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Three Things to Know: Luka who? Dallas ends Milwaukee’s 18-game win streak

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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) Luka who? Dallas ends Milwaukee’s 18-game win streak despite 48 from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe part of it was Mavericks players rallying for their first game without leading scorer Luka Doncic. Maybe no Doncic meant the Bucks mentally relaxed coming in. Maybe part of it was the Bucks looking ahead to the Lakers coming to town Thursday. Or, maybe it was just one of those games that happens to every team over the course of 82, a game the Bucks need to flush and move on from.

Whatever the reason or reasons, the Dallas Mavericks beat the Bucks Monday and ended the NBA’s longest winning streak at 18.

Giannis Antetokounmpo came to play and dropped 48, but it was not enough against a balanced Dallas attack led by Seth Curry and Kristaps Porzingis, each with 26 points. Dallas raced out to an early lead, held off several Bucks rallies, including one in the final minutes, and won 120-116.

The Greek Freak got little help. Bucks not named Antetokounmpo shot 35.1 percent on the night, with Brook Lopez 1-of-8, Khris Middleton 4-of-12, and Eric Bledsoe sidelined with an injury. As a whole, the Bucks shot 26.8 percent from three.

In contrast, Dallas was making shots from the start (well, not the very start, the Bucks got off to an 8-1 lead) and by the end of the first were up 36-22, a lead that swelled to 16 points in the second quarter.

Then, as was the story of the game, the Bucks came storming back and cut the lead to three at the half. To start the third, Antetokounmpo tried to take over and scored 11 straight, but he couldn’t do it on his own, the Mavericks got hot the rest of the way and stretched their lead out to 11 points and keeping it at double digits most of the fourth quarter… until the Bucks made another rally in the final minutes. Another one that just fell short.

For the Bucks, they need to shrug this game off and move on — the measuring stick game is Thursday when LeBron James and teammates come to town.

For the Mavericks (now 10-2 on the road this season), this is the kind of confidence-boosting win they needed. No Doncic for the next two weeks, through a difficult part of the schedule where little was expected. In a tight Western Conference, one stretch of a couple of bad weeks can bounce a team out of home court in the first round. Dallas got the kind of win it needs help keep them afloat while Doncic’s ankle heals.

Dallas also can look at it this way: The Bucks and Lakers have the two best records in the NBA, they sit on the top of their conferences, and it was the Mavericks that snapped each of their double-digit win streaks and handed them their most recent losses.

2) Night of the comebacks: Rockets rally from 25 down to beat Spurs, Thunder come back from 26 down to beat Bulls. This is the NBA. No lead is safe.

San Antonio got up by 25 on Houston late in the first half, but the Rockets opened the second half on a 15-3 run and it was game on from there. San Antonio’s 22-season playoff streak seems like it’s coming to an end, and the reason is the Spurs poor defense (19th in the league) — they could not slow James Harden (28 points, eight rebounds seven assists) or Russell Westbrook (31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists). Throw in a late corner three from P.J. Tucker and the Rockets win 109-107.

That loss dropped the Spurs two full games back of the Thunder for the eighth seed in the West — because the Thunder rallied from 26 down against the Bulls.

Chicago has made a habit of blowing big leads this season, but they outdid themselves on Monday night. Chicago led by 26 in the second quarter and by around 20 for the first part of the third until a 20-7 Oklahoma City run started to change things. Then Chris Paul took over in the fourth quarter.

The Thunder may be just 12-14, but in a surprisingly soft bottom of the West that has them in the playoffs if they started today. Sources around the league don’t expect that to change Oklahoma City’s mindset heading into the trade deadline — the Thunder are starting a rebuild and they know it — but it may make the price to pry a player away from them just a little higher.

3) G-League players to vote in coming week on forming a union. NBA players have a union, the body that negotiates the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the owners and sets the financial and other terms for the league. Compared to the NFL and other sports, NBA players have a powerful union that has gotten them a lot of advantages.

G-League players want the same thing.

Starting Thursday in Las Vegas is the G-League Showcase, an event where every G-League team comes to the desert for a series of games — a chance for NBA GMs and scouts to see every player in one place and get an idea who they might want to grab on 10-day contracts later this season. (It’s also when all those GMs start talking seriously about trades.)

While in Vegas, the National Basketball Players Association — the NBA players’ union — is going to speak to the G-League players about unionizing. The players will cast ballots at the end of the showcase (Sunday), and it’s expected the players will vote to unionize.

What do the players want? More money, of course (the base salary for a G-League player is $35,000 for the season, although players on two-way contracts get more, and players who went to team training camps also usually get a buyout bump for signing with that team’s G-League affiliate). But the players also want some freedom of movement and other perks (more money for travel or housing).

The league is not getting in the way of this. From Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“We support the players’ right to unionize,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told The Athletic. “We view this as a positive thing and are looking to continue to grow our league for the players to develop and accomplish their dreams.”

This is going to happen — and at a time minor league baseball is at risk of contraction and is fighting with the major leagues, this is a good sign for the NBA.

G-League salaries are not going to see a serious increase unless, in the next CBA, a little of that NBA money starts flowing to G-League players. That’s down the line. For now it’s about the small gains. That’s a start.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac suffers torn ACL in left knee

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Jonathan Isaac, who returned from a left knee injury to play for Orlando in the bubble, has torn his left ACL and is out for the remainder of this season. And likely the next one.

It was a non-contact injury that occurred when Isaac drove into the paint Sunday, tried to plant on his left leg, and felt his knee buckle under him.

Isaac had been in the news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds.

It’s a blow to the Magic, who believe Isaac is one of the cornerstones of their future. He was having a breakout season until he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and a bone bruise back in January. Now comes this. Teammate Aaron Gordon said he was in tears when the injury happened.

All those injuries came in a season Isaac was making a leap on the court. On offense, he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. However, his bigger impact is on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He might have made the All-Defensive team if healthy.

Now, it will be a couple of years before we get to see Isaac on the court again.