Three things to know: Is Brooklyn going to win the whole thing?

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LOS ANGELES — 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) Is Brooklyn going to win the whole thing?

Count me among the skeptics when Brooklyn traded key role players and seemingly every pick for the next century to land James Harden. It didn’t seem necessary — Brooklyn already had elite offensive players in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, what it seemed they needed was better defenders. And how were those three superstars used to having the ball in their hands going to share the rock?

After seeing the Nets in person Sunday, seeing how Harden has comfortably slid into a facilitator role, seeing how their defense improving, and ultimately watching them beat the Clippers to complete a 5-0 road trip through the West — a swing that included besting both Los Angeles teams while without Kevin Durant (hamstring) — it begs the question:

Is Brooklyn the team to beat in the East? In the NBA?

They looked like it Sunday in Los Angeles.

The Nets are now 12-1 against teams over .500 — when they are focused, they get results. Granted, the Laker team they beat was without Anthony Davis, and all these teams will look different in four months when we are deep into the playoffs, but the Nets are becoming scary.

Their defense was their Achilles heel before and just after the trade; they struggled to get stops and only won in shootouts. However, after a loss to Detroit where Brooklyn couldn’t stop one of the worst offenses in the league, the team committed themselves to change.

In the past seven games, the Nets defense is 15th in the league — average. With Brooklyn’s offensive firepower, average may be enough. The Nets are switching almost everything, communicating better about those switches and recovery, but most importantly they are just much more active and engaged on that end now. The effort is there, and that’s how the Nets held the Clippers’ second-best offense in the league to a net rating four points below their season average.

On offense, Harden is playing facilitator and moving the ball in a way he simply did not (and probably should have) in Houston in recent years. And he’s still getting buckets when he needs to.

Yes, the Nets were aided by a Harden flop drawing the offensive foul on Kawhi Leonard late, but they had led comfortably through most of the second half up to that point. They had looked the better team in this game.

Brooklyn has its big three and they are starting to mesh, starting to find how Joe Harris, Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan, and the rest of the role players fit around them. The East is deeper this year and both Philadelphia and Milwaukee will have a say about who is headed to the finals (maybe Boston and Miami will have a say, too, if they get their acts together).

But Brooklyn looks like a team that could win the whole thing.

2) Ryan Saunders fired as Timberwolves coach… And Chris Finch was waiting in the wings

What turned heads around the NBA Sunday night was not that Ryan Saunders was fired as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves — the team is 7-24 and had stagnated in development. This was coming for a while.

What stunned people is how quickly Chris Finch was reported as the next head coach — he’s not coming in as an interim coach; he’s getting a multi-year deal, according to reports.

Finch is a top assistant in Toronto, and right now front offices around the league are rightfully enamored with the job Nick Nurse and staff have done there getting the team to play smart on offense and use a variety of defenses. Toronto teams have been flexible, which makes them more dangerous in the playoffs — it won them a title — and other franchises want that. Finch has interviewed for several jobs around the league in the past year.

Also, Rosas and Finch are friends, going back to when Rosas was the GM of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G-League and Finch was the coach.

However, what spun heads around the NBA was the Timberwolves hired Finch without a search and without interviewing any candidates of color — starting with David Vanterpool, another top assistant on the “should get a job” list who has interviewed with multiple teams and was on Saunders’ staff in Minnesota.

Why race to sign Finch now? Why not give the job to Vanterpool with an interim tag, see how he does through the rest of the season, then make a call on the next permanent head coach next offseason?

Finch has the gig, and the league will have questions to answer about Black head coaches’ opportunities. There are currently seven Black head coaches in the NBA (plus James Borrego in Charlotte is Latino, and Erik Spoelstra in Miami is Filipino). That number has shrunk in recent years.

3) Boston blows 24-point lead to New Orleans, loses, and faces more questions

On the one hand, it’s hard to tell just how good this Celtics’ team really is because we have not seen it fully functional yet: The foursome of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart have played just 28 minutes together this season. And that’s not changing anytime soon with Smart out until after the All-Star break.

On the other hand, something is not right with this team, especially late in games. Boston has a net rating of +1 for the season, but it has a -7.8 net rating in the fourth quarter of games (second-worst in the league). In clutch time — last five minutes of a game within five points — Boston’s net rating is -33.2.

During its comeback on Sunday, the Pelicans blitzed Tatum to get the ball out of his hands and the Celtics couldn’t make them pay for it. Walker shot 5-of-21, Brown 7-of-23. Boston is still trying to figure out how to make it all work. Brown put it this way postgame:

“We’ve just got to mature and grow up. That’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to do, to look to get other guys involved. I think that’s better for our team, but definitely gotta come out and find ways to win.”

The Celtics have time, and they need to get healthy, but if the end-of-game execution both doesn’t get more creative and just cleaner, Boston is not getting past teams like Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

One other note out of the Boston/New Orleans game — there is no way this was worthy of an ejection.

J.J. Redick had picked up a technical foul about 20 seconds earlier for language directed at a referee. Next trip down the court, Redick drew a foul, rolled the ball back to crew chief Josh Tiven — and instantly was hit with a second technical. How often does a player get tossed after the call goes his way?

Come on now. Check the ego and save the ejections for grand gestures and plays that could cause injury. I know refs have a hard job, they have players and coaches from both teams in their ears all game, but that’s part of the gig. Players do cross the line, and the referees deserve more respect, but tossing a player on something like this does not help that cause.

Zion and more: Five must-watch intriguing NBA players this season

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At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.

The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.

Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.

Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?

The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.

If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.

We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.

Ben Simmons, Nets

Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.

What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way  — and will Steve Nash ask him to?

No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.

Precious Achiuwa, Raptors

Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).

Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.

After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.

Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks

Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?

Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.

Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.

De'Aaron Fox, Kings

If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.

How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?

“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.

Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.

The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.

DeMarcus Cousins looking for NBA return, ‘I just want a fair shot’

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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DeMarcus Cousins can still help a team. He did it last season, first in Milwaukee because they needed depth (Brook Lopez was out following back surgery) and he gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. Then, the Bucks let him go for financial reasons and the Nuggets picked him up to play behind Nikola Jokic and he was again a solid reserve, with 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Cousins, however, has not landed with a team heading into this season, with teams more concerned about his character and influence than his game. Cousins told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports he has learned from his past mistakes and wants another chance.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player…

“I think the misperception of me is that I’m this angry monster that just goes around bullying people, beating people up, uncoachable, and a cancer in the locker room,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s all false. I played for coach [John] Calipari, a legendary coach. I was more than coachable. Steve Kerr would attest to that and coach Malone. Obviously, you can always go back to my time in Sacramento. I was a young kid. I was still figuring this business out. I was ignorant to a lot of things. I handled a lot of things the incorrect way, but I’ve also learned from those mistakes…

“So, to hold my time in Sac over my head, I think that’s unfair. I believe we all should have a chance to grow and change and actually have that change be embraced. I just want a fair shot.”

Cousins also said he is working out daily to be ready when the phone rings and understands he is now a role player.

It will ring. At some point an injury will happen and a team will turn to Cousins to be that solid backup big they can give 15 minutes a night (or, a team will realize they need more size than they currently have on their roster). Center has become a bit of a mercenary position in the NBA, one where teams often look to fill roles on the cheap so money can be spent on perimeter players, and teams think low-risk with those spots. Fair or not, Cousins is not seen as low risk.

But his stint with the Warriors before the bubble (and before he tore his ACL) and last season with the Bucks and Nuggets show he can fit in on an established team and contribute. Eventually, he should get that chance.

Report: Draymond Green facing potential discipline after fight with Jordan Poole

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Warriors practice got heated on Wednesday and Draymond Green reportedly escalated some chest bumping with Jordan Poole and punches were thrown. The team is now considering internal disciple, according to The Athletic.

When a heated interaction with guard Jordan Poole escalated, Green forcefully struck Poole and needed to be separated swiftly, sources said. Green and Poole came chest-to-chest, with both players pushing and shoving each other prior to Green’s escalation of the physical altercation, those sources said.

The two players had been jawing at each other when it escalated and Green punched Poole, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. There aren’t details of the incident beyond that description (at least so far), although several reporters have confirmed the was a fight and the two had to be broken up. Poole was seen getting up shots after practice when the media was allowed in and reportedly was joking with teammates.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports Tweeted out what feels like the Draymond Green camp spin on the incident.

Warriors elder statesman Andre Iguodala Tweeted out this on the situation, wanting to keep it all in the family, and adding that “it broke my heart… but it fixed my vision.”

There is a history of tension between Green and Poole, including a public flare-up between the duo early last season, but the two talked after and smoothed things over. At least for a while.

What punishment Green will face from the team remains to be seen.

Poole is on the verge of an extension to his rookie contract, one where Tylyer Herro just set the market.

Green had hoped for an extension from the Warriors this offseason but there were limited discussions between the parties. Green can opt out of the final year of his contract at the end of this season and become a free agent.

Wizards’ Kispert likely to miss start of season due to sprained ankle

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The Washington Wizards made fewer 3-pointers than any other team in the league last season. They didn’t take a lot (second fewest) and didn’t make the ones they took (fifth lowest percentage). One goal for Wes Unlseld Jr. this season was to change that dynamic, and second-year player Corey Kispert was a big part of that plan.

Now Kispert is out through at least the start of the season, sidelined 4-6 weeks by a sprained ankle, the team announced Wednesday.

The injury happened on a fluke play in Japan against the Warriors, but Kispert shouldn’t miss much time once the real games start. The Wizards are a little short on the wing right now with Kispert joining Deni Avdija (groin injury) in the training room.

Kispert took 62% of his shots from beyond the arc last season and hit 35% of them, both solid numbers but ones Wizards hoped would improve for the 6’6″ wing this season.