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Three Things to Know: Warriors try to flip the switch, Damian Lillard turns it back off

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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) Warriors try to flip the switch, Damian Lillard turns it back off. Coming off an embarrassing Christmas Day loss on their home court, the Golden State Warriors rolled out Thursday night at Oracle Arena and… played worse. Somehow. Even sloppier. Even more disinterested. It showed in how the Warriors shot 29.5 percent from three all night, but it was most evident in their 6-of-15 from the free throw line (40 percent).

But the Warriors tried to flip the switch like they have done so often the last couple of regular seasons.

Down 10 late the fourth quarter, the Warriors went on a 16-6 run fueled by Kevin Durant, who capped it off with a three to force overtime.

This is what the Warriors have done for a couple of seasons now — lose interest through much of the regular season, then play well enough for a half, a quarter, or just one run to get the win. They have enough talent to coast to a 23-12 record heading into Thursday night, despite all the time Stephen Curry and Draymond Green missed, despite the Durant/Green dust-up, despite the Klay Thompson shooting slump, despite everything.

Damian Lillard, however, is clutch and handed the Warriors their 13th loss. Despite going 2-of-7 from three on the night and almost fumbling away his last chance, Lillard got off a three over Curry in OT that proved to be a game winner.

There’s no big picture takeaway from this sloppy mid-season game. If you’re a Golden State fan looking for positives — “I love the way we competed in the second half,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward — you are really reaching. There was not much to like in this one. If you’re Portland, sitting in the middle of a crowded Western Conference (2.5 games out of first place but just 1.5 from falling out of the playoffs entirely) just take the win, don’t ask questions and move along.

2) Bogdan Bogdanovic hits game-winning three in a punch to the gut of LeBron-less Lakers. If the Lakers were going to face a good team without LeBron James, Sacramento was the best choice (and yes, right now the 19-16, in-the-playoff-hunt Kings are a good team, surprising as that is). Why? The Kings have found their identity in pace and play fast, and with LeBron out up-tempo was how the Lakers were going to thrive.

And they did, with Kyle Kuzma scoring 33 points and Lonzo Ball adding 20 points and 12 assists (outdueling rival De’Aaron Fox for a night). The Lakers led almost the entire second half, but a late push back from the Kings had it close late. After Brandon Ingram (22 points on 19 shots, too much isolation where he was not effective) missed a free throw, Sacramento got the rebound, called timeout, and coach Dave Joerger drew up this for Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Joerger was smart on this play in a couple of ways. First, Buddy Hield is the Kings best shooter, but he was cold Thursday night (2-of-8, 0-of-2 from three) so the coach turned to the hot hand in Bogdanovic, who already had nine fourth quarter points (not ever coach goes away from his star in this spot). Second, he had Bogdanovic come off a Willie Cauley-Stein screen that forced a switch, putting Tyson Chandler on Bogdanovic — Chandler is a 7-footer and an active defender, but he doesn’t like to be in the rarefied air beyond the arc. That got Bogdanovic enough room for the shot.

Bogdanovic has proven to be the best thing the Kings got in that draft night trade with Phoenix that sent Marquese Chriss to the Suns. Actually, he’s just flat-out the best player in the deal. Not something anyone saw coming.

For the Lakers, Bogdanovic’s shot was a punch to the gut.

Los Angeles is going to have to go a couple of weeks (give or take) without LeBron and they need to find a few wins. Not easy to do in a West where there are no gimmies, L.A.’s next three are the Clippers (Friday night on a back-to-back), these Kings again Sunday, then the Thunder.

3) James Harden drops eighth-straight 30-point game and Boston can do nothing to stop him. Two teams that expected to be in title contention this season, but then got off to ugly starts only to apparently right the ships recently, got together Thursday night when Houston hosted Boston.

The big takeaway? James Harden was the best player on the court and Boston had no answers for him. The Beard had 45 points on 26 shot attempts and got to the line 17 times in Houston’s 127-113 win.

Harden has averaged 40.5 points in the past eight games, and that has helped carry the Rockets back into the playoffs. But it’s more than just Harden taking over, the Rockets have hit threes around him (not so much Thursday, 9-of-27 from the supporting players), and with the shots falling you see hustle on defense and guys going after loose balls in ways they did not earlier in the season. More importantly, when the other team makes a run — and Boston made runs — you don’t see the shoulders drop, the body language sag, and a sense of resignation from the Rockets. Now, they are a team that fights back.

That fight shows Houston’s turnaround is legit.

Boston took another tough loss in this one. Not stopping Harden is one thing — there are 28 other teams trying to figure out how to do that and failing — but the Celtics were outworked on the glass and generally out-muscled all game long. Houston was the more physical team and that was the big difference.

On their “how real is the turnaround” stretch of games, the Celtics are 2-2 — losses to the Bucks and Rockets, wins over the Sixers and Hornets. Road games against Memphis (another physical team) and San Antonio await. It’s not panic button time in Boston by any means, but this is not the team Celtics fans thought they were going to be watching this season. Not even close. And there is no one, simple answer to turning it around.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.