Three Things to Know: Kneeling, LeBron game-winner, it’s good to have the NBA back

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The NBA is back, but with all the news coming out of the bubble there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out into the afternoon — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) The games started with players kneeling during the anthem…

NBA players went to Orlando saying they would not let the return of games become a distraction to the Black Lives Matter and social justice movements. They would keep the message in front of people.

They did that on opening night, kneeling during the national anthem before both games. Before the first game, Jazz and Pelicans players, wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, locked arms and took a knee. It was a powerful moment.

The Lakers and Clippers did the same thing before their opening night game.

The team coaches and referees also kneeled.

“[We] played for something. We stood up for something. We kneeled for something,” the Clippers Paul George said after the game. “This league is all about unity. Can’t say it enough. I love being a part of it because of the brotherhood of this league. At the same time, we know that we can change things as well.”

“There’s been progress, but in the past when we’ve seen progress we’ve let our foot off the gas a little bit,” LeBron James said of social justice movements around the NBA (after hitting the game-winner against the Clippers). “We can’t do that. We want to continue to keep our foot on the gas, push forward, continue to spread love throughout America. We’re dealing with a lot of racism, a lot of social injustice, a lot of police brutality, not only in my neighborhoods, not only with Black people, but with people of color. It’s something we want to continue to have people’s ears open to. And we have ears now.”

More than just words, players are taking concrete steps big and small to further that cause. The NBA and players union are helping with that. It was a good look for everyone.

2) … Then the first game ended with everyone asking, “where is Zion?”

The Utah Jazz are a good team trying to find a rhythm, but the New Orleans Pelicans needed this game — they are the ones in a sprint to make the play-in game against Memphis. New Orleans simply cannot afford to lose winnable games, yet the Pelicans — who led 96-89 with 7:00 left — did just that. They blew another fourth-quarter lead, a season-long trend. This come-from-ahead loss was a punch to the gut.

In what had been a sloppy-at-times back-and-forth game, Rudy Gobert sank two free throws — giving him 14 points on the night — to put the Jazz up 106-104 with 6.9 seconds left. New Orleans had one last shot to force overtime, or maybe even get the win.

New Orleans needed its closer and, rookie or not, Zion Williamson is that guy. He had 13 points on the night in 15 minutes of action, seemed an obvious substitution here — New Orleans needed a bucket and the rookie gets buckets.

However, Zion reached his minutes limit (one coach Alvin Gentry refused to discuss pregame but owned up to after), and he wouldn’t put his rookie star in for that last play. For seven seconds.

Should Zion have been on the court?

Yes, for the final shot he should have been. Having Derrick Favors on the court instead allowed the Jazz to switch out and stop the original plan for the Pelicans’ final shot, a red-hot J.J. Redick coming off a triple pin down (although it was open enough, Ingram didn’t try to get him the ball). The backup plan was Brandon Ingram in isolation. He didn’t get off a bad shot, it just missed.

But the gravity of Zion in that setting might well have opened up something better. We’ll never know.

Overall this was a game where two teams played unimpressive defense. Both teams need to tighten up on that end if they are going to make any noise in Orlando.

Despite missing the game-winner, Brandon Ingram led the Pelicans with 23 points, but another impressive night from him caught the eye of Kevin Durant.

Utah got 23 points off the bench from Jordan Clarkson, plus 20 each from Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell.

Gobert scored the NBA’s first points in its return and had the game-winner at the end.

“Life works in mysterious ways,” Gobert said after the game.

3) Would the NBA be back without a LeBron James game-winner?

It just seemed scripted.

Paul George had tied the game with a three, and things were poised to go to overtime.

LeBron James just knows how to make plays when it matters — he missed his first attempt but followed up his own shot and his second attempt proved to be the game-winner in a dramatic 103-101 win. LeBron wasn’t done, made a great read and switch on the other end — the Clippers tried to run something similar to what got George a three, but LeBron read it and jumped out to blow it up — to preserve the win.

It was a perfect end for Lakers’ nation — and just NBA fans looking for drama. The league brought that opening night.

This game started out looking like a preseason game — 21 fouls in the first quarter while the teams combined to shoot 2-of-15 from three. Scott Foster wanted everyone to know he was there in the bubble. Both teams also struggled with turnovers. It wasn’t pretty but it was to be expected on the first real game after four months off.

With two top-five defenses, these Los Angeles showdowns turn into gritty, grinding games.

Davis said afterward he thrives in those kinds of games — and he did again. His 34 points came on 19 shots, but he got to the free-throw line 17 times. He was a beast on the defensive end as well. The Lakers also got 16 points from Kyle Kuzma and 11 on a strong night from Dion Waiters. The Lakers were +17 in the 21 minutes these two shared the court.

The Clippers got 30 points from Paul George, who looked healthy and rested, and 28 from Kawhi Leonard. The problem is the other Clippers shot 14-of-41 (34.2%). The Clippers missed having Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench to spark that unit, and without them the team’s execution was off all night. Doc Rivers can live with that, the Clipper games that matter against the Lakers will not come for more than a month.

Bonus Thing to Know: It’s official: Tom Thibodeau is the coach of the New York Knicks.

We’d known for five days — and, frankly, for a lot longer than that — Tom Thibodeau would be the next coach of the New York Knicks. Thursday, it became official.

And it’s a great story.

The Knicks got their man. Thibodeau is as good a coach as was available, someone capable of building a culture of hard work, player development (even if his record there is uneven), and personal responsibility — top to bottom — that the franchise needs.

But it means Thibodeau needs to make changes from what we have seen before. He has in the past run players into the ground with short rotations and heavy minutes for the few guys he trusts — in his last full season in Minnesota, both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns were in the top 10 in total minutes played, and both played a full 82-games schedule. The Knicks have promising young players in Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, but they shouldn’t be playing 38 minutes a night.

Beyond that, the Knicks front office needs to draft better, but then Thibodeau needs to trust his young players, let them play through some mistakes, and coach them up. He needs to show patience, something not considered a Thibodeau strength in the back. Thibs needs to hire development-minded assistant coaches and giving them room to operate (sources around the league have told NBC Sports Thibodeau likes to control everything, designing every practice and game plan, down to the writing on the whiteboard before games and more).

This is a good hire. It can work. But if both Thibodeau and the Knicks organization don’t evolve, it will just be more of the same in Madison Square Garden.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

Chicago coach
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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

Michael Jordan NASCAR
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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri