Three things to know: NBA scoring down this season and it’s not just free throws

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out 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 scoring down this season and it’s not just free throws

This season, the average offensive rating in the NBA is 106.2 (points scored per 100 possessions, using Basketball-References‘ numbers).

Last season it was 112.3. The bubble season it was 110.6. The season before that it was 110.4.

Through the first two weeks of this NBA season, scoring is down — way down, 6.1 points per 100 possessions compared to the season before. For a league that has leaned toward opening up the offense and letting the athleticism and skill of its players shine, it’s an unexpected trend.

What is causing the drop?

The easy line to draw is to point to the change in foul calls around the leagueJames Harden, Trae Young and others are not getting whistles for “non-basketball moves” and their free throws are down. Across the league, we are seeing 3.6 fewer free throw attempts per game this season, and compared to the last pre-COVID season free throw attempts are down 6.2 per game.

However, talk to players and they point to something bigger than the referees:

This is the second NBA season coming off a shortened off-season, and players point to reduced time for their bodies to recover and work on skill development. The Milwaukee Bucks closed out the Phoenix Suns on July 20, a whole month later than the traditional NBA Finals ends, yet the league wanted to get back on its regular schedule, so the season tipped off on Oct. 19 — that’s a month less time to rest and recover. The season before that was the bubble championship for the Lakers, then a rushed offseason to start games in time for Christmas.

Players say they are feeling the effects.

Some top NBA scorers also got off to slow starts this season due to injury, including Harden (the hamstring that slowed him last playoffs limited his offseason work) and Damian Lillard (the career 37.4% shooter from 3 is hitting 23.2% to start this season).

Maybe the offensive numbers will tick up around the league as the season wears on, but the pandemic took a toll on just about everything we know and love the last couple of years. We are still dealing with the fallout. NBA scoring appears to be simply part of that trend; the short offseasons to get back to “normal” have come at a cost.

2) Shorthanded Milwaukee has dropped three straight games

On paper it should have been a good early-season measuring stick game: The defending champion Bucks against maybe the hottest team in the league to start the season, the Utah Jazz.

Instead, it was a third straight game to forget for Milwaukee, which fell to Utah 107-95.

It’s not hard to see why when you look at the Bucks injury report: Jrue Holiday missed his fourth straight game with an ankle injury, Brook Lopez missed his sixth straight game with a back issue, Khris Middleton was ill and missed the game against the Jazz, and Donte DiVincenzo has yet to play this season following the foot surgery that sidelined him last playoffs.

Without Lopez as the drop-back center protecting the rim, and without the strong defense of Holiday at the point of attack, the Milwaukee defense has fallen to 24th in the NBA. The Bucks offense has been pretty average this season as well, but when they struggled on that end in years past they could always count on an elite defense to keep them in games. Not so far this season, with so many key players out.

The Bucks’ fortunes will turn once they get healthy, but it has been a rough patch to open the season.

Utah continues to roll: 5-1 with a top-five offense and defense to start the season. They are healthy and on top o the West standings, where they likely will be most of the campaign.

3) James Harden is finding his groove, Kevin Durant ejected in Nets’ win

Remember that slump James Harden was in to start the season, the one everyone wanted to blame on the new foul call enforcement and the drop in free throws (rather than the hamstring issue that severely limited his offseason work)?

It’s over — James Harden is back. Harden had a triple-double against the Pistons on Sunday — 18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds — two days after he scored 29 and got to the free throw line 19 teams in a win over the Pacers. Harden is back to attacking, and you can see the confidence grow game-to-game. He looks like himself again.

Behind Harden, Brooklyn had little trouble keeping the Pistons winless, taking the game 117-91. Kevin Durant led the Nets in scoring with 23, but he was ejected in the third quarter when he got his elbow up to the neck of Kelly Olynyk. Durant was tracking Saddiq Bey, who was moving to the top of the key, when Olynyk set a screen and KD did too much trying to fight through it.

The Nets went on an 11-0 run after Durant was ejected and the game was never in doubt after that.

Highlights of the night:

LeBron James did this in his 19th NBA season at age 36.

LeBron was a walking highlight against the Rockets.

Savor watching this man play basketball, it’s not going to last forever, and we will never see the likes of him again.

Last night’s scores:

Dallas 105, Sacramento 99
Charlotte 125, Portland 113
Utah 107, Milwaukee 95
Brooklyn 117, Detroit 91
L.A. Lakers 95, Houston 85

LeBron could return to play vs. Bulls Sunday, will test foot pregame

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
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A couple of days ago, reports said LeBron James hoped to return and play the final few games before the season ended and he said there was no timeline for his return.

In less than 24 hours the Lakers have moved LeBron from “out” last game to “doubtful” and now — as of Sunday morning — questionable for the Lakers game against the Bulls. While nothing is confirmed, these are the steps a team takes before a player returns from injury. LeBron is going to test his foot pregame and make a decision.

LeBron had been pushing to return from a foot tendon injury that had sidelined him for 13 games. The Lakers have gone 8-5 in those games behind the second-best defense in the league over that stretch. What has struggled during those games has been the offense (23rd in the league) and LeBron instantly fixes that. He has averaged 29.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game this season and the Laker offense has been six points per 100 possessions better when he has been on the court.

The Lakers currently sit tied for the No.7/8 seeds in the West, with an outside shot at climbing into the top six (they are 1.5 games back of the Lakers and Clippers who are tied for sixth, but if those teams go 4-3 the rest of the way the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight just to tie them). The Lakers are also one game ahead of the 11-seed Dallas Mavericks and missing out on the playoffs entirely.

The Lakers need wins the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot, and some time to build chemistry heading into the playoffs. Having LeBron James helps with all of that.

Nets thrash Heat, move back up to No.6 seed in East

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat
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MIAMI (AP) — All the Brooklyn Nets needed, coach Jacque Vaughn insisted, was one win.

They got it, and made it look easy.

Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, and the Nets opened the third quarter on a 31-6 run on the way to rolling past Miami 129-100 on Saturday night and leapfrogging the Heat back into the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference.

Cam Johnson added 23 points and Spencer Dinwiddie scored 15 for the Nets (40-34), who snapped a five-game slide. They’re only a half-game up on Miami (40-35) in the race for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff berth, but swept the Heat 3-0 this season and would also own a head-to-head tiebreaker.

“We had the mindset coming in that this was a playoff game,” Johnson said.

Max Strus scored 23 for the Heat, all of them in the first half. Tyler Herro scored 23, Jimmy Butler had 18 and Bam Adebayo finished with 16 for the Heat. Miami was outscored 64-31 after halftime.

“We have not been defending at a world-class level, the way we’re capable of … and the second half just became an avalanche,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Strus came off the bench and made his first nine shots, one of them putting Miami up 51-37 midway through the second quarter. Over the next 14 minutes, the Nets outscored Miami 54-24 – completely turning the game around, eventually leading by 32 and, for now, putting Brooklyn in position to escape the play-in tournament that’ll decide the final two East playoff berths.

“You see how this March Madness is and you’re one and you’re done,” Vaughn said. “And that’s part of it. I have not discussed any of the standings with this group. Really, we have gone day to day and tried to get a win.”

The Heat could have moved 1 1/2 games up on Brooklyn for sixth with a win.

“There has been nothing easy about this season and that doesn’t necessarily mean that has to be a negative thing,” Spoelstra said. “You have to embrace the struggle. You have to figure out ways to stay together … but we just got categorically outplayed tonight.”

It was Brooklyn’s second trip to Miami this season. The first was Jan. 8 – which ended up being the last time Kevin Durant played for the Nets, and the last time Durant and Kyrie Irving played together. Durant left that game with a knee injury, then got traded to Phoenix, and Irving has since been dealt to Dallas, as well.

The Nets were 27-13 after that night, second in the East, just a game behind Boston for the best record in the NBA. They’re 13-21 since, yet still have the Heat looking up at them in the standings – which Vaughn insists he hasn’t discussed with his team.

“You need the momentum, the confidence, the reassurance that you can get it done,” Vaughn said. “So, haven’t tried to complicate it more than that.”

Jokic scores 31 points with 11 assists, leads Nuggets past Bucks 129-106


DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 31 points and 11 assists, Jamal Murray finished with 26 points and nine assists, and the Denver Nuggets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 129-106 on Saturday night in a late-season showdown of the NBA’s conference leaders.

Michael Porter Jr. scored 19 points for West-leading Denver (50-24), which outscored East-leading Milwaukee 68-40 in the second half.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 31 points — just seven in the second half — and grabbed nine rebounds for the Bucks (53-20).

“It’s better to win games, but our goal is to do something in a playoffs,” Jokic said.

The battle of the top teams in each conference — and two strong MVP candidates — was more competitive than the teams’ first meeting, won by the Bucks 107-99. Then, the Nuggets held out four starters — Jokic, Murray, Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in the game in Milwaukee on Jan. 25. Denver had played the night before in New Orleans and opted to rest its stars.

The circumstances were reversed, with the Bucks having played in Utah on Friday night.

“We still play, still got to be better, there’s no excuses about that,” Khris Middleton said. “But I’m sure for a lot of fans, a lot of people out there, they’d love to see healthy teams, or not coming off back to backs.”

Antetokounmpo scored 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting in the first half, with all but one of those field goals coming at the rim. Murray (20 points) and Jokic (17 points) kept Denver within three at the break, and then the Nuggets outscored Milwaukee 34-19 in the third quarter to take a 97-85 lead.

Jeff Green dunked on Antetokounmpo to open the fourth as the Nuggets’ lead swelled to 15 points. Grayson Allen hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 103-91 with 9:54 left, but Milwaukee went scoreless for 4:10 while Denver built a 111-91 lead.

“It was an amazing dunk,” Jokic said of Green’s dunk. “I didn’t think he was going to do it. He almost fell down, so it was a really nice dunk.”

Antetokounmpo went to the bench with 5:54 left and didn’t return.

The Bucks lost some composure in the third quarter. Bobby Portis Jr. was called for a take foul on Jokic and, immediately after, a technical. Denver hit both free throws and Bruce Brown hit a 3-pointer for a 84-76 lead. Minutes later, Brook Lopez got a technical while sitting on the bench.

Antetokounmpo picked up Milwaukee’s third technical with 6:41 left in the game.

“It was a night where we were grumpy, and it happens,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Denver coach Michael Malone got a technical late in the first quarter, and it was to prevent Jokic from getting one. Jokic was frustrated by the physical play, so during a timeout Malone told him he would get the technical.

“I can get kicked out, he can’t. I understand the pecking order here,” Malone said.

Watch Trae Young get ejected for launching ball at referee


Trae Young screwed up and he knew it.

“It’s just a play he can’t make,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said via the Associated Press after the game. “I told him that. He knows it.”

With the score tied at 84 in the third quarter, Young had a 3-pointer disallowed and an offensive foul called on him for tripping the Pacers’ Aaron Nesmith. A frustrated Young picked up a technical foul for something he said.

Then walking back to the bench, Young turned and launched the ball at the referee with two hands. It was an instant ejection.


“There wasn’t a single part of him that tried to rationalize what happened,” Snyder said.

Young can expect a fine for this. It also was his 15th technical of the season, one more and he will get an automatic one-game suspension.

The Hawks went on to win 143-130, improving Atlanta to .500 at 37-37 and keeping them solidly as the No. 8 seed in the East.