Three things to know: Curry makes way-too-early MVP case with 50 vs. Hawks

Atlanta Hawks v Golden State Warriors
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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) Stephen Curry makes way-too-early MVP case with 50 spot on Hawks

Ten games into the season — about mile three of the NBA season marathon — is too early to have a serious MVP conversation.

It’s not too early to start making an MVP case.

Stephen Curry broke out of a four-game mini-slump (for him, anyway) and dropped 50 on the Hawks as the Warriors improved to 9-1 on the season with a comfortable 127-113 win. It was a bombs-away night for Curry, who was 9-of-19 from 3 and had just one shot at the rim (he was 3-of-6 total in the paint).

This gives Curry 10 50+ point games as a Warrior. However, that is not even in the ballpark of the franchise record.

All this ended up not being that taxing of a night for Curry, he had 50 points and 10 assists in 35 minutes of play. Trae Young had a solid 28 points for the Hawks in defeat.

Again, it’s far too early to talk MVP and if you do the list probably starts with Kevin Durant, who leads the NBA in scoring and has been otherworldly with the Nets, looking like the best player on the planet. The previous two MVPs, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, also would need to be in the conversation after fast starts. Jimmy Butler is the surprise candidate on the list but he’s earned it averaging 25.3 points a game and leading a red-hot Heat team to open the season.

But Curry is in the mix, he is second in the league in scoring and the best player on a 9-1 team. To ultimately win MVP a player needs a couple signature games to point to during the season — Curry racked up one Monday night.

2) Jokic should have suspension coming after cheap retaliation foul

Take-fouls (or Euro fouls, if you prefer) to stop a fast break have become a plauge on the NBA this season, and the competition committe is already talking about how to stop them.

Markieff Morris‘ take-foul on Nikola Jokic near the end of a decided game Monday night was particularly cheap — an elbow to the midsection out of frustration. It did not warrant this over-reaction from Jokic — a forearm to the back that sent Morris flying and injured him.

Jokic was ejected, and this should earn Jokic a suspension, not just a fine. Yes, it was a retaliation, but it was way over-the-top, and Jokic has a history of losing his cool on the court and getting physical — remember he as thrown out of the Nuggets Game 6 loss to the Suns last playoffs for a cheap shot on Cameron Payne.

That said, who knows what the NBA will do, it’s easier to predict a roulette wheel than the NBA’s fines/suspension system.

Morris was injured and on the ground for a while. They even brought out the stretcher for him before he walked under his own power to the locker room, but Morris did suffer a neck injury according to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

Morris was given a flagrant foul and an ejection for the elbow that started it.

Jimmy Butler was hot after the incident and wanted to fight someone on Denver, which earned him a technical (and likely a fine from the league is coming).

All this detracted from what was a quality win for the Nuggets, 113-96 over a red-hot Heat team. Denver is 6-4 on the season with a solid +3.5 net rating, the kind of numbers that would have them in the top six and avoiding the play-in if they can keep it up (and a possible Jamal Murray return the second half of the season makes the Nuggets a real playoff threat).

3) 76ers crushed by COVID: Joel Embiid is the latest to be sidelined.

Tobias Harris. Matisse Thybulle. Isaiah Joe.

Now add Joel Embiid to the list of 76ers players who tested positive for the coronavirus and have been sidelined by NBA health and safety protocols.

With both Embiid and Harris “struggling with it,” that could mean they are out a little longer than expected as they try to get right.

The Knicks took full advantage of the 76ers being shorthanded with a 103-96 win behind 31 points from Julius Randle, who didn’t have to contest with Embiid protecting the rim on the night. R.J. Barrett added 15 for New York.

The shorthanded 76ers were gritty and got 19 from Furkan Korkmaz to lead the way.

The 76ers face the Bucks Tuesday night on the second half of a back-to-back still without all those stars.

Highlights of the night: Ja Morant with dunk to tie game, three to win it

Ja Morant is a walking highlight. He had 33 points against the Timberwolves, and when it mattered in the clutch had a dunk and a three to get the Grizzlies the win.

Last night’s scores:

New York 103, Philadelphia 96
Chicago 118, Brooklyn 95
Memphis 125, Minnesota 118
Dallas 108, New Orleans 92
Denver 113, Miami 96
Golden State 127, Atlanta 113
Phoenix 109, Sacramento 104
LA Lakers 126, Charlotte 123 (OT)

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
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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.