Three Things to Know: NBA, players union agree to increased testing, mask wearing

Milwaukee Bucks v Minnesota Timberwolves
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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, players union agree to increased testing, mask wearing

The coronavirus has been kicking the NBA’s ass. The league had to act.

With 40 players in NBA health and safety protocols right now — including star players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook who potentially will miss the Christmas Day showcase — plus games being postponed, the NBA turned back the clock.

At least through the first week of 2022, the NBA is going back to some of its 2020 coronavirus protocols. The league and NBPA (the players’ union) agreed to the changes and teams were told in a memo sent out Thursday (both the Associated Press and ESPN confirmed the memo).

Testing will be increased — for vaccinated and unvaccinated players — and basically be daily from Dec. 26 to Jan. 8. Not so coincidentally, that is right after the league’s showcase, spotlight games on Christmas Day. It’s also right after players will be home with families celebrating the holidays but potentially being exposed to the disease. The hope is to catch a player or staff member who gets a breakthrough case before it spreads through a team. Or, put more bluntly, the league wants to avoid another situation like the Bulls, who had 10 players in the protocols and had to postpone games.

Also, the NBA will go back to their old mask rules — masks will be worn at all times during team activities. That includes on the bench during games, during travel, in the locker room, basically every minute a player is not on the court during a game or practice. Head coaches also can bypass a mask during games.

In Toronto, they are going a step further, with the number of fans allowed at games is being reduced to allow more social distancing, and those fans will have to be masked (Toronto already had a vaccine mandate for fans). Enforcing a mask mandate for fans around the league seems like the next step.

Maybe Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is right and we, as a society, are going to have to adjust our levels of risk and learn to live with the coronavirus. But with the United States just passing the 800,000 dead from the disease mark, we as a society are not there yet. We need to get vaccinated (and get the booster), wear masks, and take steps to reduce the spread of the disease to protect the most vulnerable among us. It’s what a mature and caring society would do.

2) Kevin Durant drops 34, keeps playing like an MVP, Nets keep winning

Stephen Curry may well lead the early MVP race (and deservedly so with his numbers and the Warriors’ success), but don’t call it a runaway. Kevin Durant is right there with him.

The shorthanded Nets beat the shorthanded 76ers on Thursday night behind 34 from Durant, who had a four-point play with 1:46 left that proved to be decisive. Durant was the best player on the court and has to be right now if the Nets want to win. The 76ers threw Danny Green then Matisse Thybulle on KD, but nothing they did worked.

Big men Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton each added 17 points for the Nets, who had just nine players available due to injuries, COVID protocols, and whatever you want to say is going on with Kyrie Irving.

Joel Embiid had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists, but the 76ers have dropped three straight and are now 15-15.

After the game, Doc Rivers was hot because the Nets were called for no fouls in the fourth quarter. Zero. Rivers called a timeout with :03 seconds left and his team down 9 to complain to the referees about it.

“I thought Joel got fouled the last three post possessions, and-ones, and none was called,” Rivers said after the game. “I don’t know how a team can play the fourth quarter of a game where we’re driving the ball and posting the ball and they have zero fouls. It’s hard to play a quarter in the NBA and commit no fouls.”

3) Zion Williamson gets injection in foot, out at least 4-6 more weeks

Zion Williamson’s foot is not healing the way doctors had hoped, so the team took the next logical step to speed up the process — but it requires a step back first.

What does that mean?

The fifth metatarsal — the bone between the little toe and the ankle — is not an area of the foot with good blood flow and healing can be slow. It’s not unheard of for the need for doctors to do another surgery, essentially re-breaking the bone and re-setting it to get the job done. Hopefully, Zion does not need to go down that road.

Will we see Zion play this season? Maybe, but it’s hard to be optimistic right now.

What should really worry Pelicans fans short-term is how the franchise is dealing with it — reports of them looking for win-now trades and reaching out a possible swap of picks for Ben Simmons.

First off, Simmons next to Zion is the worst possible pairing — two non-shooting, ball-dominant players who both want to drive the lane and finish. The one of them without the ball is only dangerous cutting out of the dunker spot or in transition. Teams will go under every pick, pack the paint, and dare the Pelicans to shoot from outside 12 feet. It’s a tactical mess.

Beyond that, a swing for the fences to try and make the play-in rather than thinking long-term just comes off as desperation. Maybe it’s David Griffin trying to save his job, maybe it’s something else, but this 9-21 team should be developing young players and making moves for next season and beyond, not trying to patch the holes and race for the 10 seed.

Highlight of the Night: John Wall looks good for a guy not playing

John Wall wants to play. The Houston Rockets are okay with that, but only on their terms — limited minutes off the bench, with Wall more in a mentor role. Wall feels he has earned more than that.

However, there is no doubt he looks like he could play right now – watch him throw down a 360-degree dunk in warmups Thursday night.

Last night’s scores:

Indiana 122, Detroit 113
Brooklyn 114, Philadelphia 105
New York 116, Houston 103
Phoenix 118, Washington 98
Chicago at Toronto, postponed

Report: Pelicans, Nance agree to two-year, $21.6 million extension

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Larry Nance has been a stabilizing influence in New Orleans since coming over mid-season as part of the trade for CJ McCollum. Nance is a versatile player who can play the four or the five, knocks down his threes, is very strong on the glass, can be a disruptive defender in passing lanes, and fits in — and he has the veteran attitude of work this team needs.

So the Pelicans have reached an extension to keep the 29-year-old around for two years past this coming season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a signing that should make Pelicans fans happy. Importantly, it makes CJ McCollum happy — they are tight and this is something McCollum wanted to see. The money on this deal seems fair, about the league average for a solid rotation player.

Nance is the kind of veteran this team needs considering its young core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram (just turned 25), Herb Jones, and guys like Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, and others. Nance compared it to the young Lakers teams he was on, but noted that team lacked the same level of veteran leadership this Pelicans team has.

We may see more Nance at the five lineups — small ball with Zion at the four — to close games this season in New Orleans, that could be their best lineup because Nance can defend but also spaces the floor for Zion on offense. Coach Willie Green has a lot of different players and matchups to experiment with.

And now he has the stability of Nance for a few more years.

Durant tired of talking Nets dramatic offseason: ‘I didn’t miss any games’

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No team had an offseason quite like the Brooklyn Nets. First, they would not give a long-term extension to Kyrie Irving, which sent the star guard looking for a new team (but there were no offers that worked for everyone, so he opted in with Brooklyn). Then Kevin Durant asked for a trade, and to gain a little leverage reportedly threw down an ultimatum of him or the coach and GM. No trade could be found — how much the Nets wanted one is up for debate — so he is back in Brooklyn. And all that is not even getting into the return of Ben Simmons, a trade for Royce O’Neal, or anything else.

The Nets drama and how they move past it has been the talk of training camp. The only talk at training camp, it feels like.

When asked Friday if there were any inaccuracies in the reporting of the Nets summer he would like to clear up, Durant sounded weary of rehashing the summer.

The only thing that will start to move the conversation in a new direction is the Nets playing and winning games (they open the preseason Monday against the 76ers). And even those wins will have the shadow of the offseason cast over them. Durant and Irving made this bed.

Part of the fascination is the Nets remain the team hardest to predict in the league. They arguably have the most talented roster in the league and, if everything comes together just right, they can contend for a title. It’s also possible the wheels fall off early and by Christmas the Nets are looking to trade Durant again. Both things feel possible (even if reality most likely lands somewhere in the middle).

That uncertainty about the Nets’ future is the drama that will keep eyeballs on them — which also means more questions about this past offseason. Durant can choose not to answer them, but the questions aren’t going away.

Highlights from Clippers preseason win fueled by Luke Kennard

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No Kawhi Leonard. Or Paul George. Or John Wall, Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum. The Clippers decided to rest six key rotation players in their preseason opener in Seattle against Maccabi Ra’anana, a game played in Seattle.

All those guys are expected to suit up Monday when the Clippers play the Portland Trail Blazers in a preseason game also in Seattle, the first NBA exhibition game played in the city since 2018.

Against Maccabi, it was the Luke Kennard show as he had 16 points.

The Clippers also got 14 points and 13 boards from Moses Brown. As a team, the Clippers cruised and put up a few highlights.

The Clippers have great depth, which should allow them to survive a season where both Leonard and George are expected to get their share of load management nights off. Leonard missed all of last season coming off a torn ACL, and George played in just 31 games due to a few injuries, including a shoulder issue. Still, the Clippers finished eighth in the West with a 42-40 record and had a top 10 defense in the league.

Adding Leonard and George to that mix is why the Clippers are considered title contenders out West. Monday night against the Blazers we should get our first look at the real Clippers team for this season. But Los Angeles is 1-0 this preseason.

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.