Three things to know: Knicks, Celtics remind us it’s about the game

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We’re back. NBC’s five-day-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA has returned with the start of a new NBA season Come by NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before in the NBA, plus some of the rumors, drama, and dunks going on.

1) Knicks outlast Jaylen Brown, Celtics in 2OT game of the year candidate

Insane.

Can the Game of the Year happen on opening night?

This is what Adam Silver wants — the focus on the game, not drama around who is not on the court for Philadelphia or Brooklyn or who is getting traded next. The Celtics and Knicks put on a show and reminded us just how amazing basketball can be and put the focus back on the court for a night.

The Knicks and the Celtics didn’t open the season with one game, they played four different games wrapped into one edge-of-your-seat (or walking along the sidelines, if you’re Spike Lee), garden-rocking, double-overtime opener that made a case for Game of the Year on opening night. It was impossible not to get sucked in, even if you were on the other coast.

The first game was all Celtics; they led 50-38 midway through the second quarter behind Jaylen Brown, who set a Boston record for points in a season opener with 46 on 16-of-30 shooting, including 8-of-14 from 3. In that same stretch, the Knicks looked terrible with poor defense, RJ Barrett was scoreless in the first half, and Kemba Walker returned to the Garden and started 1-of-4 from the floor.

The second game was the Knicks turning this around, going on a 71-48 run behind a monster night from Julius Randle — 35 points and nine assists — and the Evan Fournier revenge game, where he finished with 32 points and was 6-of-13 from 3 on the night (don’t forget he spent the second half of last season in Boston and was sign-and-traded to the Knicks). Fournier was huge in the OTs.

New York led by 11 with 3:45 remaining in the game, and were up four with :09 to go, all they had to do was close out regulation… then this happened.

Each overtime was like its own game. The first one, both teams threw haymakers, both got up off the mat and would not stay down.

In the second OT Randle, Fournier and Derrick Rose did enough to get the win for what was a raucous and exhausted Madison Square Garden crowd. The final score was 138-134 Knicks, but both teams can walk away from this game feeling good about their effort level and resiliency heading into the next 81 games.

A few other notes from this game:

• No post-Olympics bounce from Jayson Tatum in this one, he was 7-of-30 overall from the floor, 2-of-15 on 3-pointers. Obi Toppin had a strong game for the Knicks and played stretches of strong defense on Tatum.

• Kemba Walker had a rough return home to NYC, finishing with 10 points and more turnovers (4) than assists (3). That included a couple of ugly turnovers late and some defensive errors.

• Both young centers looked good — Mitchel Robinson for the Knicks and the Time Lord Robert Williams for the Celtics were each 5-of-5 shooting on the night. Williams added five blocks for the Celtics; they need that out of him this season.

• Barrett bounced back from the rough first half for the Knicks and finished with 19 points.

2) Sixers happy to focus on basketball, not Simmons, rout Pelicans

A lot of the media attention around this game was about who was not there. A suspended Ben Simmons was not with his 76ers teammates on the road. For the Pelicans, Zion Williamson is still recovering from the off-season foot injury he may-or-may-not have told the Pelicans about when it happened, and it sounds like he has some serious conditioning work to do to get back on the court.

The players, particularly the 76ers, were happy to just focus on basketball. Philadelphia reportedly had a team dinner on the road — it’s nice the vaccinated players could do that again — and then went out and picked up a comfortable season-opening win, 117-97. To be clear, the 76ers should beat a Pelicans team without Zion, but they seemed happy to focus on that end of the court.

“The main thing I’ve been preaching is just go out there and have fun,” Joel Embiid said after the game, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “By having fun, it’s sharing the ball, playing with each other. Like I said in practice, our attitude has been the same. We’ve been practicing hard. The same way we played today, that’s what we’ve been doing in practice.

“But it was good to get off to a good start, get a win, and kind of forget about the off-the-court stuff. Like I said, it’s not our job. Our job is to win games.”

Embiid set the tone early with 10 quick points and went on to score d 22, plus he had six rebounds and five assists. Tyrese Maxey got the start at the point and had 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists. However, the breakout star of the night was Furkan Korkmaz, who scored 18 off his 22 points in the fourth, including four 3-pointers.

The 76ers are not expected to practice on Thursday but will have shootaround on Friday before facing the Nets that night at home. Will Simmons play in that game? Doc Rivers hasn’t decided that yet, but it would be a surprise.

3) Hornets come from 23 down to beat Pacers behind confident Ball

Indiana was in control of this game, up 23 early in the third quarter despite not having  Caris LeVert or TJ Warren to start the season. Domantas Sabonis was dominating, and it looked like the Rick Carlisle return to Indiana was going to start with a comfortable win.

Then LaMelo Ball sparked a comeback. That man plays with incredible confidence? How much confidence, well, he pulled this off after the game.

Ball finished with 31 points, with nine rebounds and seven assists. However, the best sign for the Hornets season was the 27 points and from Gordon Hayward, and he was the guy who took over in a tight fourth quarter.

One positive sign for the Pacers: Rookie Chris Duarte started and scored 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting. It will be tough to take minutes away from him as the Pacers get healthier; this kid is ready to contribute now.

Highlight of the night:

Montrezl Harrell picks up a technical for trash-talking Drake (which is a foul in Toronto, apparently).

Last night’s scores:

Hornets 123, Pacers 122
Bulls 94, Pistons 88
Knicks 138, Bulls 134 (2OT)
Wizards 98, Raptors 83
Grizzlies 132, Cavaliers 121
Timberwolves 124, Rockets 106
76ers 117, Pelicans 97
Spurs 123, Magic 97
Jazz 107, Thunder 86
Nuggets 110, Suns 98
Kings 124, Trail Blazers 121

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.