Three Things to Know: Welcome to the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend

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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) Welcome to the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend. The conventional wisdom from NBA pundits — and their sources inside the game — is that there are three teams on the top tier in the NBA as we approach the playoffs: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers.

Every other team with title dreams — Boston, Denver, Houston, Toronto — are trying to prove they belong on that level.

This weekend, we may get a sense of the pecking order in that top tier. Friday night, the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks. Sunday, the Lakers and Clippers face off in the last meaningful game between them this season.

This is the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend.

The Lakers have been the best team — and the most consistent team — in the West all season long. After years of conserving energy during the regular season in preparation for a deep playoff run (where he had to carry lesser teams), LeBron James has gone all-out in an MVP-level season. LeBron averaged 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and an NBA-best 10.7 assists a game, all while playing strong defense night in and night out. Mix in a season from Anthony Davis that will get him down-ballot MVP votes — 26.6 points and 9.5 rebounds a game — and you have the best duo in the NBA.

Those two, with just a little help, can get the Lakers a win most nights.

This weekend for the Lakers is not most nights.

The Milwaukee Bucks come to town with the best defense in the NBA this season by a longshot, one predicated on taking away shots in the paint and corner threes. That will be the most interesting thing to watch in this game: The Lakers have great size and length, and they average 53.7 points in the paint a game (second in the league), while the Bucks surrender just 38.6 points a game in the paint, fewest in the league. Can the Bucks turn the Lakers into a jump-shooting team? If they do, Milwaukee wins. If the Lakers get to the rim, they win.

Then there is the MVP-proxy battle. The Bucks are led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been better this season than last and is in the mix for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year again. At this point, talking to voters, LeBron is the only real threat to Antetokounmpo’s MVP repeat. One game does not an MVP-case make, but this subplot will be watched.

Then on Sunday, the finally-healthy-and-rolling Clippers will host the Lakers. The Clippers come in having won six in a row, including demolishing the Houston Rockets on Thursday night — they have looked dominant of late. The Clippers have been a paper tiger all season, with injuries holding them back — Doc Rivers has had to go with 28 different starting lineups. Finally the Clippers are whole, they added Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson at and after the deadline, and they have looked like a team living up to their potential. The Clippers are long, play good defense, have the deepest bench in the league — Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are both in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year again — and they have guys who can get shots whenever they want in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Regular season games in March do not decide playoff series. If these three teams meet, as expected, in the playoffs it will be in late May and June, and every team will have evolved some by then. Things will be different.

But this weekend we get to take the measure of the best teams in the NBA going against one another. For a Lakers’ team that has questions to answer, this weekend is the first big test.

Come Monday, we’ll have a slightly better idea what the top tier of the NBA looks like.

2) Clippers continue to roll, this time right over small-ball Houston. When the Rockets fully embraced small-ball, the intuitive counter argument was always “they will struggle with size.” However, that never meant “just post up Rudy Gobert” — the Rockets are good against that.

The real question was what would happen against a team with size all over the court, one can use that size and a little ball movement to get clean looks over the top of the undersized defense?

Thursday night, one of those teams — the Clippers — demolished the Rockets in a win in Houston. The final score of 120-105 makes this game seem a lot closer than it was, the Clippers led by more than 20 midway through the second quarter and kept that lead most of the way, going up by 30 at points in the fourth quarter, before garbage time kicked in.

Kawhi Leonard led the way for the Clippers with 25, but this was a balanced attack where Ivica Zubac had 17 points and Montrezl Harrell had 19 (size does matter).

Part of what went on here is Houston had an ice-cold shooting night, just one of those fluke off games. The Rockets were 7-of-42 from three on the night, at one point missing 20 in a row. That’s not going to happen again.

The Clippers, however, are finally healthy and are looking on the court like the contender they have been on paper all season. They get a good test come Sunday against the Lakers.

3) Stephen Curry drops 23 points in return, but Warriors still can’t beat Toronto. The Raptors have a way of spoiling big games in the Bay Area. Last June, it was the final game at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, which saw the Raptors celebrating a title.

Thursday night, it was Stephen Curry’s return.

Curry was back on the court after missing 58 games over four months with a broken hand. After a rough first quarter, he adjusted and looked pretty good. Curry finished with 23 points on 6-of-16 shooting overall and 3-of-12 from three, plus seven assists and seven rebounds.

That wasn’t enough to get the win. The Raptors backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell dominated this game, combining for 63 points and getting to the rim seemingly at will. Thanks to some key late plays from guys such as Pascal Siakam, the Raptors held on for the 121-113 win.

Still, it was great to see Stephen Curry back on the court. The Warriors just got a lot more interesting for the next five weeks.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Jamal Murray drains the fadeaway game-winner for Denver. The Nuggets are trying to keep pace with the red-hot Clippers and hold off the charging small-ball Rockets. Denver needs every win it can get right now.

Which is why Jamal Murray’s game-winner to beat Charlotte matters.

Murray finished with 18 points to lead a balanced Denver attack where seven players scored in double figures. Nikola Jokic had another strong night with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, but the officiating got in his head over the course of the game.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

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It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Three things to Know: Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

The biggest free agent in WNBA history has chosen to form maybe the first super team in league history — and that’s a real opportunity for everyone.

Former league MVP and two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart has chosen to leave Seattle and play for the New York Liberty.

Just a few weeks ago, the Liberty traded for 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to pair with Sabrina Ionescu, forming one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league. Now add Stewart and her playmaking to a roster filled with quality players —  Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, Joceyln Willoughby, Kayla Thornton — and this is a team that’s a legitimate threat to win the WNBA title next season. This is a superteam.

New York’s move comes just days after two-time former MVP and WNBA champ Candace Parker chose to join the defending WBNA champion Las Vegas Aces with reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and quality players around her such as Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray. This is also a superteam.

It’s not a coincidence Stewart and Parker chose to go to teams with newish WNBA owners willing to spend to win, Joe Tsai in New York (also the owner of the NBA’s Nets) and Mark Davis in Las Vegas (owner of the NFL’s Raiders). Two owners who came into the WNBA wanting to spend to pay players but also improve their experience — a new practice facility in Las Vegas, for example — and grow the sport that way. Owners with the vision to know they must spend money to make money — grow the league and its popularity and franchise values will skyrocket.

Stewart in her free agency pushed charter flights for players to the top of the list of ways to improve the league. Right now, the WNBA CBA requires teams to fly commercial. It’s part of a penny-pinching mindset from some quarters that sometimes feels like it will choke off the growing league. Charter flights for every team to every game — something common in professional sports and high-level college sports, including women’s college basketball — would cost about $30 million for the league.

There’s a divide among WNBA owners, not all want to pay that added charter flight cost out of their pocket, but the league has to find a way. As Corey Robinson of NBC Sports noted in the video above, this feels a lot like when his father — Hall of Famer David Robinson — wrote an open letter in 1991 to then San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs asking to fly charter to games because of the competitive advantage (McCombs agreed after the public pressure, now charter flights are just expected in the NBA).

Beyond just flights, this is an inflection point for the WNBA — it has to intensify its marketing, its outreach, and do whatever else it takes to grow the league.

Stewart, a recognizable face and name to any sports fan in America (even casual ones who only know her Olympics efforts) just formed a superteam in the biggest media market in the nation. They have a natural, high-profile rival in Las Vegas with their own superstars and big names. If you can’t sell this, you’re doing it wrong — this will be great basketball (and that’s not even mentioning Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury, and other good teams out there).

New York vs. Las Vegas could be the 1980s Lakers vs. Celtics moment for the WNBA. Stewart vs. Wilson can be a version of Magic vs. Bird — a rivalry and must-watch matchup that took the NBA off tape-delayed late-night television and vaulted it into prime time, putting it on the course for what it is now. This feels like that moment for the WNBA, but will WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert be able to grab the opportunity the way David Stern did? Can she get her owners to buy in the way Stern did? The WNBA must spend, it must take advantage of this opportunity. Chances and players like this don’t come around very often.

2) Timberwolves outplay Warriors in clutch, pick up quality win

Right now, this Warriors team just does not have the aura of its championship teams of years past. Even last year’s team didn’t enter the playoffs as the favorites in the West (that was the 64-win Suns), but we had seen enough to know they could be a threat to win it all with a couple of breaks. Which they got.

This year’s team… the Warriors had a 13-point lead on the Timberwolves Wednesday night with less than 11 minutes left and then got outplayed the rest of the way. While D'Angelo Russell was draining key 3-pointers, Stephen Curry, Donte DiVincenzo and  Andrew Wiggins were missing theirs, and Jonathan Kuminga was committing illegal screens. The result was the Warriors blowing their lead and the Timberwolves took advantage of it — with some critical plays by Naz Ried.

“I thought we had control of the game and then I thought we just kind of gift-wrapped it,” Kerr said postgame, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “And not to take anything away from Minnesota, I thought they were great. They took advantage of our mistakes and lack of execution. [D’Angelo Russell] got hot and guys made big shots, but we missed box-outs, we threw the ball away, we took really difficult shots.

“So everything we had done to that point to have control of the game, we stopped doing. We got what we deserved.”

This year’s Warriors are 13-14 in the clutch (games within five points in the final five minutes), with a -1.8 net rating. Make that a game within three points in the final three minutes and the Warriors are 10-12 this season.

The Warriors had won 4-of-5 before this and it felt like they may be flipping the switch, but then games like this happen and it gives you pause. These Warriors are not there yet.

3) Celtics put on a show, romp past shorthanded Nets

Boston has cooled off following its hot start to the season, but there are nights when they get focused, turn the burner back on high, get hot and remind everyone why they are the title favorites this season.

The Nets ran into those Celtics on Wednesday — Boston outscored Brooklyn 46-16 in the first quarter, hitting eight straight 3-pointers to open the game.

From there the Celtics romped to a wire-to-wire 139-96 win. Boston stayed hot from deep and hit 48.1% from 3 for the game (26-of-54). Jayson Tatum scored 31 points,  Jaylen Brown added 26, and both got to sit in the fourth quarter and watch.

The Celtics needed a win like this.

The Nets… life is tough sometimes without Kevin Durant. This is a game Brooklyn can flush and move on, even with KD it would not have helped much the way the Celtics were shooting.

ONE BONUS THING TO KNOW (or see): Give Tari Eason credit, he did not give up. That is persistence.

Nuggets’ Michael Malone to coach Team LeBron in All-Star Game

DENVER NUGGETS VS LOS ANGELES LAKERS, NBA
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Denver is comfortably in first place in the West and looking like a contender.

Which is bad news if Nuggets coach Michael Malone purchased any non-refundable plane tickets for the start of the All-Star break, because now he is headed to Salt Lake City.

With Portland beating Memphis on Wednesday, it ensured that the Nuggets will have the best record in the West on Sunday ( two weeks out from the All-Star Game, meaning Malone is now the head coach of Team LeBron.

This is Malone’s second All-Star Game as a coach, but the captains should be familiar to him. In 2019 he coached Team LeBron to a win against Team Giannis 178-164.

Boston’s Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis.

The coaches do not know which players they will coach — Malone doesn’t know if he will be coaching Nikola Jokić or not. This year team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will pick their teams live, just before the game. We know the pool of starters the captains will pick from, with the reserves being announced Thursday.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
89

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,299

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, although that would be by one point, so Feb. 9 against Milwaukee is certainly a possibility.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”