Three things to know: Antetokounmpo triple-double, photography reminder Bucks are elite

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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) Giannis Antetokounmpo playmaking, photography reminder Bucks are elite

The Milwaukee Bucks are title contenders.

I know, I know. After watching two years of playoff flameouts we tend to dismiss that, especially since their defense has not dominated the way it was the past couple of seasons (11th in the league in defensive ratings).

We can’t do that. This team is legit. The Bucks are 13-8, the two seed in the East and the fifth-best record in the NBA, but they have been unlucky — Milwaukee has the largest average margin of victory in the NBA (+8.71) and statistically should be 16-5, second-best in the NBA. They have the best net rating in the NBA at +8.6 (remove garbage time, as Cleaning the Glass does with its stats, and they are still second in the league at +9.5). The Bucks have the best offense in the NBA.

And they have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP and unstoppable offensive force. Wednesday night, in just 31 minutes, he had 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 14 rebounds, plus 10 leading the Bucks to a rout of the Pacers 130-110.

Antetokounmpo even served as the game photographer.

Ultimately, it does not matter in our minds what the Bucks do for the first 72 games — we know they are an elite regular season team. We’ve seen that for a couple of years running. What matters is what happens in the second round of the playoffs and beyond. What happens to the Bucks’ offense when Antetokounmpo is walled off by a good defense and can’t get to the rim as often? Will their three-point shooting be there in the playoffs? Will their defense? Will Mike Budenholzer adapt his style, and can the Bucks be more than one dimensional in the playoffs (they have shown signs of that this season)? Will the Bucks defense be there when it matters?

All of those are legitimate questions, ones that can’t be answered until May and June.

Just remember that the Bucks are one of the NBA’s best teams and must be mentioned with Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and any other contenders out of the East. They are playing that well.

2) LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges are a highlight factory

Charlotte fell to East-leading Philadelphia on Wednesday night, 118-111, but it authored another gritty performance. As Charlotte has done all season. The Hornets are in a surprise group of teams — with the Knicks and Cavaliers — who are better than expected and are in the mix for one of the East’s play-in spots.

Charlotte also has LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges, and those two are a walking highlight factory.

There’s a lot of season left, and we’ll see if the Hornets can find a little more offense, hold off teams like the Heat and Raptors that started slow but are better than their records, we’ll see if Charlotte really is a play-in quality team.

What we know is they are one of the must-watch League Pass teams this season. Ball and Bridges are putting on a show.

3) New Orleans upset Phoenix behind 28 from Zion Williamson

Monty Williams hit the nail on the head.

The Suns showed little resistance and let a struggling Pelicans team get into the paint and dominate on offense, and the result was a 123-101 New Orleans win and 28 points for Zion Williamson.

Phoenix is better than this, but had one of those games where a rough offensive night got in their heads on defense, they softened up in the second half, and New Orleans went right through them. For the Pelicans, this is the kind of win they need to start to right the ship.

For the Suns, if they want to have the six seed and avoid the play-in games, this is the kind of night that can’t happen too often. The West is too deep and unforgiving.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.