Three Things to Know: It was a good day, Lakers get LeBron game-winner, sign Markieff Morris

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) It was a good day, Lakers get LeBron dagger, sign Markieff Morris.
The ghost of drafts past and playoffs future haunted the Lakers on Sunday — all in the form of Jayson Tatum.

Three years ago, the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball No. 2, the Celtics took Jayson Tatum No. 3 — and Tatum has proven to be the better pick. On Sunday, taking over playmaking responsibilities with Kemba Walker out, Tatum dropped 41 on the Lakers, forced L.A. to adjust its defense and double him in the fourth. It was Tatum who pushed Boston to a lead in the third quarter. After the game, LeBron gave Tatum a shoutout on Instagram.

LeBron, however, had the final word (the day before the Kobe Bryant memorial in the same building, it was fitting). In what was one of the best games of the regular season — despite some questionable officiating that took the flow out of the game late — it was LeBron’s fade-away midranger over Jaylen Brown that was the game-winner.

 

If the Lakers had drafted Tatum, he likely would have been traded to New Orleans — just like Ball was — to bring Anthony Davis west. Tatum is an All-Star, but Davis was all-world on Sunday with 32 points and 13 rebounds, both team highs. The Lakers don’t win this, or much of anything else this season, without him.

Tatum’s big night was also a reminder the Lakers struggle to slow athletic wings — something that could be a real issue come the playoffs. Big wings — such as Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons (more point guard than wing, but same ball handling concept) — have had big nights against the Lakers. Look around the West and you can see where this could be a serious playoff issue.

Can Markieff Morris help? The Lakers officially signed him on Sunday after he cleared waivers (Los Angeles let DeMarcus Cousins go to make room). Morris will come off the bench at the four behind Anthony Davis, and could play next to AD (with Kyle Kuzma at the three) in some lineups.

Can Morris handle Leonard or Paul George or Bojan Bogdanovic? Probably not, but Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma can’t either. Morris is another player the Lakers can throw in that mix. If need be, the Lakers can close games with LeBron on that wing player down the stretch — he can have a defensive impact. And we know he knows how to close games.

2) Zion Williamson was too much for Golden State to handle. Every game, Zion Williamson gets a little bit better. Which is scary.

Over his last five game he has averaged 27.4 points on 63.1 percent shooting. He’s also averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds a game — and if he doesn’t get the rebound, he’ll just rip it away from the guy who did.

That was just two of the 28 points Williamson put up against the Warriors Thursday. Every bucket seemed to be a highlight. Williamson also dropped a defender to the ground.

And, of course, there were the monster dunks.

These are not empty-calorie points that Zion is getting, he could be leading them to the playoffs. The Pelicans are 4-1 in their last five games with a +9.9 net rating. They sit just 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West, and the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the West while the Pelicans have the easiest.

3) Just 56 games into the season, the Bucks have already clinched a playoff spot. On Sunday, Bradley Beal dropped 53 points on Chicago and that still wasn’t enough to get the lowly Wizards a win; they fell to the Chicago Bulls.

The Wizards are ninth in the East, and their loss clinched a playoff spot for the Bucks. Already. Just 56 games into the season — the 48-8 Bucks are 27.5 games up on the Wizards now. The Bucks can lose every game from here on out and they are in the playoffs.

Milwaukee is on pace to win 70 games, and their owner has hinted the team sees that as a goal. The Bucks also have title aspirations, and they may want to ask the Warriors if the push for winning 70+ games is worth it come the playoffs. That said, the Bucks have gotten Giannis Antetokounmpo rest because they are blowing teams out, so he doesn’t have to play late. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game and is 72nd in the league in total minutes played in the league this season. His workload has not been that brutal.

Mike Budenholzer just needs to be willing to up those minutes this postseason, up to 42 or more a night some games, to make sure they win. Budenholzer said last season that he didn’t think more minutes for the Greek Freak was the answer to the Bucks playoff struggles, if the Bucks are going to win the East this season — they should, they are the best team — he will need to change that mindset.

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.