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.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.