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Three Things to Know: Ja Morant goes right at James Harden, wins the night

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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) Ja Morant goes right at James Harden, wins the night. For much of Tuesday night, Ja Morant was treating James Harden like the Beard has treated so many helpless big men over the past few years: When Harden got switched onto Morant the rookie would step back, call for a clear out, then embarrass the defender who could not keep up with him.

It was like that all night, and Morant was not afraid to call out Harden more than once for his defense.

“The doubters said I couldn’t shoot, I’m proving them wrong,” Morant said in his walk-off interview after his 26-point, eight assist night that sparked Memphis to a 121-110 win over the Rockets.

If Harden was one of those doubters, he is no longer.

Morant is running away with the Rookie of the Year award that his former AAU teammate in South Carolina Zion Williamson was expected to run away with. Morant is out of Zion’s shadow and has become must-watch television in his own right every time he steps on the court with his amazing passing and fluid athleticism.

“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said recently of his young star. The assist totals, his paint finishing, but also now he’s starting to shoot the three-ball better. As a three-point shooter, he’s shooting with more confidence, he’s getting back defensively. He’s a kid who gets better every single day.”

Harden still had 41 on the night but on 13-of-37 shooting. Russell Westbrook sat out for rest (he has done that on half of back-to-backs all season, and the Rockets host Portland tonight).

2) The Utah Jazz winning streak reaches 10 with a win in Brooklyn. Last summer, the Jazz made adding offense the priority — no more “great defense and hope Donovan Mitchell is enough” in the playoffs, the Jazz wanted more guys who could go get buckets.

Utah is on a 10-game winning streak — after knocking off the Nets in Brooklyn Tuesday night 118-107 — and it’s the offense that is driving the streak. In its last 10 games, the Jazz have an offensive rating of 122, best in the NBA over that stretch. The defense has been just average over that same stretch (and fallen to eighth in the league for the season), but it hasn’t mattered because the Jazz offense is on a roll. Utah has won 15-of-16 because of that improved offense.

Joe Ingles has thrived once forced back into a starter’s role (because Mike Conley is out with a hamstring issue), and he led the Jazz with 27 points on Tuesday. Bojan Bogdanovic has been impressive of late, having found a comfort level within the offense. Mitchell remains Utah’s go-to scorer and has averaged 21.4 points per game over the last 10.

Before anyone wants to argue “Utah can hang with the Lakers/Clippers,” there are caveats. Only one of those last 10 wins came against a team with a winning record (the Clippers). Utah’s defense needs to get back to locking teams down again. Finally, Mike Conley is going to return, and the Jazz need to find a way to integrate him into the offense. Come the playoffs — and especially the second round and beyond — teams are going to take away the pet plays and easy buckets the Jazz get from their system and it’s going to come down to individual shot creators. Mitchell can do that, but he needs help (as last year’s playoffs showed). Bogdanovic can pitch in, but that will be why Utah needs Conley and his pick-and-roll skills.

For now though, the Jazz have won 10 in a row and look like a potential threat in the West. Which is what the Utah front office wanted when it made all those summer moves.

3) Kawhi Leonard dominates, scores 43 points in fewer than 30 minutes on the court. When this Kawhi Leonard shows up, there’s nothing anyone can do — especially anyone on this Cavaliers roster.

Leonard got inside and shot 5-of-7 in the paint, hit 6-of-10 from three, dominated on defense, and put up 43 points in 28:44 of court time. Check out his shot chart.

Or, just watch the ridiculous highlights.

Consider this just a mid-season reminder that Leonard can take over a game as well as anyone in the league right now. When this Leonard shows up in the playoffs — with Paul George next to him — the Clippers become a very difficult team to beat.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Trae Young can hit from anywhere (and wants your All-Star vote).

Report: ‘Significant amount of pessimism’ NBA will restart season

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The idea of creating a “bubble” in Las Vegas to restart the NBA season sounds enticing. They have the hotel rooms in the city and the facilities at the UNLV campus (where Summer League takes place), it may need to be a condensed playoffs, but it’s something. It provides hope.

That hope is fading, however. They have tried to use the bubble idea to restart the Chinese Basketball Association — and twice China has had to push back the start of the league as the coronavirus has refused to fade away.

China’s experience has added to a growing pessimism that the NBA can pull off any part of this season, ESPN’S Brian Windhorst said on SportsCenter:

“I think there was optimism about progress a week ago. Some things that have happened this week have turned it south about what could happened…

“The Chinese are finding that asymptomatic carriers are causing maybe a second wave in that country and they’re just slamming the breaks on sports…

“It is clear that the NBA is angling to set up a deal that enables them to shut the season down. They don’t have to do that yet. The way they’re negotiating, they’re leaving an option either way. But they’re not having talks about how to restart the league. They’re having financial talks about what would happen if the season shuts down. I think there’s a significant amount of pessimism.”

That pessimism only grows when you consider the potential impact on the United States from COVID-19, with the White House’s own projections having 100,000 dead on the low end. Add to that the significant economic costs that our nation is just starting to experience and, while a return to basketball and its distraction sounds enticing, it’s also hard to picture.

For example, the idea of putting a “bubble” in Las Vegas (or Orlando or the Bahamas or wherever) is a promising theory on a surface level but becomes a logistical nightmare when trying to make it work in practice.

Are you going to get all the players, coaches, trainers, equipment managers, camera operators (these games will be broadcast), and the rest to self-quarantine for two weeks before they come to the bubble in Vegas? Or, will there be the many hundreds of tests (maybe a 1,000?) needed to screen everyone? What is the rate of false negatives with this test? Can players bring families (they would have to be tested and live in the bubble) or will everyone separate from their family for 6-8 weeks? The league will need about a three-week training camp in the bubble before you can start games, then there would be weeks of games, and all that time the bubble has to be secure. Is that realistic? Do the hotel staff and cooks feeding everyone in the bubble have to stay in the bubble?

That’s not even all of the challenges and it’s daunting. And that is for the “faster” answer of playing all the games in one location and without fans. Who knows how long it will be before teams can fly around the country to play in packed arenas again.

The NBA does not have to make a decision now or even soon, it can wait into May and June and see where things stand with the virus, the economy, and the nation. Still, it’s harder and harder to be an optimist with all of this.

Sacramento Kings turning former arena into coronavirus surge hospital

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If you’re old enough, you might remember Arco Arena as the home of the Sacramento Kings when they were a playoff team. Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojaković, and company pushed the Shaq/Kobe Lakers to seven games in 2002 and won huge playoff games in the arena. Arco was where Jason Williams was dropping dimes without looking, and arena which later became known as the Sleep Train Arena, Power Balance Pavilion, and eventually the current Natomas Arena.

Now, it’s about to be a coronavirus surge hospital.

The Kings are making the arena available and it will house about 360 beds, the team announced on Friday. The team also is donating $250,000 to support area community organizations providing services to families in need in the area, plus donating 100,000 medical masks to state and local health agencies.

“On behalf of the entire Kings family, our hearts are with all who have been affected by this pandemic,” said Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé in a statement. “California always leads the nation and the world, and we applaud Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s strong and decisive leadership to keep Californians healthy and safe during this crisis…

“Our community has always come first, and that is more important now than ever,” Ranadivé continued. “The Kings are proud to help by providing additional space to accommodate a predicted surge in patients. We are also donating masks to help keep people healthy, and critical resources to area organizations that are addressing food insecurity and other issues as a result of the coronavirus. I have always been in awe of the resilience and ingenuity of the American people and firmly believe that together, we will defeat this invisible enemy.”

The Kings moved to the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento in 2015 and since then their former home and practice arena has mostly sat vacant. The Kings’ G-League team practices there at times, but like the rest of basketball they find their season suspended.

Hopefully, this arena helps save some lives in the California capital. That would be the most important thing ever to happen in the building.

WNBA postpones season

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban backed off his belief that the NBA could resume in May.

It’s just already clear, amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’ll be unsafe to hold professional basketball games that soon.

WNBA release:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“As developments continue to emerge around the COVID-19 pandemic, including the extension of the social distancing guidelines in the United States through April 30, the WNBA will postpone the start of its training camps and tip of the regular season originally scheduled for May 15.  While the league continues to use this time to conduct scenario-planning regarding new start dates and innovative formats, our guiding principle will continue to be the health and safety of the players, fans and employees.

Many top female players – including Los Angeles Sparks guard Sydney Wiese, who tested positive for coronavirus – play overseas during the WNBA offseason. That frequency of travel makes it even riskier for WNBA teams to gather any time soon.

The WNBA will still hold its draft April 17, conducting proceedings virtually. That could provide lessons to the NBA as it determines how to handle its draft.

Joel Embiid, 76ers owners pledging $1.3M for fighting coronavirus

76ers owner Josh Harris and Joel Embiid
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Joel Embiid just showed up 76ers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer by pledging to pay team employees who were set to have their pay cut. Amid widespread backlash, the 76ers backtracked on their salary-reduction plan.

Now – with a portion of Embiid’s coronavirus-related donation unallocated and Harris and Blitzer looking to change the narrative around them – those three are working together.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Joel Embiid, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer are contributing a combined $1.3 million to Penn Medicine, establishing a funding campaign for COVID-19 antibody testing of frontline healthcare workers.

According to a Penn Medicine press release, “The pledge from Embiid, Harris and Blitzer will provide a much-needed boost for efforts to quickly identify health care workers who may have immunity to the new virus.”

This is great.