Three Things to Know: Westbrook-Nurkic beef ends up giving Thunder OT win

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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) Russell Westbrook/Jusuf Nurkic beef ends up leading to Thunder win (with some help from refs). To understand what happened in the final minute of regulation between the Raptors and Trail Blazers on Thursday night, you have to go back to January. It was then, after an Oklahoma City win over Portland, that Russell Westbrook was asked about fighting over Jusuf Nurkic’s massive screens to chase down Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum. Westbrook responded he didn’t want to talk about “that clown,” which led Nurkic to post this on Twitter.

The beef is real, which leads to this in the second quarter.

Westbrook got a Flagrant 1 for that, seems about right to me. Nurkic got a technical for… getting knocked over? The referees said that upon review Nurkic intentionally tripped Westbrook as they ran up the court, which started the entire thing. First, it looks like incidental contact to me, nothing intentional by Nurkic that deserved a tech. Second, the play is not even reviewed if Westbrook does not decide to retaliate and pick up the Flagrant.

Nurkic was feeling knocked around all night and not getting the calls, even in the final minute.

Nurkic was on edge, so when he got into it with George again seconds later he earned a technical going head-to-head — headbutt light, if you will — with the Thunder forward after a foul.

That’s two technicals, and Nurkic was ejected, right before his free throws would have tied the game. Thunder coach Billy Donovan then gets to choose the shooter and wisely picked Skal Labissiere to take the shots he missed the first, then intentionally missed the second — and that’s where Markieff Morris fouled Al-Farouq Aminu (it was a foul, just one the referees usually don’t call at that point in the game, leading to makeup speculation). Aminu drained both, and after a Westbrook turnover we were headed to overtime.

There, without Nurkic, Portland was in trouble, and the Thunder pulled away for the win. Westbrook ends the night with 37 points, including eight in overtime, while Paul George pitched in 32 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Damian Lillard led the way for Portland with a season-high 51.

Why this game matters is these teams came into the night tied — along with Houston — for the three/four/five seeds in the West. As you read this the Thunder are the three seed, the Rockets four, and the Trail Blazers five. Playoff seeding is going to matter a lot in the West, both in terms of matchups and staying out of the Warriors side of the bracket. (If you’re calculating West playoff seedings, know that Utah is just a couple of games back of these three and has the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they will be right in the middle of that group by the end.)

2) Don’t make Giannis Antetokounmpo angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. As has been the story in a number of games recently, the Pacers were overmatched against the Bucks Thursday night but they are good enough and feisty enough to make a game of it. The Pacers had come from 14 down at one point to make a game of it in the third, cutting the Bucks lead to six.

That’s when Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Turner shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim.

No foul. Antetokounmpo wanted one, laid there on the floor for a minute, then ran straight to referee Nick Buchert to complain. The Greek Freak got a technical.

At that point he was just pissed off — and the Pacers were doomed.

The Bucks went on a 13-0 run to essentially put the game away.

Then to cap it all off, Giannis did this.

Pick against Milwaukee in the playoffs at your own peril.

3) Lakers throw in the towel, will limit LeBron James’ minutes the rest of the way. This should not be a surprise. The Lakers needed to go on a run to make the playoffs back at the All-Star Game, and when asked about it LeBron James said he was activating playoff mode early to get his team there. The Lakers have gone 2-6 since. Laker players can book their hotel rooms in Cabo for April 10, they aren’t going to be busy after that.

LeBron has not looked 100 percent since missing 17 games with a groin injury. At one point against the Clippers Monday, LeBron grabbed his groin area and asked out for a minute, clearly in pain. After that loss (which all but sealed the Lakers’ playoff fate) he was asked about scaling back his minutes after playing 42 and said:

“Well, I mean, that’s a conversation that would probably be had between me and Luke [Walton]… We didn’t take care of business, so you kind of look at the rest of the games, and the percentages of what’s going on there in the future, and see what makes more sense not only for me but the team itself as well.”

What makes sense is fewer minutes. Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reports he will play 28-32 a night (the upper end of that might have been a good target number for the season average for LeBron) and may sit out back-to-backs. At this point, the Lakers need to think about preserving LeBron and how they are going to win this summer, too. Because the pressure is on Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to have a big summer again.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.