Three things to know: It’s been a year and Leon Rose has Knicks thriving

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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) One one-year anniversary of taking over, Leon Rose has Knicks thriving

If the playoffs started today, the four-seed New York Knicks would host a series at Madison Square Garden.

If you had made that statement one year ago today — the day Leon Rose took over as Knicks president of basketball operations — you would have been quickly reminded that New York has not legalized that stuff yet. Maybe Rose would work out in a position where so many others had failed (or been cut off at the knees by James Dolan when they succeeded), but turning around this ship was expected to take several years.

No, it didn’t. The Knicks are over .500 on March 1 for the first time since 2013 (the last time they made the playoffs).

The Knicks just finished a 9-5 February that included weekend wins over the Pistons (a bad team having a worse shooting night) in Derrick Rose’s return to Detroit, and the Pacers (a good, scrappy team that is always difficult to beat). New York is 18-17 and sits alone as the four seed in the East.

Rose made a series of smart — and, more importantly, patient — choices to land New York here. He didn’t look for a quick fix.

The best move was hiring Tom Thibodeau as coach. This job was always Thibodeau’s if he wanted it — he and Rose, his former agent, were tight — but there were questions about Thibs developing a young roster. He came in and instilled a work ethic, a culture, and a strong defense — second-best in the NBA, ahead of the Jazz (use Cleaning the Glass’ garbage time filter and the Jazz are second and the Knicks third, but that’s splitting hairs, the Knicks are elite on that end this season). Thibs has the Knicks playing hard and making smart decisions nightly. They are highly prepared — that has set them apart.

Rose explored trading Julius Randle but didn’t, and Randle responded with an All-Star season and giving them enough offense to make it work — 23.4 points a night, 10.9 rebounds, and improved playmaking. On Saturday, he outplayed Domantas Sabonis in the Knicks’ win over the Pacers.

RJ Barrett has developed into a guy who can put up points — 24 against the Pacers Sunday — and while he’s not terribly efficient getting them, the Knicks are winning, and he is part of it. Randle and Barrett have emerged as part of whatever is ultimately built in New York, whatever this team looks like in a couple of years.

There’s still work to do this season.

Only 1.5 games separate the Knicks as the four seed and the Bulls/Pacers, who are tied for the 9-10 seed and would have to win two play-in games just to make the postseason. The Knicks are just 3.5 games up on Atlanta as the 11 seed and missing even the play-in games. The middle of the East is still a morass and the question is which teams will break out of it?

The Knicks may be that team — their defense can carry them that far.

That we are even having that conversation is a huge credit to Rose.

2) Clippers revert to isolation late, Bucks keep ball moving and get win

The Clippers have beautiful ball movement this season because their shot creators — Paul George and Kawhi Leonard — have fantastic court vision.

However, late in the game, the Clippers abandon the flow of their offense to go with George or Leonard in isolation, trying to hunt mismatches. It can work — those are elite players who can attack the rim, get to their midrange spots, or make a defender pay for going under a pick — but the Clipper offense becomes stagnant and predictable. On Sunday, the Clippers used that offense to get their shots, and George missed two and Leonard one (all good looks, to be fair).

Compare to Bucks final bucket, which was all about ball movement and smart plays (Khris Middleton’s one dribble freezes Patrick Beverley and opens things up).

The Bucks got the 105-100 win and it should be a boost for a team that has not felt like itself this season. But nobody should read too much into a February win or loss (this game could have swung the other way).

The end of game ball movement, though, that’s something the Bucks can use come the playoffs — and the Clippers need to find more of in crunch time.

3) Kings’ Buddy Hield makes a little history, but Hornets make the plays late

Shout out to Buddy Hield, who Sunday became the fastest player to 1,000 made threes in the league, doing it in 350 games (Stephen Curry was 369, Klay Thompson 372).

That doesn’t take the sting of this loss away for Sacramento.

The Kings led by eight with a minute to go. Charlotte made it a free throw contest, and Hield and Marvin Bagley missed while the horrible Sacramento defense had no answer for hot Terry RozierHarrison Barnes fouled him on a three — and Charlotte closed on a 15-5 run, capped off by Malik Monk with the game-winner

The future of the Hornets was on display in this game. P.J. Washington had a career-best 42 points, and LaMelo Ball had an impressive game with 24 points and 12 assists. Charlotte looks like a young team learning things every game.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.