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.
Offensive foul on Kawhi Leonard or flop by James Harden?pic.twitter.com/HUSk82kVO6
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) February 22, 2021
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.
How the hell do you not hire David Vanterpool and he’s right there on the bench… and has been in front office SUCCESSFULLY and on the front of a bench of a winning team SUCCESSFULLY (7 years) … and also has played a major role in the development of a dominant backcourt smdh!
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) February 22, 2021
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.
Redick's ejection is absurd and the referee needs to be JAILED as a proportionally appropriate response pic.twitter.com/ffzyzGAaK8
— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) February 21, 2021
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.