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Three Things to Know: Lakers have a steal in Dwight Howard

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LOS ANGELES — 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) The Lakers may have a steal in… Dwight Howard? Yes, Dwight Howard. For the past handful of years, as Dwight Howard bounced from franchise to franchise — Houston to Atlanta to Charlotte to Washington, with fans cheering his exit in each city — the sentiment from front office types around the league has been the same:

If he would just accept a role he could still be an important part of a winning team.

If he could just accept that the offense is going to flow through others — stop demanding post-up touches — and focus on defense and rebounding, if he could stop being a distraction off the court, there is a role for him in the league. Howard, however, was not ready to accept that reality.

Until he got a second chance in Los Angeles.

Howard has thrived early in the season for the Lakers because he finally is doing what everyone has long asked of him. Sunday night in San Antonio he worked hard on defense and let the offense come to him — and it did in the fourth when he was 5-of-5 for 10 points, plus two blocks. For the game, Howard had 14 points on 7-of-7 shooting, with13 rebounds, helping spark a 103-96 Laker win in San Antonio.

What changed for Howard?

Being healthy (so far) is certainly part of it. Also, maybe he realizes that this really was the last stop in the NBA if he didn’t come around, no other team was going to take a chance on him. Maybe it’s because he has a non-guaranteed contract and can be cut any day the Lakers think he’s slacking off and not taking the craft seriously. Maybe it’s playing on a LeBron James team. On the court, LeBron’s gravity creates opportunities for bigs who roll to the basket; and off the court, LeBron and Anthony Davis are not going to put up with Howard’s antics (which goes back to the non-guaranteed contract).

Whatever the reason or reasons, it’s working. Howard was at the heart of the Lakers dominating the paint scoring 50 points there against the Spurs. Howard and company took advantage of the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles do not form an intimidating front line.

Howard has started to become a Lakers’ fan favorite, which may be the biggest surprise of the young season.

Another surprise: Los Angeles also has been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA to start the season. It’s a sign that their 5-1 start is sustainable.

The Lakers win Sunday shouldn’t completely overshadow the strong fourth quarter Dejounte Murray had — 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, getting to the rim and knocking down a three. Murray kept the Spurs in it, but it was just not enough.

2) Don’t call Houston’s defense this season a sieve — that’s an insult to sieves. As you read this, the Houston Rockets have the second-worst defense in the NBA, allowing 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, that’s basically the level the 19-win Cavaliers defense was at last season.

Sunday was a new low for that Houston defense. Miami scored 46 first-quarter points on Houston, which had a 117.3 defensive rating for the night.

This loss to Miami was particularly ugly all the way around. Houston came out flat — the South Beach nightlife remains undefeated — and if the Rockets’ offense isn’t covering up the defensive flaws the Rockets quickly end up in trouble.

Trouble like falling behind 59-23 to Miami in the first half. The offense woke up and the gap narrowed some, but the Rockets could not get enough stops to change the course of the game.

On offense, Houston got 29 points on 14 shots from James Harden, but Russell Westbrook shot 3-of-11, Eric Gordon 2-of-10, and when those guys are cold it’s going to be a long night in Houston.

The Rockets have had impressive stretches of basketball this young season, but it hasn’t lasted. It’s why the Rockets are 3-3 to start the season, and why if the defense doesn’t turn around — and they can’t just bring Jeff Bzdelik back this season (he’s in New Orleans) — they are never going to get far above .500.

3) Kawhi Leonard outduels Donovan Mitchell down the stretch and the Clippers knock off the Jazz. Here are some bullet point notes made while at an entertaining game Sunday in Los Angeles, one that ultimately ended in a 105-94 Clippers win.

• Utah held Kawhi Leonard in relative check for the better part of three quarters, but in the fourth Leonard had 18 points on 11 shots, getting to his spots and making plays. He finished the night with 30.

• What won the Clippers the game, however, wasn’t Leonard, it was offensive rebounds. The Clippers got the offensive rebound on 42.1 percent of their missed shots on the night, including six offensive boards on 12 missed shots in the fourth quarter. Montrezl Harrell had six offensive boards by himself in the game, including four in the fourth.

“[The loss happened because of] second-chance points and some fouls,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We had breakdowns of communication that resulted in fouls, but the biggest thing was just the defensive glass.”

Rudy Gobert agreed, saying after the game his team needs to communicate better on the defensive glass, especially when he has to step out to defend a player driving the lane (which happened a lot in the fourth quarter).
• Donovan Mitchell will be an All-Star this season. He finished with 36 points against the Clippers, at points making plays that had the Clipper crowd buzzing.

• With Mike Conley still struggling with his shot — 2-of-10 on the night — the Utah offense late in the game became the Donovan Mitchell show, with him coming off picks and having to do everything. That was supposed to be different this season with the additions of Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, but so far the offense as a whole remains clunky and it needs Mitchell to take over to have a chance.

• Looking way down the road to a potential Utah playoff matchup with the Clippers (or Lakers), the concern that they don’t have a wing defender who can slow players such as Kawhi Leonard or LeBron is a legitimate one.

NBA Championship odds: Lakers, Bucks favorites as NBA plans restart

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It’s all about LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

At least for the gambling public. With the return of the NBA set for July in a 22-team format, the NBA futures odds to win the title have gone up at sportsbooks. Not surprisingly, LeBron and the Lakers, and Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, are the betting favorites. Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers are close behind, with a considerable drop off after that.

Here are the current odds (with money won on a $100 bet):

TEAM CAESARS FAN DUAL
Los Angeles Lakers +200 +270
Milwaukee Bucks +275 +240
Los Angeles Clippers +325 +340
Houston Rockets +1500 +1200
Boston Celtics +1500 +2000
Toronto Raptors +1700 +2400
Denver Nuggets +2200 +2500
Miami Heat +4000 +2700
Philadelphia 76ers +2500 +2700
Utah Jazz +6000 +2900
Dallas Mavericks +3500 +3600
Brooklyn Nets +6000 +6000
Indiana Pacers +12500 +10000
Oklahoma City Thunder +6000 +10000
New Orleans Pelicans N/A +12000
Memphis Grizzlies +50000 +21000
Portland Trail Blazers +7500 +21000
San Antonio Spurs +100000 +21000
Orlando Magic +75000 +25000
Phoenix Suns +50000 +25000
Sacramento Kings +200000 +25000
Washington Wizards +100000 +25000

A few quick thoughts:

• Brooklyn is only at 60/1 odds because of Kevin Durant‘s possible return to the court — except that’s not happening. Even if he could, Kyrie Irving is not recovered from his March surgery yet, and no way KD is coming back without Irving.

• Along those same lines, John Wall is not returning for the Wizards this season.

• The best bet on the board? I would say the Clippers.

• If I had to bet who will end up with the eighth seed in the West, I would take Portland. New Orleans and Memphis both have a legitimate shot, but Portland gets Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins both back, and that was a 50+ win team with those two the season before.

• I’m basing my thoughts on what happened before March 11, and all of that feels somewhat irrelevant heading into this unprecedented situation.

PBT Podcast: The NBA is back! Breaking down the restart format.

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The NBA is back!

Or will be in July, at least, when 22 teams report to Orlando to play in a format that will see eight “seeding” games followed by potential play-in games for the eighth seed. After that, it’s a regular playoffs — no 1-16 seed but still East and West — with seven-game series each round.

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman from NBC Sports, along with our friend Keith Smith — who lives in Orlando near the Disney property and has been all over this story from the start — break down the format and whether this is a format that provides enough safety to the players and staffs in Orlando.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

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

Adam Silver: Older coaches may not be on bench in Orlando “in order to protect them”

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Gregg Popovich is 71. Mike D’Antoni is 68. Alvin Gentry just turned 65.

People 65 and older have proven particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control says 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the United States are people 65 and older.

As the NBA heads to the Walt Disney World resort complex in Orlando to resume the season, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expressed concern for some of the league’s older coaches during an interview on TNT.

“There are people involved in this league, particularly coaches, who are obviously older people…” Silver said. “We’re going to have to work through protocols, for example, and it may be certain coaches may not able to be the bench coach. They may have to maintain social distancing protocols, and maybe they can be in the front of a room, a locker room… with a whiteboard, but when it comes to actual play we’re not going to want that that close to players in order to protect them.”

You can guess how that went over with D’Antoni and Gentry (and, likely, Popovich).

Pretty quickly, Silver was walking his statement back. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, president of the NBA Coach’s Association, was quickly on the phone with Silver.

The league may want to take coaches who are members of vulnerable populations and find a way to add layers of protection for them, but keeping them from coaching their teams would be an incredibly tough sell to everyone around the league.

NCAA sets August deadline for early draft entrants to withdraw

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The NCAA has set a new schedule for early entrants to the NBA draft to withdraw and return to school.

The NCAA announced Thursday that it would give players until 10 days after the NBA scouting combine or Aug. 3, whichever comes earlier. This comes three weeks after the NCAA postponed its deadline, which was originally scheduled to fall on Wednesday.

That June 3 deadline was set to come 10 days after the completion of the combine, but the NBA postponed the combine amid the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to announce a new date.

The NBA has announced the date of the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery, now set for August 25. Traditionally the NBA Draft Combine would follow a few days after that, although there has been no official announcement.

The NCAA’s date will force players to decide whether or not to stay in the draft before the combine takes place, or even before many have found out if they are invited. Some players who might otherwise have returned to school now likely will keep their name in the draft, only to not get a combine invite.

In a statement, the NCAA said the Division I Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee worked with the National Association of Basketball Coaches on the new timeline and “believes this is the most equitable alternative available in these unprecedented circumstances.”

“This provides the utmost flexibility to student-athletes testing the waters to make the most informed decision about their future during this uncertain time,” NCAA Senior Vice President for Basketball Dan Gavitt said in the statement.