Three things to know: Lakers’ loss to Pistons speaks to challenges of season, not team

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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) Relax, Lakers loss to Pistons says more about challenges of season than team

For the first time this season, the Lakers dropped two games in a row, falling Thursday to the struggling Detroit Pistons. There’s a long list of good reasons for that:

Blake Griffin had a soak in the Hot Tub Time Machine and came out scoring 23 points and looking more like his vintage self (complete with a flop to get a call).
• Detroit is actually better than their 5-14 record would indicate (they have the point differential of an 8-11 team — not great, but much better than the record suggests). Detroit beat Philadelphia earlier this week, just like the Lakers.
Anthony Davis was out with a bruised thigh.
Wayne Ellington had one of those nights and was 6-of-9 from three.
• The Lakers are on the second night of a road back-to-back and it showed in their tired legs: LeBron James hit his first seven shots but went 1-of-12 the rest of the way.

Another sign of those tired legs: The Lakers gave up a 16-0 fourth-quarter run. The Lakers usually own the fourth quarter.

Of course, some segments of Lakers Twitter handled consecutive losses with all the grace and thoughtfulness of Q-Anon protestors.

The Lakers are not immune to challenges and pitfalls that this wonky season has thrust upon every team. Coronavirus testing (two or three times a day now) and condensed schedules have led to very little practice for teams (in a league where teams practiced less than casual fans realized in the first place). It’s hard to develop rhythms and rotations with barely time for film sessions or shootarounds, with lineups being forced to change nightly because of players being out, because of everything all of us have been dealing with for the past 10 months.

Kyle Kuzma said this after the game, where he scored 22 and had a quality offensive night: “We’re a brand-new team. We’re playing like 14 people. It’s a tough situation. Obviously, we’re working through things. The coaching staff is trying to figure out rotations and figure out what works with what best, what players can play certain lineups. That’s just the point of the season we’re in.”

The Lakers overcame a lot of those challenges in the bubble and deservedly won a title, but they are not immune.

Give the Pistons credit, they played their best game of the season on Thursday. They earned this win. For Detroit, this game and this week are something to build upon (if you ignore that loss to Cleveland).

Good teams lose games to bad teams. It happens. The best team ever, Jordan’s 72-win Bulls, lost to an expansion team. That’s life in the NBA. The Lakers know the focus is not on a game at the end of January but on the games in July, and this one night will be long forgotten when they are deep in the playoffs again.

Nothing to see here, move along.

2) Houston is finding a groove, wins fourth straight beating Blazers behind 25 from Oladipo

Those disruptions and challenges that caught up to the Lakers Thursday? No team has been hit harder by them than the Houston Rockets.

Their first game of the season was canceled for coronavirus reasons. Then there was the James Harden wants to be traded saga, with him being a terrible teammate. Throw in an assortment of injuries and a brand new coach, and Houston wobbled to start the season like it was hit with a haymaker.

Now the Rockets seem to be finding their groove.

Houston won its fourth straight game on Thursday, knocking off a very shorthanded Portland team 104-101. Christian Wood is the best player on this team right now and shot 8-of-12 on the night for 22 points and 12 rebounds. However, it was 25 from Victor Oladipo that sparked Houston on the night.

There are positives this season in Houston: Wood has emerged, John Wall is healthy and playing well (much better than Russell Westbrook, ask Wizards fans), Oladipo is playing like a guy trying to prove he deserves a big payday, and as the roster has settled down the Rockets have been picking up wins.

The long-term plan will be to revamp this roster using the roughly 2,147 draft picks they got in the Harden trade, but in the short term, this Rockets roster has settled down and started to win some games. There are good reasons to be optimistic in Houston.

3) Gregg Popovich gets vaccine shot, encourages others to do the same

At age 72, Gregg Popovich is in a high-risk category for the coronavirus and COVID-19, and that puts him near the front of the line to receive the vaccine as it is rolled out.

Popovich received his first dose of the vaccine and used the opportunity to record a PSA with NBA Cares encouraging others to follow his lead.

“I’m going to get the COVID-19 vaccine shot. It will keep me safe, keep my family safe and keep other people safe. Wearing masks is important and to get the vaccine does give you an added level of assurance. Science-wise, it’s a no-brainer. It’s the right thing to do so we can all get on track again. Let’s do this together.”

Popovich is the first NBA coach to get the vaccine. The league is working on an education program for its players and coaches encouraging them to get the vaccine, then using them as role models to motivate others. Popovich is one of the first steps in that process.

Watch Rudy Gobert get ejected for tripping Thunder’s Williams

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Already without Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves were without their second twin tower for most of Saturday night after Rudy Gobert got ejected for kicking and tripping the Thunder’s Kenrich Williams.

Early in the second quarter, Williams was driving to the rim and Gobert was there to contest it, and with the contact Williams went to the ground, then Gobert tripped over him and fell. As Williams started to get back up and try to get down the court, Gobert kicked Williams’ legs out from under him, tripping Williams. A brief scuffle followed.

The referees reviewed the play (it didn’t take long) and ultimately Gobert was given a flagrant 2 and ejected, while Williams got a technical. The refs got that one right.

The game was chippy the whole way through, but going against a smaller Timberwolves front line the Thunder picked up a 135-128 win behind 33 from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Watch Simons puts up career-best 45, carry Portland past Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) —  Anfernee Simons scored a career-high 45 points and blocked a potential 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 116-111 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.

“I wanted to be aggressive and set the tone for my teammates,” Simons said. “Early on, let them know that we are in this game and I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to win it.”

The Jazz led 111-110 after Kelly Olynyk‘s twisting jumper and then had a chance to tie it at 114, but Simons swiped the ball from Jordan Clarkson as he rose for a 3-point attempt from the right angle.

“I just tried to catch him before he went up. … Kind of a risky play, but I’m glad I got it,” Simons said with a chuckle.

The Trail Blazers had lost seven of their last eight games before winning this thriller as Damian Lillard missed his seventh game with a lower right leg injury.

Portland’s Jerami Grant scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter as the Jazz swarmed Simons.

Jusuf Nurkic had 15 points and 14 rebounds and Trendon Watford finished with a career-high 14 rebounds, too.

The Jazz held Simons to just one field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, but he hit two free throws with 29.2 seconds to play, giving Portland a 112-111 lead. Grant added four free throws in the final 6.4 seconds for the final margin.

“Ant got it going early and we just kind of rode him, rode him, rode him. And then obviously Jerami was going,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said.

Clarkson had 24 points, and Lauri Markkanen added 21 for the Jazz, but committed two turnovers in the final 35.7 seconds. Collin Sexton scored 19 points and Jarred Vanderbilt had a season-high 16 for Utah.

Portland led 107-101 on Grant’s 3-pointer with 4:12 to play, but Sexton scored five quick points in 10-3 run that was highlighted by Markkanen’s block of Simon’s drive in the final minute.

Simons scored 23 points in the first quarter – a season high for Simons, as well as any Blazers player in any quarter. Simons had 22 in the third quarter against Denver on Oct. 24.

By halftime, Simons had 33 points and the Blazers led 69-60.

“You have to come out in the very beginning and try to set the tone. Doesn’t matter that it’s the second night of a back-to-back. They came out with an aggressiveness and a physicality that we didn’t (have),” Utah coach Will Hardy said.

Simons became the third Trail Blazer in the last decade to score 45 points, joining Lillard and CJ McCollum. He wanted more.

“In the back of my mind, I wanted 50. But there’s going to be plenty of opportunities for that. It’s all right, because we got the win,” Simons said.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.