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Three Things to Know: On arctic cold night, Karl-Anthony Towns was hot when it mattered

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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) On an arctic cold night, Karl-Anthony Towns was hot when it mattered and hits game-winner for Timberwolves. It was a frigid 24-hours in Minnesota, where the polar vortex slowed down or stopped everything. Nobody was moving fast.

That includes the Timberwolves and Grizzlies, even though everything was warm and relatively toasty inside the Target Center Wednesday night. In a game between two teams that thought they would have much better records than they do at this point in the season — two teams outside the playoffs looking in — nobody seemed to be moving fast or making big plays. These are two teams that couldn’t break the 100-point barrier even in overtime. It was a slog of a game.

At least until Karl-Anthony Towns sank the game-winner in overtime, pulling down an offensive rebound over Marc Gasol off an errant Andrew Wiggins jumper, then draining the baseline fadeaway to send everyone in Minnesota out into the cold happy.

It wasn’t a good game from Towns, he was 7-of-17 shooting and once again got two quick fouls and had to sit for long stretches. But he made the play when it matters, and that should count for something even if it wasn’t his best work.

Heading into the Feb. 7 trade deadline we know where the Grizzlies stand — Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and anyone else not named Jaren Jackson Jr. is available via trade. Minnesota is probably trying to convince itself it is just three games back of the Clippers for the eight seed and can make a playoff push, but the smart move might be to see if a team looking for depth (hello Philadelphia) would have interest in Anthony Tolliver, Jarryd Bayless, or Jeff Teague in exchange for picks/young players.

Of course, with the Timberwolves looking at an organizational shake-up — who will be coach and GM next season? — bold moves may not be on the table in the short term.

2) Portland is a force at home, blow out red-hot Jazz. Utah had won 9-of-10 and came into the Moda Center (it will always be the Rose Garden to me) as hot as any team in the league.

Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Trail Blazers ran the Jazz out of the building, 132-105.

Portland at home is a different team — 22-7, vs. 10-13 on the road — with a +8.5 net rating. It’s not one end of the floor, the Blazers’ offense is 6.6 per 100 possessions better at home, their defense improves by 5.8 per 100. Portland at home plays like an elite team (fifth best net rating at home in the NBA).

McCollum came out hot against the Jazz and had 20 in the first quarter, then Lillard came on in the second scoring 15 of his 36. Lillard was knocking down everything.

It was impressive, Lillard is an All-Star (he’s a lock to be named a reserve tonight) and Portland is a playoff team. The only concern for the Trail Blazers: Starting Sunday they have 9-of-11 on the road.

3) Awkward: Anthony Davis watches from the bench as Nuggets knock off Pelicans. Anthony Davis’ fractured finger had him in street clothes on Wednesday night, he was never going to play against the Denver Nuggets regardless.

But this was New Orleans’ first home game since Davis’ agent informed the Pelicans the soon-to-be All-Star would not re-sign with the team and wanted to be traded. That made things weird — he was scrubbed from the pre-game hype video (which features every other Pelican player). It was a move made by the franchise because it would have been awkward to have fans in the arena booing a hype video.

Davis also heard a small smattering of boos when he walked to the bench after the game started to cheer on his — for now at least — teammates. By the fourth quarter, Davis was back in the locker room.

Mostly though, Davis was ignored inside the arena. That’s likely to continue. The Pelicans have not officially decided if he should just sit out until a trade is made — which is more and more looking like it would be for the rest of the season, the Pelicans do not want to deal with the Lakers and are not feeling the pressure to get a deal done before the Feb. 7 trade deadline — but likely that is what will happen. Davis and the Pelicans don’t want to risk him getting hurt if they are going to trade him, he would just be a distraction to the team, and since they are missing the playoffs the Pelicans should make an effort to tank and get a better draft position anyway.

The Nuggets went on to beat the Pelicans 105-99. Nikola Jokic had a triple-double of 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists in the win.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.