Three Things to Know: Well-rested Kawhi Leonard takes over fourth, leads Clipper win

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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) Well-rested Kawhi Leonard takes over fourth with 18 points, leads Clipper past Blazers. Kawhi Leonard doesn’t care what you think. Or what the league office thinks. Or what Michael Jordan thinks.

What he cares about is staying healthy and winning basketball games — which are exactly the things he did in the last 48 hours.

There was a storm of criticism in some quarters (and from ESPN personalities) after Leonard sat out Wednesday night’s Clipper game against the Bucks, the first half of a back-to-back, to make sure he stays healthy for the playoffs. You know, the formula he used last year to lead Toronto to a title. But some people seem to care more about being entertained than Leonard’s health and wanted to see Giannis Antetokounmpo and Leonard face off — not so coincidentally on ESPN. Leonard’s reaction to that has been frustration the league detailed his injury publicly — Leonard is a private person — but beyond that, he just shrugs and goes about his business.

“I’m not a guy that reads the media anyway. We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing, me being healthy moving forward.”

Then on Thursday against Portland — a game that is more important to the Clippers because it is in conference — Leonard showed what he can do when healthy. Leonard scored 18 in the fourth quarter, took over the game, and led Los Angeles to a 107-100 win against Portland.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts had the line of the night.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum each had 22 points on the night but were shut down and scoreless in the fourth — credit Patrick Beverley for blanketing Lillard, who was 0-of-4 in the final frame. Anfernee Simons scored 16 of his 17 points in the fourth to keep the Blazers in it.

What makes the Clippers so dangerous — aside from the fact they haven’t even added Paul George into the mix yet, that likely comes next week — is that Leonard has help. It was Lou Williams that sank the dagger into the Trail Blazers.

That gave Clipper coach Doc River’s 900th win of his career — an impressive milestone. He and the Clippers cared more about that than the $50,000 fine the team got for Rivers’ comments having Leonard’s back and saying he was healthy.

Rivers has the Clippers focusing on the big picture — this is a team in title contention and everything needs to be focused on that goal. Which means Leonard is going to keep taking nights off. No matter what anyone else cares or thinks.

2) Ben Simmons out Friday night with a sprained shoulder, could miss more games due to injury. Officially, Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons is out for one game, Friday night against Denver, with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. He will be re-evaluated Sunday before the Sixers take on the Hornets.

However, don’t be surprised if he misses more time than that.

Is this a big deal long-term? No. It’s not severe, and it’s Simmons off-arm. This doesn’t change the arc of the season in Philadelphia and Simmons will be back in a week or so at worst.

Short term, it’s a little bit of a problem. Brett Brown has played Josh Richardson out of position as the backup point guard behind Simmons (clearly not trusting Raul Neto or Trey Burke). Richardson played that role a lot in Miami, but he’s a natural wing. He’s okay at the point but turns the ball over a little too much.

Philadelphia hosts Denver Friday night, Charlotte Sunday night, Cleveland Tuesday night, then travel to Orlando on Wednesday. If Simmons misses all those games, the Sixers are still going to be racking up wins.

3) Kemba Walker scores 14 in emotional return to Charlotte. One thing was clear Thursday night: Kemba Walker loves Charlotte and the fans in Charlotte still love Kemba.

Walker left Charlotte last summer after a below-max offer and signed in Boston, but Hornets fans don’t hold that against him. Nor did the organization, which put together a fantastic video tribute.

That was followed by a standing ovation for the clearly emotional Walker.

Walker scored 14 points on the night but was picked up by his teammates — Gordon Hayward had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Jaylen Brown returned to action scoring a dozen. The Celtics cruised to a 108-87 win to 6-1 on the season.

Three things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

Before the ball was even tossed up at center circle Sunday, this looked to be a long night for the Pelicans: No Zion Williamson (strained right hamstring), no Brandon Ingram (toe injury) and no CJ McCollum (sprained right thumb).

Then Giannis Antetokounmpo went to work early, scored 18 points in the first quarter, 29 in the first half, and went on to have an efficient 50 on 20-of-26 shooting on the night, including hitting 3-of-4 from 3.

The All-Star Game captain is having a “down” season by his insane standards, but he is still averaging 31.3 points and 12 rebounds a game, shooting 64.5% in a season where he has had to take on more offense load because of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time. He’s still one of the best in the game, and if healthy the Bucks are still a postseason threat (even if they could use some depth at the four).

This was eight straight losses for the Pelicans, who are 3-11 in January and have fallen all the way to the No. 8 seed in the West. New Orleans has looked like a dangerous team on the rise when healthy this season, but the injuries have caught up with them and now they are scrapping to stay in the play-in in a crowded middle of the West.

2) Hornets get 31 from Rozier, upset sleepy Heat team

It will be hard for Miami to hold onto the No. 6 seed in the East (and avoid the play-in) if they don’t win the games they are supposed to win.

Miami looked sleepy for the 1 p.m. start in Charlotte, didn’t play good defense down the stretch, and fell to the Hornets. Charlotte got 31 from Terry Rozier, 27 from P.J. Washington, LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Gordon Hayward was 7-of-7 shooting for 20 points. Charlotte snapped Miami’s three-game win streak with the 122-117 victory.

To be fair to the Heat, sometimes it’s about when you catch teams and the Hornets are playing their best basketball of the season having won 4-of-6. Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Heat, Tyler Herro added 24.

This was the start of a four-game road trip for the Heat and things are about to get tougher with games at the Cavaliers, at the Knicks (a key game in the chase for the No. 6 seed) and at the Bucks.

3) LeBron James, Anthony Davis out in Brooklyn Monday night

The epidemic — and league-wide PR problem — of stars sitting out will continue Monday night as LeBron James and Anthony Davis will rest as the Lakers face the Nets (officially, LeBron has a sore left ankle and they are watching the foot injury that sidelined Davis for 20 games). This is the team’s one trip to Brooklyn this season. It comes a day after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out in Cleveland (the Cavs blew the Clippers out as a result), and the list goes on and on all season long with Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and other stars seemingly resting more than ever before.

There is no easy answer here. Coaches and team medical staffs tasked with ensuring their players peak for the playoffs are resting guys during the season (and on back-to-backs) to avoid injuries and fatigue. Top players have their personal trainers monitoring them and weighing in on these decisions. The NBA schedule is still too long — but reducing that number is a financial mess — and there is nothing in the upcoming CBA that will change this trend.

But fans are noticing. Keep showing them the regular season doesn’t matter and they will respond in kind.

In LeBron’s case — and he hasn’t missed much time this season — this pushes back the timeline for him to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record to Feb. 7 against the Thunder or Feb. 9 against the Bucks, both games in Los Angeles at the crypto.com Arena. If you want to think that’s a coincidence, go ahead, but I’m a little more cynical than that.

Rozier, Washington, Ball help Hornets rally past Heat 122-117

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Terry Rozier scored 31 points, P.J. Washington had 27 and the Charlotte Hornets stopped Miami’s three-game win streak with a 122-117 victory over the Heat on Sunday.

LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte improved to 7-16 at home. Gordon Hayward was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field for 20 points.

Rozier also had seven assists and six rebounds. He was 11 for 19 from the field, including a 5-for-11 performance from 3-point range. He made two buzzer-beater 3s at the end of quarters.

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami, and Tyler Herro had 24.

The Hornets, who have been hampered by injuries all season, have won four of six for the team’s best stretch of the season. Washington believes it’s a reflection of the team getting healthier.

Charlotte’s projected starting five to begin the season is finally back on the floor and appears to be starting to mesh.

“Everybody is back and everybody is healthy – and that is a major difference,” Washington said. “At the end of the day we have to keep going the way we are right now.”

Hayward has struggled with shoulder and hamstring issues, limiting the team’s highest-paid player to just 24 games.

Sunday marked his best game in months.

“He’s playing confident and getting easy baskets and just bullying guys down low,” Washington said. “He’s playing great basketball and I expect that of him every night.”

Whether a now healthy Hornets team can make a playoff push remains to be seen, but coach Steve Clifford remains optimistic.

“Getting ‘Melo and Gordon back, obviously you’re a different team,” Clifford said. “If we can get into playing set groups then we’ll have a good chance to hopefully put some good stretches together. (It helps) when they know who they’re playing with and they know where the shots are coming from.”

The Heat led 62-58 after Rozier banked in a 3 from the midcourt logo to close out the first half.

Miami went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter. Herro knocked down two 3-pointers to help the Heat open a 13-point lead.

But Charlotte came storming back behind Washington and Rozier, who began knocking down shots from deep.

Charlotte pushed the lead to 12 with 5:54 left on a turnaround jumper by Rozier.

Miami rallied with a 10-0 run. Kyle Lowry found Bam Adebayo inside for a layup to cut the lead to 108-106.

But Charlotte had another burst as Mason Plumlee got the ball after Rozier won a jump ball and drove to the basket for a score. Ball canned an open 3-pointer to put Charlotte back up 114-106 with 1:50 left.

Washington’s rebound and score off his own miss kept Charlotte up by seven and Plumlee dunked off a pass from Washington to put the game away in the final minute.

Charlotte shot 54.2% from the field and scored 25 points in transition. The Hornets also outrebounded Miami 47-36.

“They have had a lot of injuries but when they have been fully healthy, this team can score much different than their numbers may suggest for the season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We did not step up defensively, they got a lot of easy run-ups that quickly changed the momentum of the game.”

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls
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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.

Pelicans Trey Murphy III reportedly invited to participate in Dunk Contest

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We knew three participants invited to the All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest: G-League fan favorite Mac McClung, the Portland Trail Blazers Shaedon Sharpe and the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin.

The fourth slot in that event will go to the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

No doubt Murphy can throw it down with the best of them.

The Dunk Contest will headline All-Star Saturday night, Feb. 18, from the Vivint Arena (soon to be the Delta Center again). The event will be broadcast on TNT.

The Dunk Contest is the Saturday night headline event, but it has fallen flat in recent years. Adding a G-League dunker and young, bouncy athletes such as Murphy, Martin and Sharpe could make this one entertaining. However, what fans really want to see — what made the Dunk Contest must-watch back in the day when Jordan, Kobe, and Vince Carter were doing it — is the stars. There will be no Ja Morant, no Zion Williamson, and no Anthony Edwards in this contest.