Three things to know: Clippers win streak hints that maybe this team is different


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) Clippers seven-game win streak hints that maybe this team is different

“We just got to get better. We’ll work on it… Because fact of the matter is, we have to be a better closing-out team.”

“We just have to change, pretty much. We’ve got to change it. We’ve got to get better.”

Those are the words of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, from just a couple of weeks ago, after they watched Stephen Curry get white-hot and the Clippers blew a 21-point second half lead to the Warriors and lost. That loss gave ammunition to critics who said nothing had changed with the Clippers since the bubble, where they legendarily blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets.

Except since that day, the Clippers have changed.

They have been better — in fact, they’ve been elite. They have played like a team that can be a threat to the Lakers atop the West.

With a 108-100 win against the Thunder Sunday, Los Angeles has won seven straight. This latest victory was the kind of win elite teams get — the Clippers were not clicking on offense (a Sunday day game hangover), but Kawhi Leonard accounted for 57 of the Clippers 108 points (counting buckets and assists). One of the game’s top players lifting his team on an afternoon the rest of the squad was not playing at an elite level.

Leonard has played at an MVP level during the win streak: 29.1 points a game while shooting 57% overall and 48.7% from three, plus pitching in 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game.

During the seven-game win streak, the Clippers have a +15.6 net rating (using Cleaning the Glass and its garbage time filter), with the best offense in the NBA and the seventh-ranked defense. That net rating would still be third-best in the league in that stretch behind red-hot Utah and the team both the Jazz and Clippers are ultimately chasing, the Lakers. All three of those teams would have a top 10 offense and defense in that stretch (as would Denver).

The Clippers and Lakers are both 13-4, tied for the best record in the NBA.

The Clippers knew they needed a change last offseason and they didn’t go halfway. Coach Doc Rivers was unexpectedly fired and the front office shook up the roster, letting Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell move down the Staples Center hallway. Serge Ibaka was brought in to give the Clippers a more modern center, the kind Nikola Jokic could not play off the court in the postseason.

We’re almost a quarter of the way into this regular season and the Clippers have started to feel different (even if this win streak has not come against the toughest of schedules; you have to beat who is in front of you). Paul George has been on his vengeance tour and is playing the best basketball of his career (23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists a night shooting 50.4% overall and 48.4% from three), and the Clippers have been as good as anyone night in and night out.

They also know that’s ultimately not what they will be judged upon — unless the Clippers are putting win streaks together in the playoffs, unless George’s vengeance tour and Leonard’s MVP play continue into the postseason, we will not view them as different. The Clippers and Milwaukee are both in the same space this season: Many will view them as the same team until they prove different on the NBA’s biggest stages.

But the Clippers are looking like a team that just might be able to do that. The biggest threat to the Lakers’ re-peat dreams may not be across the nation in Brooklyn; it might be right down the hall at Staples Center.

2) Gordon Hayward‘s game-winner gets Hornets back in win column

It’s for moments like this that Charlotte paid Gordon Hayward the big money.

Hayward got the ball out top in a tie game with less than 10 seconds left, drove past Orlando’s Evan Fournier, and hit a left-handed lay-up with 0.7 seconds left to get the Hornets a much-needed win.

Hayward had 39 points on the night, shooting 15-of-25 and draining five threes. Miles Bridges added 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting for the Hornets. Charlotte looked like a team on its way to a fifth-straight loss but changed the game opening the fourth quarter on a 25-4 run, then they held on for the win.

Charlotte signed him this offseason in part to add another ball handler and shot creator to the mix. The Hornets are rightfully high on LaMelo Ball’s start to the season, but they wanted Hayward — and Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier — to take some of the pressure off the rookie. Charlotte didn’t want to be a team that just handed the keys over to a high draft pick and say “the ball is always yours, wecome to the school of hard knocks.”
Hayward has done that and more this season, when healthy. And it’s been good for the development of Ball, who continues to come off the bench with less pressure.

Charlotte itself is feeling the pressure to get some more wins — it is in the mix for one of the play-in series in the East. That’s a good pressure to have, and a potential postseason appearance would be a welcome change for the Hornets.

3) After nearly two weeks off due to COVID-19, Wizards return to action. With Westbrook. And they lost.

Washington had to get a couple of big men added to the roster to — signing Alex Len and Jordon Bell — but they did it: The Wizards had eight healthy players and were back on the court on Sunday, taking on the Spurs.

It was the first game in almost two weeks after the coronavirus impacted more than half the roster. The one bright spot was Russell Westbrook — sidelined by a sore quadriceps muscle when COVID-19 hit the team — was healthy and ready to go.

The Wizards looked like a team with pent-up energy early on and had a 10-point lead in the first half. In the second half the time off — the lack of conditioning, the rust — showed itself. San Antonio put up 73 points in the second half and pulled away for a comfortable 121-101 win.W

Washington gets a day off, then has a road back-to-back at Houston — Westbrook’s return to the city, and the Wizards see old friend John Wall — then New Orleans. A tough couple of games for a team trying to get their legs back under them and bounce back from a rough 3-9 start.

It’s not a normal season in Washington (or anywhere else), but at least the Wizards are playing games again.

Trail Blazers ‘essentially’ shut down Lillard for season… and here comes the trade speculation


Officially, Damian Lillard is day-to-day (along with the rest of the Portland core of Jerami Grant, Jusuf Nurkic, et al.). Coach Chauncey Billups phrased it as “We’re just being cautious,” according to friend of the site Sean Highkin.

In reality, Lillard has been shut down for the season and it would be a shock to see him on the court again until the fall. The Blazers are five games out of the final play-in spot with seven games to play, they aren’t making up that ground. They are tied for the fifth-worst record in the league, which comes with a 10.5% chance at the top pick and Victor Wembanyama. We know where the Blazers are focusing.

Shams Charania at The Athletic wrote in “The Bounce” newsletter that Lillard is “essentially” shut down for the season. He then lit a fire under the topic that makes Trail Blazers’ fans’ eyes roll — Damian Lillard trade talk.

On the other side of things, you now have to wonder if Lillard ever steps on the court again for Portland. There was a ton of optimism going into this season after the team landed Jerami Grant and got off to a good start to the campaign. Now, not making the playoffs for a second year in a row, a soon-to-be 33-year-old star of this league who has never gotten a chance to win it all will have tons of questions to ask the front office this offseason, and I expect there to be serious conversations about what’s next for both sides.

We all knew the Lillard trade speculation was coming. Same with Bradley Beal in Washington. The same core rule applies to both of them:

Lillard will not get traded unless he asks to be moved. He has never done so, in fact saying just weeks ago about playing the rest of his career in Portland, “To that point, I’m also willing to die on that hill.” Portland has been loyal to him and Lillard signed a massive contract extension last offseason and has four years, $216.2 million left on that deal, including about $63.2 million in the contract’s final season when he is 36. He’s happy where he is and has deep roots in the community.

The odds are better than not that Lillard will retire a Trail Blazer, even if that’s not the path other stars would walk. Lillard is wired differently.

Can you construct an argument that the Trail Blazers should trade Lillard while his value is sky-high — he will be an All-NBA player again this season — because the organization’s best path to a ring is with whoever and whatever’s next? Maybe. However, that ignores the financial reality of the Blazers — Lillard brings the fans in the door, brings in team sponsors who want to be associated with him, and he sells jerseys. Lillard is good business for Portland, there is no incentive for ownership to move on right now.

In fact, it may be the opposite. Portland can throw multiple picks and good young players such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons into a trade to bring in another star to play with Lillard. That is more how their front office pictures this summer — they want to go all in on building around Lillard. Not sending him away.

Other teams covet Lillard, and trade packages can be constructed (would Miami be willing to move on from Bam Adebayo for the chance to pair Lillard with Jimmy Butler?). But it’s all idle talk until Lillard sits down with franchise ownership/management and says it’s time for him to move on. That has yet to happen. It may well never happen.

Just expect the avalanche of Lillard speculation to begin. Warranted or not.

Three things to Know: Timberwolves in top six, are they a playoff sleeper?


Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Timberwolves beat Kings, move into in top six, could be playoff sleeper

When talk turns to dangerous teams in the bottom half of the West bracket, the conversation gravitates toward the established big names — Stephen Curry and the Warriors, LeBron James and the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers.

But for the past few weeks (maybe since the All-Star break), the Minnesota Timberwolves have been the best team in that group. It hasn’t always shown up in the win column — although after beating the Kings Monday night they have four in a row — but there has been maturity and chemistry to their game. Fitting Karl-Anthony Towns back in after he missed more than 50 games could have been tricky, but instead, it has inspired game-winning shots and improved play (although he sat out Monday night on a back-to-back).

Monday night’s win is nothing to overlook — going to Sacramento and picking up a victory that denied the Kings the chance to officially clinch their first playoff spot in 16 seasons in front of their home fans is no small thing. The Timberwolves were attacking the rim.

And attacking.

“We know we have the talent and the personnel to be able to beat anybody on any given night,” Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert said, via the Associated Press. “Really out of urgency and consistency … we play every game like it’s our last and we play every game like there’s no tomorrow. That’s the mindset that we need.”

Minnesota is showing a balance and maturity of game that was lacking much of the season. It starts with trading away D'Angelo Russell and bringing in Mike Conley at the point, adding a traditional point guard and floor general to the mix (rather than a player who creates more for themselves). Conley’s veteran presence can be felt across this team.

Jaden McDaniels has been locking guys down on defense. Anthony Edwards — back quickly from a sprained ankle that could have been much worse — has turned into a quality shot creator but adds another athletic defender. Gobert finally started to find his space and had 16 points and 16 rebounds against the Kings. Naz Ried has been a force of nature off the bench lately.

With the win, Minnesota tied Golden State for the No.6 seed in the West at 39-37, and moved ahead of the Warriors officially because the Timberwolves have the tiebreaker after beating them Sunday. This Minnesota team could avoid the play-in if they keep racking up wins — and if they are the No.6 seed they likely draw this Kings team in the first round.

The questions about how this team will handle a small-ball team that can space the floor over a seven-game series remain, but they showed Monday against the Kings they may have the answer to that question.

The most dangerous teams in the playoffs are often the ones that look the best over the season’s final weeks, and in this Western Conference that makes the Timberwolves a threat.

2) Luka Dončić with the assist of the season.

Are. You. Kidding. Me.

Luka Dončić made the pass of the season Monday night. Trapped in the corner by two defenders, Dončić lept in the air, spun and threw a bullet skip pass to Jaden Hardy for 3.

Even Dončić was impressed with that dime.

The Mavericks entered the night desperate for a win after losing four straight, they needed the win to try to climb back into the play-in. Dončić wasn’t even expected to be on the court earlier in the day, but was cleared to play earlier when the NBA rescinded his 16th technical of the season, which would have triggered an automatic one-game suspension. With 25 points from Dončić leading the way, the Mavericks beat a shorthanded Pacers team without Tyrese Haliburton or Myles Turner, 127-104.

3) Jalen Brunson was out so Immanuel Quickley dropped 40

Losers of three straight, and with the Heat lurking just a couple of games back in the loss column, the Knicks needed a win. Enter the Houston Rockets.

Jalen Brunson remained out but Immanuel Quickley stepped up with a career-high 40 points on 14-of-18 shooting, plus he had nine assists, and the Knicks picked up a needed 137-115 victory.

Julius Randle added 26 points, RJ Barrett had 19 and Obi Toppin finished with 15 for the Knicks. New York was moving the ball and finished with a season-high 35 assists.

It was exactly the kind of win the Knicks needed. It’s hard to see them falling out of the No. 5 seed.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Are you kidding me, Russell Westbrook?

The Clippers got the 124-112 win over the Bulls without that shot, but still.

Watch Luka Dončić throw the pass of the year to Hardy for 3



Luka Dončić was on the court for the Mavericks Monday — something that was not assured until earlier in the day — and once there made the pass of the season. Trapped in the corner by two defenders, Dončić lept in the air and threw a bullet skip pass to Jaden Hardy for 3.

That is your assist of the year. Even Dončić called it one of his best passes ever.

Dončić led the way with 25 points and six assists and the Mavericks — desperate for a win as they try to climb back into the play-in — beat a shorthanded Pacers team without Tyrese Haliburton or Myles Turner, 127-104. Dončić was cleared to play earlier in the day when the NBA rescinded his 16th technical of the season, which would have triggered an automatic one-game suspension.

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.