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Three Things to Know: Phoenix has a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously

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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) Phoenix had a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously. It’s been hard to figure out precisely what the plan was in Phoenix the past couple of years. Sure, they had Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but what were they putting around those two? Was there a grand design?

Last season the Suns signed Trevor Ariza only to trade him for Kelly Oubre Jr., then also traded Ryan Anderson to Miami for Tyler Johnson. This past summer they flipped the No. 6 pick in the draft — turned out to be Jarrett Culver — to the Timberwolves for the No. 11 pick and Dario Saric, then they used that pick on Cameron Johnson (a guy older than Booker and considered a reach). Phoenix sent their 2020 first-round pick to Boston for Aron Baynes to be a backup center. There were two objectively smart moves, picking up point guard Ricky Rubio as a free agent, and signing Monty Williams to be the coach. Then this season started with a punch to the gut — Ayton got suspended 25 games (pending an appeal) for taking a banned substance, a diuretic.

Turns out, the Suns’ plan was to put a team of competent NBA players around Booker, then simplify the offense and defense but execute it all cleanly.

It works.

Quite well, thank you very much.

Phoenix had already beaten the Clippers this season, then on Monday they got another statement win knocking Philadelphia from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 114-109 victory.

Phoenix is 5-2 on the young season with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA (third best if you filter out garbage time as Ben Falk does over at Cleaning the Glass). The Suns are legitimate and — while it’s early, we’re not even 1/10th of the way into the season — Phoenix looks like a playoff team.

Devin Booker looks every bit the All-Star guard, getting revenge on those that thought he was simply an empty calorie guy who could get numbers but not help a team win. He certainly helped the Suns win on Monday with maybe his best game — 40 points on 15-of-19 shooting, while picking apart a good defensive team in the Sixers (granted, one without Joel Embiid due to suspension).

Whether the Suns can sustain this level of play is up for debate — right now they are the only team ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive net rating. But even if they come back to earth some, GM James Jones deserves some credit for having a plan and pulling it off — a plan that has the Suns looking like a quality team.

Phoenix hasn’t been to the postseason since 2010 when Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were running the remnants of seven seconds or less for Alvin Gentry. That looks like it will change this season, Phoenix is back. Things are looking bright in the Valley of the Sun.

2) Brandon Ingram dropped 40, but Kyrie Irving had 39 and Nets out-duel Pelicans for the win. This is what the Pelicans have done all season long — play hard, but come up just short. The Pelicans are 1-6 on the young season, but with the net rating of a 3-4 team. They just keep losing close games.

Monday night that happened against Brooklyn. Brandon Ingram continued his hot start for New Orleans (not coincidentally, in a contract year) and scored a career-high 40 on 17-of-24 shooting, but it wasn’t enough against Brooklyn, where Kyrie Irving dropped 39 on the gray floor.

Caris LeVert added 23 points and all five starters (plus Garrett Temple off the bench) scored in double digits for Brooklyn.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Pelicans didn’t really get serious in contract extension talks with Ingram, he had missed the end of last season with a blood clot issue and that scares teams because it can be career-threatening (Ingram’s was different from, for example, Chris Bosh’s situation, Ingram’s clot was in his arm, but it’s still a concern). Plus, Ingram had been up and down in Los Angeles, and there remain questions about how well he’ll fit next to Zion Williamson.

Ingram, however, has put in the work — his footwork and handles are lightyears ahead of his lanky, awkward rookie season — and it shows. His game is more fluid now. He is averaging 25.9 points a game this season, shooting 48.6 percent on five threes a game, and is grabbing 7.1 boards a night. He is playing like an All-Star. He’s playing like a guy who will get paid next summer, one way or another.

3) Grizzlies and Ja Morant vs. the Knicks RJ Barrett: how much should teams play rookies? There has become an interesting dichotomy this season, a real debate about how to handle a star rookie player:

Should teams be already thinking load management and watching the minutes of a potentially elite young player on a bad team? Or do you throw the guy out there and let him learn by doing as much as he can racking up minutes?

In Memphis, the plan is to bring Ja Morant along slowly. The No. 2 pick out of Murray State — where he played a lot of minutes because they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to win — is averaging 28 minutes a night, and has played more than 30 just once in six games. Morant is starting, being allowed to make mistakes and learn, and in those limited minutes is still averaging 19.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from three (on two attempts per game). He has a PER of 20.3, which is insanely good for a rookie. Morant is everything that was advertised, a freakish young athlete with a great feel for the game. A franchise cornerstone kind of player.

The Grizzlies don’t want to burn Morant out, here is what coach Tyler Jenkins said, via The Athletic.

“We want to, for lack of a better phrase, put some money in the bank moving forward with him,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always been a big believer that when you start playing in the mid-30s, you kinda wear down. Our rookies, including him, have never played 82 games in a season.”

That’s a smart, practical, long-term thinking approach.

Then there’s David Fizdale with the Knicks.

RJ Barrett is averaging 37.1 minutes a game and is putting up counting stats — 18.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, he’s shooting 35.7 percent from three, and he’s also learning in a trial-by-fire kind of way. He’s just in the fire a lot more, which is how things have been done in the past in the NBA — and former players are good with that.

Hopefully so. But this approach also comes with more risk. The Knicks seem to have a wing in Barrett who can be a central part of whatever is ultimately built in New York — whatever other players come in via the draft and free agency — and they should be thinking about Barrett three years from now. Barrett can grow —  he struggled at points in Summer League, but he’s showing he learned from those experiences. That’s a very good sign.

So long as he doesn’t burn out. Or physically wear down (which makes a potential injury more likely).

Different players can handle different workloads, and they learn differently — there is no one-size-fits-all plan. However, David Fizdale seems to be taking an old-school approach in New York, whereas the Grizzlies seem to be more modern in their thinking about the long term.

We’ll see which philosophy pays off in the long run.

Here are 15 thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut (and the rest of our Three Things to Know)

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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) Here are 15 bullet point thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut. Zion Williamson impressed in his debut game — 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time. Here are my thoughts from his opening night.

• What were the odds Zion’s first game would feature zero monster dunks but four made threes?

• I can’t watch those four minutes in the fourth quarter enough.

• The four line-drive threes were the story because they were unexpected, but the most impressive play of the night came when Jakob Poeltl blocked his shot, but Zion got the ball back, gut to the other side of the rim and scored. It was his most athletic bucket of the night.

• Can’t blame the Spurs for letting Zion take those threes, he was 1-of-4 from deep in the preseason and he was not a great three-point shooter in college (33.8 percent on a couple a game). The scouting report was to let him shoot. Future opponents will not let him set his feet and take those shots uncontested (the Spurs were in a zone when his run started, which seemed to be a green light in Zion’s mind, other teams will defend him differently).

• Zion said postgame that when he couldn’t move much during rehab, he worked on his shot. It showed — he looked more comfortable from deep than Ben Simmons has (and maybe even the Greek Freak). Zion has a set shot from three, it’s not a quick release or something he can take in motion pealing off a screen, but it doesn’t have to be. Defenders now will have to close out on Zion when he sets his feet, and when they do he can blow by them and attack the rim.

• Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson worked with Zion, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram this past year on their shots, and all three now have vastly improved jumpers. Vinson is not getting enough credit.

• Coach Alvin Gentry taking Zion out was painful to watch… and exactly the right thing to do. This is not about “rest” it’s about injury prevention — major injuries are more likely to occur when fatigued muscles cannot provide the support for ligaments and tendons on explosive moves and things snap. Williamson was obviously not in peak game shape (nor should he be expected to be coming off knee surgery), so a minutes limit was there to prevent him from pushing through tired muscles and re-injuring his just-repaired knee (or some other body part). Yes, it sucked as fans, but the goal is to have him play most of New Orleans remaining 37 games this season (and for seasons beyond this one), not to watch him go down in his first game back.

• Clearly, Zion needs to round into game shape (as to be expected for any player coming off knee surgery), but Mark Jackson’s handled the weight topic poorly on the broadcast, buying into the “Zion can’t play at that weight” trope. Zion is a unique athlete. Unless you’re a member of the Pelicans’ medial team that has done extensive testing on Williamson, you’re not in a position to say what his ideal playing weight will be (up or down). Maybe he should play at a lower weight than what he is at right now, maybe not, but this is an issue that should be handled with some delicacy, and Jackson was a Pamplona Bull on the run.

• Between Zion needing to lose weight and Brandon Ingram needing to add it, the Pelicans are a body shamers dream team.

• Williamson did defer too much through the first three quarters, but he mostly looked like a rookie who had not played much and was trying to fit in. The upside is he didn’t force anything. He wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t aggressive.

• Zion’s passing was surprisingly good. He made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams (picking up one good assist on an Ingram drive) and took what the defense gave him.

• Zion’s defense is going to be a work in progress (as it is with every rookie not named Matisse Thybulle). He has the athleticism and instincts to be a good defender, we saw it in the preseason, but in his first game against NBA players going at NBA speed he struggled and made some bad reads. It’s to be expected with any rookie, it’s just going to take time to see what kind of defender he will be.

• Expect to see a lot more Zion as a small-ball five, that seems the most natural fit. However, he did have the gravity to draw defenders, which helped open things up for Derrick Favors to get some first-quarter buckets.

• How well Ingram and Zion play together is the $168 million question for the Pelicans. That’s how much Ingram’s five-year max contract from New Orleans will be worth next summer — and he’s going to get it. The question becomes will Ingram and that contract ultimately get traded because of fit issues? It’s way too early to make that call.

Ja Morant — the Grizzlies point guard running away with Rookie of the Year — came off a similar knee surgery last summer and it took him some time to get his legs under him and start to find how to use his athleticism in the NBA. Now he’s must-watch League Pass television. I expect the same thing out of Williamson as he rounds into form following his knee surgery.

• Bonus bullet point thought: That’s still a loss for the Pelicans to one of the teams they are battling for the final couple of playoff

2) Houston snaps four-game losing streak against shorthanded Nuggets (and they are fine with that). Houston had lost four games in a row (and 5-of-6), then rolled into Denver Wednesday, only to find a beaten-up Nuggets squad. No Jamal Murray (sprained ankle), Paul Millsap (knee), Mason Plumlee (foot), Gary Harris (aductor), or Michael Porter Jr. (back).

This is the NBA, you catch teams when you catch them — and in this case, the Rockets were happy to catch the break. Houston got 27 points from James Harden on just 13 shots, and Russell Westbrook had 28 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists, and Houston cruised to a 121-105 win.

The Rockets’ offense has struggled of late, enough that it couldn’t cover up the team’s unimpressive defense. On Wednesday everything clicked. The question is, can the Rockets build off this and get back on track?

Denver, for its part, needs to keep its head above water until they get healthy again.

3) Shorthanded Sixers lose another starter in Josh Richardson, Toronto picks up the win. Philadelphia has gone eight games now without Joel Embiid, and now they will need to go a few games without Josh Richardson, too. The Sixers’ wing pulled up four minutes into the game grabbing his left hamstring. He did not return to the game.

Philadelphia fell to 5-3 without Embiid in a 107-95 loss in Toronto. They have tried to win with defense, starting Matisse Thybulle next to Ben Simmons, but when Thybulle picked up a quick second foul on a Kyle Lowry pump fake and had to leave the game, things started to fall apart for the Sixers.

Toronto got 22 from Fred VanVleet and had a balanced attack with six players scoring at least 16 points.

If the playoffs started today, this would be the first-round matchup and Toronto would have the home court. The Raptors keep on winning, and Nick Nurse’s case for Coach of the Year gets stronger and stronger.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his cautious start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got their payoff during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a 19-year-old rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first three quarters looking like a rookie who had not played much, needed to work on his conditioning, and was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers. His teammates were telling him to let go and get in the flow of the offense.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three over the top of a zone. Postgame, Zion said during is rehab, when he could not run, he took a lot of standstill jumpers and it paid off. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).