Three things to know: Have the Boston Celtics hit rock bottom?


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 pivotal moment from the night before in one place.

1) Have the Celtics hit rock bottom after weekend losses to Detroit, Washington?

On paper, the Boston Celtics are contenders. They have elite wing play with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — both playing at an All-Star level — with a shot-creating point guard in Kemba Walker, a defensive specialist who can hit threes in Marcus Smart, a roster of solid role players, and one of the smartest coaches in the game. On paper, Boston matches up better with Brooklyn than any other East team. On paper, the Celtics are a threat to come out of the East.

On the court, the Celtics are a mess.

Following weekend losses to some of the East’s weaker sides in Detroit and Washington, the Celtics are 5-10 in their last 15 games and have fallen to .500 for the season. The Boston defense hasn’t been impressive the last 15 games, but the bigger problem is on offense, where they are 23rd in the league in that stretch (109.1 points per 100 possessions), with none of the ball movement we expect from a Stevens team (28th in assists in those 15 games).

Beyond that, the eye test shows a team that just got out-hustled and out-executed. The Boston offense is a lot of standing around right now, not a lot of movement and making plays for each other.

This feels like rock bottom. This looks like the kind of team that needs a shakeup.

Boston fans might be reaching for the panic button. Some are asking for Stevens’ head (I don’t get that, but it’s a regular thing on Celtics Twitter) and/or a roster change — Danny Ainge needs to do something with that Gordon Hayward trade exception to fill in what this team lacks without Hayward. Especially after an offseason where he didn’t want Myles Turner.

However, in the Boston locker room, there appears to be no panic.

Walker after Sunday’s loss: “We’re just not playing the way we know that we’re capable of playing. That has to be fixed… It can’t get no worse than this. So we’re gonna fix it for sure… Positive? It ain’t many positives. I’m gonna be honest. We just are not good right now. But it’s very controllable…

“To be honest, I could care less what people think. That’s not what this is about. This is about us. This is about us getting better. We will. We’ll figure it out. Every year is different. Every season is different. We have a whole new team. We have young guys. That’s on us, that’s on myself and some of the guys who have been around. We’ve got to change some things, and we will. We will.”

Brown: “I think we can flip things around at any moment. I always have faith in this organization and team and our coaching staff. We sucked [Sunday]. We haven’t played well over the last few games for whatever reason, but I believe we can turn it around at any moment.”

There are legitimate issues, and most revolve around injuries, COVID-19, and lineup stability. There has been no consistency of rotations, and nobody off the bench — outside of rookie Payton Pritchard — has stepped up and demanded minutes.

The Celtics core has barely been together this season. Walker missed the first 11 games of the season getting his knee right (he had maybe his best game of the season Sunday), Tatum missed time with COVID-19, Brown has been in and out of the lineup, and Smart has been out the last seven games with a calf injury.

The Celtics’ four best players — Tatum, Brown, Walker, Smart — have played a total of 28 minutes together this season, which accounts for 57 possessions. Boston simply has not been whole.

We don’t know what a fully functional Celtics team looks like yet.

What we do know is the one on the court right now isn’t working. The good news is in the East, .500 is still good enough for the fifth seed, and the Celtics are just half-a-game back of hosting a first-round playoff series. There is a lot of time to get healthy, get some help, and get things right.

But this weekend needs to be rock bottom for the Celtics.

2) Another day, another Damian Lillard game-winner

In the clutch moments of a game — especially with CJ McCollum still out injured — shouldn’t Damian Lillard get the Houston James Harden treatment? Double him at halfcourt, get the ball out of his hands, dare anyone else to beat you. Lillard is the most clutch player in the NBA right now, he’s earned that respect.

With just more than :30 seconds left in a time game (so they would get another possession at least), Dallas matched up Dorian Finney-Smith — a quality defender — on Lillard in isolation. We know how that is going to end.

That was the ballgame. The Trail Blazers went on to get the 121-118 victory.

Lillard finished with 34 points and 11 assists, which was barely enough to outduel an impressive Luka Doncic, who finished with 44 points and nine assists. He had a shot at a three to win it all, but it just didn’t fall.

3) The Lakers may be without Anthony Davis for a while after Achilles scare

If this were the worst possible outcome, Anthony Davis would not have been doing postgame media, answering reporters’ questions. Yet there he was Sunday night. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Lakers are likely going to be without Davis for a little while. In his second game back after missing a couple of games due to Achilles tendinosis, Anthony Davis had to leave the Lakers game against Denver Sunday night after re-injuring his Achilles trying to drive around Nikola Jokic in the second quarter.

Davis was done for the night (although he stayed in and hit his free throws) with what the team called a strain. An MRI will come on Monday to detail everything.

Davis said after the game that early medical suggested it is not a tear/rupture, but rather a return of his Achilles tendinosis. Just this time, it will sideline him more than two games.

“I don’t want to mess around with this type of injury,” Davis said.

He shouldn’t, and the Lakers can’t afford to risk it. It doesn’t really matter if the Lakers give up a few games in the standings, as long as Davis and LeBron James are healthy come the playoffs Los Angeles is the team to beat. Achilles injuries are overuse injuries, they come with time, and both Davis and the Lakers need to rest this and get him healthy, no matter how long it takes.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Russell Westbrook had a good Sunday in the Wizards win against Boston — 13 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds — but his reaction to an air balled free throw was my favorite thing from Sunday.

Jokić conducts a symphony on offense, Nuggets pick up 104-93 Game 1 win over Heat


DENVER — This is what the Denver Nuggets have done to every team that faced them this postseason. And most of the ones in the regular season, too.

There are no good answers to slowing the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll. Their passing and off-ball movement are elite. They have shooters everywhere. They have size across the board. And they play enough defense that it becomes impossible to keep up with their scoring.

Combine that with Heat shooters going cold for long stretches of Game 1 and you end up with a 104-93 Nuggets victory that wasn’t as close as the final score made it seem.

The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0, with Game 2 Sunday in Denver. It was a raucous, fun night for Nuggets fans who got everything they wanted from the franchise’s first-ever Finals game.

Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — Miami has to find a way not to let him both score and distribute if they are going to have a chance in this series. Of course, that’s what the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all said.

Murray added 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Aaron Gordon scored 16 on 7-of-10 shooting.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 26 points and 13 rebounds, shooting 13-of-25. He played well and hard all night, but the Nuggets will be happy if he is the Heat player taking the most shots every game.

From the opening tip, Denver’s size advantage on paper became a problematic reality for Miami – 18 of Nuggets’ first 24 points were scored in the paint. The Nuggets used their size advantage to pummel the Heat inside on offense, and turn them into jump shooters on the other end.

“You have to credit them with their size and really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender,” Spoelstra said postgame. “Things [we do] have to be done with a lot more intention and a lot more pace, a lot more detail.”

Miami also just missed shots they made in the previous series, shooing 9-of-26 (34.6%) in the first quarter. For the game things got a little better, but the Heat had an unimpressive 102.2 offensive rating on the night.

The shooting trend continued into the second, as the Heat didn’t play terribly on the offensive end for most of the first half, moving the ball and getting clean looks, but they weren’t falling — Max Strus was 0-of-7 in the first half (six from 3) and those were essentially open looks. Miami did make a little push in some non-Jokić minutes in the second and cut the lead down to six with 5:47 left in the half on a Haywood Highsmith dunk.

But the first half’s final minutes were a disaster for the Heat. They didn’t score for 3:30 after Highsmith’s bucket and shot 2-of-10 the rest of the quarter. Denver got rolling at the end of the quarter, went on a 16-5 run, and it was a 17-point Nuggets lead at the break, 59-42.

At the start of both the third and the fourth quarters the Heat made runs — 7-0 to start the third, 11-0 to start the fourth — and cut the lead to 10 both times. In the third,d things returned to first-half form and the Nuggets ran out to a 21-point lead after three.

In the fourth, the Heat kept it close, partly thanks to 18 points from Highsmith off the bench, and the lead got down to single digits for a possession. But Miami was too far back for their comeback magic, especially against a team with Jokić orchestrating a symphony on offense.

Brad Stevens confirms Joe Mazzulla will return as Celtics coach


Despite the sting of losing to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t expect sweeping changes in Boston. Not to the Celtics’ coaching staff and not to the roster.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Steven made that clear in his end-of-season press conference. It starts with bringing back Joe Mazzulla, which was expected after he was given a multi-year contract extension during the season. Stevens was asked if Mazzulla was the right person to lead the Celtics after an uneven season (hat tip NBC Sports Boston).

“Yeah, I think he is,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a really good job with this group. Everybody’s going to overreact to the best players and coaches after every game. That’s always the way it is. We know that going in, so we have to be able to judge things on the whole.

“He’s a terrific leader, he’ll only get better at anything that he can learn from this year, because he’s constantly trying to learn. And he’s accountable. Those leadership qualities are hard to find. I know they’re easy to talk about, but when you can show all those through the expectations and the microscope that he was under, that’s hard to do. Our players, our staff, everybody around him believe(s) in him, and we’ve got to do our best to support him going forward.”

The expectation is that veteran coaches — ideally at least one person with NBA head coaching experience — will be added to Mazzulla’s staff to help with the maturation process of the young coach. But he will be back.

Stevens also was asked about Jaylen Brown, who is eligible for a supermax extension of around $295 million over five years (his making All-NBA made him eligible for 35% of the salary cap). Stevens was limited in what he could say due to (archaic) tampering rules.

“I’ve had nothing but great conversations with Jaylen, but we can’t talk about all that stuff,” Stevens said. “I’m not allowed to talk about the contract details, let alone the extension because it’s not of that time yet right now. His window is between July 1 and October or whatever it is.

“But I can say without a doubt that we want Jaylen to be here. He’s a big part of us. We believe in him. I’m thankful for him. I’m really thankful for when those guys (Jayson Tatum and Brown) have success, they come back to work. And when they get beat, they own it and come back to work. I know that’s what they’re about, and that’s hard to find. Kinda like what I talked about with leadership earlier. Those qualities aren’t for everyone. Jaylen had a great year, All-NBA year and he’s a big part of us moving forward in our eyes.”

Despite Brown’s struggles against the Heat, it’s a no-brainer for the Celtics to retain the 26-year-old All-NBA player entering his prime. They should offer him the full supermax, and his public comments made it sound like that’s what he expects. Mess around in negotiations and try to get Brown to take less than the full max and then the threat of Brown leaving becomes more real. Only one player has ever rejected a supermax extension: Kawhi Leonard when he was trying to force a trade. (If Boston puts the full 35% max on the table and Brown rejects it, then the game changes and they have to trade him this summer, but don’t bet on him walking away from more than a quarter of a billion dollars).

There will be changes on the Celtics roster, but expect Brown and Mazzulla to return.

Purdue’s Zach Edey headlines list of players to withdraw from NBA Draft

Fairleigh Dickinson v Purdue
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The winner of the 2023 John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year Award is headed back for another year in the college ranks. And it’s the right move.

Zach Edey headlines the list of 181 players who withdrew their names from the NBA Draft, and he is headed back to Purdue for another season. He confirmed it on Twitter in his own way.

Edey averaged 22.3 points a game on 60.7% shooting and 12.9 rebounds a game last season for the Boilermakers, and his measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were hard to ignore — 7-3¼ barefoot, with a 7-10½ wingspan. However, his lack of elite athleticism, questions about his ability to defend in space, and an old-school, near-the-basket game are not natural fits with where the NBA is trending. He was expected to get picked in the back half of the second round (meaning no guaranteed contract), if at all.

With that, he made the right decision to return to college. If the Toronto native can arrange a new student visa that allows him to better capitalize on NIL money, a return to Purdue is likely the right financial decision as well.

Here are some of the biggest names among the 181 who withdrew from the NBA Draft (via Jonathan Givony of ESPN), with all projected to go after No. 40 or later:

Trey Alexander (Creighton)
Reece Beekman (Virginia)
Adem Bona (UCLA)
Jalen Bridges (Baylor)
Tristan da Silva (Colorado)
Zach Edey (Purdue)
Coleman Hawkins (Illinois)
DaRon Holmes (Dayton)
Josiah-Jordan James (Tennessee)
Dillon Jones (Weber State)
Judah Mintz (Syracuse)
Dillon Mitchell (Texas)
Terrence Shannon (Illinois)

The NBA Draft takes place on June 22.

Lakers rumored to prefer sign-and-trade options for D’Angelo Russell, eye Fred VanVleet

2023 Play-In Tournament - Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

D'Angelo Russell helped the Lakers turn their season around after the All-Star break. He provided needed shot creation at the point, averaged 17.4 points per game while shooting 41.4% from 3, and generally fit nicely on the court. However, his limitations — particularly on the defensive end — were exposed in the playoffs, especially by the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

Russell is an unrestricted free agent and the Lakers are faced with choices: Re-sign him, let him walk, or maybe find a sign-and-trade that can bring back a player who is a better fit for a Lakers roster with championship aspirations next season. The Lakers would ideally like the sign-and-trade option, suggests Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

My read on the situation is that the Lakers would prefer to use D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, but I’m not sure the market is there.

Landing Kyrie Irving for Russell is shaping up to be a pipe dream, especially with Dallas unlikely to help Los Angeles out. Fred VanVleet, a Klutch client, looms as a possibility, but adding him would require Toronto to agree to terms with Russell (or take on the Beasley and Bamba contracts).

Forget about a Kyrie Irving sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Russell, that appears off the table (unless the Lakers add so many sweeteners Dallas can’t say no… and didn’t the Lakers just gut their roster for a guard in Russell Westbrook?)

Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times adds this.

Fred VanVleet’s name has been mentioned since even before he joined Klutch Sports, though the Lakers could again be in a position where they’d be forced to part with one or more draft picks in a deal. Russell’s postseason struggles were probably a little overblown after a disastrous Western Conference finals, but expect the Lakers to look at upgrade options. There’s still a chance Russell returns on a good deal and the Lakers actually get the continuity they’ve spoken about building.

VanVleet has a $22.8 million player option he is widely expected to opt out of seeking more money and years. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.2 assists a game last season, is a respectable defender, and is a former All-Star and NBA champion.

The questions start with, what are Toronto’s plans? They have yet to hire a new head coach after firing Nick Nurse, and there isn’t a sense of whether they will try to re-sign VanVleet, extend Pascal Siakam and run it back, break the entire thing up, or travel a middle ground reworking the roster. Dreams of a sign-and-trade only work if the Raptors play along. And, if the Raptors come around to consider a sign-and-trade for VanVleet, do they want Russell in that deal? Plus, the Lakers likely have to throw in the last first-round pick they can trade to get Toronto even to consider it.

All of which is to say, it’s a long shot VanVleet is a Laker. Not impossible, but not likely.

The smart money is on the Lakers re-signing Russell and considering trade options at next February’s deadline or next summer, if they feel it’s time to move on.