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) Nikola Jokic makes MVP case while Antetokounmpo looks on
The two-time reigning MVP was on the court and put up numbers: Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting plus pulled down eight rebounds.
He was not the best player on the court and he was not the guy who looked like an MVP.
Nikola Jokic has been performing on that level all season long, and he made his case Tuesday night: 37 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds for his 50th career triple-double. Behind Jokic, the Nuggets routed the Bucks 128-97.
The only other center with more than 50 career triple-doubles? Wilt Chamberlain. Anytime a player gets mentioned in the record books with Chamberlain, he’s doing something right.
Jokic leads a Denver offense that has been top five in the league much of the season and has been the best in the NBA the past eight games as Jamal Murray has started to find his footing (he had 24 points Tuesday night). However, what coach Mike Malone wants the Nuggets to take away from this win was how well they defended, holding the Bucks’ top-five offense to less than a point per possession for the night.
It’s that end of the court that holds Jokic back from being on the level of LeBron James and Joel Embiid in the MVP race — both of those players are critical to top-10 defenses. Jokic is a center not known for protecting the paint, and Denver’s below-average defense shows it. There are other issues (and injuries) holding the Nuggets defense back, but Jokic has not been part of the solution.
A few more nights like Tuesday — a triple-double and a quality defensive performance by Denver — might start to change that narrative for Jokic.
But on offense, he is playing at a level no other center — maybe no other player, period — in the league can match.
2) The Dunk Contest is nice, but the Three-Point Contest is STACKED
I’m always afraid to get my hopes up for the Dunk Contest. I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football; I’ve been let down too many times. There have been riveting performances before — including last year when Aaron Gordon got robbed — but there have been disappointing nights as well.
This year’s Dunk Contest lineup — officially announced Tuesday — is intriguing. The Knicks Obi Toppin, the Trail Blazer’s Anfernee Simons, and the Pacers’ Cassius Stanley will be throwing down in the 2021 NBA Dunk Contest at halftime of this year’s All-Star Game.
I’ll be watching for Stanley, who has been throwing down highlight dunks since high school, measured a 44-inch vertical at the NBA Draft Combine, and seems built for this kind of exhibition dunkfest.
However, the real show will be the Three-Point Contest — this is a killer lineup.
• Stephen Curry (Warriors), the greatest shooter of all time (and former contest winner)
• Devin Booker (Suns), another former winner of the three-point contest
• Zach LaVine (Bulls), who is shooting 43.3% from beyond the arc this season (best of anyone in the competition)
• Jayson Tatum (Celtics)
• Jaylen Brown (Celtics)
• Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)
That is going to be fun.
There also are plenty of big names lined up for the Skills Challenge:
The Skills Competition and Three-point shootout will occur prior to the All-Star Game, taking place Sunday, March 7, in Atlanta. Just like the old ABA used to do, the Dunk Contest is at halftime of the game.
3) Nate McMillan gets defensive win in Hawks coaching debut
If Nate McMillan is going to coach Atlanta into the playoffs, a couple of things need to happen. First, the team needs to get healthy (something beyond McMillan’s control — or that of Lloyd Peirce, who was fired).
He’s also got to get the Hawks to defend.
On paper, that happened in Atlanta’s 94-80 win over the Heat in McMillan’s Hawks coaching debut. Atlanta was more active on the defensive end than we have seen in a while, and Miami ended the game with a 93 offensive rating.
However, if you watched the game, it just felt like an off night for the Heat shooters. One of those “it happens, flush it and move on” games. Jimmy Butler was out, and Miami missed open shot after open shot, ending the night shooting 37.3% overall and 9-of-33 (27.2%) from three. Miami opened the game 1-of-12 from three and scored just 37 points in the first half.
Whatever happened, the McMillan and the Hawks will take it. Nobody is going to confuse this Atlanta defense with the one in Utah anytime soon, but if McMillan can get it just up to average, the Hawks will reach their goal of being in the postseason.