Three things to know: Breaking down playoff races with two weeks remaining

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The NBA regular season has two weeks remaining, 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) Breaking down the East playoff chase — the 76ers are in the driver’s seat

Sunday’s playoff-intensity, dramatic, back-and-forth battle between the Bucks and Nets — with two former MVPs trading big shots — showed us something.

It showed us just how important this play by Ben Simmons was.

Simmons game-winning tip-in, combined with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks beating the Nets earlier in the day, moved Philadelphia back into first place in the East. By half a game, but still in first.

That Nets/Bucks game showed why getting the No. 1 seed in the East is critical. That game was a knock-down, drag-out battle (keep reading to No. 2 on this list for more) and, if Philly can hold on to the top seed, it is a preview of a likely second-round matchup. One that will wear the winner down. The top seed will have an easier route to the conference finals through Boston or Miami or New York — teams not playing at the contender level of the big three in the East.

The 76ers are only half a game ahead of the Nets for the top seed (one game ahead in the loss column), but Philly also has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA — a game against the Heat is the only game the 76ers have left against a playoff/play-in team. That makes them the heavy favorite to hold on to that seed.

Milwaukee is three games back of Philadelphia for the top seed and 2.5 back of Brooklyn — its only hope of getting to the top seed is beating Brooklyn in the second game of this two-game set on Tuesday, then hoping the 76ers stumble down the stretch. It’s a long shot, the Bucks are very likely the three seed.

After that, the red-hot Knicks are the four seed, with Miami and Atlanta tied for five/six, and Boston sitting as the seven seed — all four of those teams are within 2.5 games of each other, and the Celtics have the easiest schedule of any team in the East, while the Knicks have the hardest. Nothing is settled in that group.

Charlotte has LaMelo Ball back and sits as the eighth seed, but the Pacers are the nine seed and just half a game back (and tied in the loss column). Getting the eighth seed matters — whoever has that has to win just one of two play-in games to advance to the playoff proper, finish in the nine seed and a team has to win both play-in games.

The Wizards seem locked in as the 10 seed and will get the final play-in spot. Toronto is 2.5 games back (three in the loss column) and would need a lot of help to jump past Washington.

2) Can we please get seven games of Bucks vs. Nets

This felt like a playoff game.

The defenses played well but could not stop the elite scoring — Kevin Durant put up 42 for the Nets but was outdueled by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had 49 and led Milwaukee to the 117-114 win.

As noted above, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the two and three seeds in the East — this could well have been a second-round playoff preview.

Except that the Nets will add James Harden to the mix (*knock on wood*).

Even so, there are a few things for Bucks fans to like out of Sunday’s win, beyond the Greek Freak going off.

At the top of the list was how Jrue Holiday made this a real and dangerous big three for the Bucks (along with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton). That was the hope when signing Holiday, but the results have been up and down during the regular season. Sunday, we saw how Holiday gives the Bucks improved shooting but also shot creation. The Bucks big three has size, strength, and real versatility of attack — they are a handful to stop.

Holiday also brought elite defense against Kyrie Irving, especially in the second half. Although nothing defensively was as impressive as Antetokounmpo’s block on Durant late in the game.

Tuesday’s rematch should be fun.

One other great part of this game: P.J. Tucker praising Durant after KD scored over him. That’s a pro who appreciates the game.

3) The West playoffs, where the Lakers are flirting with the play-in game

I’m not sure why I am breaking the West down, it’s going to be radically different in 48 hours. That’s not a joke. — in the past 48 hours, every seed in the West except No. 8 changed. More changes are coming.

That said, let’s take a look at the tiers.

• Phoenix and Utah are tied for the No. 1 seed — and the Suns have the tiebreaker. But the Jazz have an easier schedule the remaining eight games. Home court would matter to both of these teams, so expect them to make a push for it.

• Denver is red hot, having won 9-of-10 and is now half a game ahead of the Clippers for the three seed. However, the Clippers have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. Los Angeles is getting healthy, but they keep tripping over their own feet with ugly losses, while the Nuggets seem to be on a mission since Jamal Murray went down (Michael Porter Jr. is on fire and the Nuggets are 9-1 without their point guard).

• Dallas, Portland, and the L.A. Lakers are in a three-way tie for the 5/6/7 seeds. The bad news for Lakers fans is not only are they banged up and feeling disconnected, but Los Angeles also has the toughest remaining schedule of the three. Dallas has by far the easiest (but the Mavs are banged up too, with Kristaps Porzingis out). This could go any direction, but all of them are desperate to avoid the randomness of the play-in games.

• Memphis, Golden State, and San Antonio will be the 8/9/10 seeds — New Orleans is too far back and not playing well enough to catch up — but the order is up in the air. All three teams are within one game of each other. The Grizzlies have the easiest remaining schedule of the group, while the Spurs have the hardest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA.

The Suns and Jazz look at those three and the potential play-in game for the one seed, and they would both like to avoid Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

Winners, Losers in Kyrie Irving trade to Dallas Mavericks

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving tried to force his way out of Brooklyn over the summer, but the market for him was thin and his plan didn’t work. He opted in to stay in Brooklyn.

Irving’s plan did work at the trade deadline — he again demanded a trade and this time, he got his wish and was sent to Dallas to team up with Luka Dončić on the Mavericks. It’s a deal with clear winners and losers, but the cases are muddier for both of the principal teams involved. Let’s break down who won and who lost in this latest Kyrie Irving trade. Let’s start with a reminder of what the trade itself involved.

Mavericks receive: Kyrie Irving, Markieff Morris.

Nets receive: Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2029 first-round pick, 2027 and 2029 second-round picks.

WINNER: Kyrie Irving

Irving made a brilliant business move demanding a trade before the deadline. His troubles with the Nets going back to the summer stem in part from him not getting the max contract extension he wants — four years, $198.5 million, with no strings. When the Nets weren’t going to give him that extension, Irving forced his way to a new team where he is more likely to get paid (not that it’s close to a lock, the Mavs are reportedly hesitant).

Irving now gets to play next to Dončić, another of the league’s top five players, and is on a team with the potential to contend in a wide-open conference, and he gets a relatively clean slate to prove he is worthy of that massive contract this summer. Irving got what he wanted out of this.

WINNER: Luka Doncic

Luka Dončić was good with this trade — Dallas went to him and got his approval before proceeding with it, reports Marc Stein.

Dončić has been at a historic usage rate this season and was physically wearing down from the load. Dallas desperately needed another shot creator and star next to Dončić to lighten his load. Now, Dallas has that in the guy with maybe the best handles in the league, someone averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game and shooting 37.4% from 3.

There are a lot of questions about the fit of Dončić and Irving together — will Irving accept a role as the No.2 option on this team (as he did with Durant most of the time)? How well will Doncic play off the ball? This trade makes the Mavericks’ 23rd-ranked defense worse. And that is just the start. But it’s a move the Mavericks had to make, and now Dončić knows they will do everything they can to land stars to put around him. Which is what he wanted to see.

LOSER: LeBron James and the Lakers

The Dallas Mavericks showed how desperate they were as a franchise with this potentially Faustian trade.

The only team that might have been more desperate? The Lakers. They are squandering an All-NBA level, record-breaking season of a 38-year-old LeBron James, sitting four games below .500 and outside the play-in tournament. LeBron wanted this trade to happen. The Lakers wanted it to happen. Irving wanted it to happen.

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka tried, the problem is the Nets want to retool a contender around Durant immediately — Brooklyn wanted players who can help them win now. That’s not what the Lakers could offer. The Lajers had tempting future picks, but the player at the heart of any offer was Russell Westbrook. The Mavericks could offer more, better players right now plus the picks (there is also a report that Nets owner Joe Tsai didn’t want to send Irving to his preferred destination). Dallas won the day. LeBron’s reaction?

There is no clear path to building a title contender around LeBron and Anthony Davis. Trading for Irving would have been a huge gamble, but that is where the Lakers are now. They have to roll those dice, and they will try again with the next superstar who becomes available.

ASK AGAIN LATER: Brooklyn Nets

There is a case to make the Nets did well in this trade — and maybe even got better by making the roster deeper, and more versatile. They got out of the Kyrie Irving business and don’t have to pay him long-term — if they had made this trade over the summer the conventional wisdom reaction would have been, “good job getting out from under all this.” And the Nets landed a couple of quality players who can help them now in Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith. Brooklyn GM Sean Marks did as well as he could with the situation.

Still, Brooklyn got worse in the short term — any team that trades a superstar does not get equal talent back.

Whether this ultimately is a win or loss for them will hinge on two future moves, or lack of moves:

1) Can the Nets make another trade or two before the deadline? Even with a healthy Durant and what is now a deep and versatile roster, the Nets lack the second high-end star they will need come the postseason (Ben Simmons is not going to be that guy). Brooklyn now has picks and players at its disposal to make more roster upgrades, particularly defensively.

2) Will Kevin Durant stay in Brooklyn, or ask for another trade? Can the Nets keep him happy? Durant didn’t think there was a future in Brooklyn last summer and asked for a trade, but the Nets didn’t really try couldn’t find one to their liking. If the rest of this season goes just okay and the Nets get bounced in the first round, that KD trade request very well could be back on the table, and the Nets could be back to rebuilding, but without their picks to do it.

There is one other disappointment in all this — it looked like the Nets, under Jacque Vaughn, had figured it out. They went 18-2 in the games before Durant got injured. Vaughn had quieted the noise around the team, had them focus on the court, and Brooklyn looked like a real threat in the East. Now that is gone.

ASK AGAIN LATER: Dallas Mavericks

The argument for this being a win for Dallas is it makes them a contender in the wide-open West — they have two superstars who can match any duo in the conference, and have surrounded them with shooting. The Mavericks’ offense should be elite.

The problem in the contender theory is the Mavericks already have the 23rd-ranked defense in the NBA and now have traded away their best defender in Finney-Smith. If the Mavericks are going to fulfill the promise of their offense, they will have to make more trades to upgrade that defense. Reports are the Mavericks are aggressively looking for other moves to bolster that end of the floor.

However, the biggest question for Dallas is the long term — do they want to give Irving the four-year max contract he wants at the end of this season? Marc Stein reported the Mavericks did not promise a new contract to Irving at the end of the year, but you don’t make this trade if you’re not open to it. The Mavericks get a test run through the final third of the season, although Irving will most likely be on his best behavior the next couple of months.

If the Mavericks don’t bring back Irving, they just traded away their two most valuable trade asset players plus a could of high-value picks — Dallas weakened their position to get the next star. Dallas gave up a lot, do they have to pay up now?

WINNERS: Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks

For 20 games when both Irving and Durant were healthy and on the floor — and the distractions quieted down — the Nets looked like a team that could win the East. Now… not so much. The Nets are good, and maybe they have another move or two that returns them to contender status, but that is a long shot. The Nets are a dangerous opponent, but not one the real contenders in the East, the Buck and the Celtics, can beat.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the team the Bucks and Celtics should worry about.

WINNER: Houston Rockets

Remember when Houston traded James Harden to the Nets? The Rockets now control — either outright have or have swap rights — for every Nets first-round pick between now and 2027. Those picks look much more valuable tonight than they did 24 hours ago, and if Durant does ask for a trade and push his way out of Brooklyn this summer then the Rockets could be sitting on a treasure chest. This trade was good news for the Rockets.

LeBron, other NBA players react to Kyrie Irving trade to Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks v Brooklyn Nets
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Is there going to be a football game of some kind next weekend? You’d never know the way the NBA trade deadline can dominate the headlines.

Kyrie Irving is getting traded to the Mavericks, which has blown up the NBA world — Dallas looks like a threat in the West, and there is a countdown clock over Kevin Durant‘s time in Brooklyn. It wasn’t just fans and pundits stunned by the news, NBA players past and present took to Twitter and social media to react and give their thoughts on the Irving trade. Starting with LeBron James and one of the guys in the trade.

Nets reportedly trade Kyrie Irving to Mavericks for Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, picks

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets
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Dallas desperately needed a second star and shot creator to go next to Luka Dončić.

They got one — Mark Cuban has always been willing to take risks to win. The question about how long this can last comes later.

The Nets are trading Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, their unprotected 2029 first-round pick their 2027 and 2029 second-round picks, according to multiple reports.

Irving is reportedly “ecstatic” to make the move to Dallas (the hard questions about a future contract will wait until after the season).

Irving reportedly will land in Dallas Monday, take the standard post-trade physical, and could be available for the Mavericks on Wednesday against the Clippers.

Brooklyn had several suitors to choose from but wanted in return players it could slot in around Kevin Durant now (or, once he is healthy and returns) so they could still have a puncher’s chance to win the East. Dinwiddie gives Brooklyn a point guard and shot creator who can play some off the ball — and he returns to Brooklyn, where he made a name for himself in the league. Finney-Smith is a coveted two-way wing who can step in right now. Plus, the Nets add some potentially valuable picks down the line.

That offer gave the Nets more win-now possibilities than they got out of the Lakers’ offer (two future first-rounders and Russell Westbrook) or what the Suns and Clippers put in the mix.

There are questions for Dallas, but ones they believe they can answer — elite talents figure out a way to make it work on the court. Off the court, it helps that both coach Jason Kidd and former Nike executive turned Mavericks GM Nico Harrison have strong relationships with Irving. That’s a start.

The pairing of Dončić and Irving should lead to games and stretches where they look brilliant, but the question is not the highs but the lows — how deep and how prolonged will those be? Irving works well off the ball (as he has done with Durant and LeBron James) and should be able to play off Dončić. However, can Dončić play well off the ball when Irving is hot? Do the Mavericks — with Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood, Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock and the rest — have enough around their two stars to be a serious threat in the West? Off the court, can the very different personalities of Irving and Dončić mesh, or at least work well enough not to be a distraction?

The biggest question: Do Cuban and the Mavericks really want to re-sign Irving for the four-years, $198.5 million he demands at the end of the season? There are reports that Dallas (like every other front office in the league, including Brooklyn) is hesitant to do a long-term deal with Irving that gives him that kind of guaranteed money.

But that is a concern for the future — Dallas got its second star. It has vaulted itself into the upper echelons of the Western Conference and positioned itself to contend.

Reports: Stephen Curry out ‘weeks’ with leg injury, Warriors hope for return after All-Star Break

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors
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This is bad news for the Warriors. How bad depends on how the word “weeks” is ultimately defined.

Stephen Curry has torn ligaments in his leg — in the shin area just below the knee — and while the team does not have an official timeline he will be out “weeks” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“Weeks” is a vague word, and for the Warriors the difference in Curry being out three weeks (with one of those being the All-Star Break) versus him being out six to eight weeks could be the difference in how long a playoff run the Warriors have.

The Warriors are hoping for a Curry return just after the All-Star break, reports Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

Of short-term concern, this has Curry out for the All-Star Game where the fans voted him a starter. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will bump one of the reserves up to a starting spot — likely Ja Morant, who was third in fan voting — and name an injury replacement for the team. The top candidates are Devin Booker (if he returns from injury this week as expected), De'Aaron Fox or Anthony Edwards.

Longer term, the Warriors can’t afford to be without Curry for an extended period.

Curry is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game, and the Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. With the team one game above .500 and struggling to avoid the play-in, an extended absence for Curry is trouble for a Warriors team that has never found its footing this season.