Three Things to Know: Warriors cranking up defense as playoffs near

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) Warriors cranking up their defense as playoffs near, just ask the Pacers. Golden State’s defense this season has been like the team in general: There some nights and not others. Inconsistent. Blame injuries or lack of depth or just boredom, but on the season the Warriors have been a middle of the pack defensive team.

No longer. Starting to focus on good habits before the playoffs, the Warriors have cranked up the defense of late, with a defensive net rating of 100.7 in their last five games (just over a point per possession), and they are smothering teams. Such as the Pacers. A scrappy Indiana team scored less than 20 points in two quarters and the Warriors cruised to a 112-89 win Thursday night. The Warriors held the Pacers to 24 percent shooting in the first quarter, 32.7 percent in the first half.

Draymond Green remains the guy who makes the defense work, and DeMarcus Cousins now provides a big body in the paint to deter shots, but the Warriors defense really works best when players such as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are engaged. Of late, they have been.

Offensively against the Pacers, DeMarcus Cousins led the way with 19 points and 11 boards.

One of the best moments of the night was the warm welcome Andrew Bogut got in his return to Golden State.

Thursday’s win keeps the Warriors half a game ahead of the Nuggets (who also won Wednesday) for the top seed in the West.

2) The bottom half of the West is a seeding battle royal — Jazz, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs all tied in seeds 5-8. Utah had a chance to create a little space in the standings Thursday night, but their legs just got stuck in the mud in Atlanta. After a stellar third quarter, the Jazz looked like a team on the second night of a back-to-back playing their third game in four nights in the fourth, and the Hawks pulled away behind Trae Young (who did more damage with his 11 assists than his shot on the night) to get the win.

With this loss, there is now a four-way tie in seeds 5-8 in the West — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Utah, and the L.A. Clippers are all 42-30.

This is going to make the final 10 games fun to watch.

Seeding matters. Nobody wants to be the eight seed and get Golden State in the first round (this assumes the Warriors don’t get bored and let Denver get the top seed, but the Nuggets have a much tougher schedule the rest of the way). When I asked Portland coach Terry Stotts about trying to think about playoff matchups in the first round of the West, he said there would be no easy ones in the deep conference so sharp play and momentum are what mattered, and he spoke for pretty much every coach on that front.

How is this going to shake out? The Thunder have by far the toughest schedule, one of the most difficult in the league the rest of the way. The Jazz have the easiest schedule of any team in the West in their remaining games, the Spurs have the second easiest. But nothing about this season has been predictable, this will not be either.

3) Did Ja Morant play his way into being the No. 2 pick in the draft? The NBA world, like the sports world in general, was talking about the triple-double by Murray State’s Ja Morant in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He was impressive.

Did Morant play his way into being the No. 2 pick? (Zion Williamson is a lock at No. 1.) Actually, Morant may have done that before Thursday — he had a strong regular season — and Thursday was more of a reinforcement.

Whether Morant or R.J. Barrett or some surprise player goes second in the draft will come down to the draft lottery and who gets that No. 2 pick. Is it Phoenix or New York, teams in desperate need of a point guard? If the Hawks or Cavaliers land the No. 2 pick, are they looking more at Barrett? It’s too early to say, and it depends on those teams’ internal draft boards and how they rate players.

But Morant is in the mix, and may now be the frontrunner.

Embiid, Morant, Lillard headline list of All-Star Game reserves

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers
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Joel Embiid was a lock. Few others were.

The fans made their voice heard and selected the five All-Star game starters from each conference. Embiid was the odd man out in the East frontcourt (there was going to be a snub no matter who was left off), and we can debate if Zion Williamson has played enough games to deserve being named a starter, but there were no egregious choices.

The brutal selections are always the last couple of reserves — there are more deserving players than spots — and that choice falls to the league’s coaches, who vote to pick the seven bench players from each conference (three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards).

Here are the 2023 All-Star Game reserves.

WEST

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)

West Biggest Snubs: Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards

EAST

Joel Embiid (Philadephia 76ers)
DeMar DeRozan (Chicago Bulls)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)

East Biggest Snubs: Trae Young, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson

Here are some thoughts and notes on the selections:

• This is the first All-Star game for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jackson and Haliburton — and they all deserved it.

• For my money, the biggest snub is Pascal Siakam of the Raptors. While the team has disappointed, Siakam has played not just at an All-Star level but at an All-NBA level averaging 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game, plus solid defense. He is a top 15 player in the league, let alone top 24.

• Davis and Booker not making the roster must be solely a matter of games missed for the coaches, because both are deserving.

• Jaren Jackson Jr. making it may be the biggest surprise — he’s an elite defender and solid offensive player, but he also missed the first 14 games of the season and defense-first players have a hard time getting the nod for a fan exhibition. The coaches voting in Adebayo from the Heat over Butler was thinking along the same lines, the coaches appreciate the defense and well-rounded game of the Miami big man.

• The coaches put one Heat player and one Knick on the team, balancing the scales for two teams who could have made a case for two players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) will be the team captains this season (as voted by the fans), who will select their starters from a pool consisting of Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), and Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).

• In a change to the format this year, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams on the court — playground style — just before the All-Star Game. They will choose from a pool of starters, and then the backups from the group of reserves above.

• The Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis, while the Nuggets’ Michael Malone will coach Team LeBron.

• The All-Star Game will take place Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. The entire weekend of events will be broadcast on TNT.

• As it has been the past few years, teams will play the first three quarters somewhat traditionally (although the winner of each quarter individually raises money for its team charity). Then the clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and the first team to reach a target score — 24 points (in honor of Kobe) higher than the total of the team leading after three quarters. Meaning simply, if team Giannis leads 100-99 after three quarters, the first team to get to 124 wins.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.

Devin Booker reportedly could return to Suns next week

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Phoenix Suns are 9-13 since Devin Booker went out with a left groin strain (which counts a few games before, but does not include, his attempted Christmas Day comeback, which lasted all of four minutes in a Suns loss). While they have bounced back lately as Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson returned, Phoenix still slid down to eighth in the standings.

The Suns need Booker to return — and they may get it next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, sidelined the past five weeks because of a left groin strain, could return as soon as Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets, sources told ESPN… Booker has been ramping up his on-court work, and is expected to join the Suns at the start of a five-game road trip that begins Friday in Boston and continues Saturday at Detroit.

Booker should be named an All-Star reserve Tuesday, despite all the time missed — he has been that good. Booker is averaging 27.1 points a game shooting 37% from 3 (a good 58.5 true shooting percentage) and is dishing out 5.1 assists per night. The bottom line, the Suns have outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season and been outscored by 2.5 per 100 when he is out.

He returns to a team that needs a jolt and could get a couple — both the return of Booker to the rotation and a trade at the deadline to bring in depth. The Suns are likely to trade Jae Crowder at the deadline — the Bucks are considered the frontrunners but the Heat and Hawks are reportedly in the mix — which may not bring back what James Jones once hoped, but should give the team a little more depth.

If the Suns can get back to the team that started the season 15-6 they could make some noise in the West, but there is a lot for the Suns to clean up to get back to those days.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

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It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

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