Three things to know: Bulls are 4-0 for first time since Jordan era

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Three Things 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 going that make the NBA great.

1) Bulls start 4-0 and doing it with defense

The last time the Chicago Bulls started 4-0, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman led a lock-down defense that was one of the NBA’s elite, on a team that went on to win 69 games and an NBA title.

This season’s new-look Bulls are 4-0 after hanging on to beat the Raptors Monday. Just like that legendary Jordan team, these Bulls have done it with defense, too. This season, Chicago has surrendered less than a point per possession (a 97.1 defensive net rating, via Cleaning the Glass).

It’s flipped the expectations of these Bulls on its head. With Zach LaVine coming off the Olympics and gunning for a max contract, with proven NBA scorers DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, and with Lonzo Ball now at the point, this was expected to be an outstanding offensive team that struggled on defense.

Instead, it’s the Bulls’ defense that is winning them games. Through four games, they’ve been average on offense (despite going against some soft defenses). On the other end of the court, Coach Billy Donovan is closing games with Alex Caruso because of his defense (sitting Patrick Williams), and Lonzo Ball has been critical to getting stops as well.

These Bulls have been fun and looked genuinely good to open the season, but the questions linger. Chicago has a lot to prove.

Chicago simply hasn’t played anyone good yet — they have beaten teams that are a combined 2-9 this season and are banged up. Chicago beat Cade-less Detroit twice, Zion-less New Orleans, and Siakam-less Toronto.

And they almost didn’t beat Toronto Monday because of a sloppy fourth quarter with seven turnovers and some terrible shot selection. When Toronto upped its defensive pressure, Chicago wilted. The Bulls blew a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter and were in a fight late, and had it not been for the steadying hand of DeRozan — who has played a lot of other big games in Toronto — the Bulls might have had their first loss. As it was, Fred VanVleet got a good look at a three to send this game to overtime and just sailed it long.

The Bulls may be 4-0, but because of their schedule we don’t know how good they really are — yet. That is about to change. Chicago’s next six games are New York, Utah, Boston, Philadelphia (twice) and Brooklyn. Those games will be a real test for this defense, and the Chicago offense will need to be more than pedestrian.

That said, the Bulls have beaten the teams in front of them so far, and done it with defense. It’s the most promising start in the Windy City in a long, long time.

2) Tatum, Brown combine for 71 points, Celtics beat Hornets in OT

For a while Monday night it looked like we would have two unbeaten teams still in the East, with Charlotte leading Boston by a dozen midway through the fourth. LaMelo Ball has taken a step forward in his second season and had 25 points and nine assists, while Miles Bridges continued his hot play to start the season with 25 of his own.

But Boston had the Jays.

Jayson Tatum scored 41 and Jaylen Brown added 30, and behind that duo the Celtics closed the gap and forced overtime, where Boston pulled away for the 140-129 win. It’s what Boston needed after an embarrassing loss to Toronto the previous game.

The Celtics got 23 points from Dennis Schroder, who started with Al Horford out for the night, and the Time Lord Robert Williams had 12 points, 16 rebounds, and a powerful dunk in overtime.

Boston is 2-2 but hasn’t consistently impressed on either end of the court for new coach Ime Udoka. Still, there have been stretches of strong play, like the second half of the fourth quarter and overtime on Monday night. Boston just needs to string more of that together.

Charlotte is 3-1 to start the season, and with a healthy Gordon Hayward plus Bridges making a leap, the Hornets have one of the best offenses in the NBA so far. Get just a few more stops and this team will look a lot more threatening.

3) Free throw attempts are at an all-time low to start season

Through four games, James Harden has taken a total of 12 free throws. Last season he averaged 7.3 free throw attempts per game, and go back to 2020 and before and he averaged double-digit free throw attempts per game for five straight years.

Harden was among the most effective foul hunters in the NBA. However, this season, referees were given new instructions to crack down on “abnormal, abrupt, or overt movements” to draw fouls — non-basketball moves designed to draw a whistle. Three-point shooters leaping unnaturally forward or sideways into defenders, or kicking their legs out unnaturally, are no longer getting the whistle.

It’s not just working on Harden — through the first six days of the NBA season (not including Monday’s games), free throws per game are at an all-time low, as Tweeted out by StatsMuse.

We have to note this is some small sample size theater and that players will adjust and adapt to how the game is called. The best players will figure out how to get to the line more than they are right now.

Also, the trend of 3-pointers increasing is continuing, with teams averaging 36.3 3-pointers a game this season, up from 34.6 last season. With the new rules reducing fouls on jump shooters, these 3s are not leading to as many four-point plays.

Still, free throws are down to start the season, and that has been good for the flow of the game.

Highlight of the night:

Back to Boston, where the Hornets pushed the Celtics, but in overtime Jaylen Brown emphatically shut the door with a nasty slam over Miles Bridges.

Credit to Bridges for handling this well.

Last night’s scores:

Boston 140, Charlotte 129 (OT)
Milwaukee 119, Indiana 109
Atlanta 122, Detroit 104
Brooklyn 104, Washington 90
Miami 107, Orlando 90
Chicago 111, Toronto 108
New Orleans 107, Minnesota 98
Cleveland 99, Denver 87
L.A. Clippers 116, Portland 86

Wizards’ Kispert likely to miss start of season due to sprained ankle

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The Washington Wizards made fewer 3-pointers than any other team in the league last season. They didn’t take a lot (second fewest) and didn’t make the ones they took (fifth lowest percentage). One goal for Wes Unlseld Jr. this season was to change that dynamic, and second-year player Corey Kispert was a big part of that plan.

Now Kispert is out through at least the start of the season, sidelined 4-6 weeks by a sprained ankle, the team announced Wednesday.

The injury happened on a fluke play in Japan against the Warriors, but Kispert shouldn’t miss much time once the real games start. The Wizards are a little short on the wing right now with Kispert joining Deni Avdija (groin injury) in the training room.

Kispert took 62% of his shots from beyond the arc last season and hit 35% of them, both solid numbers but ones Wizards hoped would improve for the 6’6″ wing this season.

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

Metropolitans 92 v G League Ignite
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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.