Three things to know: Chris Paul, Suns make case they are best in West

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The NBA season has less than six weeks to go, 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) Chris Paul, Suns make case they are best in West

Some Phoenix fans are frustrated. They see their team having the best season since Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni revolutionized the game, and they feel disrespected. Those fans focus on stories about how Chris Paul could leave after the season or how other teams out West want to be on the Suns’ side of the playoff bracket because they are seen as an easier target.

Welcome to life atop the NBA, Suns fans. Gone are the plucky underdogs everyone loved in the bubble. Life on top of the league is often a discussion of what weaknesses could trip a team up in the second round of the playoffs and beyond, and often less on how well you’re playing during the doldrums of the season. Consider it a sign you’ve arrived.

A bit of advice: Savor this season. Don’t get caught looking to future seasons or focused on a discussion of goats from the past. Enjoy what you have, read the numerous positive stories about your team, and live in the moment.

Savor wins like the one against Utah on Wednesday, a showdown of the West’s top two teams on national television.

What is Chris Paul’s secret in transforming the Suns’ offense? Clearly, it’s the Space Jam Secret Stuff.

Also, it’s something as simple as balance.

Chris Paul brought balance to Monty Williams’ “five-point” Suns’ offense and to Devin Booker‘s game. You can see CP3’s influence in Phoenix — the slower pace and very deliberate halfcourt offense, the high IQ use of the high pick-and-roll — but Phoenix maintains the selfless Spursian touches Williams brought with him to the Valley of the Sun. CP3 is just better at orchestrating that offense because he is a threat to score (something Ricky Rubio was not a season ago) and because he takes some of that play creation pressure off All-Star Devin Booker, who is taking more spot-up or one-dribble shots and can pick his spots to run the offense.

Phoenix has a +7.1 net rating when Paul and Booker share the floor. Paul still dominates the ball, but the defenses focusing on him gives Booker just a sliver of extra space, and that’s all he needs to get a bucket.

With that duo leading the way, they take fewer shots at the rim than last season but replace them with threes — and they knock down those shots at a higher rate — giving the offense a boost. While the Suns are taking more mid-range shots, too, Paul and Booker are two players so dangerous from their spots in that range it’s a good look.

The Suns are where they are because Mikal Bridges has grown into a prototypical modern NBA wing player (and when he was having an off night against Utah Wednesday, Williams could go to Cam Johnson and get solid play), and Deandre Ayton has become a forceful presence in the paint on both ends of the court. Jae Crowder has brought veteran intensity and shooting, and CP3 and Dario Saric have shown real chemistry at points. The Suns are deep with players Williams can trust, and that gives him versatility late in games to go with the hot hand or matchups that work.

The Suns are a top 10 offense and defense in the NBA this season — one of the statistical markers of a contender. Yet, because of CP3’s playoff history and the fact Booker, Ayton, Bridges, and the rest of the young Suns are untested in the postseason, they will be seen as a target. We all know what Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard can do in the playoffs, and other teams fear them for good reason. These Suns have to earn that level of respect, and it can’t be done in April this season.

Don’t focus on that right now, however. Just savor the wins as they come.

2) Kevin Durant returns, scores 17, Nets cruise to win

Nobody knows when Brooklyn’s three stars will get healthy, get on the court at the same time, and potentially form Voltron then overpower the league.

What we know is the Nets, with two-thirds of their stars, still win a lot of games, as Brooklyn did easily over New Orleans on Wednesday. The news in this game was Kevin Durant’s return — he came off the bench, scored 17 points on 5-of-5 shooting, and looked closer than maybe expected to getting his form back after missing 23 games with a hamstring injury.

It wasn’t all KD in this one, the Nets did a good job protecting the rim against Zion Williamson (he shot 4-of-12), and Blake Griffin did this.

Brooklyn is back on top in the East, and that matters this season — there are three elite teams in the East (Nets, 76ers, Bucks) and the top seed only has to face one of them in the playoffs, not both.

New Orleans needs to find some wins fast to make the play-in games.

3) Dunk of the Night: Kyle Anderson off the glass to Ja Morant

While you were ignoring Memphis, they have quietly gone 26-23 on the season, they have won 5-of-6, they have a top-10 defense and one of the game’s elite young playmakers in Ja Morant.

Oh, and the Grizzlies can do this.

Memphis is expected to get Jaren Jackson Jr. back around the end of the month; they will be a tough out for someone in the playoffs. This is a good team nobody is talking about.

Curry drains 7 3-pointers, Nets start homestand with win over Blazers

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 31 points, Seth Curry added a season-high 29 off the bench and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-94 on Sunday.

Curry was 7 for 10 on 3-pointers and had his highest point total with the Nets and the most by a Brooklyn reserve this season.

“I’ve always felt like if I get good shots I’m going to make them at a high clip,” Curry said. “Our offense was flowing pretty well. Guys found me open early on to start the game and I felt pretty good, aggressive.”

Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Nets. Ben Simmons took just three shots but had 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“Ben did a great job of getting downhill,” Curry said. “He’s a great passer (and) he knows how to find me out there on the floor.”

Jerami Grant scored 29 points for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Anfernee Simons added 15 points and Justice Winslow had 14.

The Nets have won four of their last six games, while the Trail Blazers, who are playing without Damian Lillard, have dropped five of six.

“Tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “It is what it is. Every team goes through it.”

Brooklyn made 52.6% of its shots from the field overall, and 42.9% from 3-point range, in the second matchup between the teams in 10 days.

“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “It’s about baskets.”

With the Nets leading by four entering the fourth, Curry scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the quarter. Royce O'Neale‘s free throw gave the Nets a 93-87 lead and following a Portland turnover, Curry made a 3 that extended the advantage to nine.

Nurkic sandwiched a hook shot and free throw around two free throws by Irving to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 98-90. However, after a timeout, Durant hit a 3 to push the lead to 101-90.

Brooklyn led 58-57 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.

 

LeBron becomes oldest player with 39 points, 11 boards, seven 3-pointers (he’s also the youngest)

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The first question after LeBron James put up 21 and 8 to help the Lakers beat the Spurs Friday night was whether he would play in the back-to-back Saturday. He had just missed five games with a groin strain, after all.

Not only did LeBron play Saturday, he had a historic night.

LeBron had 39 points, 11 rebounds, and shot 7-of-12 from 3 — making him the oldest player in the history of the NBA with a 35+, 10+ with seven 3-pointer game.

The youngest player ever to put up that stat line? Also one LeBron James.

The 39 points were also the second most points ever scored by a player in his 20th NBA season, trailing only Kobe Bryant gunning his way to 60 in his final game.

The Lakers got the second straight win over the Spurs on Saturday behind LeBron, 143-138, a game more likely to be remembered for Zach Collins getting ejected for a foul that left Russell Westbrook bloody. The Lakers have won three straight and 5-of-6 but have done it against a very soft part of the schedule (three of the wins were over the tanking Spurs). Los Angeles beat the teams in front of it and started to show signs of life this season, but now they have to carry that over into a stretch against better teams, beginning Monday against the Pacers.

Watch Deandre Ayton put up 29 points, 21 rebounds, lead Suns past Jazz 113-112

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PHOENIX — There was much debate during the NBA offseason about whether Deandre Ayton was worth a max contract.

On nights like Saturday, the answer is a resounding yes.

Ayton notched season highs with 29 points and 21 rebounds, Devin Booker added 27 points and the Phoenix Suns held on for a hard-fought 113-112 win over the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz led 81-78 after three quarters, but the Suns pushed ahead 99-93 by midway through the fourth. The game remained tight through the final minutes, but Phoenix never lost the lead. On top of Ayton’s scoring and rebounding, he also had a crucial steal in the final minutes that helped thwart a final Jazz rally.

“I don’t know what he ate for Thanksgiving,” Booker said. “I should have been over there.”

Ayton grabbed his 21st rebound of the game on the final possession, securing Booker’s miss off a 3-pointer to keep the Jazz from a final possession. Ayton signed a four-year, $133 million deal during the offseason after the Suns matched an offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers.

“That young man has been coming to the gym at crazy hours, lifting with (coaches), so that he can be prepared for moments like this,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s just good to see the work pay off. It’s good to see him have monster games against really good teams on a back-to-back. That’s pretty impressive.”

Ayton was the first player to have at least 28 points and 20 rebounds in a game for the Suns since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007. He shot 11 of 19 from the field and added three assists and two blocks.

“I want to do more, I feel like I can do more,” Ayton said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to contribute to my team.”

Curiously, the Jazz didn’t foul the Suns on their final possession, essentially allowing them to run out the clock. Utah coach Will Hardy said the last play simply didn’t unfold like the team expected and there was some miscommunication.

“We wanted to get the ball out of Booker’s hands, and then foul,” Hardy said.

Ayton scored a season high for the second straight night. He poured in 28 points against the Pistons in a 108-102 win on Friday. Booker had a tough night shooting, making just 8 of 27 shots.

Utah was one of the NBA’s surprise teams in the first few weeks of the season, starting with a 10-3 record. The Jazz are just 3-7 since that point.

“One game, one stretch of the season doesn’t define your season,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “You’ve got to go through ups-and-downs. Adversity – learn from it and come out the other side better for it.”

The Suns have an 11-1 record at home this season and have won four straight games.

Jordan Clarkson scored 22 points for the Jazz. Collin Sexton added 20 while Lauri Markkanen had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The Jazz had a 54-51 lead at halftime. Clarkson led the Jazz with 12 points while Ayton had 11 points and seven rebounds.