Three things to know: Preseason title favorites Nets, Lakers continue to stumble

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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) NBA’s new foul-hunting rules are exactly what fans, the league needed

It’s not just James Harden — free throw attempts are down around the NBA. So far this season, the average NBA game has seen 40 free throws a game. That is down 2.6 attempts a game from a season ago and 6.2 attempts a game from both the bubble 2019-20 season and the pre-COVID 2018-19 season.

The reason is referees got a new set of orders to no longer call fouls on players making non-basketball moves — “abnormal, abrupt, or overt movements” that are not part of a natural basketball play — and the result is foul hunting is not drawing whistles anymore.

Harden was the master of this and is struggling to adjust.

Harden is not alone; here is Patrick Beverley (and he owns it, raising his hands after the play).

Those are just two of multiple plays we could show from last night, and it has been like that every night so far as players are still trying to adjust to their new reality.

This is precisely what the NBA needed. Foul hunting had taken over the game as shooters at the arc made awkward leaps forward into defenders, players driving the lane leaped sideways into properly-positioned defenders, shooters kicked out their legs to create contact, and elite defenders going against Harden (and, sometimes, others) had to play with their hands behind their backs to show officials they were not fouling.

The flow of the game is better — basketball looks better when its athletes are allowed to play basketball.

The next step for the NBA? Ban the Euro foul — or transition take foul, officially — where a defender grabs a player with the ball at halfcourt or in the backcourt to prevent a fast break opportunity. The use of that foul to take away outnumbered scoring attacks appears to be on the rise — using the eye test — and it is robbing fans of one of the best parts of the game. (I am far from the only person complaining about this, Zach Lowe and Tim Bontemps of ESPN did on a podcast, as did Nate Duncan and John Hollinger on their pod.)

Again, the NBA is at its best when its athletes are allowed to play basketball — and transition plays are the most exciting in the game. It’s statistically wise to commit a take-foul (teams score at a much higher rate in transition than in the half-court), so smart players are more and more leaning on it to stop transition plays a few times a game. It’s blocking the most exciting play because there is no real penalty.

You didn’t see Euro fouls at the Olympics because in international basketball, that kind of foul leads to two free throws and teams keep the ball. In the G-League, it’s one free throw and the team gets the ball out of bounds. It’s the same idea, players stop making the foul because it no longer helps the team.

The NBA needs to bring that G-League take foul rule up to the NBA — let the players play. That is what we want to see, not referees blowing their whistle because a smart player has figured out how to game the system.

2) Ugly second half sees Lakers fall to Thunder; Westbrook ejected

Five games into a marathon of an NBA season is far too early to panic — we knew it would take time for the Lakers to gel. Bettors have not come off Los Angeles, the Lakers remain the second favorite to win the NBA title at +450 over at our partner Points Bet.

But the warning signs are flashing around the Lakers, who were without LeBron James for the second straight game but still blew a 26-point lead to a winless Thunder team —and completely lost their composure in the process.

The Lakers have two clear weaknesses to start the season, and both were on full display Wednesday night.

The first: this is not a good or consistent jump-shooting team. The Lakers’ win against the Grizzlies came in part because they were 16-of-30 from beyond the arc, but in this loss they started 6-of-10 on 3-pointers and then went 5-of-25 the rest of the way. To drive that point home, you can watch Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony airball game-tying threes in the final seconds.

Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook decided to become jump shooters in the second half, and it didn’t work out.

In the first half, Davis shot 6-of-8, and no shot was farther than 15 feet away from the rim (at the elbow).

Davis took 13 shots in the second half, four near the rim and nine were jumpers (he shot 3-of-9 on those). Westbrook took four shots at the rim in the second half (making two) and was 3-of-10 on jumpers. That’s a combined 6-of-19 on jump shots in the second half from the Lakers two stars, guys not the least bit consistent from distance.

The other issue is that the Lakers are not a good defensive team: They have a 111.5 defensive rating this season, 23rd in the NBA. Against the young Thunder the Lakers had a 115.2 defensive rating for the game, and it was north of 130 for the second half (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Davis has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level to start the season — his 12 blocked shots are third in the NBA — but he can only clean up so many mistakes of perimeter defenders who let their men get wherever they want.

Then there is the composure issue — without the steadying hand of LeBron the Lakers could not right the ship. Then Russell Westbrook got tossed because Darius Bazley decided to put an exclamation point on the Thunder win.

Westbrook had a quadruple-double: 20 points, 13 assists, 14 rebounds and 10 turnovers. It’s that last stat that hurt the Lakers most. Also, if you don’t want guys dunking on you at the end of your loss, play better. This wasn’t a 40-point blowout, it was a competitive game, and Bazeley has the right to dunk that every time he wants.

Give the Thunder some credit. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 27 points and may have been the best player on the court. Rookie Josh Giddey had 18 points, 10 assists and continues to show real potential early this season.

But this is still a game the Lakers should have won, even without LeBron. It is too early to panic, but that road to where the Lakers want to be in June is a lot longer and more treacherous than many expected.

3) Heat handle Nets 106-93, Brooklyn’s offense is an issue

The Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant (playing like an MVP), James Harden, one of the best sharpshooters in the game in Joe Harris, a Sixth Man candidate in Patty Mills, and a veteran roster loaded with household names and good young players.

The Brooklyn Nets have the 29th ranked offense in the NBA (that improves to 23rd if you filter out garbage time, but still).

The Miami Heat have the best defense in the NBA to open the season and put the clamps on the Nets offense Wednesday — Brooklyn had an offensive rating of 89.3 in this game. Harden continues to struggle and shot 4-of-12, Harris was 5-of-15, Mills 1-of-9, and you get the idea.

After the game, Durant said it’s just a matter of the team knocking down shots they know they can hit… and yes, Kyrie Irving would help matters.

Much like with the Lakers, it is far too early to reach for a panic button — I’d argue Brooklyn is more likely to fix its problems than Los Angeles (although both likely will). The Nets offense will come around. Harden has been slowed more by trying to come back from his hamstring issues than the new foul rules (although those play into it, see item No. 1 in this story), and guys like Harris and Mills will hit shots. The Nets offense will come around.

Brooklyn seems to be coasting through the first part of the regular season, with Steve Nash throwing every lineup he can at the wall to see what sticks. So far, not much, but it’s early.

It’s just not very pretty.

Highlights of the night:

Take your pick, two plays earned their way here.

First, Harrison Barnes drained the game-winning three at the buzzer to lift the Kings to a 110-107 win against the Suns (Sacramento is 2-2 through a rough schedule to start the season, and their offense is legit… playoffs?).

Four Timberwolves defenders could not stop Giannis Antetokounmpo from throwing it off the backboard to himself for a dunk. (Minnesota is 3-1 to start the season and playing good defense, and their offense will come around… playoffs?)

Last night’s scores:

Charlotte 120, Orlando 107
Washington 116, Boston 107
Miami 106, Brooklyn 93
Toronto 118, Indiana 100
Atlanta 102, New Orleans 99
Minnesota 113, Milwaukee 108
Oklahoma City 123, L.A. Lakers 115
Sacramento 110, Phoenix 107
Portland 116, Memphis 96
Cleveland 92, L.A. Clippers 79

PBT Podcast: Golden State Warriors season preview

2022 NBA Finals - Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics
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The Golden State Warriors will enter the season hanging banner number four from this era and passing out their championship rings, but this is a team with more questions than most returning champs.

Otto Porter and Gary Payton II are gone and their minutes will go to a young core — Jordan Poole, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman — who are going to be asked to carry a larger load. Particularly during the regular season.

Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area joins Kurt Helin of NBC Sports to break down this coming Warriors season, what to expect, and if the young core can get the older vets to the playoffs rested and ready to defend their title. There’s also talk of what comes next in Golden State, as some hard contract choices are coming in the next few years.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Khris Middleton says he will miss start of season following wrist surgery

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Two
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When Khris Middleton first went under the knife this summer to clean up issues with his left wrist, he expected to return in time for the start of the season.

At Bucks media day Sunday, Middleton said he’s not going to make that opening night goal but should be back early in the season, as reported by Jamal Collier of ESPN.

The Bucks open the season on the road Oct. 18 against the Celtics (who have their own set of issues heading into this year).

Middleton’s importance to the Bucks was evident in the playoffs, when not having him as a secondary shot creator was a key aspect of their seven-game loss to the Celtics.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game last season. A healthy Bucks team — with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Jrue Holiday as the core — enter the season as serious title contenders. But they need Middleton, so they will not rush him back.

Zion, Nash, Davis: Seven players, coaches who enter NBA season under pressure

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Every NBA season comes with pressure — the pressure to win, the pressure of fan emotions and expectations, and for players the pressure that this is their livelihood. There is real pressure to stick in the NBA and earn that handsome paycheck.

But some players and coaches enter this season under more pressure than others.

Here are seven players and coaches who are under added pressure this season.

Anthony Davis

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.”

That was new Lakers coach Darvin Ham talking about Anthony Davis — the lynchpin to everything Ham hopes to do in Los Angeles. As he said, LeBron James will be LeBron (read: elite, even at age 37), and Russell Westbrook will be Russell Westbrook (he’s saying all the right things, but…), but if the Lakers are going to be any threat in the West it starts with Davis. Ham needs the Davis from the bubble — healthy, elite defender, playmaker, solid midrange jump shot — because he plans to run the offense through AD.

More than just this season, the Lakers have to come to a decision: Is Davis the No.1 option they can turn the franchise over to after LeBron steps away? Can he physically carry that burden and not break down? Davis can be one of the game’s elites, but is he ready to carry the Lakers franchise? Their future direction depends on that answer.

Zion Williamson

The acquisition of CJ McCollum last season helped bring the Pelicans together. They made a push into the playoffs with a solid core of McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance, Devonte' Graham and others. Watching New Orleans you couldn’t help but think, “If Zion Williamson were healthy…”

Now we get to find out. Williamson is reportedly in the best shape of his life (take all offseason conditioning comments with a shaker of salt) and ready to resume his role as a No.1 offensive option and maybe the best interior scorer in the game. The pressure of getting paid is off Williamson — he got his max extension — but the pressure of living up to it is just starting.

Steve Nash

When your star player says “him or me” during the offseason — even if that ultimatum gets rescinded — you enter the season under a microscope. Nash would have been getting a close look even if Kevin Durant didn’t drag his name into his offseason drama — there are plenty of front office people around the league not convinced Nash is up to the task in Brooklyn. There is enormous pressure on this team to get things right — to avoid a meltdown — and if things go at all sideways in Brooklyn Nash will be the fall guy. His seat is already warm.

Kyrie Irving

While we’re in Brooklyn… Ben Simmons is the logical first name to pop into your head when thinking of players under pressure with the Nets — and with good reason. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court in over a year and his play and fit are critical to the Nets’ hopes of contending. But there is another player who faces real contract pressure in Brooklyn.

Kyrie Irving wanted a trade out of Brooklyn this summer, the Nets said “go ahead and find one,” and Irving found his market was not nearly as deep and strong as he expected (the Lakers were interested, and he reportedly was interested in them, but any trade would have involved Russell Westbrook and got too tricky). Irving is in a contract year now and there is pressure on him to remind everyone that, when focused and committed, he is an All-NBA point guard and game changer. But will he stay focused and committed this season?

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks president Leon Rose came out this week in a softball-filled interview on MSG Network and backed his coach. When asked if Thibodeau was under pressure, Rose said, “I don’t see it that way at all. The way I say it is we’re continuing with the plan.” Nothing went according to plan with the Knicks last season. While not all of that was Thibodeau’s fault — he didn’t cause Julius Randle‘s shooting regression — if things get off to another slow start after spending money on Jalen Brunson this summer, somebody is going to have to pay the price. Thibodeau’s job may not be as secure as Rose tries to paint.

James Harden

James Harden is positioned to have a monster regular season. He’s asked to be more of a playmaker, get the ball to MVP candidate Joel Embiid, put Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in positions to thrive, and score a few points in there as well. Harden could be poised for an All-NBA level regular season — and then the playoffs start. That’s where the pressure is. Harden’s long history of playoff foibles (including some flat outings against the Heat last year) will be under a microscope this season because Daryl Morey has built a team of solid role players — this team is good enough. It’s up to Harden (and Embiid) to prove he can also be an elite player in the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard

Steve Ballmer has paid an enormous… well, it’s chump change to him, but it’s still an enormous amount of money to turn the Clippers from league laughing stock into a respected franchise (sorry, it’s true Lakers fans). These Clippers are contenders. But that title contention rests on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. He has to both be healthy and play like the guy who helped lift the Raptors to a title. If Leonard and Paul George are healthy and playing like their All-NBA selves come the postseason the Clippers are a massive threat — two-way wings win playoff series and the Clippers would have two of them. It’s just on Leonard (and Paul) to be that guy.

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.