Three things to know: Lloyd Pierce pays price for Atlanta owners’ expectations


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) Lloyd Pierce pays price for Atlanta owners’ expectations

The list of things that can get an NBA coach fired is longer than Santa’s naughty list (we assume the naughty list is longer than the nice one, right?). However, Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce missed the mark on a couple of items that have to be priorities for any coach.

First, have a strong relationship with the team’s star. In Atlanta, Pierce and franchise cornerstone Trae Young were not on the same page. Star players fill the building (when fans are allowed) and keep the money rolling in, which means making them happy is a franchise priority.

Second, keep ownership’s expectations in line with reality, then live up to them. Atlanta’s ownership spent big money last offseason bringing in Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, and Rajon Rondo (plus Clint Capela, going back to the last trade deadline). That outlay of cash meant ownership and the front office expected results, even if people outside the organization saw health questions and defensive issues with the roster.

Atlanta is 14-20 and 11th in the East, not even making the play-in games if the postseason started today — way below Atlanta’s internal expectations.

All of that combined led to Pierce being fired on Monday.

If you want to make the point that the Hawks have been unlucky and have the point differential of a 17-17 team (which would have them tied for fifth in the East), or that injuries hit the Atlanta roster hard and it’s not fair to judge Pierce on what he did with this makeshift roster, you’d be right. Gregg Popovich had Pierce’s back.

Life isn’t fair. The life of an NBA coach can be the opposite of fair. Ownership expected better results and the Hawks haven’t come close to meeting them. Someone was going to pay the price.

“Our goal was to have progress this season, to move forward, and it wasn’t happening as fast as we wanted it to,” Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said to reporters Tuesday, adding as a franchise they expected to make the playoffs. He said Pierce was fired because they “needed a change to change the trajectory” of the team.

This is how the NBA works: S*** rolls downhill.

Ownership spent money and wanted results they weren’t getting. The GM picked the players and wasn’t going to fire himself, but someone had to pay the price for failing to meet expectations. That was Pierce. The fact that those expensive veterans have been out — Gallinari, Bogdanovic, Dunn, and just drafted Onyeku Okongwu have all missed significant time — is irrelevant. So is the fact that team star Young doesn’t care about defense or consistently work hard off the ball on offense (how good a team can be with him as a centerpiece remains an open question — and don’t forget Atlanta traded the pick that would be Luka Doncic for Young and the pick that became Cam Redish).

Atlanta’s defense was the biggest on-court issue for Pierce (although the rotations had been questionable). Pierce was hired away from “The Process” 76ers where the defense was solid, but that never translated to the Hawks (25th in the league in defensive rating this season). There are going to be challenges setting up the defense on a team where Young is at point guard — and an injury to De’Andre Hunter this season has hurt — but the defensive issues are not new.

Nate McMillan takes over as the interim coach. He got the Pacers to overachieve on defense for a couple of seasons (although people are just starting to appreciate how much having Myles Turner helps on that end of the court).

If the Hawks get healthy and move up in the standings — they are just 1.5 games out of the play-in games and 3.5 games out of being in the playoffs outright without the play-in games in a tight Eastern Conference — McMillan will get credit. Whether that translates to him keeping the head coaching job beyond this season is a different question entirely.

2) James Harden is playing like an MVP and the Nets keep on winning

James Harden is not going to win the MVP this season. It’s unlikely he finishes in the top five — voters are not going to forget him showing up to training camp late and out of shape in Houston, demanding a trade, being a distraction, and sabotaging the Rockets’ season.

But since getting to Brooklyn, Harden has looked like an MVP.

Harden is averaging 25.3 points a game, a league-best 11.3 assists a game, and is adding 8.7 rebounds a night since coming to Brooklyn. Monday night he had a 30/14/15 triple-double with zero turnovers, leading the Nets to an overtime win against the Spurs.

With Kevin Durant still sidelined (he also has played like an MVP, but he’s now missed too many games to win it) and Kyrie Irving having an off night (9-of-24 shooting), a lot fell on Harden Monday. Again. And he continues to prove he can carry a franchise a long way.

3) Zion Williamson, Pelicans upset Jazz by going inside

Utah’s defense is based around Rudy Gobert owning the paint — he is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year for good reason.

Zion Williamson and the Pelicans went right at him and scored 74 points in the paint Monday night. Anyone who doubts Zion is the best interior scorer in the game right now just needs to watch him go into Gobert’s body and still finish. That will change any sane person’s mind.

Throw in a quality night on both ends from Lonzo Ball — 23 points, seven boards, eight assists, and good defense on Mike Conley — and 26 points from Brandon Ingram, and you have a New Orleans upset win.

New Orleans remains two games out of even making the play-in games in the West, and it will be a seller at the trade deadline (J.J. Redick and Eric Bledsoe are available), but it’s nights like this, when the team defends, that the potential in New Orleans is clear.

LeBron scores 19 off bench in return, Bulls spoil party with 118-108 win


LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 19 points off the bench in his return from a monthlong injury absence, but Zach LaVine scored 32 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 118-108 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

DeMar DeRozan added 17 points for the Bulls, who easily overcame James’ return for their seventh win in nine games. LaVine hit 11 of his first 14 shots to lead an offensive effort that snapped the Lakers’ three-game winning streak despite the return of the NBA’s career scoring leader.

James sat out 13 games with right foot soreness, missing four weeks during the Lakers’ run at a playoff berth. The team provided few updates on his recovery, and his return came with little advance warning.

“I felt confident in the workouts that I had this week,” James said. “And the day after the workouts, when I woke up, stepped out down off the bed, I could possibly play today. And after my workout early before the game today, I knew I could play.”

For only the second time in his 20-year, 1,958-game NBA career, James wasn’t a starter. He came in as a reserve midway through the first quarter, doing his standard pregame chalk toss while receiving a standing ovation from Lakers fans. James got a field goal in every quarter, and he finished with eight rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in 30 minutes.

“You could see him getting his rhythm, his timing, his finishes, all of that,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He’s a savvy veteran, one of the greatest ever to do it, so it’s not going to take all that much.”

Chicago largely controlled play despite James’ return, streaking to a 20-point lead in the second quarter. Los Angeles briefly got the lead down to single digits down the stretch, but got no closer.

“There are going to be swings, and that was the encouraging part,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m seeing a response back competitively.”

Patrick Beverley had 10 points and five assists in his first game against the Lakers since they traded him last month. Beverley has been outspoken about his desire to hurt the Lakers’ playoff hopes during this home-and-home series between the teams, but Davis and the other Lakers just smiled at his provocative talk.

When Beverley made a little hook shot with 1:12 left to boost Chicago’s lead back to double digits, Beverley slapped the floor and made the dismissive “too small” gesture sometimes used by NBA players to taunt their opponents, in this case James.

“I was just playing basketball,” Beverley said. “Obviously it’s good to see some old teammates, old coaching staff.”

Troy Brown Jr. and Malik Beasley scored 18 points apiece, but Anthony Davis managed just 15 points and nine rebounds as the Lakers (37-38) failed to get above .500 for the first time since Jan. 9, 2022.

The Lakers were without D’Angelo Russell, who missed his second straight game with a right hip injury. Los Angeles went 8-5 in James’ absence, but his return will force an adjustment of the chemistry built by his teammates in his absence.

“We came out a little flat, turned the ball over early, just weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough,” Ham said.

The Bulls largely controlled Davis even after Nikola Vucevic was ejected in the second quarter with two quick technical fouls when he argued what appeared to be a good call against him. Donovan jokingly wondered how Vucevic could be ejected when he was arguing in his native Serbian.

“Obviously it was a bad decision by me to react the way I did,” Vucevic said. “My mistake. I’m just glad my teammates came through for us. I obviously overreacted, for sure.”

Watch Dončić pick up 16th technical, will result in one-game suspension


Luka Dončić barks at the referees more than any player in the league, and with that he does not get the benefit of the doubt when he’s flirting with the edge of a technical foul.

That caught up with Dončić on Sunday, when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper, said something to the nearby official, and racked up his 16th technical this season. That will mean an automatic one-game suspension unless it is rescinded (which is unlikely in this case).

Dončić likely will have to sit out Monday when the Mavericks play the Pacers on the second game of a back-to-back.

This suspension comes on the heels of Dončić being fined $35,000 — but not being given a technical foul at the time — for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after another recent Mavericks loss.

Dončić went on to have 40 points Sunday but the Mavericks lost again — their second time in a row to the tanking Hornets, their fourth in a row overall and they have now dropped 7-of-9. That has dropped them out of even the play-in to 11th in the West. The Mavericks need to rack up wins over the season’s final two weeks to even make the postseason.

And they must get that next win Monday without Dončić in the lineup.


UPDATE: LeBron “active,” will make return to court Sunday vs. Bulls

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

UPDATE: LeBron James has officially been upgraded to active and will make his return to the team on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls.


A couple of days ago, reports said LeBron James hoped to return and play the final few games before the season ended and he said there was no timeline for his return.

In less than 24 hours the Lakers have moved LeBron from “out” last game to “doubtful” and now — as of Sunday morning — questionable for the Lakers game against the Bulls. While nothing is confirmed, these are the steps a team takes before a player returns from injury. LeBron is going to test his foot pregame and make a decision.

LeBron had been pushing to return from a foot tendon injury that had sidelined him for 13 games. The Lakers have gone 8-5 in those games behind the second-best defense in the league over that stretch. What has struggled during those games has been the offense (23rd in the league) and LeBron instantly fixes that. He has averaged 29.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game this season and the Laker offense has been six points per 100 possessions better when he has been on the court.

The Lakers currently sit tied for the No.7/8 seeds in the West, with an outside shot at climbing into the top six (they are 1.5 games back of the Lakers and Clippers who are tied for sixth, but if those teams go 4-3 the rest of the way the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight just to tie them). The Lakers are also one game ahead of the 11-seed Dallas Mavericks and missing out on the playoffs entirely.

The Lakers need wins the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot, and some time to build chemistry heading into the playoffs. Having LeBron James helps with all of that.

Nets thrash Heat, move back up to No.6 seed in East

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat
Megan Briggs/Getty Images

MIAMI (AP) — All the Brooklyn Nets needed, coach Jacque Vaughn insisted, was one win.

They got it, and made it look easy.

Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, and the Nets opened the third quarter on a 31-6 run on the way to rolling past Miami 129-100 on Saturday night and leapfrogging the Heat back into the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference.

Cam Johnson added 23 points and Spencer Dinwiddie scored 15 for the Nets (40-34), who snapped a five-game slide. They’re only a half-game up on Miami (40-35) in the race for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff berth, but swept the Heat 3-0 this season and would also own a head-to-head tiebreaker.

“We had the mindset coming in that this was a playoff game,” Johnson said.

Max Strus scored 23 for the Heat, all of them in the first half. Tyler Herro scored 23, Jimmy Butler had 18 and Bam Adebayo finished with 16 for the Heat. Miami was outscored 64-31 after halftime.

“We have not been defending at a world-class level, the way we’re capable of … and the second half just became an avalanche,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Strus came off the bench and made his first nine shots, one of them putting Miami up 51-37 midway through the second quarter. Over the next 14 minutes, the Nets outscored Miami 54-24 – completely turning the game around, eventually leading by 32 and, for now, putting Brooklyn in position to escape the play-in tournament that’ll decide the final two East playoff berths.

“You see how this March Madness is and you’re one and you’re done,” Vaughn said. “And that’s part of it. I have not discussed any of the standings with this group. Really, we have gone day to day and tried to get a win.”

The Heat could have moved 1 1/2 games up on Brooklyn for sixth with a win.

“There has been nothing easy about this season and that doesn’t necessarily mean that has to be a negative thing,” Spoelstra said. “You have to embrace the struggle. You have to figure out ways to stay together … but we just got categorically outplayed tonight.”

It was Brooklyn’s second trip to Miami this season. The first was Jan. 8 – which ended up being the last time Kevin Durant played for the Nets, and the last time Durant and Kyrie Irving played together. Durant left that game with a knee injury, then got traded to Phoenix, and Irving has since been dealt to Dallas, as well.

The Nets were 27-13 after that night, second in the East, just a game behind Boston for the best record in the NBA. They’re 13-21 since, yet still have the Heat looking up at them in the standings – which Vaughn insists he hasn’t discussed with his team.

“You need the momentum, the confidence, the reassurance that you can get it done,” Vaughn said. “So, haven’t tried to complicate it more than that.”