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Three Things to Know: Utah looks like a team figuring it out. Houston… not so much.

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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) Utah looks like a team figuring it out. Houston… not so much. There were hints of optimism in both the Jazz and Rocket locker rooms heading into a Thursday night TNT showdown. Utah had won 3-of-4 since the Kyle Korver trade with better spacing in their offense, and as a team they were knocking down shots and defending better. Houston was finally healthy — Chris Paul, Nene, and the rest were back — and rested, and after a couple of recent wins thought they were turning the corner.

The question Thursday was “are the changes for real?”

For Utah, the answer appears to be yes. For Houston… there is a lot of work to do. The Jazz blew the Rockets out 118-91.

At the heart of this outcome was the genuinely improved Jazz offense (fourth best in the NBA over the last five games) picking apart the struggling switching defense of the Rockets (fifth worst in the NBA this season).

In the second round of last year’s playoffs, Houston’s switching defense stymied the Jazz offense and was critical to a 4-1 series win. Utah’s coaching staff spent the offseason studying how to better attack the trend of switching defenses and their work was on full display Thursday. Utah focused on getting James Harden (or other smaller defenders) switched onto Derrick Favors, then had the Jazz big pound them inside on the roll, to the tune of a game-high 24 points. Utah also used crisp ball movement (credit Ricky Rubio) to pick apart the missed help rotations (or Clint Capela just playing back to protect the rim) to get clean looks from three.

Houston may be getting healthy, they may have defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik back on the bench, but their defense remains a mess and is going to hold them back until it improves. The Jazz are playing smarter and better of late, but any good offense is going to pick that defense apart right now.

None of that is what people are really talking about out of this game.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert was ejected 2:47 into the contest when, after two very questionable calls (the second an obvious flop by Harden), he vented his frustration by knocking drinks and powder on the scorer’s table onto the court.

Gobert gets his share of the blame here — he lost his cool and that kind of swipe knocking stuff off the scorer’s table is going to mean an ejection every time. He owned up to that after the game.

If you know me, you know I generally scoff at all conspiracy theories (alien abduction, Bigfoot, frozen envelops, 9/11, George Soros’ plans, and the list goes on), but I buy into this theory that was popular on NBA Twitter Thursday: The referees in this game were targeting Gobert after he got a $15,000 fine for calling out officials for treating the Jazz like a small market team and saying “Every night has been the same s***.” Referees protect their “fraternity” because they don’t think the NBA league office does it well enough. So Gobert was hit with a bad foul call on literally the opening tip, then picked up a quick second on the Harden flop. The NBA league office will push back on all of that, but to me, it’s pretty obvious. A message was being sent, then a frustrated Gobert played right into it.

What’s most important for the Jazz is they didn’t let it change how they played — if anything it fired them up. Utah stuck to the game plan, and Houston has plenty of flaws to exploit right now.

2) LeBron James reportedly wants Carmelo Anthony on the Lakers. Does L.A. want that? Since the other games last night were duds (Utah/Houston kind of was, too), let’s talk about what everyone seems to be talking about:

LeBron James reportedly would like Carmelo Anthony to join the Lakers.

Anthony is currently in limbo, on the Rockets roster but away from the team, not playing while both the Rockets and his agent look for a landing spot. ‘Melo could be waived by the Rockets right now, however, if no team claimed him off waivers the over-the-tax Rockets would be stuck with his salary on their books. Houston wants to avoid that. So, they are looking for a trade, something that cannot happen for him until Dec. 15 because he signed last summer. It’s a holding pattern.

This new rumor/report strikes me as LeBron wanting to help out a friend, although LeBron and his camp reportedly think Anthony could help the Lakers. In theory, yes he could, but Anthony could have helped the Rockets if he was willing to accept a role (coming off the bench) with limited minutes and touches. He couldn’t and didn’t. Let’s be blunt: Anthony is at the point with his declining game that he is a role player in this league — a future Hall of Famer, no doubt, but right now that’s not where his game is at. He has, by all accounts, not accepted that reality and wants a bigger role and to be treated with the deference of a star. Is that what the Lakers want to bring into their locker room?

The Lakers have a full roster, they would have to waive someone to make room for Anthony, and before the season the Lakers were one of the teams that was clear they didn’t think he fit with where they were headed.

There is one interesting thing to watch out of this: Just how much leverage, how much power does LeBron have in the organization? He has not made a formal request to management about ‘Melo, and likely will not, but his desire is out there now. In Cleveland, where LeBron signed a series of one-year deals to keep pressure on Dan Gilbert and his franchise, they might have acquiesced to keep LeBron happy. But in Los Angeles LeBron signed a 3+1 contract, he’s back next season no matter what. Will the Lakers still give LeBron what he wants? I’d be surprised, but it’s worth watching.

3) Just how valuable is the three-point shot to winning? Maybe not as much as you think. In the first great book on NBA analytics — Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper — he put forward the “four factors” that were key to winning games, which is now accepted as common knowledge around the league. The biggest key is shooting (he used eFG%), second was turnover percentage, third was defensive rebounding (in large part as a way to measure forcing missed shots), and then getting to the free throw line.

How much has the onslaught of threes in the NBA changed that? Not much. NBC’s own Tom Haberstroh did the math correlating box score stats from every game this season to winning and the results were one for the old school.

With that in mind, the most important stat on the traditional box score is … field-goal percentage! Basketball purists, rejoice! If you shoot better from the floor than your opponent, you’re probably going to win the game. In fact, teams this season are 246-69 (.781) when they win the FG% column….

The team that won the defensive rebound battle is the next-most likely to win, going 225-71 (.760) this season. Don’t believe it? Look at the league’s top defensive rebound teams: Milwaukee, Philly, Portland, L.A. Clippers, — yeah, they’re really good this season!…

All right, 3-pointers have to be the next most pivotal category in the box score, right? Nope. Plain ol’ field goals made is still more important than the 3-ball. The team that reigned supreme in the field goals column went 225-72 (.758), regardless of where they took them.

We can keep going. Turns out that assists (.699), rebounds (.690) and 2-point field goal percentage (.689) are still more tied to the win column than 3-pointers made.

This does not mean Gregg Popovich’s obstinance is entirely right because the math is still 3>2 and if you live on a heavy diet of midrange jumpers while your opponent gets good looks at the three ball, you’re in trouble.

But it does mean the simple things are true: Hit more shots than your opponent and you win. It seems obvious, but sometimes we can get away from all that, and this is a reminder not to.

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.