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Three Things to Know: Jimmy Butler blowing kisses, lobbing verbal bombs at T.J. Warren

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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) Jimmy Butler was stirring the pot by blowing kisses, lobbing verbal bombs at Pacers’ T.J. Warren. Jimmy Butler is not just an All-Star but also an All-NBA level…

Pot stirrer.

And player. Butler likely starts in the All-Star Game in Chicago next month, and if not he’s certainly in the game. As things stand now, Butler is highly likely to make an All-NBA team at the end of the season. He’s earned all of that, averaging 20.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists a game to lead Miami and make them the surprise No. 2 seed in the East.

Butler, however, does not shy away from mixing it up. He likes a little tension around him, and he’s comfortable when other people are uncomfortable. Just ask Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Or, the Pacers’ T.J. Warren. Butler and Warren were barking at each other for much of the game Wednesday night, and it was building up to something. This is the play where everything really got started and the referees jumped in the mix.

The play was reviewed and the referees left as a common foul. Which was the right call, but did not ease the tensions. Soon after, the duo was matched up again, and Warren drew the offensive foul on Butler — then walked behind him, clapping his hands and taunting him. That got Warren a technical and an ejection.

Butler’s reaction? He blew Warren kisses.

Butler was not done. After the game, Butler ripped Warren, dropping an F-bomb as an adjective to emphasize his point.

Then Butler took the fight to social media.

Suddenly that March game looks like must-see TV. Because Butler likes to stir the pot.

2) Cleveland coach John Beilein called his players “thugs” — he says on accident, he meant to say “slugs.” When speaking to a room of mostly African-American young men, the term “thug” is a loaded one. It’s full of implications (the kind David Stern tried to sweep under the rug with a dress code).

Cleveland coach John Beilein called his players “thugs” during a film session on Wednesday. In showing the players clips of their defense, he tried to pay his team a compliment by saying they were no longer playing like “thugs.”

That silenced the room and was leading to some growing frustration among players — and the Cavaliers have had their fill of frustration lately. Made aware of what he said, Beilein contacted his players to apologize and say he meant to say “slugs.” This is the money quote of what Beilein told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I meant to say slugs, as in slow moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment.”

Do you believe him? While that will become a sports talk radio topic all day, it doesn’t really matter.

Do his players believe him? That will decide Beilein’s fate. Was this a one-time, fluke thing, and the players know their coach well enough to take him at his word? Or, is there a little more to this, and will other stories leak out in the coming days?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is Beilein left the University of Michigan at age 66 to take over the Cavaliers job this season, signing a five-year contract, and he hasn’t impressed. The Cavaliers are 10-27, there is no team identity, nor have we seen the young Cavs players — such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — developing under his guidance. Players are acting out and don’t seem on the same page with the coach.

The coaching questions are not enough to get Beilein fired in the first year of a five-year contract. However, if he loses the players over this “thug” comment then the dynamics are very different. This story is not over by a long shot.

3) James Harden, Trae Young make history as first opposing players in NBA history to record 40-point triple-doubles in one game. James Harden and Trae Young were putting on a show.

Harden scored 41 points with 10 assists and 10 rebounds (although he wasn’t efficient shooting 9-of-34 on the night, including 4-of-20 from three). Young had 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

It’s an interesting bit of history and a fun show for everyone watching. By the way, the Rockets got the win, in case anyone still cares about the outcome of games.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Kemba Walker was ejected from an NBA game for the first time in his career. KYP — know your personnel. NBA coaches say it to players all the time. It means to know that Giannis Antetokounmpo will go to the spin move in the paint on a drive, be prepared for it (and good luck). Don’t bite on DeMar DeRozan’s pump fake. Certain players only want to go left. The list could go on, but the idea is clear — know the players and their tendencies.

Referees need to do the same thing. For example, Kemba Walker is not a hothead, which is why he’s never been thrown out of an NBA game.

Until Wednesday. Midway through the third quarter of a Celtics loss to the Spurs, Walker got pancaked by LaMarcus Aldridge. Just flattened. Walker thought it was a foul and popped up angry walked over to rookie referee Evan Scott to protest the call — and got a quick ejection.

Here is the official explanation from the referees.

That was a bad call and the league should rescind the second technical. The first one, with Walker cussing at the referee, that’s an earned technical. The second one, without trying to have a conversation with Walker, was an overreaction. There needs to be more dialogue between referees and coaches, and some understanding of the situation. Basketball is an emotional game, Walker just got flattened, the officials have to give the player some space to vent (this is a two-way street, the players need not to fire up the crowd — Walker didn’t — and give the referees some respect, too). This felt like when refs put up the “stop sign” hand before the player has even gotten to them to say something — that’s not the way to deal with players or coaches. Have a conversation.

Those technical fouls did not cost the Celtics the game, but they did help change momentum. The Celtics were on a 20-7 run and had cut the Spurs lead to seven. This call led to five three throws for San Antonio — two for Walker’s two technicals, one for a Brad Stevens technical, and two for the shooting foul called on the play — and when the Spurs hit four of them it stretched the lead back up to double digits.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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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) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.