Three Things to Know: Luka Doncic returns, scores 33, and basketball is fun again

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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 Doncic returns, doesn’t miss a beat, scores 33 in Dallas win. It’s just fun to watch Luka Doncic play basketball.

Maybe not if you’re the Kings trying to stop him. Luke Walton started the game small — a three-guard lineup with De’Aaron Fox, Cory Joseph, and Bogdan Bogdanovic — and has Joseph on Doncic. That didn’t work. Walton got frustrated watching his team try to defend Doncic and fail all night, but at least he was funny while doing it.

This was the best the Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis pick-and-roll has looked all season and it led Dallas to a 130-111 thrashing of Sacramento. Doncic, back after missing seven games with a sprained ankle, didn’t miss a beat, scoring 33, with 12 rebounds and eight assists.

Porzingis had to be more aggressive offensively with Doncic out and that carried over against the Kings. Also, he was not going against much size all night against the small-ball Kings (they started Nemanja Bjelica at center), so Porzingis just pushed them around and got where he wanted on the court. KP had 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, plus 13 rebounds.

The other reason it’s good to see Doncic back out there? It means he’s good to go for the All-Star Game Sunday, where he will be a starter.

2) Damian Lillard strains groin, out for All-Star Game. Damian Lillard will be in Chicago, he is performing during the Saturday night festivities as Dame D.O.L.L.A. — he remains the unquestioned best hip hop artist among NBA players. (Shaq is a close second *cough*.)

Lillard, however, will not be knocking down shots in the 3-Point Contest Saturday as planned. Nor will he be in the All-Star Game on Sunday after injuring his groin on Wednesday night.

The timing sucked. With less than four minutes to go before the All-Star break, Lillard drove the lane against the Memphis big man Jonas Valanciunas, landed and was in instant pain, grabbing his groin. He soon fouled to stop play and went straight to the locker room.

He suffered a strained groin, with an MRI coming tomorrow. However, Lillard said he knew instantly he was out of the All-Star Game, where he was set to be a reserve on Team LeBron.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver picks Lillard’s replacement, and traditionally he takes the guy with the next most votes on the coaches’ All-Star reserves ballots (we don’t know who that is, that vote is not public). Lillard said he hopes the spot goes to someone deserving “like Devin Booker.”

3) Toronto’s win streak ends at 15 as the sleepwalk into the break against Brooklyn. NBA players often treat last night before the All-Star break like you treated the last day of school before spring break — they are just watching the clock, waiting for their vacation.

That was the Raptors on Wednesday night. Winners of 15 in a row coming in, they were just sloppy on offense, messing up on their standard plays, setting soft screens, and in general just going through the motions on their way to shooting 37.8 percent on the night.

Do that against another NBA team and you lose, which is what happened, the Nets won 101-91. Caris LeVert had 20 points and looked sharp to lead the Nets.

A clunker of a game was bound to happen for Toronto, and now the streak is over. It doesn’t take away from what an amazing season they are having, and now for Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry it’s on to Chicago for the All-Star Game.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Lakers pick up an impressive road win in Denver behind LeBron James triple-double. Unlike the Raptors, LeBron and the Lakers did not take the night off mentally.

“I was trying to be laser sharp, laser focused as I could,” James said, via the AP. “I know the break was coming, but I wasn’t going to take this opportunity for granted.”

The Lakers went on the road to take on a Nuggets team that had won 6-of-7, and LeBron led the way and had 32 points, 14 assists, and 12 rebounds.

Throw in 33 points from Anthony Davis and the Lakers picked up a 120-116 overtime win. That is a quality road win for the team on top of the standings in the West.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.