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Three Things to Know: Old-school Kawhi Leonard drops 38 on old friends Popovich, Spurs

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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) Old-school Kawhi Leonard drops 38 on old friends Gregg Popovich, Spurs. This has been the season of “Kawhi Leonard, all-world playmaker.” Coming into Halloween night, Leonard was averaging 7.5 assists per game (his previous career high was 3.5), and he had assisted on (an estimated) 47.6 percent of teammates buckets when on the floor, well above his previous high of 19 percent.

Not against his old friend Gregg Popovich.

Leonard had just one assist but dominated the second half with 25 points, finishing with 38 on the night — plus 12 rebounds and four steals — leading the Clippers to a 103-97 win. Leonard got his buckets his way, going 6-of-11 from the midrange and 2-of-4 on above-the-break threes.

Leonard is being asked to do more playmaking with the Clippers, at least until Paul George’s return. The roster demands it. Leonard’s previous teams had Tony Parker and Kyle Lowry on them — All-Star level playmaking point guards who could run the offense, set guys up, and get buckets. Leonard could work off the ball more and pick his spots. The Clippers have Patrick Beverley, who brings an important skill set (and mindset) to the game but is not a playmaker of the Parker/Lowry level.

Leonard’s dominance against the Spurs followed a pattern — he has taken charge of second halves all season. His usage rate jumps to 40.9 in second halves this season. He’s just done more of that with assists, at least up until Halloween night.

Against the team he left under bitter circumstances (and rested after a load management night off in Utah), Leonard just did it getting buckets for himself rather than setting up teammates. Either way, it worked.

2) Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns each get two-game suspensions for their brawl. Early in the season, sometimes the league likes to send a message — if there’s a fight or a situation where suspensions are warranted, they come in heavy-handed. The goal is to send a message to the rest of the league — this behavior will not be tolerated.

Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns certainly earned suspensions for their fight Wednesday night.

However, the league did not come down all that hard. Both Embiid and Towns got two games (without pay) for the fight and ensuing social media war of words. A lot, but they could have gotten more.

That was it, no other fines or suspensions. Minnesota had wanted to see Ben Simmons fined/suspended for his role a “peacemaker” — one where he eventually ended up on top of Towns and holding the Timberwolves star in a headlock — but there was nothing. The league sided with Simmons, who said he was just trying to separate the big men.

“While we are disappointed with the league’s decision, we understand the magnitude of this unfortunate incident,” Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas said in a statement. “The NBA is highly competitive and last night was a reflection of that. We support Karl and will move forward together as a group.”

Philly will be without Embiid against Portland and at Phoenix. It’s a blow, Philly has been 14.2 points per 100 possessions better this season with Embiid on the court this young season, but they will slide Al Horford into the center spot and not take a huge step backward.

Minnesota will miss Towns more against the Wizards and Bucks He’s been playing at an MVP discussion level to start the season — 27.3 points a game, 11.5 rebounds, a couple of blocks, and he’s shooting 52.9 percent on more than eight three-point attempts per game. Plus he’s been put in more of a playmaker role. Minnesota has nobody who can come close to stepping in for him.

3) Rookie Kendrick Nunn setting records, drops 28 on Hawks in Miami win. How good has Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn been? Check out the numbers:

• He has scored more points in his first five games in Miami — 112 — than any Heat player in history, including Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and all the rest. (LeBron was second at 102.)

• That 112 points through five games is more than the last 26 No. 1 picks have scored through five.

• The last rookie to score more than Nunn through five games was Kevin Durant (113) back in 2007. KD was a heralded No. 2 pick, Nunn went undrafted and spent last season in the G-League.

Nunn has thrived as a starter for Miami, often working off the ball for the now 4-1 Heat. That allows Eric Spoelstra to bring Goran Dragic off the bench in a Lou Williams kind of way. Nunn showed again why he should start next to Jimmy Butler dropping 28 on the Hawks in a 106-97 Heat win.

It’s far, far too early in the season to have a Rookie of the Year conversation, but if one were going to — as we did on the latest PBT Podcast — Nunn has to be the early leader. He’s a great story about perseverance and finding a role in the right organization.

And Miami is 4-1 to start the season, in part because of him.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis shot 55% and avoided falling into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings. Memphis is one game ahead of Portland, two games ahead of San Antonio, 2.5 ahead of Phoenix, and three games up on New Orleans and Sacramento.

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul stole the inbounds pass and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.