Three things to know: The NBA isn’t going to hit pause, this is playing in a pandemic

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The NBA season is in full swing, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.

1) The NBA isn’t going to hit pause. Nobody should be surprised.

We all knew days like this were coming — this is what trying to play a season during a pandemic looks like.

Anyone with an ounce of sense knew there would be spikes in the number of cases across the nation a few weeks after families gathered around the holidays, and that it would be impossible to keep that spread out of NBA locker rooms.

The NBA and its players’ union knew what was coming. They both understood the risks. From the safety of its Orlando bubble — something neither owners nor players wanted to repeat, especially for a full season — they watched the MLB, and later the NFL and college sports, struggle with the virus. Every one of those sports played games in largely empty arenas and had players crossing the nation with travel. NBA owners and players saw those leagues deal with positive tests, postponed games, logistical challenges, and discussion about pausing seasons despite daily testing and strict quarantining protocols.

NBA owners and players also saw how much money would be left on the table — an estimated half a billion dollars — if they didn’t start the season before Christmas (and finish in July, before the delayed Tokyo Olympics start).

Everyone opted for the money.

What we have seen in recent days is the price tag for that choice. Much of the nation faced a COVID-19 surge, and that has hit the NBA:

The Miami vs. Boston game Sunday was postponed. The Celtics had just eight players, but it was a positive test for a Heat player, and contact tracing because of it, that left them with fewer than the minimum eight players.
• Miami’s other games this week are in jeopardy because of this test and tracing.
Philadelphia had to play a game with seven men due to Seth Curry testing positive and contact tracing after that. (To be fair, some of that is on the 76ers, who did not list Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons on any injury report while trying to get the game canceled, then suddenly neither could play close to tip-off.)
• Washington’s Bradley Beal is sidelined due to contact tracing.
Dallas has been hit hard by positive tests and contact tracing and will be without key players for at least a week.
• Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas had to be pulled mid-game due to contact tracing (he later Tweeted it ended up being a false alarm, and he will return to play next game).
Chicago had to leave players behind in Denver after a game to quarantine.
• It’s not just players, the Clippers had to send seven staff members home after a positive test and contact tracing tied to a New Year’s Eve dinner.

All of this has led to calls from some quarters for a pause in the season of a week or two, and I was one who thought maybe that’s not a bad idea. In reality, it’s not like if games are paused players are going to go home, stay indoors with their nuclear families, and try to ride this thing out. Some players, maybe a lot of players, will do risky things. Even if the owners and players agreed to take the financial hit — and why do we think they would? — upon return a lot of new players will test positive. Things would not be better.

There were points when some around the MLB and NFL called for their seasons to be paused, and in both cases the leagues pushed through. The NBA will do the same. The NBA got plaudits for forming and playing in a bubble, but nobody wants to go back to that (the owners don’t want to pay for it and the players hated the emotional toll of being away from family).

This is the reality of playing games out in the real world. The league and players will live with those results.

Because it’s all about the money.

2) Kevin Durant returns, drops 36, it’s still not enough as Nets lose to Thunder

Kevin Durant, out for a week due to the league’s health and safety protocols after being exposed to COVID-19, didn’t miss a beat Sunday — he returned and dropped 36 points on the Thunder.

What’s concerning in Brooklyn is that wasn’t enough. A feisty Oklahoma City team, behind 31 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, knocked off the Nets 129-116. OKC has been written off by many as rebuilding, but this is still a frisky roster with some real talent: Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, George Hill, Lugentz Dort, and more.

Brooklyn is now 5-6 on the young season, having dropped 4-of-6. The Nets have been plagued by a bottom-10 defense and postgame young coach Steve Nash said his team needed to “toughen up and show a little more pride,” The Nets continue to be without Kyrie Irving, who missed his third straight game for personal reasons (both Nash and Durant said they had Irving’s back).

3) LeBron James passes, DeMarcus Cousins ejections, the Lakers game had all the highlights

There was little drama in the outcome of the Lakers 120-102 victory over the Rockets — Los Angeles played its most rounded, complete game of the season in taking care of Houston.

Oh, but there were highlights.

Such as LeBron James throwing the best outlet pass of the season.

Then there was DeMarcus Cousins and Markieff Morris getting in a little scrap. It took place late in the first quarter Morris shoved Houston’s Jae'Sean Tate to the ground, so Cousins stuck up for his teammate and knocked Morris to the ground.

Morris bounced up and wanted to go at Cousins (notice Morris can’t really physically move Cousins), but the Rockets’ big man walked away while Morris had to be held back. In the end, Morris got ejected for this and Cousins picked up a Flagrant 1 foul.

Cousins’ ejection came just a few minutes later when LeBron drove the lane and Cousins took a swipe at the ball, but instead caught LeBron in the face.

Cousins could have tried to argue he was going for the ball, but intent does not matter. He hit LeBron in the face and the referees have been instructed to make those calls a flagrant. Cousins got tossed for what was ruled a Flagrant 2 (even if it was “just” a Flagrant 1 Cousins would have been done for the night). That’s two ejections in six games for Cousins.

After that, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker just kept making plays.

The Lakers continue to look like the best team in the NBA, and they know how to put on a show.