Three things to know: Suns headed to playoffs — and will be a threat there

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The NBA season has less than three 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) Suns officially headed to playoffs — and will be a threat there

The last time the Phoenix Suns were in the playoffs, Steve Nash was finding Amar’e Stoudemire in transition, Grant Hill was a starting forward on the team, Rihanna was everywhere with “Rude Boy,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” was still in theaters.

It’s been since 2010, but the Phoenix Suns are headed back to the playoffs. It became official when the Suns knocked off the Kawhi-less Clippers 109-101. The Suns are headed to the playoffs for the same reasons they won on Thursday: A disciplined system installed by coach Monty Williams, Devin Booker putting up points (21), and Chris Paul taking over late (15 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the fourth quarter).

Other teams in the West are more fearful of facing the teams around the Suns in the standings — the Jazz, the Clippers, the Lakers — because those teams are playoff tested, and the L.A. teams have Finals MVP stars. Playoff basketball — with its slower pace, drilling down on one team, and the value of each possession rising — will be a new experience for Booker and Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson and others on this team. Throw in an undersized backcourt, and potential opponents see places to attack the Suns.

Those other teams may be in for a surprise. Phoenix is a detail-oriented team with a top 10 NBA offense and defense, a quality rim and paint protector in Ayton, multiple shot creators who can exploit mismatches, and with CP3 running the show the Suns are already playing at a playoff pace (26th in the league in pace). More importantly, this is a Phoenix team that is good in the clutch, it is 21-11 in games this season that were within five points in the final five minutes, and that comes back to Paul being one of the most clutch players in the league (ask the Clippers). The Suns are like the vintage Spurs in that they don’t beat themselves. For the same reasons the Suns surprised people with the second-best record in the NBA, they can surprise teams in the playoffs. They will not be an easy out.

And now it is official, the Suns are in the playoffs.

2) The Philadelphia 76ers also clinch a playoff berth

From the start of the season, the expectations in Philadelphia were to win a championship, not just make the playoffs. However, securing a postseason spot is a step along the title road, and with a 127-83 thrashing of the Atlanta Hawks, it is official:

The Philadelphia 76ers are headed to the playoffs.

“Coming into the season our goal was to win a championship, but there’s a lot of steps to get there,” Joel Embiid said via NBC Sports Philadelphia. “You’ve got to make the playoffs and you’ve got to win the first round, second round, conference finals … it’s a long road.

There are three elite, championship contender teams in the East: Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. What the 76ers bring to the party are two key things: An elite halfcourt defense — second-best in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass — and an MVP-level player in Embiid that no other team has a good answer for. Embiid can win Philly a lot of playoff games.

As discussed in the latest PBT Podcast focused on the Eastern Conference playoff chase, securing the top seed in the East matters a lot because whoever finishes second and third will have to face each other, to go through both of the other two top teams in the East (Philly sits one game back of Brooklyn for the top spot and has an easier schedule the rest of the way).

Beyond that, for the Sixers, postseason success will come down to the guys not named Embiid. Defenses will collapse and focus on the big man, and then it comes time to can Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons create shots, is there enough shooting with Seth Curry and company, and can this team find ways to win that are not just Embiid overwhelming players. Other players have stepped up for the 76ers for much of the season, but the real test is still coming.

3) Watch Nikola Jokic with a game-saving block on Zion Williamson

Nikola Jokic is likely to win the MVP award because he has put up historic numbers on offense this season, leading the Nuggets to a likely top-four seed in the East, and he has shown more durability this season than other contenders for the award.

The knock on Jokic for MVP is his defense, but it’s not as bad as some would suggest — he’s not an elite rim protector, but he can make plays on that end. Case in point, a game-saving block on Zion Williamson Wednesday night.

Was that a foul? I’d say no, you don’t make that call when he got ball — and the hand is part of the ball when touching it — at that point in the game. We’ll see what the Last Two Minute report says.

Jokic has the basketball IQ and hands to at least make some plays on the defensive end. He also had 32 points and eight assists in the Nuggets win; they are now 7-1 since Jamal Murray went down.

Knicks reportedly offered multiple first-round picks for OG Anunoby, got nowhere

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors
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What are the Toronto Raptors going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s less than two weeks before the trade deadline and the entire NBA is still asking that question, the Raptors are the one team that could turn this trade deadline from a dud to epic if they decide to pivot toward a rebuild. Are they willing to trade players like OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam, or will they look to add a more traditional big man such as the Spurs’ Jakob Poeltl, who has been linked to the Raptors in rumors? Everything seems to be on the table.

Anunoby is a player a lot of teams covet, including New York. The Knicks reached out to the Raptors, reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

“And Anunoby with Toronto, I mean, that would cost you a lot. That would cost you significant draft compensation. Maybe the Knicks are there, maybe they’re feeling like they could make the playoffs and make a big push if you added in Anunoby. I know that we reported they contacted Toronto on Anunoby and I was told in that conversation they offered multiple firsts. But this was a while back… Toronto has done a lot since then. But I don’t think the league is crystal clear on what [the Raptors] want to do on Anunoby.”

Anunoby is an elite on-ball wing defender who can be a finisher, averaging 17.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game at age 25 — the asking price will start at two unprotected first-round picks in this market. The Knicks may have thrown some of their protected picks in the conversation, but Toronto’s asking price is reportedly sky-high because they’re not eager to get rid of him.

Anunoby is making $17.4 million this season and is under contract for $18.2 million next season, a fair price for what he brings to the court (he has a player option at $19.9 million in 2024-25). What the Raptors do with him may signal their direction.

At the deadline, most people around the league expect Toronto to trade Gary Trent Jr., but that’s it. Any other big moves are likely this offseason. If ever.

Reprots: Luka Doncic day-to-day with “mild” ankle sprain

Washington Wizards v Dallas Mavericks
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While there are grades of ankle sprains, ask anyone trying to walk around on one if there is a “mild” version.

Yet that’s what Mavericks sources say about Luka Doncic’s ankle sprain suffered against the Suns on Thursday night. He is “day-to-day” with the injury, a story first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (and since confirmed by others).

Doncic has been playing through ankle soreness in recent weeks and it’s fair to expect the Mavericks to give him a few games off. However, it can’t be too many for a team fighting for a playoff spot, the Mavs are 0-5 in games Doncic has rested this season and have been outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits (although they did beat the Suns largely without him Thursday). Doncic is an All-Star starter averaging 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Dallas plays next on Saturday against the Jazz. It would be a surprise to see Doncic suit up for that game.

https://twitter.com/CallieCaplan/status/1619016699289956353

Boban? Crowder? Holmgren? Exploring player votes for All-Star starters

CrawsOver Pro-Am
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Four NBA players — not one as a joke, but four… as a joke — voted for injured Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren to start the NBA All-Star Game.

The NBA All-Star Game starters were announced Thursday, chosen from a weighted vote of fans (50%), media (25%) and current players (25%).

While most NBA players may take their All-Star Game starter votes seriously, some do not — they vote for friends, college teammates, guys with the same agent, or just whoever they feel like.

Which is comedy gold once we comb through the public vote (Note: names are not attached to who cast a vote, but we do see who got votes). This season, that list of players getting at least one vote to be an All-Star starter include:

Bol Bol (Orlando Magic, he got six votes)
Willy Hernangomez (New Orleans Pelicans, he got five votes)
Juancho Hernangomez (Toronto Raptors, he got three votes)
Omer Yurtseven (Miami Heat, he got three votes)
Georges Niang (Philadelphia 76ers, he got five votes)
Ochai Agbaji (Utah Jazz, he got four votes)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Oklahoma City Thunder, he got three votes)
Bismack Biyombo (Phoenix Suns, he got three votes)
Jae Crowder (Phoenix Suns, he got two votes)
Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat, he got two votes)
Blake Griffin (Boston Celtics)
Boban Marjanovic (Houston Rockets)
Kemba Walker (Dallas Mavericks)
Kendrick Nunn (Los Angeles Lakers)
Ish Smith (Denver Nuggets)
Torrey Craig (Phoenix Suns)
Luka Garza (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Chimezie Metu (Sacramento Kings)
Furkan Korkmaz (Philadelphia 76ers)
R.J. Hampton (Orlando Magic)
Johnny Davis (Washington Wizards)
Cedi Osman (Cleveland Cavaliers)
MarJon Beauchamp (Milwaukee Bucks)
Paul Reed (Philadelphia 76ers)

That is just a fraction of the entire list.

Three things to Know: Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT behind 37 from Randle

It will surprise Knicks fans, but New York has been a good clutch team in the tightest of games this season: In games within three points in the final three minutes, they are 11-9 with a +7.8 net rating.

The Knicks didn’t look like a clutch team — but did what Knicks fans expected — when they blew a 13-point lead by scoring just four points over the final 5:20 of the fourth quarter. Combine that with Jayson Tatum scoring 11 in the frame, and the Celtics came back to tie the game and force OT.

However, in the OT, the Knicks had RJ Barrett knocking down big shots.

And, with the game on the line, they had Jalen Brunson with the block.

With that, the Knicks went into Boston and pulled out the 120-117 OT win over the East-leading Celtics. Julius Randle had 27 points and nine rebounds (and hit the free throws that put the Knicks up for good in OT), Brunson scored 29, and Barrett added 19.

There are promising signs for Knicks fans:

Brunson and Randle just out-dueled Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Knicks have now racked up back-to-back wins against the Cavaliers and Celtics.

New York will need more wins like this because they will be battling the Heat, and maybe the Pacers, for that No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in the rest of the season. But don’t sleep on a couple of quality wins.

2) Luka Doncic leaves game with ankle sprain; Mavericks win anyway

Name the team that could least afford to lose its superstar.

The Mavericks — with their heliocentric offense built around Luka Doncic — have to be at the top of the list.

Dallas could be without Doncic for a few games after he sprained his ankle just minutes into Thursday night’s contest against the Suns. Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but when he couldn’t get to the rim he stopped, spun, tried to step back, stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges and rolled his left ankle.

Doncic left the game and he did not return. Dallas can’t afford to be without Doncic for long, it gets outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits. He is an All-Star starter and in the MVP mix. He averages 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Just to prove that last paragraph wrong, the Jazz went out and beat the Suns 99-95 without Doncic behind a season-high 36 points from Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 18 points and 12 rebounds.

3) LeBron, Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

Last season, Team LeBron won the All-Star Game partly because LeBron James had Giannis Antetokounmpo on his team.

Not this year. It will be Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis, they received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is the sixth time LeBron is a captain, and his teams are 5-0.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will choose their teams right on the court before the game — true playground style. The captains will draft from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week).

Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

Joel Embiid was the odd man out of a tight race for the final frontcourt spot in the East (because the fans voted him fourth, the media and players each had him third, but the fans count for 50% of the weighted vote). This will be the first start for Williamson (if he’s healthy enough to play) and Mitchell.