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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.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.