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


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.

Lakers’ LeBron James says he could need offseason foot surgery


LeBron James wanted back on the court. He saw the glimpses of what this current roster can do when healthy and focused — the same glimpses that have Laker exceptionalism running strong in Los Angeles — and he sees a West without a dominant team. Together those things mean opportunity.

LeBron could have shut it down when he felt something pop in his foot last month, admitting that two doctors told him to get surgery. However, the “LeBron James of foot doctors” told him he could be back this season — and he made that return Sunday. Still, LeBron admitted he could need off-season surgery.

“I don’t know. Right now, I don’t need it, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably get another MRI at the end of the season and go from there. But if I end up having to get surgery after the season, you guys won’t know. I don’t talk to you guys in the offseason, and by the time next season starts, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to go.”

As for what motivated him to get back on the court this season and not shut it down.

“Now we sitting at a chance to be able to… to hell with the play-in, we actually can be a top-[six] seed. That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything”

The Lakers sit tied for 9/10 in the West, one game below .500. While LeBron can say, “to hell with the play-in,” his Lakers would need help from the Clippers or Warriors to climb into the top six even though they are only 1.5 games back (time is short for L.A., if the Warriors or Clippers go 4-3 the rest of the way, the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight). Los Angeles also is just a game up on Dallas for the 11 seed, and if the losses pile up they could fall out of the play-in completely.

With LeBron back, missing the play-in is unlikely. But having him back (and eventually a healthy D'Angelo Russell, who was out Sunday with a hip issue) also is no guarantee of wins — the Lakers still need peak Anthony Davis to compete. When he has a solid game of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists (as he did Sunday), they lose. The Lakers need bubble Davis every night, or even if they make the postseason it will be short-lived.

Dončić dodges suspension, NBA rescinds 16th technical

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets
Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”

The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.

That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.

Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.

This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000  for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a  Mavericks loss.

Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.