Three Things to Know: After latest Zion recovery setback, what is next for Pelicans?

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans
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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) After latest Zion recovery setback, what is next for Pelicans?

We’re not going to see Zion Williamson on the court anytime soon.

This latest setback feels ominous — as in “will we see him on the court this season?” ominous. Or “will we see him in a Pelicans’ jersey again?” ominous.

Hopefully, the answer to both of those questions is yes. Over the weekend, the Pelicans announced a setback in Zion’s recovery and that the “volume and intensity of his training will be reduced for an extended period.” That’s vague phrasing, but there is no timeline — it certainly is possible Zion will return to the court this season. You can also see a path to how he does not. His fifth metatarsal (the bone connecting the little toe and the ankle) is not healing the way doctors want, so they are scaling back his workouts. That is not an area of the foot with good blood flow, and recovery can be slow. There are still four months of NBA regular season left, is that enough time?

For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, hopefully we see Zion on the court this season because when he has played he has lived up to the nearly impossible billing he had coming into the league (25.7 points, 7 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game on average, and last season proving he could be a point-forward and hub of the offense).

However, the reports of tension between Zion’s camp and the Pelicans are legitimate, multiple sources have told NBC Sports. Whether that tension is with president/GM David Griffin or the medical staff or the franchise as a whole is a matter for speculation — because Zion doesn’t talk publicly. And because, in his desire for personal privacy, there is not a well-coordinated string of sourced leaks and reports letting the fan base know and understand his thinking. He expressed his love for New Orleans on media day — the last time he spoke — but that was also the day he said he expected to play on opening night. Since then, it’s been radio silence. That’s not to say Zion has been a recluse. According to reports in local papers, he has been seen around New Orleans, and good luck finding anyone who has dealt with him personally who has a bad thing to say about the man. He is friendly and genuine by all accounts.

If he’s frustrated with the Griffin or the organization, he can get in line with the Pelicans fan base. New Orleans is 8-21, dead last in the Western Conference, with a bottom-five offense and defense — the roster built to go around Zion isn’t very good. How far could a healthy, in shape, peak Zion have lifted this roster? The play-in games? Even that may be optimistic.

Things around Zion feel ominous in part because we’ve seen this movie before: New Orleans fails to build a good roster around a superstar level player and he eventually bolts. New Orleans needs to avoid a sequel.

The latest setback in his recovery means the Pelicans have some decisions to make.

In the short term, the team needs to make roster decisions looking ahead to next season and beyond. Who plays and how much — more Herb Jones, more Jaxson Hayes or Kira Lewis Jr. if it helps them develop — experimenting with lineup combinations, and even who could get traded (and for what) are decisions to be made looking through a prism of what is best for next season and beyond. That doesn’t mean tank this season, but at this point reality says even the play-in is out of reach, don’t make decisions based on a fantasy run to those games.

Also, Zion owes the Pelicans more. He needs to be in shape, dedicated to and diligent with his rehab, and he needs to get back on the court as soon as he can. If Zion’s defenders and the people around him want to say “he has done that,” then he needs to show those things. Zion needs to come out of his protective bubble.

Then next summer, Zion is eligible for a contract extension to his rookie deal. No. 1 picks traditionally end up with a max extension — which in his case would be five years, $181 million, with the potential to go higher if he made an All-NBA Team next season — but this has been anything but a traditional situation.

Do the Pelicans put the five-year max extension in front of him? Yes. Almost certainly. The potential for loss is too great not to. This is akin to the Joel Embiid situation: Despite all the time lost to injury (he had played 31 games in three years), Philadelphia realized his potential and put the max in front of Embiid (with a few very specific injury exceptions) and hoped he would grow into the player that deserved it. He has. New Orleans would be betting on the same basic scenario.

Will Zion sign that deal? Or will he become the first player to turn down a max extension, trying to force his way out of New Orleans with a trade? Those are good questions, and speculation is all we have on that front.

But even without Zion on the court, the next seven months in his future could be very, very interesting.

2) Who is your MVP? Kevin Durant drops season-high 51 in Nets win

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps recently completed his first straw poll on the MVP race, polling a group of 100 media members with a similar make up to the actual voters. The results: Stephen Curry is the runaway early leader.

Kevin Durant would like to have a word with voters.

Sunday, on a night James Harden was out for rest, KD dropped an NBA season-high 51 points to lift the Nets’ to a win over the Pistons.

“I knew I probably needed to pick up a little more of the scoring tonight,” Durant said, via the AP. “We were turning the ball over more than we should, and I was doing as much of that as anyone, so I figured I better just keep shooting.”

Curry is unquestionably putting up impressive numbers — 27.1 points and 6.3 assists a game, shooting 40.4% from 3 — but his raw numbers are down from last season when he finished third in MVP voting. What is different is the Warriors are winning and winning big this season. They are a surprise success — most pundits picked them to finish fifth or below, possibly in the play-in games — and arguably the best team in the NBA (it’s the Warriors or Suns).

Kevin Durant is putting up numbers, too: 29.4 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists a night, shooting 52.9% overall and 38.3% from 3, and he leads a 19-8 Nets squad that sits in first place in the East (despite the fact Harden has not been himself this season and Kyrie Irving is not with the team, he’s off somewhere quietly being the voice of the voiceless, or whatever is going on).

The difference is we expected the Nets to be elite; the Warriors’ success is a surprise. The resurgence of the Warriors to championship level gives Curry the narrative edge. And I agree with the voters (my ballot right now would go Curry, Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, then… not sure, fifth is wide open). It just should be closer than the poll indicates.

Last season at the halfway point of the season, LeBron James and Joel Embiid were battling it out for 1-2 in the MVP race. Things ended differently. Judging the NBA MVP race now is like judging a horse race midway through the backstretch, things are getting set up, but the real race is to come.

Count Durant out at your own risk.

3) Zach LaVine makes it nine Bulls players in health and safety protocols

I’m afraid I will get sick just writing about the Bulls.

On Sunday, Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Troy Brown Jr. went into the league’s health and safety protocols. They join DeMar DeRozan, Coby White, Javonte Green, Matt Thomas, Derrick Jones Jr., Ayo Dosunmu and Stanley Johnson, who were already there. Throw in Patrick Williams — out injured — and it is conceivable the Bulls will not have the league required eight players needed to play Tuesday night against the Pistons.

White is reportedly already back at the team facility, and Green also will be beyond the 10 days required by the protocols and could return (if they have produced negative tests and can pass a cardiac test). Officially, their status is unknown.

Like the rest of the nation, the NBA is seeing an increase in coronavirus cases, in part because the league ramped up testing. So far, no games have been postponed, but that could change this week if more players test positive.

Highlight of the Night: Three massive blocks from LeBron James

The Lakers look much better when LeBron James is both healthy — which he said he is feeling the last week with his abdomen — and decides to take the regular season seriously (which he has to do for this Lakers team to win, but that’s another discussion).

He was everywhere Sunday against Orlando: 30 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, but it was the three massive blocks that were the most impressive.

Last night’s scores:

Milwaukee 112, New York 97
Brooklyn 116, Detroit 104
Dallas 103, Oklahoma City 84
San Antonio 112, New Orleans 97
Minnesota 116, Portland 111
LA Lakers 106, Orlando 94

LeBron scores 19 off bench in return, Bulls spoil party with 118-108 win


LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 19 points off the bench in his return from a monthlong injury absence, but Zach LaVine scored 32 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 118-108 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

DeMar DeRozan added 17 points for the Bulls, who easily overcame James’ return for their seventh win in nine games. LaVine hit 11 of his first 14 shots to lead an offensive effort that snapped the Lakers’ three-game winning streak despite the return of the NBA’s career scoring leader.

James sat out 13 games with right foot soreness, missing four weeks during the Lakers’ run at a playoff berth. The team provided few updates on his recovery, and his return came with little advance warning.

“I felt confident in the workouts that I had this week,” James said. “And the day after the workouts, when I woke up, stepped out down off the bed, I could possibly play today. And after my workout early before the game today, I knew I could play.”

For only the second time in his 20-year, 1,958-game NBA career, James wasn’t a starter. He came in as a reserve midway through the first quarter, doing his standard pregame chalk toss while receiving a standing ovation from Lakers fans. James got a field goal in every quarter, and he finished with eight rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in 30 minutes.

“You could see him getting his rhythm, his timing, his finishes, all of that,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He’s a savvy veteran, one of the greatest ever to do it, so it’s not going to take all that much.”

Chicago largely controlled play despite James’ return, streaking to a 20-point lead in the second quarter. Los Angeles briefly got the lead down to single digits down the stretch, but got no closer.

“There are going to be swings, and that was the encouraging part,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m seeing a response back competitively.”

Patrick Beverley had 10 points and five assists in his first game against the Lakers since they traded him last month. Beverley has been outspoken about his desire to hurt the Lakers’ playoff hopes during this home-and-home series between the teams, but Davis and the other Lakers just smiled at his provocative talk.

When Beverley made a little hook shot with 1:12 left to boost Chicago’s lead back to double digits, Beverley slapped the floor and made the dismissive “too small” gesture sometimes used by NBA players to taunt their opponents, in this case James.

“I was just playing basketball,” Beverley said. “Obviously it’s good to see some old teammates, old coaching staff.”

Troy Brown Jr. and Malik Beasley scored 18 points apiece, but Anthony Davis managed just 15 points and nine rebounds as the Lakers (37-38) failed to get above .500 for the first time since Jan. 9, 2022.

The Lakers were without D’Angelo Russell, who missed his second straight game with a right hip injury. Los Angeles went 8-5 in James’ absence, but his return will force an adjustment of the chemistry built by his teammates in his absence.

“We came out a little flat, turned the ball over early, just weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough,” Ham said.

The Bulls largely controlled Davis even after Nikola Vucevic was ejected in the second quarter with two quick technical fouls when he argued what appeared to be a good call against him. Donovan jokingly wondered how Vucevic could be ejected when he was arguing in his native Serbian.

“Obviously it was a bad decision by me to react the way I did,” Vucevic said. “My mistake. I’m just glad my teammates came through for us. I obviously overreacted, for sure.”

Watch Dončić pick up 16th technical, will result in one-game suspension


Luka Dončić barks at the referees more than any player in the league, and with that he does not get the benefit of the doubt when he’s flirting with the edge of a technical foul.

That caught up with Dončić on Sunday, when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper, said something to the nearby official, and racked up his 16th technical this season. That will mean an automatic one-game suspension unless it is rescinded (which is unlikely in this case).

Dončić likely will have to sit out Monday when the Mavericks play the Pacers on the second game of a back-to-back.

This suspension comes on the heels of Dončić being fined $35,000 — but not being given a technical foul at the time — for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after another recent Mavericks loss.

Dončić went on to have 40 points Sunday but the Mavericks lost again — their second time in a row to the tanking Hornets, their fourth in a row overall and they have now dropped 7-of-9. That has dropped them out of even the play-in to 11th in the West. The Mavericks need to rack up wins over the season’s final two weeks to even make the postseason.

And they must get that next win Monday without Dončić in the lineup.


UPDATE: LeBron “active,” will make return to court Sunday vs. Bulls

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
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UPDATE: LeBron James has officially been upgraded to active and will make his return to the team on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls.


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.”