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

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images
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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).