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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.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers look like playoff threat

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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) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers get the win and look like playoff force. Here’s the one big takeaway from Philadelphia going into Milwaukee and getting a 130-125 victory:

Good lord the East playoffs are going to be fun.

Sunday, against a long and athletic defensive team that put Joel Embiid on him for much of the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP. He was too overpowering and too athletic to stop on his way to 52 points and shooting 12-of-18 in the paint (and 3-of-8 from three). The Greek Freak looked every bit the MVP (but after the game did praise Embiid’s defense).

That wasn’t enough to get the win. In part because Bucks who don’t have 13 letters in their last name didn’t step up in the ways needed and shot just 31 percent from three (while the Sixers were 15-of-32 from deep). In part because the Sixers powerful starting five could hang with the Antetokounmpo-led Bucks starters despite the 52 because they moved the ball, sacrificed, and played a team game.

Also in part because Joel Embiid impressed with 40 points and 15 boards himself.

But mostly it was how Brett Brown found rotations where a couple starters with some bench players could work. The fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic were +12 in just under 11 minutes. Finding bench lineups and rotations that work will be critical for Philly over the remaining dozen games, but if it comes together like it did Sunday the Sixers could be making a deep playoff run. Like into June.

2) We live in a universe where Mario Hezonja blocks a LeBron James game-winning attempt. It was set up to be another moment where a non-Knicks superstar steps up in the clutch and puts on a show in Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks were up by one with 22.3 seconds left, the Lakers inbounded the ball to LeBron James, who already had 33 points on the night. The King isolated on Mario Hezonja, drove the lane and… denied.

Hezonja’s defense for the win. (There’s a sentence I never expected to type.)

The Knicks — the worst team in the NBA this season (by record) — finished the game on a 13-1 run to beat the Lakers. What does that say about Los Angeles at this point of the season?

3) Lou Williams just gets buckets, hits game-winner for Clippers over Nets. In the battle of two League Pass favorites, two of the league’s most scrappy teams in the Nets and Clippers, Lou Williams stepped up and made the “this is why I’m Sixth Man of the Year” play.

Tied 116-116 with 5.3 seconds left, Doc Rivers kept it simple: inbound to Danilo Gallinari, have him pass then set a screen for Williams. It didn’t create much space, but it created enough.

The Clippers and Nets most likely will not make it out of the first round of the playoffs in their respective conferences, but whoever gets these teams is going to have a first-round battle on their hands. These teams will make it tough.

BONUS THING TO KNOW:C.J. McCollum out with strained muscle but it could have been much worse. If the Trail Blazers do not have C.J. McCollum for the playoffs their stay in the postseason is guaranteed to be short.

After what looked to be a scary injury, McCollum just has a strained the popliteus, a muscle in the back of his left knee. “Just” may be the wrong word as back in 2009 Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and basically the playoffs because of this injury — Portland has 13 games left in the season.

McCollum will miss most if not all of the remaining regular season games and Portland could slide down the standings in the tight West because of it. But he may be back for the playoffs, and with him Portland will have a chance. His recovery will be something to watch.

Dwyane Wade switches up jersey swap with NFL’s Ryan Shazier (PHOTO)

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Dwyane Wade has been on a goodbye tour all season long, and part of that has been him swapping jerseys with various players around the league. One of the most memorable exchanges came with longtime playoff foe Dirk Nowitzki, who could be playing in the final season of his own career.

But during the Miami Heat’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, Wade decided to switch things up.

In attendance was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spine injury in 2017 that left him unable to play ever since. Shazier has been an inspiration to those trying to battle back from catastrophic spinal trauma, and as recently as late 2018 started walking unassisted again.

Wade decided to give Shazier his jersey after the Bucks game, and even called him a hero on his Instagram.

Via IG:

Wade’s game hasn’t aged all that gracefully, but his final season has been a feel-good story from a star in a year where it feels like all the news from superstars is negative. If this really is his last year in the NBA, he’s making the most of it and doing it right, securing his legacy and setting the stage for his legend to grow through the lens of nostalgia as he rides off into the sunset.

Good for Wade for sharing this moment with Shazier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 52 but Joel Embiid gets last laugh (VIDEO)

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 52 points, but Joel Embiid had 40 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers over the Milwaukee Bucks 130-125 on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo was 15 of 26 from the field, including 3 of 8 from 3-point range, and made 19 of 21 free throws to better his previous career best by eight points.

Embiid and the Sixers weathered a late charge by Milwaukee to beat the team with the best overall record in the NBA (52-18) and the top home record (27-6). It was the fifth time this season Embiid scored 40 or more points and came in his fourth game back after missing nine straight with left knee soreness.

Jimmy Butler added 27 points, JJ Redick 19 and Tobias Harris 12 for the Sixers, near the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 45-15.

Milwaukee had a brief scare when Antetokounmpo was fouled on a driving layup and landed awkwardly late in the third. He got up favoring his right leg, but then sank one of two free throws.

Embiid scored 18 points and Butler had 14 in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo’s three-point play pulled the Bucks to 118-114 with 1:18 to go, but Ben Simmons then tipped in Embiid’s miss.

The Bucks got to 3 points twice in the closing seconds, but Embiid and Harris each made two free throws to seal the win.

Khris Middleton scored 13 points and Brooks Lopez added 11 for the Bucks.

Mike Scott hit a wide-open 3 to give the Sixers a 98-86 lead early in the fourth and force the Bucks to burn a timeout.

Scott also provided a fun highlight – late in the first quarter, he made a dive into the stands trying to save a loose ball. He landed in the second row, surprised a fan by taking a quick sip of her drink, and ran back on defense as play continued.

TIP-INS

76ers: Philadelphia moved to a season-high 20 games over .500

Bucks: Nikola Mirotic started for Malcolm Brogdon, who is out with a minor plantar fascia tear in his right foot. Brogdon had started 64 of 69 games and is out indefinitely. . Recalled F Christian Wood from the Wisconsin Herd.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

There was a pregame moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the New Zealand mosque attacks.

UP NEXT

76ers: Play at Charlotte on Tuesday.

Bucks: Host the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

LeBron James gets blocked on game-winning shot attempt vs. Knicks (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is not having a great first year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s now on a minutes restriction, and the team has been mired in controversy surrounding potential trades for Anthony Davis on the way to missing the playoffs.

It’s called James’ public persona into question for many, and Sunday night’s failure at Madison Square Garden felt like the perfect encapsulation of what it’s been like for LeBron.

The play of the game came with just 2.3 seconds left. New York Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay had previously sunk two free throws to give his squad the lead, 124-123.

On the ensuring possession, James had the ball on the left mid-post with New York’s Mario Hezonja  guarding him. James went up for the shot, which Hezonja promptly blocked.

Via Twitter:

Space Jam 2 can’t get here fast enough for ol’ LeBron.