Three Things to Know: Kerr, Warriors start vacation early, Lillard takes advantage in win

Associated Press
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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) Steve Kerr, Warriors start vacation early; Damian Lillard, Blazers take advantage in a victory. NBA players generally treat the last game before the All-Star break the way you treat your last day at work/school before vacation — they have already checked out mentally. There was plenty of that with the Warriors heading into Wednesday night — DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston were all given the night off.

Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant played but started their vacation a quarter early. Both were brilliant through the first three: Durant had 16 points in the first quarter and after three had 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting; Curry led the Warriors third quarter push with 18 points in the frame on his way to 32 points on 24 shots. However, both of them were completely scoreless in the fourth.

The, after a controversial flagrant foul call on Draymond Green in the fourth, Steve Kerr decided to start his vacation early and got ejected.

Kerr will be writing a check to the NBA for that outburst. The league can’t let that slide. However, Kerr is right about the call — Green was in no way deserving of a flagrant. Collins was going in for a dunk, Green fouled him to stop it, but the definition of a flagrant foul is “unnecessary and/or excessive contact,” and you’re not going to convince me there was any of that. I know the league wants to protect players and not allow contact to the head, but there was very little if any and it was incidental. Even Zach Collins (the guy fouled) was surprised by the call. That was a common foul.

Portland owned the fourth 35-12 to get the win — credit the Blazers for showing up ready to play on getaway day. It was evident back in the second quarter when Maurice Harkless out-hustled five Warriors down the court for a transition dunk. It was evident in the play of a bench unit that has been up and down this season but brought it in this one, especially in the fourth, when Jake Layman had 12 of his 17 of the night and Rodney Hood pitched in five.

Lillard finished the game with 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting, the Warriors simply had no answer.

It was a good day for the Trail Blazers off the court, too — they added Enes Kanter for the stretch run off the buyout market. Kanter will provide some more scoring punch off the bench to go with Zach Collins (and behind Jusuf Nurkic), the Turkish star knows how to get buckets. He’s of limited help (if any) once the rotations shrink in the postseason because he gets exposed on defense, but Kanter will make sure the Blazers are well positioned entering the postseason.

2) James Harden extends his scoring streak to 31 to tie Wilt Chamberlain, but it’s not enough to get Houston the win. James Harden is an MVP candidate because he is willing the Rockets into the postseason.

Wednesday night he scored 42 points against the Timberwolves, extending his streak of 30+ point games to 31, tying the legendary Wilt Chamberlain for the second longest such streak ever. Remember when Harden started this streak the Rockets were a below .500 team sitting at 13th in the West, now they are fifth.

But Harden can only do so much. Or, more accurately, Harden can only do so much to cover up the putrid Houston defense. Especially with Clint Capela out. Houston lost to Minnesota 121-111 on Wednesday because they cannot get stops — Jeff Teague had 27 points on 16 shots, Karl-Anthony Towns had 25 points on 18 shots, and as a team the Timberwolves had an offensive rating of 129. Minnesota got the shots in wanted and knocked them down all game.

Plus, Minnesota made some defensive plays.

That’s what separates this Rockets team from a season ago (that and Chris Paul is still good but looks like he has lost a step). Last year’s Rockets team was a threat to the Warriors because of their defense, maybe that team can flip the switch and come back for the playoffs, but after 57 games it looks like this is who the Rockets are. And that’s not going to be good enough.

3) Nets win triple-overtime thriller thanks to DeMarre Carroll three, then D’Angelo Russell sinking dagger. The most entertaining game of the night happened in Cleveland. Which is why you didn’t watch it. But we’ve got the highlights of overtime for you, complete with DeMarre Carroll forcing triple overtime with a shot at the buzzer, then D'Angelo Russell sealing the win with the last of his 36 points on the night. There are some nice Collin Sexton highlights in there as well.

BONUS Thing To Know: Kevin Knox had the ridiculous poster dunk on Ben Simmons. Damn, this is just nasty.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Bulls’ Zach LaVine not available via trade

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.