Three things to know: Bucks drop second straight game to top contender

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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) Bucks drop second straight game to top contender. Does that even matter in January?

Since the start of this season — and especially when the Milwaukee Bucks were racking up wins and had the best net rating in the NBA (they’re second in that category now, third if you use Cleaning the Glass’ garbage time filter) — my reaction to Milwaukee has been the same:

That’s nice, but whatever the Bucks do in the regular season doesn’t matter. They will be judged only on the playoffs.

This is an outstanding regular season team, has been for a few years, but are they building a more diverse offense with Jrue Holiday that will carry them against the league’s elite? Are they building good habits? I am reserving judgment on their season until deep in the playoffs.

If we say the Bucks’ regular season wins don’t matter, their regular season losses cannot either. We can’t suddenly add weight to just those games just because it fits our narrative.

So it may not matter much in the end, but Milwaukee Bucks lost their last two games to other elite NBA teams, first to the Brooklyn Nets (with Kevin Durant and James Harden but without Kyrie Irving yet), then on Thursday night to LeBron James and the Lakers.

LeBron seemed motivated — he denied that coming is second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP voting last year had anything to do with it — and he put up a season-high 34 points on Thursday.

Milwaukee’s defense hasn’t been as sharp this season as it has in the past (currently 10th in the league), although it shows flashes. On offense, the Bucks are experimenting to see what works besides “give the ball to Giannis and get out of the way” (against Brooklyn, Antetokounmpo was setting screens for Holiday and working more off the ball more). Khris Middleton is playing the best basketball of his career and has the ball in his hands more at the ends of games. Coach Mike Budenholzer seems to be experimenting, looking for the right combinations on both ends.

As he should. It’s a long season. Beating the Lakers or Bucks in January is not a sign of what will happen in June and July (when we are deep in the NBA playoffs and into the Finals), neither is losing. All these teams will be different in five months.

Based on results this week, the Bucks seem to be a step behind the league’s best teams. The only question that matters is: Can Milwaukee use their Giannis-length strides to make up that ground before the playoffs tip-off?

2) Utah fans should ignore Shaq and Inside the NBA. Instead, enjoy the wins

Inside the NBA can be entertaining — but that’s all it is. Entertainment. With the graphics and the guys ripping each other, it can be fun to watch.

The show’s basketball analysis has had an “old guys complaining in the barbershop” feel since before they said jump shooting teams couldn’t win a title even as Golden State won three behind Stephen Curry (and, later, Kevin Durant). It’s three players from another era of the game — before teams could play zone defenses (which changed post play), before teams focused on the value of the three, before analytics took hold, before the pace picked up again — and while that resonates with some fans, it feels like a relic of the past. If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that focusing on entertainment and what was once perceived as great instead of the reality of today leads to poor decisions.

The Utah Jazz have won seven in a row after coming from behind to knock off New Orleans on Thursday night 119-108. Donovan Mitchell led the way with 36 points. Utah is 11-4 on the season, and over their last seven games it has a +19.8 net rating with the best defense and second-best offense in the NBA (via Cleaning the Glass).

At halftime of that Thursday game, Shaq, Kenny, and Charles sat behind the desk in Atlanta and said the Jazz are not good enough, that Mitchell is not good enough. Then Shaq said it to Donovan Mitchell on air and it was awkward.

Jazz fans, you should take Shaq and Inside the NBA as seriously as Mitchell just did. They can say whatever they want, it doesn’t matter. (Yes, I can write whatever I want, and it doesn’t matter either. This space should be entertaining. However, I have always understood that and tried to grow and evolve my views with the game.)

The astute Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune gets the last word here, because he said what I wanted to say better than I did:

While Inside the NBA wasn’t paying attention, the game changed from underneath them. There are certainly TV analysts who have kept pace with the league’s changes, so it is possible. But because Shaq, Chuck, and Kenny got all of this credit for being the best sports show on TV for not really being about sports, they haven’t bothered with the work of actually watching games.

That’s why they all still think it’s funny to mispronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name, or say Nikola Jokic is from Russia — both legitimately disrespectful things from the league’s premier broadcast about two of the league’s premier players. Tonight’s awkward segment with Donovan Mitchell was just another example of the same kind of thing that happened when Shaq said he hasn’t watched 5-year veteran Christian Wood, who averages 23 points per game, play. Why respect the current game when the accolades say you don’t need to?

In the end, Inside The NBA’s tone is just such a huge disservice to the league. The quality of play is at an all-time high, with players more skilled and smarter than ever before. And instead of championing this, the show is full of commentators that are just itching to tell you how bad it all is, how it doesn’t compare to their own accomplishments.

Here’s the meat of the issue: Shaq went after a guy who put up 36, 7, and 4 in the 7th game of a 7-game winning streak tonight. Would you ever, ever, see an NFL broadcast do that? No, because they’re in the business of keeping people impressed with their product. The NBA seems to want to do the opposite.

Amen. Utah fans, seven-game win streaks don’t come by often enough for any team. Ride the wave and enjoy the high level of play from your team.

3) NBA’s new COVID-19 “lockdown” policy means three more postponed Grizzlies games

The NBA has postponed the next three Memphis Grizzlies games due to coronavirus protocols. It was the most aggressive stance postponing games we have seen from a league that has been pretty aggressive on that front from the start.

What’s most interesting from that news is the report that followed from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: This is just the first case of the league’s new policy taking entire teams out of the mix once a player or players were exposed to the virus. Essentially, isolate and quarantine an entire roster away from the rest of the league.

Only individual players were isolated in the past, and so long as the team still had eight not tied via contact tracing, the games went forward. Not any more. We know that Grizzlies’ center Jonas Valanciunas has missed a recent game due to the league’s health and safety protocols (and there are reports of a positive test on the team), but that is the only player we know of in Memphis’ case. Still, the league shut the entire team down.

That’s the plan from now on. Expect more mass cancelations.

Also yesterday, the NBA announced the start times for 20 games in the coming days were pushed back an hour (most from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. local times) to allow for game-day PRC test results (that’s the more accurate nasal swab test). The logic here is pretty clear. The league wants accurate tests on game days before they send players out on the court.

We’ll see if all these moves help the league get back in front of a virus that has cost it 23 games and counting so far in the first month of the season