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

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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) 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.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.