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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.

LeBron James on Lakers clinching No. 1 seed: ‘They said I couldn’t do it’

Lakers star LeBron James
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The Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

LeBron James, via Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

“They said I couldn’t do it.”

“I’ll enjoy this one,” James said, nodding as he grinned. “They said I can’t do it.”

The Lakers entered the season fifth in the West in over-under wins (behind the Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets).

But nobody credible thought the Lakers couldn’t get the No. 1 seed. With LeBron and Anthony Davis, the Lakers obviously had that type of upside. Their championship odds were far more favorable. The main doubts stemmed from how seriously LeBron would take the regular season.

That said, in the age of social media, players hear both more praise and more criticism than ever before. LeBron surely heard from haters who ruled him out. Crowning himself the Washed King, LeBron probably internalized that fringe opinion.

Many players find slights to use as motivation. It worked for Michael Jordan. It works for LeBron.

But it does sound silly when an exalted player like LeBron talks this way.

Report: Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president because team didn’t spend enough

Pacers owner Herb Simon and executives Donnie Walsh, Larry Bird, and Kevin Pritchard
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Paul George said he left the Pacers because they weren’t willing to spend enough.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president in 2017, citing a desire to do more things outside basketball. Yet, he also reportedly had another reason.

Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

Indiana is a small-market team that consistently has not gone out and paid big money. We know that this was something that frustrated Larry Bird, who is a legend in the state of Indiana and elsewhere, I might add. It frustrated him enough that he stepped aside.

Pacers owner Herb Simon has a certain way of doing things. Indiana hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2006, the first year the tax line was set before the season.

Despite that, the Pacers have been pretty good. They’ve qualified for the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons, peaking with appearances in the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

Still, Indiana has lost in the first round four straight years. Another first-round loss appears the most likely outcome for this season.

That’s not exactly satisfying for players who want to win championships. Spending big isn’t absolutely necessary to compete on the highest levels. But it helps.

Pacers star Victor Oladipo is approaching 2021 unrestricted free agency. He’s a competitor who’ll evaluate, among other things, whether his current franchise matches his ambitions.

It’s easy to spend someone else’s money. Simon can decide his own limits. But there are consequences of his spending restraint – especially as perception grows about his relative thriftiness.

J.J. Redick describes thought behind meme: ‘I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing’

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J.J. Redick has made the playoffs all 13 of his previous NBA seasons.

The Pelicans have put that streak in jeopardy.

New Orleans lost its first two games in the bubble, a nail-biter against the Jazz and a rout against the Clippers. During that loss to L.A., cameras captured Redick – on the floor exercising his back while out of the game – with a distant stare that became an instant meme.

Redick on ESPN Daily:

I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing, and I think my face summed up that first half pretty well.

There’s so many circumstances you could apply the emotions that I was going through in that moment.

Redick is right: That meme fits many occasions, which gives it staying power.

However, it has plenty of competition. Though the feelings displayed aren’t the exact same, Redick didn’t even have the best reaction inside the bubble by an exasperated NBA player. That belongs to Nuggets star Nikola Jokic:

At least Redick got reason to perk up. The Pelicans beat the Grizzlies yesterday to gain ground in the playoff race.

Darren Collison says talk of him playing for Lakers was “overhyped”

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Darren Collison shocked the NBA last summer when he walked away from the game at age 32 — and a likely contract in the four-year, $70+ million range — and retired. His reasons were legitimate, he wanted to focus on his religion — “While I still love basketball, I know there is something more important, which is my family and my faith,” Collison said at the time — but the league has seen a lot of players say they were walking away for good reasons only to come running back.

The rumors about a Collison return started just after January 1 and spun out of control in Los Angeles when he sat with Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss at a game.

Collison stayed retired, and told the “Minute til 6” podcast it wasn’t even close. He was never coming back.

“To keep it 100, they overhyped the whole thing. Like, I wasn’t even thinking about coming back.”

That game he went to? He just came to watch his friend Russell Westbrook.

“I just wanted to come watch the game as a fan.”

Collison also is smart enough to know how him sitting with Buss would be perceived.

Collison was wanted. The Lakers run LeBron James at the point but could have used the veteran Collison in the role Rajon Rondo filled as a secondary playmaker (Rondo is currently out with a thumb injury). Collison was rumored to the Clippers as well, and Doc Rivers can always find a way to use more guard depth.

Collison, however, seems at peace with his decision. If he wanted to return, he would have done it last summer for 10 figures a season, not for the minimum in January.