Three things to know: Brooklyn’s defense is getting better, which should scare league


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) Brooklyn’s defense is getting better, which should scare the league

Thursday night’s much-anticipated Nets vs. Lakers showdown was an NBA Finals preview… in that players wearing Los Angeles and Brooklyn jerseys could meet in the NBA Finals in July. And games would be played at Staples Center.

That’s about it for takeaways from the Nets 109-98 win. The Nets and Lakers will be different teams if they meet again in July. The Lakers likely will have Anthony Davis then, the walking mismatch who is critical to their defense. The Nets likely will have Kevin Durant back, and he has played at an MVP level when on the court this season. Plus, teams evolve and change over time, and the Finals are five months away. These teams will look and feel different.

Brooklyn may have a respectable defense by then — it’s already improving.

The Nets defense was solid against the Lakers in a much-anticipated national showdown on Thursday, holding the Lakers to 98 points and a 104.3 net rating (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers, which filters out the large amount of garbage time in this one). Part of that was luck, the Lakers shot 8-of-30 from three, and they are a team that is shooting 35.8% from deep for the season. The Lakers have not been as sharp the past couple of weeks — their offense is bottom 10 in the league the past eight games due to Davis missing time and the Lakers as a whole looking a little tired — but the Nets will still take it.

It’s not a one-game thing; the Nets defense over the last five games is 18th in the league, with them holding two teams under 100 points (the Lakers being one). Over their last eight games, the Nets are 19th in the NBA in defense (although with an unimpressive defensive rating of 116, it’s just other teams have been worse).

Those are not lock-down, Utah Jazz-level defensive numbers, but when a team has all the Nets’ firepower, just a league-average defense could take them deep in the playoffs.

If this is not a mirage, Brooklyn’s improving defense should worry the rest of the league.

The Nets struggled defensively all season, especially after the James Harden trade — Brooklyn’s defense wasn’t good before that, and in that deal they sent out their best defender and rim protector in Jarrett Allen. It showed, the Nets were in a shootout every night and trying to win by just outscoring teams. Nets coach Steve Nash and several players pointed to a loss a couple of weeks back to Detroit — where the Nets couldn’t stop one of the NBA’s weaker squads — as a wake-up call. Here is what Joe Harris said postgame, via Malika Andrews of ESPN.

“I think after our game against Detroit, obviously it was a game in which we struggled really badly on the defensive end and it was sort of, not a breaking point, but it just happened pretty repeatedly up to that point,” Joe Harris said. “I think after that game just the level of focus, the attention to detail and the intensity on the defensive end has really ramped up.”

The Nets have been much better protecting the paint since then, and it’s helped.

Can Brooklyn sustain this improvement and even get better on the defensive end? Is average on defense good enough to get them out of the East? We’re not going to know the answers to those questions until June. But improvement has to start somewhere.

There are no statement wins this early in the NBA season, although if beating the Lakers boosts the Nets’ confidence, then good on them. But if the Nets defense really is making a statement, that is something worth listening to.

2) Kevin Durant, LeBron James are your All-Star captains, here are the starters

The NBA is going ahead with the All-Star Game in Atlanta on March 7.

Does anyone not a Turner Broadcasting executive think this is a good idea? Robbing elite players of needed downtime during a condensed schedule to host a large gathering during a pandemic? No. But money talks, and with that there will be a game — complete with a dunk contest at halftime — and you can watch it from the comfort of your home. Just don’t go to Atlanta looking for parties. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is asking you to stay home.

LeBron and Durant got the most fan votes from each conference, making them the captains who will select teams (the league will continue with the playground-style captains choosing teams format that has worked pretty well the past few years). LeBron and Durant will choose their teams first among the starters, then pick their reserves (those players are voted on by the coaches and announced next week). The Elam Ending — setting a fixed target for teams to reach — will be back as well.

Thursday, the NBA announced its starters for the All-Star Game, as voted by the fans (50%), media (25%), and players (25%):

Western Conference

Stephen Curry (Warriors)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
• LeBron James (Lakers)
Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)

Eastern Conference

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Bradley Beal (Wizards)
• Kevin Durant (Nets)
Joel Embiid (76ers)
Kyrie Irving (Nets)

The big “snub” controversy would be Damian Lillard. Except he’s still going to the All-Star Game, just not as a starter, so it’s not really a snub. But if Portland fans need to get angry about something, then go for it. The fan voting had Curry and Doncic as the starting guards, with Lillard third and coming off the bench. Both the media and players had Lillard second and Doncic third (Dan Feldman and I had Lillard as a starter, as discussed in this week’s PBT Podcast). That left Lillard and Doncic tied in the NBA’s ranking system, but the fan vote breaks ties, so Doncic will start. Go ahead and be outraged.

The reserves will be announced this week.

3) Toronto beat Milwaukee, sweeping two-game set and handing Bucks fifth straight loss

Trends to follow in the East besides Brooklyn’s defense?

The Milwaukee Bucks have lost five in a row after they could not stop Norman Powell (29 points) or Pascal Siakam (27), and Toronto beat Milwaukee comfortably 107-92. More importantly out of this, it was the second of a two-game set against Toronto, and in the first game the Raptors clamped down on Khris Middleton and took him and his playmaking out of the picture. In the second game, it was more of the same. The Bucks didn’t (or couldn’t) adjust. Middleton shot 9-of-21 overall and 1-of-6 from three in the two games, for a combined 24 points in the two games. He averages 20.1 points a game for the season.

We wrote about the Bucks not hitting the panic button a couple of days ago, and after the game again Giannis Antetokounmpo talked about improving, taking steps, and seeing the big picture. There’s a lot of season left, it is too early to panic.

However, much like the Nets defense mentioned above, it’s a trend worth watching.

Malone’s message clear to Nuggets, ‘I don’t think we played well in Game 1’


DENVER — Game 1 was a coach’s dream in some ways for Michael Malone and the Nuggets staff.

They got three-quarters of dominating play — the Nuggets were up by 21 entering the fourth quarter — and they got the win. But they also have one quarter of struggling, sloppy play that gives Malone a valid reason to call guys out and have a candid film session.

“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Michael Malone said, despite his team picking up an 11-point win. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic, and if you think that Max Strus is going to go 0-for-9 again or Duncan Robinson is going to go 1-for-5 again, you’re wrong. The fourth quarter, we gave up 30 points, 60% from the field, 50% from three, 6-of-12 from the three-point line.”

Malone added he thought the Nuggets offense struggled in the fourth quarter because they didn’t get stops so they were constantly going up against the Heat’s set defense.

“That fourth quarter, you know, we came out in the flat,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We had a great looks at the basket, we just didn’t knock them down. But we want to get into our offense a little bit earlier than like :14 seconds on the clock and just play normal basketball, our basketball.”

It was all part of a theme Malone wanted to drive home: They are still three wins from a title and those will not be easy to get.

“I told our players today, don’t read the paper,” Malone said (do any of those 20-somethings get an old-school paper?) “Don’t listen to the folks on the radio and TV saying that this series is over and that we’ve done something, because we haven’t done a damn thing.”

There were positives for the Nuggets to take away from Game 1, particularly on the defensive end.

“I think when you see the last game, us against Miami, in the first three quarters, they score 65, 68 points [Ed. note: it was 63]. I think that’s really amazing,” Nikola Jokić said. “And then you can see the fourth quarter, they scored 30-something. When we are collectively really good, then I’m really good [defensively], too. But when we are collectively not good, I’m not really good.”

Jimmy Butler had praise for Jokic’s defense.

“He moves his feet well. He’s constantly making guys make decisions whenever they get into the paint. Then his outlet passes from a defensive rebound are very, very elite; that, he’s been doing his entire career,” Butler said. “As much as everybody looks at what he does on the offensive side of the ball, he’s a hell of a defender, as well.”

“I think overall, I think Nikola’s defense has been a real positive,” Malone said. “I think you have to get past the eye test with Nikola because I think most people just think of great defensive players as a guy who is blocking a shot or just making a great athletic play. Nikola does it differently. He has a tremendous IQ. He’s got great anticipation. He’s got unbelievable hands for deflections, blocks. He’s got unbelievable feet for deflections.”

In the postseason, the Nuggets have held their own in the non-Jokić minutes and that continued in Game 1 — the Nuggets were only -3 in the non-Jokić minutes in that game (-1 in the first half and -2 in the fourth quarter).

“Defense,” Aaron Gordon said of the focus in non-Jokić minutes. “So, when he’s sitting on the floor we need to lock in on defense. That’s probably the most important, crucial aspect of the non-Nikola Jokic minutes because that’s how we get our offense, as well.”

In its last couple of series, the other team had to be aggressive with adjustments because the Nuggets were forcing them to. The Finals may prove a little different, we could see some defensive tweaks early from the Nuggets.

Denver’s offense is going to get points, if its defense can be as good as Game 1, Malone is going to have to look hard to find things before the Game 3 film sessions.

Heat look for ways to make Nuggets uncomfortable in Game 2


DENVER — One thing was clear from Game 1 of the NBA Finals: The Nuggets are not going to assist in their own demise the way the Celtics and Bucks did against the Heat. When Miami made their fourth-quarter run Thursday, the Nuggets showed poise, got the ball to Nikola Jokić, and got the comfortable home win.

If Miami is going to win Game 2 and, eventually, this Finals series, they have to make Denver a lot more uncomfortable.

The Heat need to be the team applying pressure.

“I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” Jimmy Butler said, echoing his comments after Game 1 when he didn’t get to the free throw line once. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”

Jokić only had to defend two shots at the rim in Game 1. The Heat want that number to go up exponentially in Game 2. To a man Heat players discussed playing with more “intention” or “force” on Sunday.

It would also help if they hit their jumpers.

The Heat as a team were 5-of-16 on open 3-pointers (using the Second Spectrum tracking data). Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin combined to shoot 2-of-23 from 3 in Game 1.

“We did see some things that we liked and we got some great looks, myself included,” Strus said. “We’ve got to knock those down.”

“In terms of the shooters, that’s pretty simple. Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Erik Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers, when asked what he told his shooters heading into Game 2. “As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters.”

One of those shooters, Martin, was not at practice due to an illness on Saturday, but he likely plays on Sunday.

Another shooter the Heat could use is Tyler Herro, but his status remains “unchanged,” Spoelstra said. Herro has been out since fracturing his hand in the first round of the playoffs, although he is nearing a return. Spoelstra would not rule out Herro for Game 2, but he wasn’t making it sound likely.

The hard part of making the Heat uncomfortable is slowing Jokić, and just as important is not letting the Jokić and Jamal Murray pick-and-roll get flowing. Heat players across the board talked about needing to tighten up on the defensive end as they adjust the off-ball movement and the more untraditional style of play the Nuggets use.

“I think it’s an opportunity to learn,” Robinson said of going against the Nuggets offense in Game 1. “You watch the film, go to school on it, try to take away some things that you did well, and then certainly learn from some things that you can do better. I think in that sense there are some encouraging aspects of it.”

One thing the Heat have done better than their opponents in every round is adjust — Miami got better faster than the teams they beat along the way to the Finals. That won’t be easy against a Nuggets team with a strong coach and a high-IQ MVP in Jokić.

Expect a much more aggressive Heat team in Game 2. Whether that is enough to make the Nuggets uncomfortable remains to be seen.

Coach, front office moves update: Pistons make Williams hiring official, Borrego or Stotts to Bucks bench?


There are far from settled across the NBA in both the coaching and front office circles, with news still leaking out daily. Here’s an update on things which have come to light in recent days.

• The Detroit Pistons made the hiring of Monty Williams official.

“A week ago, I was not sure what the future would hold,” Williams said in a statement, referencing reports he had planned to take a year away from coaching. “But, after talking with Tom [Gores, team principal owner] and Troy [Weaver, Pistons GM], I was excited hearing their vision for the Pistons going forward. They had a thoughtful plan and I am so appreciative of the emphasis they placed on the personal side of this business. They showed tremendous consideration for me and my family throughout this process.

“They also showed a commitment to success and doing things the right way,” he said. “As we discussed the team and expressed our collective goals, I realized that this would be a great opportunity for me to help a talented young team and build a strong culture here in Detroit. This is obviously a special place with a deep basketball history, and my family and I are looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of this city and organization.”

Williams has a six-year, $78.5 million contract with the team and that reportedly could grow to more than eight years, $100 million if incentives are hit. He was brought in to help build a culture of defense and discipline for a franchise with some nice young players but many questions.

• Kevin Ollie, the former NBA player and UConn coach who was in the mix for the Pistons’ job before Williams was hired, will be on the bench in Brooklyn next season.

• While Adrian Griffin has not officially signed his contract as the new Bucks head coach, he is sitting in on meetings running up to the draft and has essentially started the job, reports Eric Nehm and Shams Charania at The Athletic.

More interestingly, The Athletic reports the Bucks plan to put an experienced, veteran head coach next to the rookie Griffin, and are speaking to former Hornets head coach James Borrego and former Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. Bringing in an experienced staff to put around Griffin is the smart move, with what we saw this season with Joe Mazzulla in Boston as an example of why this is the smart path.

• The Wizards have hired former Hawks head of basketball operations Travis Schlenk to be the right-hand man next to new Wizards president Michael Winger. This is a quality hire. Schlenk was rumored to have questioned Atlanta’s trade for Dejounte Murray to put next to Trae Young — a move ownership wanted — and by mid-season he was pushed out the door. Having Winger and Schlenk in the Washington front office is a lot of brain power, the question remains will they be given true freedom by owner Ted Leonsis to make moves for the long term and not prioritize just making the playoffs? The Wizards have a big offseason coming up with questions about new contracts/extensions for Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis.

• Aaron Nelson, the training staff guru hired by the Pelicans away from the Suns in 2019 to help Zion Williamson and others, appears to be out of the mix in a restructured staff, reports Christian Clark at the Times-Picayune. Zion did not have a great relationship with Nelson, but the question is was Nelson the scapegoat for players issues beyond his control? From Clark’s article:

Williamson’s relationship with Nelson became strained during his rookie season. At different points, Williamson refused to work with him…

Brandon Ingram sat out 29 consecutive games with an injury the team described as a left toe contusion. Ingram kicked the back of a Memphis Grizzlies player’s foot in November. Two days after the injury, Pelicans coach Willie Green said Ingram was “day to day.” Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Ingram did not play again until Jan. 25 — exactly two months after hurting his toe…

Ingram has sometimes seemed unwilling to play through minor discomfort, to the point where some of his teammates have become frustrated with him over the past two years. The Pelicans thought they had solved their player care and performance problem by hiring Nelson. Four years later, Nelson’s time in charge of the department is over.

When the Pelicans have all their stars on the court, this is at the very least, a playoff team in the West and potentially a dangerous one. I’m not going to speculate on the internal dynamics of the Pelicans front office and training team, but after years of injury issues it’s fair to ask if this is a matter of the training staff, or is this on the players themselves?

Knicks’ Julius Randle undergoes ankle surgery, should return for training camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - 	New York Knicks v Miami Heat
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks’ Julius Randle sprained his ankle with two weeks to go in the regular season. He returned from that in time to face the Cleveland Cavaliers and their massive front line in the playoffs, but he struggled in that series — 14.4 points a game on 33.8% shooting — and injured his ankle again in Game 5. He did make it back for the Heat series after missing Game 1 but was never fully himself.

Now, as he hinted at during the playoffs, Randle has undergone offseason arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Randle is expected to be ready for the start of training camp in the fall.

Randle had an All-NBA season, averaging 25.1 points and 10 rebounds a game, and was part of the reason, along with Jalen Brunson, the Knicks were the No. 5 seed in the East last season.

Randle’s name has come up in trade rumors, mostly with him going out if the Knicks get in the mix for a superstar who becomes available this offseason. If someone such as Karl-Anthony Towns or Bradley Beal hits the market and New York wants to be in play, sending out Randle — set to make $25.6 million this season, with two more seasons on the books after that — is the way to match salaries.

Randle should be healthy and ready for training camp for whatever team he is on come September.