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Three Things to Know: Ice cold Harden can’t warm up even with Antetokounmpo out

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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) Ice cold James Harden doesn’t warm up with Giannis Antetokounmpo out, Bucks win. The “fancy” advanced statistical way of putting it would be shooting variance from a team’s statistical norms, something smart people look at when breaking down a game.

A simpler way to put it: It’s a make-or-miss league.

Thursday night, the Rockets were making in the first half, when they shot 52.4 percent from three and led by 16 at halftime. Then they missed in the second half, when just 18.5 percent of their threes fell.

That’s when the Bucks got back into it by using their size on both ends — Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, and the Bucks went on to win 117-111 in the season debut for both teams.

Antetokounmpo finished with a triple-double of 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists — getting 20 of those points in the second half — but with 5:18 left in the game the Greek Freak used his off arm to clear out Clint Capela, got called for his sixth foul of the night, and went to the bench.

The Bucks were up just six at the time and it felt like the Rockets’ chance. Russell Westbrook made a push to close the gap to one, and then… nothing. The Rockets could not get their shots to fall, going 1-of-5 from three after the Greek Freak fouled out. James Harden was 0-of-1 from the floor in that stretch. Scrappy play from Milwaukee had it holding on for the win, thanks to a critical three from Khris Middleton and Lopez playing well as the fulcrum of the offense.

Harden, in particular, couldn’t find the range all night, no matter who was on the floor. The former MVP was cold, shooting just 2-of-13 (although he did get to the free throw line 14 times). Check out his shot chart.

Even when Harden got off a decent shot, this happened.

Westbrook had a better night in his Rockets debut, scoring 24 points, grabbing 16 boards, and dishing out seven assists.

This loss wasn’t about Harden and Westbrook not meshing — although they did argue a little — but more about defensive questions for Houston, something that is going to follow them all season long. Getting stops is going to be a challenge.

Also in their opener, the Rockets just missed shots. And it’s still a make or miss league.

2) The positive vibes in Phoenix didn’t even last 24 hours, Deandre Ayton suspended 25 games. Wednesday night, Deandre Ayton had his best game as a pro. It was well rounded — he has scored more than 18 points and grabbed more than 11 rebounds before, but he was an efficient 9-of-14 in the opener. More importantly, he had his best defensive game ever, including four blocks. Yes it’s small sample size theater, but Ayton and the Suns looked better than expected in blowing out the Kings.

Thursday all that momentum came crashing down — DeAndre Ayton was suspended 25 games by the NBA for testing positive for a banned substance. Specifically, a diuretic (which is on the list of banned substances because it can be a masking agent for steroids).

“I want to apologize to my family, the entire Suns organization, my teammates, partners, our fans and the Phoenix community,” Ayton said in a statement. “This was an unintentional mistake and unfortunately I put something in my body that I was completely unaware of. I do understand the unfortunate impact that this has on so many others, and for that I am deeply sorry. I’m extremely disappointed that I’ve let my team down. I will continue to work with the NBPA to go through arbitration and am hopeful of a positive resolution.”

About that resolution, there is a portion of the CBA that allows redress if the banned substance was taken without the players’ knowledge. That is the claim of Ayton is making with the players’ union (as well as Ayton’s agent, who clearly spoke to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). It may be true.

Whatever happens, Ayton is going to miss time. If it is the full 25 games he is not back until Dec. 17.

Aron Baynes will start at center for the Suns, which is a defensive upgrade (even compared to the improved Ayton) but a significant drop off on the offensive side of the ball. Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, and Kelly Oubre Jr. are going to have to generate a lot more looks and knock a few down for Phoenix.

The Suns are trying to develop their young core into something special, this is a setback — albeit a temporary one — along that road.

3) The Clippers haven’t even added the guy who was third in the MVP voting last year yet. Kawhi Leonard is making a habit of ruining things for Golden State fans. For example, their last memory of Oracle Arena in Oakland was watching Leonard and his Toronto Raptors teammates celebrate winning a title on that floor.

Thursday night, the new Chase Center in San Francisco opened its doors for basketball — and Leonard and his Clippers blew the doors off the Warriors, winning 141-122 in a game where the fourth quarter was garbage time.

Leonard had 21 points and a career-high nine assists.

As the Lakers learned Monday night, the Clippers come with a balanced attack — Lou Williams had 22 points off the bench and his pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell added 18, Patrick Patterson had 20, even Ivica Zubac had 16. Through the non-garbage time part of the game, the Clippers had a 136.1 offensive rating (stat via Cleaning the Glass). Los Angeles also played good defense, making it difficult for the Warriors to find a rhythm.

The Clippers are 2-0, have looked dominant, and they don’t even get Paul George back until next month. This team looks scary.

The Warriors look like a team with a lot to figure out.

Stephen Curry is going to have to carry the Warriors on offense this season, and he had 22 points but was 2-of-11 from three and had eight turnovers on the night. Without the gravity of Klay Thompson (knee) and Kevin Durant (Brooklyn) to pull defenders away, the Clippers were in Curry’s face contesting everything. Los Angeles is looking like (and on paper should be) an elite defensive team and an exception, but Curry is going to have less space to operate this season than he is used to. The former MVP is going to have to adapt, and the other Warriors are going to have to make teams pay for all that focus on Curry. D’Angelo Russell shot 6-of-16 (for 20 points) and struggled defensively at times.

It’s just one game for the Warriors, but this season is going to be a struggle in ways Warriors fans are not used to watching. Curry will have better nights, as will the Warriors, but it will be a long road.

It is still a long road for the Clippers, too. But they have reinforcements coming.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant make top 10 of Forbes highest-paid athletes list

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LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant make more money off the court in endorsements than they do in salary from their teams. Which is not a surprise.

It’s enough money to vault them into the top 10 of FORBES Magazine’s list of highest-paid athletes for the last year.

LeBron is fifth at $88.2 million, of which $37.4 million is salary (although Forbes lists it as much less). Stephen Curry is sixth at $74.4 million, and Durant is seventh at $69.3 million.

Rounding out basketball players in the top 20 are Russell Westbrook at 12th ($56 million), James Harden at 17th $47.8 million, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at $47.6 million. Overall, 34 NBA players are in the top 100, including rookie Zion Williamson at 57th ($27.3 million).

Tennis legend Roger Federer topped the list at $106.3 million, and he was followed by soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, before we got to LeBron.

Despite all the work that goes into them, these Forbes estimates have a reputation for being off the mark. That said, it makes for a fun debate and ranking, and we could all use that right now.

Stephen Jackson speaks passionately at a rally in remembrance of his “twin” George Floyd

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Stephen Jackson, the former NBA player and current ESPN analyst, knew George Floyd from when he pair grew up near each other in Texas.

Friday, Jackson spoke about the man he called his “twin” at a rally Minneapolis City Hall Rotunda (an event with Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie in attendance. (Video via Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, there is NSFW language involved.)

“I’m here because they’re not gonna demean the character of George Floyd, my twin. A lot of times, when police do things they know that’s wrong, the first thing they try to do is cover it up, and bring up their background, to make it seem like the bulls*** that they did was worthy. When was murder ever worthy? But if it’s a black man, it’s approved.

“You can’t tell me, when that man has his knee on my brother’s neck — taking his life away, with his hand in his pocket — that that smirk on his face didn’t say, ‘I’m protected.’ You can’t tell me that he didn’t feel that it was his duty to murder my brother, and that he knew he was gonna get away with it. You can’t tell me that wasn’t the look on his face.”

There has been a powerful reaction across the NBA world — and across the nation — in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood) and Floyd. In a sport with many black players, the murders of these men were reminders of the systemic race issues still part of American culture. LeBron James captured the feelings of many players and others when he took to Instagram.

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STILL!!!! 🤬😢😤

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Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Vote on NBA restart format expected next Thursday, here are four plans on the table

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The NBA is almost guaranteed to return to action in July, with the games taking place in Orlando.

What format the return takes is undecided, but the owners are expected to vote on that next Thursday, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

On Friday’s conference call with owners, Adam Silver reportedly laid out four options for them, something Shams Charania of The Athletic reported.

There was no consensus behind any one option, teams are all lobbying for what they want to see. Come next Thursday, Adam Silver is going to have to make a recommendation and get everyone to line up behind it, something the owners and players will do. This is Silver’s call.

Let’s break those options down.

• 16 teams going directly into playoffs. This is the cleanest, most straightforward option, and it has support from a number of owners. This keeps the number of people in the bubble relatively small, making it easier to maintain the safety of players, coaches, staff, and everyone involved. The league likely would keep the conference format rather than go to 1-16 seeding (many owners from the Eastern Conference and coastal cities reportedly are not fans of 1-16 and fear if they do it once, even in this unique season, it would become a regular thing).

One downside is players have asked for some regular season games — or games with meaning — before the playoffs to get their legs under them, this does not provide any (increasing the risk of injury). The other downside is this takes almost half the NBA’s markets and tells them “you’re done, no games from March until Christmas (the expected date for the tip-off of next season, or maybe a week or two earlier). That’s a long time without games and can hurt momentum for those franchises.

• 20 teams, group play for the first round. This is the World Cup soccer idea, with four groups of five teams each and the top two teams in each group advancing to the playoffs. Some fans and teams backed this idea because it provided a bit of randomness to the mix — soccer sees a lot of upsets in this format. On the flip side, the top teams were not fans of this plan for the same reason.

The buzz around the league is this format is basically dead to the owners.

• 22 teams with regular season games to determine seeding, followed by a play-in tournament to the 16-team playoffs. This idea, in a couple of different forms (one with just 20 teams, some with 24) has some momentum. The idea is the 22 teams — all teams within six games off the last playoff spot in each conference, which is the Wizards in the East and the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns in the West — would play eight regular season games, then standings at the end of those games would set up the play-in tournament for the eighth seed. After that, the playoffs would start. This gets more markets involved, gets some regular season games (helping some regional sports networks), and still has a full playoffs.

There are downsides. It brings more people into the bubble and is that risk worth the reward? There are going to be some meaningless regular season games here, both by teams eliminated and teams locked into their playoff spots (the Lakers and Bucks will treat these games like exhibitions). It also adds a couple of weeks to the season and pushes the end-date back deeper into September and maybe October.

• 30 teams, a regular season to get to 72 games, then a play-in tournament followed by the playoffs. This is the idea to “finish” the regular season. We’re not going to waste time on it because my sources, and those of other reporters, have called this one dead on arrival.

Silver is going to get lobbied all week by different factions backing different plans, but by next Thursday he has to pick a one he can sell to owners and to players. There are no good options, he has to choose the least bad one.

From there, players will get called back to market for workouts and the clock will start.

So long as the league can keep everyone safe.

Bradley Beal: Contract extension gives Wizards opportunity, me flexibility

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Bradley Beal, through word and action, has shown an incredibly strong commitment to the Wizards.

But is there an opening to pry him from Washington?

Beal on his contract extension, via “All The Smoke“:

It was definitely tough. I came down to damn near the deadline on my decision, because I kind of play devil’s advocate. The whole year, I’m weighing pros and cons of staying or leaving, signing and not signing. Do I wait and try to sign this summer? Or do I wait and try to get traded? Or do I wait and play my contract out? So, I had a bunch of options.

I secured two more years. I have two more years here. Well, three. And, so for me, it was like that puts me – to me, I don’t think I’m going to hit my prime until I’m – what? – 29, 28, 29, 30? And so I feel like – at the end of this extension, it puts me right there. And it so kind of puts me in the prime time of my basketball. And so it still gives me the flexibility with also giving my respects and loyalty to the organization that drafted me. So, I’m still giving you all an opportunity here to make it with work with John, to make it work with everybody. So, here we go. We’ve got a couple more years. And granted, I think my extension is the length of John’s contract, as well. So, this is the time we’ve got. We’re going to see what we can do, and we’re going to make it work.

Beal on the Nets being interested in trading for him, via Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of talk,” Beal told ESPN. “It’s interesting. To me, I look at it as a sign of respect, that I’ve been doing good things and guys want to play with me.

“That’s an unbelievable feeling. When you hear that Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant] want you, s—, that’s amazing. At the same time, you don’t know how much there is to it, or how easy it would be to do. And I’ve put down roots in D.C. I’ve dedicated myself to this town, this community. I love it here, and it would feel great to know I could grind out winning here instead of jumping to another team.

“But I’d be naive to say that I don’t think about it when these stories come up.”

Beal, 26, is locked up two more seasons. Both he and John Wall have player options for 2022-23. Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, declared: “There are no Beal Sweepstakes.”

Everything Beal has said and done about staying in Washington is far more concrete than anything he has indicated about leaving.

But…

It’s interesting how close he came to not signing his extension. It’s interesting he publicly admitted to thinking about trade interest from other teams.

To me, Beal sounds like Anthony Davis – after years of stating loyalty to the Pelicans – subtly hinting he was dissatisfied in New Orleans. The key: Davis requested a trade only after the Pelicans kept struggling to build around him.

Beal is giving the Wizards an opportunity. Maybe they can assemble a winner around him. But even if Wall gets healthy, that’s a tough job.

If Washington becomes successful in the next couple years, great. That’s easy. Beal seems to be looking for reasons to stay.

But if the Wizards keep losing the next couple years, other teams will definitely line up to acquire the star shooting guard. Many players in that situation have greased the wheels of their exit by saying they won’t re-sign or even outright requesting a trade.

We’ll see how Washington does. We’ll see what Beal does at that point.

Considering Beal previously said he’d finish his career with the Wizards if he can control it, these recent interviews leave the door cracked slightly – only slightly – more ajar for Beal to depart.