Three Things to Know: Pelicans finally give Zion Williamson more run, race for 8/9 in West tightens

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack β€” especially with games spread out every day in the bubble β€” 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) Pelicans finally give Zion Williamson more run, suddenly the race for 8/9 in West gets tight

The people who had the biggest impact on the race for the last playoff spot in the West Monday were Shake Milton and the medical staff of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans’ medical team because they cleared the way for Zion Williamson to play enough to finally impact a game β€” 25 minutes and being out there late in the fourth. The result was Zion scoring 23 points with seven boards, and more importantly, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense in the team’s first win in the bubble, a critical 109-99 victory over Ja Morant and Memphis.

It felt like old times β€” Zion and Lonzo Ball were back to putting on a show.

Zion is still trying to get his legs under him, he shot 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded at points β€” but he was out there. That matters. His gravity opens up everything else for New Orleans. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench. The Pelicans have a soft schedule from here on out and may need to win at least four of their remaining five, but they defended better, had Zion out there, and finally looked like a threat.

76ers guard Shake Milton is the other impact player in the West playoff chase because he drained the game-winning three that handed the Spurs their first loss in the bubble.

Here’s what the standings look like in the race for the 8/9 seeds in the West.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble β€” losing every game by single digits. The Grizzlies still need a couple of wins, and it won’t be easy when you look at the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks.

Portland and San Antonio are in the mix, but with Zion getting run and a soft schedule ahead of them, the Pelicans are still the odds-on favorite to make the playoffs β€” don’t take my word for it, that’s according to fivethirtyeight.com.

2) Whoever wins race for eighth will face Lakers, who lock up West’s top seed

LeBron James has been good in the bubble restart β€” 19.3 points and seven assists a game β€” but he hasn’t been the best player on his own team.

That’s Anthony Davis, who has been a bubble beast and dropped 42 points on Utah Monday despite being matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for much of the night.

Davis led the Lakers to a 116-108 win against the stumbling Jazz. With the win, the Lakers officially lock up the top in the West (something they did in practical terms beating the Clippers on re-opening night). Look for LeBron and Davis to get a little load management the final couple of seeding games.

3) Fred Van Vleet goes off for career-high 36, Raptors keep on winning

Toronto may be the best team in the bubble. They beat the Lakers, and they are getting contributions from everyone. Next up was Fred VanVleet, who had a career-best 36 against the Heat Monday.

Toronto has been doing this all season, getting contributions from different players β€” it was Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby against the Lakers β€” and it makes them a serious playoff threat. They don’t need one player to dominate because any one of several players can beat you any given night.

If the Bucks’ stumble, don’t sleep on Toronto being back in the NBA Finals β€” and just ask the Lakers if the Raptors could win it all.

Gordon Hayward does not plan to leave bubble for birth of son

Gordon Hayward birth of son
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When Boston first went to the NBA restart bubble in Orlando, Gordon Hayward was upfront: He was leaving the bubble for the birth of his fourth child.

Hayward ended up leaving the bubble for another reason β€” he severely sprained his ankle and was out for more than a month. During his rehab, Hayward left the bubble and spent time at home, returning a couple of weeks ago. Saturday he played his first game back for Boston, helping it to a win against the Heat.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, has yet to have their son, but now Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble for the event, something first reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN during Saturday’s game.

Hayward confirmed this after the game. So did Robyn in a social media post, adding the reports she was in labor already were not true.

I don’t envy the Hayward family having to make this choice. As a parent, I can’t imagine having missed the births of any of my children, but, like everything else in 2020, this is far from a typical decision at a typical time. The Haywards are making the best of it they can. They deserve support no matter what they choose.

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one,Β “I missed that on purpose.”Β 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. β€” he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle β€” providing more quality wing play and good decision making β€” and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game on Saturday night.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart β€” an All-Defensive Team player β€” had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that β€” and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late β€” to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year β€” 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.