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.

Watch LeBron’s big night: Moves into fourth in assists, triple-double, win over Knicks

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LeBron James always saves something special for Madison Square Garden.

LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds — he became the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

That wasn’t the only bit of history, with those 11 dimes he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. And if that wasn’t enough, the 28 points moved him within 89 points of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record: Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387, LeBron is now at 38,299.

For LeBron, however, what mattered most was the win — 129-123 in overtime, giving a Lakers team starved for wins its first on this road trip out East.

“I didn’t get to this point in my career by thinking about records or how many points I have, whatever the case might be,” LeBron said, via the Associated Press. “I just play the game the right way. I approach the game every night only trying to be a triple threat by scoring, rebounding, assisting, defending, and may the chips fall where they may.”

LeBron had help, with Anthony Davis adding 27 points and nine rebounds. The Knicks got 37 from Jalen Brunson, and Julius Randle had 23 points and 12 rebounds.

LeBron needed that help as he wasn’t the sharpest he had been this season, starting 2-of-8 from the floor, then missing a couple of long jumpers in the game’s final minutes when the Lakers had the chance to seal the win. But he was good enough and put on a show for the sold-out crowd in New York.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
89

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,299

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, although that would be by one point, so Feb. 9 against Milwaukee is certainly a possibility.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Paolo Banchero, Scoot Henderson highlight player pool for Rising Stars during All-Star weekend

Orlando Magic v Miami Heat
Megan Briggs/Getty Images
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The big winner in last year’s All-Star Friday night Rising Stars game was the new format (and Cade Cunningham). The new setup saw players onto four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score — something that actually had the young stars defending and playing hard. Things too often lacking All-Star weekend.

That format is back, and an impressive crop of players is involved: Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero, last year’s ROY Scottie Barnes, and expected No.2 pick in the upcoming draft Scoot Henderson of the G-League Ignite. Here is a complete list of the players competing (the rookies and sophomores will be drafted into three teams of seven players each, and the G-League players will make up their own team).

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons)
AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks)
Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons)
Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz)
Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)
Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings)
Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers)
Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)
Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans)
Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors)
Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jalen Green (Houston Rockets)
Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks)
Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets)
Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans)
Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets)
Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite)
Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite)
Mojave King (G League Ignite)
Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle)
Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats)
Leonard Miller (G League Ignite)
Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

There are former NBA stars to coach each of the teams: Former All-Stars Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Deron Williams will coach the three Rising Stars teams, while former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry will coach the G League team.

There will be three games Friday night during the Rising Stars challenge, with each game played to a target score of 40. If it’s anything like last year, it’s worth tuning in.

Needing defense, Kings reportedly eyeing 76ers Thybulle for trade

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings
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At 28-21, the Sacramento Kings sit as the No.3 seed in the West with the second-best offense in the league — they seemed destined to break their 16-year playoff drought and very well could even host a first-round playoff series.

However, their 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) will undo them come the playoffs.

That has the Kings looking for some defensive help and they are eyeing Sixers wing Matisse Thybullereports Marc Stein in his latest Substack newsletter.

Sacramento is said to be monitoring the availability of Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle as the Kings, unexpectedly holding the West’s No. 3 seed after a league-record 16 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, ponder the pursuit of a more defensive-minded option on the perimeter.

Thybulle has lived in the rumor mill for a while, this is nothing new. However, those rumors carry more weight because Thybulle’s role in Philadelphia has shrunk considerably with the additions of De'Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker as defensive-minded forwards who can provide more offense than Thybulle. Doc Rivers also leans into Georges Niang more off the bench because of his shooting.

Thybulle is in the final year of his contract and is headed for restricted free agency, the Kings might be interested in re-signing him (depending on the price and his fit with the roster). The Kings can match salaries easily enough with Davion Mitchell, Terence Davis or Alex Len, the question is who will the 76ers want back, and will the Kings need to throw in a second-round pick?

There’s some logic to this trade getting done in some form, it’s worth keeping an eye on.