Three Things to Know: Embiid waves Durant, Nets off court; shows potential for 76ers

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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) Embiid waves Durant, Nets off court; shows potential for 76ers

Dear basketball gods: Can we get a playoff series between these two teams? Please? We need six or seven games of this.

Thursday night was payback for Philly. Two weeks ago, the Nets beat the 76ers 114-105 and after the game Kevin Durant waved the Sixers off the floor. Durant believed the 76ers had disrespected the Nets, and he told them to go home.

Thursday night, Joel Embiid returned the favor after scoring 34 to lead a 110-102 win over Brooklyn.

After the game, both Embiid and Durant said their trash talk came out of respect for how they push each other. It was all good competitive fun.

It’s the kind of fun we need to see in a playoff series.

A playoff series that the 76ers could make very interesting, depending on what happens in the next six weeks before the trade deadline.

It’s hard to project what the 76ers will look like after the Ben Simmons trade — and there will be a Ben Simmons trade before the deadline — because we don’t know who is coming to Philly. It could be someone to help shore up their rebounding issues and defensive concerns (areas Simmons was important to them). It could be a lot more offense. Maybe both.

Embiid is a question the Nets can’t answer directly — he is too big, too strong, too quick for their defenders inside.

If the play around Embiid is good enough, the 76ers can beat anyone. Thursday night they got that quality play, with Tyrese Maxey scoring 25, Seth Curry adding 17, and Matisse Thybulle making Durant work for his points. Add a quality player or players to that mix after the Simmons trade, and this 76ers team could be a threat.

The pecking order in the East right now has the Nets — getting Kyrie Irving back for road games starting soon — and Bucks at the top, with the Heat looming as a sleeper and the Bulls as a threat as well (especially if they make a move at the deadline and get a quality four). With a healthy Embiid, Philadelphia could vault into that mix with the right deadline move.

Embiid is good enough to lift the 76ers to contender status, and to wave Durant and the Nets off the court. Which is why Daryl Morey knows he can’t waste a year of prime Embiid playing the leverage game in the Simmons deal. A move is coming.

2) COVID latest: Nuggets/Warriors postponed, no fans in Toronto, Randle enters protocols

This latest COVID surge continues to disrupt this NBA season. The league isn’t hitting pause, it will push through, but this season has taken a punch to the gut.

Here’s the latest on the COVID front with the NBA:

• The Knicks Julius Randle enters protocols. When he exits, the Knicks need him to bring his disappeared 3-point shot with him.

• The NBA had to postpone its 11th game of the season, the Warriors visiting the Nuggets. Earlier on Thursday, the Nuggets announced that coach Mike Malone and three players — Jeff Green, Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji — entered the league’s health and safety protocols. Add in the Nuggets injured players — Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier are all out, plus Monte Morris, Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers were all listed as questionable — and the Nuggets couldn’t dress eight healthy players.

• The NBA has become a game of “who is that?” and “who does he play for?” because of all the 10-day hardship contracts being signed. How many? That number was at 109 earlier on Thursday but kept climbing.

Philly’s Doc Rivers joined Denver’s Malone in protocols, making it nine NBA coaches in protocols.

About 36% of NBA referees also are in league protocols, which has led to G-League callups on that front as well.

• The Raptors will play home games without fans for the next three weeks.

• If you read all that and thought, “why doesn’t the league just pause for a week or two?” you should know two things. First, Hawks coach Nate McMillan agrees with you.

Second, it’s not going to happen. The NBA is going to push through. It has increased testing, shortened the time positive but asymptomatic players have to quarantine (matching CDC recommendations), is forcing teams to bring in temporary players when roster guys test positive, but hitting the pause button is not on the table.

3) Cavaliers near trade to acquire Rajon Rondo from Lakers

This trade benefits both teams but doesn’t really move the needle in the big picture.

After Ricky Rubio tore his ACL the Cavaliers went looking for depth at point guard (remember they also lost Collin Sexton for the season due to knee surgery). Rondo is the target.

Rondo is currently in COVID protocols and would not head to Cleveland until he was cleared. Rondo is not a regular part of the Lakers’ rotation — he played in just 18 games for the Lakers, averaging 3.1 points per game and shooting 32.4%, and the Lakers have been 10.1 points per 100 better when he is on the bench — but he could fill a role next to Darius Garland in Cleveland. At the least, he provides veteran depth.

What the Lakers get out of this trade is a cleared roster spot (technically something has to be traded back for Rondo, likely a heavily protected second-round pick). That open roster spot lets Los Angeles keep 10-day contract hardship player Stanley Johnson on the roster without taking a substantial luxury tax hit. This trade opens a roster spot, removes Rondo’s salary from the books, and lets the Lakers slot Johnson in that space on a minimum contract.

Highlight of the Night: Pitt football turnover dunk is awesome

It’s college bowl season, and that means we bet on watch teams we barely paid attention to all season. With all due respect to Pitt, they were that team for me, and I had no idea they did a turnover dunk after the Panther defense forces one.

That is awesome.

Last night’s scores:

Philadelphia 119, Brooklyn 102
Milwaukee 136, Orlando 118
Washington 110, Cleveland 93
Golden State at Denver, postponed

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.