Three things to know: Collin Sexton poses question Brooklyn’s Big Three must answer

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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) Collin Sexton highlights question for Brooklyn Big Three

After a week of waiting, the Brooklyn Nets rolled out their Goliath, their unstoppable Big Three — Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. They lived up to the billing. Together, the trio combined for 96 points on 49.3% shooting with 24 rebounds and 23 assists. They took turns making unstoppable play after unstoppable play, showing just how much talent is on that roster.

Collin Sexton played the role of David.

His 42 points — including the three with Irving’s hand in his face to force double overtime — highlighted Brooklyn’s weakness and knocked them out. Cleveland spoiled the debut of the big three with a 147-135 double-overtime win.

Sexton had help. Cedi Osman poured in 25 points, Taurean Prince added 17 points off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. scored. Cleveland had a 125 offensive rating for the night as it was able to score with Brooklyn’s All-Everything lineup.

It’s one game out of 72, and some of the “you take a turn then I take a turn” kinks of the Brooklyn offense can be smoothed out. This was their first game together and still the numbers are stunning: Durant led the team with 38 points, Irving added 37, while Harden scored 21 points but added a triple-double of 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Brooklyn will score its way to a lot of wins because nobody can defend all of them.

Brooklyn’s defense is a genuine issue.

The question becomes: Can this team get a stop when it has to? Not on a random Wednesday in January, but a big Sunday day game in June when the playoffs are in full swing?

Since the trade, the Nets have given up 115, 123, and now 147 points (113 in regulation). No team has had less than a 112 offensive rating in those games, which would firmly put the Nets in the bottom 10 in the league.

To make it out of the East come the playoffs, the Nets are going to have to get stops against better players than Sexton. They had no answer late against the Cavs, and while Sexton had it going, just a glance around the top of the East — Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid — shows other players who can hit that gear. And higher ones. Can Brooklyn get enough stops when the games turn serious?

It’s too early to call it Brooklyn’s fatal flaw, but it could become that. Right now, the Nets’ defense is just something to watch as the season moves forward,

2) Watch Cole Anthony drain ridiculous game-winner

The Orlando Magic really miss Markelle Fultz. Which is not a sentence I thought I would type a couple of years ago, but Fultz has developed into a respectable rotational NBA point guard that a coach can trust on the court. When he’s healthy enough to be on the court, that is. He’s not again (torn left ACL).

That thrust rookie Cole Anthony into the starting point guard role and he has struggled for Orlando, but with flashes of why he was such a high recruit out of high school and a first-round draft pick.

Flashes like this game-winner to beat Minnesota Wednesday.

That’s the kind of confidence booster the rookie could use. It’s the kind of win Orlando needs to stay in the playoff chase in the East this season.

3) Kobe Bryant stories you have never heard

In the year since his tragic and shocking death, we have talked about the many sides of Kobe Bean Bryant: Kobe the prodigy. Kobe the young buck. Kobe the champion. Kobe and the mamba mentality. Kobe the mentor. Kobe the girl dad.

Still, there are stories you probably have not heard, and some of them have been collected in the latest episode of the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports — which drops today. Stories from Kobe’s Lower Merion High School head coach Gregg Downer, NBA opponent Shane Battier, teammate Brian Shaw, friend to him and Gigi mentor Sabrina Ionescu, and Olympic gold medalists Usain Bolt and April Ross.

Then there is this one from Marc Spears, now of The Undefeated at ESPN. He talked about how Kobe’s preparation was not just about basketball, it was about every aspect of his life. Spears describes how Kobe got a “scouting report” on a 7-year-old named Cameron with a speech impediment that he met after a game at Staples Center.

“Kobe comes out the locker room and yells, ‘Where’s Cameron at? Where’s Cameron at?’ Cameron sheepishly puts his hand up like, here I am. Goes up to him, Cameron’s like frozen, his friends are frozen. He hugs Cameron, and he hugged like his two friends. And then he asked them how they’re doing at school and asks them if they play basketball and gives them some basketball motivational words.”

Kobe impacted Cameron’s life in ways he may not have ever realized.

“So all of a sudden, it went across the school, that Cameron knew Kobe. And the big kid, the shy kid who had dealt with this speech impediment when he was a child, all sudden the whole school was wanting to be his friend. Just cause he knew Kobe Bryant.”

Check out the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports, and remember Kobe, one of the great personalities in sport.

 

 

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.