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