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Three Things to Know: LeBron James, Zion Williamson put on show in New Orleans

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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) LeBron James, Zion Williamson put on a show in New Orleans. LeBron James, at age 35, remains one of the NBA’s elite players. He’s a serious MVP candidate. Don’t take my word for it, here is what New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said postgame Sunday (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN).

“I’m just amazed that they talk about anybody other than him for MVP. That’s what he does. Every team that he’s been to, every team that he’s gone have a chance to win the championship. To me, I’m not sure what the definition of MVP is, but he makes everyone on his team better, makes it difficult for everybody playing him.”

LeBron had a triple-double on Sunday — 34 points, 13 assists, 12 rebounds — and his Lakers needed every bit of it to beat the Pelicans because Zion Williamson was having a day — 35 points and another dominating performance.

“You have to actually be out on the floor to actually feel the strength and the speed that he plays at,” James said.

LeBron’s Lakers’ weekend split of games may decide who they face in the first round of the playoffs (we’re all assuming the Lakers, with their 5.5 game cushion, will hold on to the top seed in the West).

Saturday the Lakers were upset by Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies in one of those “just flush this game and move on” nights from Los Angeles. Those same Lakers — without an injured Anthony Davis — turned around 24 hours later and were ready to play, beating the Pelicans.

That leaves New Orleans three games back of Memphis for the final playoff slot in the West (Sacramento and San Antonio are also three games back). While that’s a healthy gap with 22 games to play, the Grizzlies have the fourth toughest schedule remaining in the NBA, and the Pelicans have the easiest. (San Antonio and Portland also have soft schedules remaining). Memphis is going to have to find some wins and pull off a few upsets to hold on to that final playoff spot, and beating the Lakers was a good first step.

2) Kristaps Porzingis is looking better and better, drops 38 in Dallas win. As sports fans — and, frankly, as a species — sometimes we know things on an intellectual level but it doesn’t change our gut reaction to it.

Case in point: Kristaps Porzingis.

If I had said before the season, “expect a slow start from KP as he has missed 19 months of basketball following a torn ACL” fans everywhere would have nodded their heads in agreement. It’s obvious. We get it, on an intellectual level.

Yet we all watched Porzingis the first few months of the season and the gut reaction was “he’s not quite the same.” Or “is he really a No. 2 on a team with Luka Doncic or a No. 3?” Or “no wonder the Knicks were ready to move on?” (That last one was mostly a few Knicks homers.)

Watch him play Sunday in a win over the Timberwolves (without Doncic) and the perception is completely different — he looks like a guy who has found his way back, dropping 38 points, shooting 6-of-14 from three, and leading his team to a win over the Timberwolves.

Back in November, Porzingis averaged 15.8 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting overall and he made 2.1 threes a game. In February that was 25.2 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting and 3.7 made threes a game (on 39.8 percent shooting from deep). Porzingis has got his groove back.

Dallas is going to be a tough out for some team that lands them in the first round.

3) Shake Milton puts on a show and scores 39, but Clippers are 4-0 since they got healthy. Sunday, the 76ers played with the kind of fight and shooting they usually reserve for home games.

That was led by Shake Milton — he shot 14-of-20 overall and 7-of-9 from three on his way to 39 points. Coming out of the All-Star break, Brett Brown told Milton he wouldn’t be in the rotation, but gave him the standard coach-speak “but be ready, you never know” talk. Then the “you never know” happened — Ben Simmons went down with a pinched nerve in his lower back. Opportunity knocked, and Milton has answered the door.

“It definitely feels cool, it’s a cool thing to say…” Milton said of scoring 39 and breaking out in Los Angeles. “But we didn’t win so you can’t take too much away from it.”

Philadelphia played with real heart — but without Simmons or the injured Joel Embiid — and Clippers’ talent overwhelmed them in a 136-130 Los Angeles win. It was the Clippers’ fourth win in a row, all since they got healthy and had their full rotation. Kawhi Leonard had 30 points for the game on 10-of-20 shooting, while Paul George, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell each had 24. The Clippers’ defense was not as sharp as it has been in recent games, but they were able to dial it up enough during a third-quarter stretch to take the lead, then hold on the rest of the way.

“It’s great [to have everyone healthy],” Rivers said. “We needed everyone tonight. [The 76ers] played great, you have to give them credit.”

With the win, the Clippers and Nuggets remain tied for the two seed in the West with 22 games to play.

Philadelphia sits as the fifth seed in the East, tied in the loss column with Indiana for the six seed. The Sixers are 1.5 games back of the Heat for the fourth seed and home court in the first round.

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

Spurs playoffs
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”