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Three Things to Know: Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams?

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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) Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams? Things didn’t look promising Tuesday. The Celtics were the preseason favorite to be the top seed in the East because they had depth, they were going to have versatility because of that depth, because their young players were going to keep improving, because they were going to have a star with the ball in his hands taking them to the next level, and because we knew their defense was going to be good.

Turns out that actually describes the Milwaukee Bucks. And the Toronto Raptors.

Those are two teams who have beaten the Celtics since the All-Star break — Toronto blew Boston out on Tuesday night, turning and 18-0 second-quarter run into a 118-95 victory.

It’s led to a lot of questions about where Boston really fits in the pecking order at the top of the East. And there are no easy answers.

In Boston’s wins against Toronto earlier in the season it was the Kyrie Irving show but he seemed passive Tuesday, which led Boston to a more balanced attack this time around — and it backfired. They shot 6-of-30 from three and could not find an offensive groove. It was ugly. That happens, there are bad games and the Raptors are an elite team. What was concerning was the way the Celtics seemed to just roll over and accept their fate Tuesday night.

What’s concerning is this team has still not gelled 61 games into the season.

Also concerning: The look on Irving’s face.

Most concerning, however, is through their past 10 games the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the league. This was supposed to be Boston’s calling card, and while Boston has the fifth best defense in the NBA for the season we have not seen that of late. Their strength isn’t there to bail them out on the nights the shots don’t fall.

Which leads to the questions: Just how good are the Celtics? Where do they rank in the East?

If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t even have home court in the first round. On the season, Boston is 2-10 on the road against teams better than .500. Still, there seems to be an internal level of confidence in the Celtics’ locker room. After a recent loss Kyrie Irving said this was just the regular season and when it came time to focus, when they drilled down on matchups against one team in the playoffs, the Celtics would be fine. Essentially, a flip the switch moment.

Can they really? Right now, the signs are not promising as teams start to gear up for their playoff run.

2) Denver turns out to be a matchup nightmare for Oklahoma City. Remember above I wrote we thought Boston would have depth, be versatile, their young players were going to step up, their star was going to lift them to the next level, and their defense was going to be good? That also describes the Denver Nuggets this season. Oh, and they have Isaiah Thomas.

That Nikola Jokic has stepped up to an All-Star — and likely All-NBA — is not a surprise, he’s been on that trajectory for years. What is a surprise is just how good Denver’s defense has become — top 10 in the NBA on the season, and in the last five games they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7, best in the NBA in that stretch).

That includes handling the Thunder 121-112 Tuesday night. Jokic led the way with 36 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, and he heard MVP chants from the Denver faithful.

Paul George was putting up some highlight plays, but it wasn’t enough.

It is very possible these teams meet in the second round of the playoffs, and if that happens I’d be worried if I were a Thunder fan. Through three meetings this season, the Thunder have led for 12 minutes of game time, the Nuggets for 85. Ouch. Regular season games do not project postseason ones nearly as well as fans want them to, but when one team seems to have the other’s number that is a sign.

3) Break up the Knicks, they have won three of four. Tanking for Zion? There will be none of that in Madison Square Garden…

Well, there kind of is. The Knicks do have the second-worst record in the NBA, giving them as good a shot as anyone at landing the top pick in the draft and the rights to the Duke superstar (a 14 percent chance, but that’s as good as it gets with the new lottery odds).

New York, however, is not limping into the end of the season. Orlando came into Madison Square Garden having won 8-of-9 and is fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but New York got great play from their bench and got the win 108-103. Not one Knicks starter scored in double figures, but Emmanuel Mudiay had 19 points off the bench, Allonzo Trier added 18, and the biggest stud of the night was rookie Mitchell Robinson who had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks.

The Knicks are still going to have great lottery odds (they would need to make up three games on the Bulls — who have played well as of late also — to fall out of the bottom three and not have their 14 percent odds at the top slot). However, it’s good for the franchise to see the team’s young players show some grit down the stretch.

Report: Celtics “most likely” offer Jayson Tatum a max contract after season

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This should not be a surprise.

Jayson Tatum is a cornerstone of the Celtics now and going forward: 23.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, an efficient 56.2 true shooting percentage, a shot creator, an athletic finisher at the rim, and a guy who shot 39.8 percent from three. Tatum was an All-Star in his third season and will draw third-team All-NBA votes (whenever those votes happen).

Tatum is eligible for an extension to his rookie contract after this season. Is he worth a full max contract? Yes, especially considering he is 22 and still improving by leaps each season.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on SportsCenter the Celtics are expected to offer Tatum the max (hat tip Bleacher Report).

“If Jayson Tatum is the superstar that they envisioned when they began this whole rebuilding process when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for all of those draft picks hoping to land a player like this, we could see ‘Glory Days’ for the Celtics again. But it’s very much up in the air, and I’m gonna tell ya, they’re gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They’re going to bet that he becomes that player.”

It’s fair to argue that max contracts should be reserved for true alphas, true No. 1s and maybe a few No. 2 players on a team, and that Tatum has yet to prove he is one of those. Boston would be betting he becomes that player — but right now that looks like a good bet. More importantly, last summer the Celtics locked up Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown on four-year contracts, sign Tatum and the Celtics have a core that will have them at or near the top of the East for years.

Exactly what a max contract will look like this coming off-season after the coronavirus hit to the league’s finances is another question, one nobody has an answer to right now. Under the old cap, it would have been $181 million over five years (and if he made All-NBA teams it could jump to $218 million), but those numbers don’t apply to the new reality. Even if Tatum signs the max offer this summer, he will make his $9.9 million next season then be paid whatever the max is for him starting in the 2021-22 season (and again, it’s impossible to say what the league’s finances will be at that point).

Pay the man his money.  Expect Boston to make the offer whenever the offseason arrives.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.