Three Things to Know: The three things we learned Christmas weekend

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns
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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) The rest of the NBA is chasing the Warriors

There is a theory (I think it was Tom Haberstroh’s) that the best time to judge the NBA title race was how teams did from Halloween until Christmas. The theory goes that teams had shaken out the early-season cobwebs, they were relatively healthy and engaged, making it the time you can clearly see what teams are. Of course, it’s not perfect — this year the Bucks were never whole in that stretch, for example — but it’s a good measuring stick.

This season, the Warriors were 22-5 in that stretch and had the best net rating in the NBA, +11.1. They looked like the best team in the NBA.

If there were any doubts that the Warriors are sitting in the pole position for the upcoming title chase, they were erased on Christmas Day when Golden State beat Phoenix in the Valley of the Sun, 116-107, behind 33 points from Stephen Curry.

That win came from a Warriors team without key role players Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole —both on the COVID protocols list — plus Klay Thompson doesn’t return until next month. Same with James Wiseman.

What Golden State has in Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and others are players who rise up to the big moments. Players who have proven themselves in the playoffs’ cauldron can take the heat.

There are teams that could knock off these Warriors come the postseason: The Suns were 24-3 between Halloween and Christmas and are the second-best team in the NBA; the Utah Jazz had the second-best net rating in the league during that stretch and are a force but need to prove they can play in the big moments; the Nets were 19-6 over those six weeks despite injuries keeping core guys out, but now Kyrie Irving will return for road games; the Bucks are rounding into form despite a rash of injuries and are the defending champs; Miami has looked dangerous when healthy (and keep winning despite core guys missing time).

A lot can happen between now and June, but the Warriors on Christmas showed they are the team to beat.

2) LeBron James isn’t enough to lift up these Lakers

LeBron James has scored at least 30 points in each of his last four games, playing at an All-NBA level and attacking downhill like a man of 27, not almost 37.

The Lakers lost all four of those games.

Including to a very shorthanded Nets team on Christmas. LeBron passed Kobe that day for most points scored on Christmas in NBA history, but Brooklyn got a triple-double from its star James Harden, and its role players such as Patty Mills stepped up in a way the non-LeBron Lakers players did not. Both teams were shorthanded, only one team looked like it.

Watch LeBron and you can see the frustration in his body language (it was very evident in the second half against the Suns last Tuesday) — the glares at teammates after missed defensive assignments, the dropped shoulders in resignation.

The Lakers have lost five in a row and in that stretch the defense has been bad — 24th in the league — but the offense has been worse, scoring less than a point per possession and being the worst in the league. Anthony Davis is out with a sprained knee, which is part of the problem — without him this team has collapsed like a Jenga tower.

In the last five games, LeBron is shooting 55.8%, Russell Westbrook is 45.3% (but is inconsistent night-to-night), Carmelo Anthony 36.2%, Talen Horton-Tucker 29.7% (in three games), Wayne Ellington 31.3%, and the list goes on and on. The Lakers brought in Isaiah Thomas on a 10-day hardship contract, and he scored 19 in his first game, but through four games shot 30.8% and the L.A. defense was five points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the court, so the Lakers chose not to bring him back for a second 10 days.

There are no easy fixes on the trade market. Despite the dreams of some Laker fans, Westbrook isn’t tradable, except in a salary dump (no other GM is making the deal Rob Pelinka did to get him this summer). The Lakers have a lot of veteran minimum players who don’t have the salary to bring back much help. The one hope might be combining the salaries of Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn to bring back a starter-level player from somewhere (Myles Turner, the Pacers’ center is one rumor), but is one starter-level player enough for these Lakers?

The Lakers are struggling, but it is not on LeBron the player (LeBron the GM… maybe, how much did he push for Westbrook?).

Los Angeles is 16-18 and will play another month or more without Davis. The question is, at that point can the season be salvaged, or are the Lakers just a play-in team? Again?

3) COVID isn’t done sucking the fun out of the league

There are no style points in the NBA right now. In a decimated league, any win is a good win.

The Omicron variant may not be as severe or dangerous (at least to the vaccinated and boosted), but it hit the NBA hard on Christmas — just as it did the nation — and will continue to do the same for weeks.

Omicron has sucked some of the fun out of the league.

On Christmas, there was no Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young, which doesn’t even get into the role players and depth issues. Joe Johnson and Lance Stephenson are back in the league because teams need bodies.

The day after Christmas, the NBA increased its testing of players (and inforced more of a mask mandate), and news came down Draymond Green, Lonzo Ball, John Collins, Kyle Lowry, Dejounte Murray, Jusuf Nurkic, Jae Crowder, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Elfrid Payton, and Rajon Rondo all entered protocols, and that’s just a partial list from the day.

The carousel of roster players being put in protocols and G-League players jumping up for 10-day deals will continue, at least for a couple of weeks. It’s dizzying and hard to keep up, but in a world where we all will have to learn to live with COVID and the question is what that ultimately looks like, the NBA powering through feels like the right move.

Highlight of the Night: De'Aaron Fox returns from protocols and throws it down

De’Aaron Fox returned from COVID protocols, and he didn’t lose his hops or showmanship — this was a monster dunk.

Fox may be available in a trade heading into the deadline, the Kings are reportedly open to the idea (something they were not last offseason, even when talking Ben Simmons… although I might still rather have Fox than Simmons).

Last night’s scores:

Miami 93, Orlando 83
Cleveland 144, Toronto 99
Philadelphia 117, Washington 96
Memphis 127, Sacramento 102
Oklahoma City 117, New Orleans 112
San Antonio 144, Detroit 109
Chicago 113, Indiana 105
Denver 103, LA Clippers 100

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
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

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.”