miss the remainder of the season with the injury, which occurred when Thaddeus Young took a charge and inadvertently crashed into Dunn’s knee on the first possession of a Jan. 31 road game against the Nets. When Dunn suffered a similar injury last season, he missed 23 games…

“Dunn still has some swelling in that knee,” coach Jim Boylen said before the Bulls lost to the Wizards on Feb. 11 in Washington, their final game before the break. “Once his swelling goes down, he will get re-scanned and re-evaluated.  But he had a lot of swelling.”

That’s less than ideal for Dunn as he heads into restricted free agency. He has averaged 7.3 points and  3.6 rebounds per game, however, his most significant contribution has been quality defense for Chicago this season.

This is the latest in a string of injuries for the Bulls. Otto Porter has only played nine games due to a broken foot. Big men Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are currently sidelined due to injuries, although Carter could return after the All-Star break and Markkanen by early next month. Now Dunn.