Three Things to Know: Warriors struggled for answers for Morant, Grizzlies who have arrived


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) Warriors struggled for answers for Morant, Grizzlies who have arrived

Golden State misses Draymond Green. A lot. When the Warriors beat the Suns on Christmas Day, Green got the Chris Paul assignment. Green often gets put on the opposing team’s best guard.

But with Green out (calf tightness), the Warriors had no answers for Ja Morant (the best option they had was Gary Payton II, but Young Glove didn’t get a chance until late in the first half). Morant is the hottest player in the league and he scored or assisted on 20 of the Grizzlies’ 28 first-quarter points. Morant finished with 29 points and eight assists, and late in the fourth he stuck the dagger in the Warriors.

The Grizzlies announced their presence with authority, picking up their10th straight win, 116-108.

What has been impressive is the growth of the Grizzlies as a team — this is not just the Morant show. Desmond Bane has been Memphis’ second-best player during the streak but he has had a rough night, 11 points on 14 shots. That’s when Tyus Jones stepped up with 17 off the bench, including some critical plays late, and Brandon Clarke was a force with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting. (And all this without Desmond Bane, who sprained his knee and could miss a month or more.)

Those young, long, athletic Grizzlies both move the ball and move off the ball in a way somewhat reminiscent of a younger, peak Warriors team. Their length and athleticism make them aggressive defenders pushing for steals so they can get out and run — and the Warriors obliged early and got in a hole because of it.

Stephen Curry had a triple-double of 27-10-10, but the non-Curry starters shot 11-of-28 (39.3%). The usually reliable Jordan Poole was 3-of-11 off the bench. Curry did his best. It was not enough.

The Grizzlies would host a playoff round if the postseason started today, they are the fourth seed and a comfortable 5.5 games up on the Mavericks in fifth. In fact, they are closer to the Suns in first (3.5 back) than the Mavericks. Memphis isn’t just a playoff team, they are a legit top-four team in the West that will be a tough out for any team that considers themselves contenders. Morant isn’t just an All-Star, the question becomes, should he be a starter?

The Grizzlies are legit — this isn’t a grit-and-grind team winning ugly either. This team is dynamic, athletic, and a problem. If you have any doubts, ask the Warriors.

2) Brandon Ingram scores 10 in final 1:13, including game-winning 3 for Pelicans

Brandon Ingram is making his All-Star case.

He won’t be a starter, but when the league coaches vote for the West reserves it will be tough to leave Ingram off. Ingram is averaging 22.9 points a game, with 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists a night — he is the heart of the Pelicans offense this season.

Ingram made his case Tuesday night, topping off a 33-point game by scoring 10 points in the final 1:13 and draining the game-winner for the Pels.

The Pelicans got the win because they made their last nine 3-point shots. Josh Hart had 21 points and nine boards, while Jonas Valanciunas added 13 points and 12 rebounds for New Orleans.

3) COVID hitting NBA staffs hard as well, not just players

It’s hard to escape a discussion around the NBA about what players have been out in COVID protocols, what replacement players from the G-League are getting called up (and given minutes), and how the pandemic is impacting players for a third-straight season.

But it’s also hitting front offices hard, too, Baxter Holmes reported at ESPN.

Sources told ESPN that this season there have been more than 500 confirmed COVID-19 cases among 2,400 total Tier 1 staff — anyone working within 15 feet of players — across the NBA. The vast majority of cases among Tier 1 staff have also come within the past month, with more than 450 cases occurring from Dec. 7 to Jan. 10, sources said…

General managers across the league point out that while players can often be replaced by G-League backups, replacing core staffers who handle unique roles can prove to be much more challenging and impactful on day-to-day operations.

Yikes. Also, not that surprising considering the way Omicron has swept through not just the NBA but American society.

The staff numbers are a concern in part because some of them are older or have pre-existing conditions that could be an issue (something not the case with players, who are young and healthy).

The wave of the virus among players seems to be slowing (*knocks on wood*), and reports say not only are 97% of players vaccinated but also 70% have gotten the booster. There have been 11 games postponed this season due to the virus, but the league’s real hope is to have this issue largely in the rearview mirror by the time the playoffs begin in April.

Highlight of the Night: Devin Booker would like it golf quiet for his free throws

There are no fans in the Scotiabank Arena right now for Raptors games (a COVID measure for the Canadian regional government), which is a little jarring when you watch it.

The Raptors mascot is there, and he was jumping around trying to distract the Suns’ Devin Booker during a free throw — so Booker had the referee send him away.

Booker, this is not golf. You played in packed arenas all season with fans yelling at you during free throws and jumping around. Heck, you played at Kentucky and saw some organized behind-the-basket distractions. Give The Raptor a break.

Last night’s scores:

Washington 122, Oklahoma City 118
Phoenix 99, Toronto 95
Chicago 133, Detroit 87
Memphis 116, Golden State 108
New Orleans 128, Minnesota 125
LA Clippers 87, Denver 85

Lillard sounds like a guy considering shutting it down for season

Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have lost six in a row, are 31-40 and sit 3.5 games out of the 10 seed and final play-in spot in the West (a few teams sit between them and that goal, too). It’s not impossible, but with just 11 games remaining there’s a reason gives them just a 0.4% chance of making the playoffs. It’s hard to be optimistic.

Even for the perpetually optimistic Damian Lillard.

Check out his quotes postgame, with the first being via Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report (Blazers fans should subscribe).

“I think everybody in here is not crazy,” Lillard said… “You look at what other teams are doing, they’re creating separation, and we’re on a losing streak. We’ve pretty much fallen out of the race for the 10th spot unless we win every game, if you really look at it truthfully.”

Lillard has played at an All-NBA level this season, averaging 32.2 points and 7.2 assists a game, shooting 37.3% from 3, an insane-for-a-guard 64.5 true shooting percentage, all while having the fifth highest usage rate in the league. Put simply, he has carried the Blazers.

Maybe it’s getting close to time to take that burden off his shoulders.

If/when Lillard decides to sit out the rest of the season, it will start another round of “should Lillard leave” speculation in the media and around the league (other teams are certainly watching). Just don’t bet on it happening. As Lillard said recently about staying to win in Portland, “I’m also willing to die on that hill.” Lillard has four years, $216.2 million remaining on his contract after this season, the deal he signed just last summer. However, more than the money, Lillard sees himself in the Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas or Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee mold — he wants to stay and win in his city.

Rather than selling, look for the Trail Blazers to try and be buyers around the Draft or into the summer, offering good young players such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, plus plenty of draft picks. Portland wants to win around Lillard and is willing to be aggressive.

But that’s next season, this season has reached the point it may be time to pack it in for Lillard.

Morant reportedly could return to Grizzlies Wednesday vs. Rockets


Despite his eight-game suspension being up, Ja Morant will not be on the court Monday night when the Grizzlies host the Mavericks (Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving are questionable for the Mavericks as of this writing, although Dončić has been hopeful he could play).

In good news for Grizzlies fans, Morant could return as soon as Wednesday against the Rockets, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Rockets and their porous defense are an excellent soft landing spot for Morant to return, put up some numbers, but not have to play heavy minutes. The Grizzlies play the Rockets both Wednesday and Friday and need wins as they are in a fight for the two seed with the red-hot Sacramento Kings.

Morant was suspended for flashing a gun in a club and broadcasting it on social media, something NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called “irresponsible” and “reckless.”The suspension was retroactive, including games he was “away from the team” following the incident. The suspension cost Morant $668,659 in pay, but it hit his bank account harder than that after one of his major sponsors — Powerade — pulled an ad campaign featuring him that would have run heavily during March Madness. Morant is also in the mix for an All-NBA spot — which, via the Rose rule could increase his contract extension that kicks in next season — and this incident and missed games will not help his cause.

Hopefully, Morant got a chance to step back and consider his path forward during the suspension. If the Grizzlies are going to make the postseason run this season — and be a contender for years to come — as they expect, they need peak Morant on the court.

Watch Antetokounmpo shoot 9-of-9, get triple-double in win against Raptors


MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, Brook Lopez scored 17 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, and the Milwaukee Bucks rallied for a 118-111 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night.

Khris Middleton added 20 points and Bobby Portis had 14 as the Bucks improved to an NBA-best 51-20. Antetokounmpo had his 33rd career triple-double, making all nine of his field goal attempts.

Lopez scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter on a pair of 3-point plays and a dunk to put Milwaukee in front 97-95. Middleton’s free throw capped the 15-2 run that put the Bucks up 104-97.

“We settled down, we got back in control,” said Lopez, who outscored Toronto 17-16 in the fourth quarter. “We talked about the third quarter-fourth quarter break. They just shot more times than us. We were shooting just as well, or better than them from two and three. We just had to take care of the ball and keep them off the offensive glass.”

A dunk by Jakob Poeltl brought Toronto within 110-107, but Lopez scored underneath and Jrue Holiday hit two free throws to make it 114-107 with 1:29 remaining.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Lopez’s outburst to start the fourth quarter was key.

“It changed the game,” Budenholzer said. “I think what he did offensively was important, and then the defense always stands out. It was a little bit muddy, not a pretty game there, and he stepped up and kind of just changed our feel and changed the momentum for us, particularly offensively, which we needed tonight.”

Fred VanVleet had 23 points and O.G. Anunoby added 22 for the Raptors, who had won their three previous games. Toronto missed a chance to move into eighth in the East Conference ahead of Atlanta, which lost to San Antonio 126-118.

“All these games are important to us, that’s for sure,” said Toronto coach Nick Nurse, whose team plays their next four at home. “I like, kind of, how we’re playing. I think we’re very well for long stretches of games. Hopefully, we can just keep building on that.”

Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Raptors up 83-76 with just under 4 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. Toronto led 95-89 entering the final period.

“There was just two little probably bad stretches,” Nurse said. “In those stretches, they kind of got a couple of at the rim … a couple of and-ones. We just kind of lost our rim protection, and then kicked out and made a couple 3s after we kind of got that fixed. Give them credit, they made a couple big ones down the stretch when they needed them.”

The Bucks hit seven of their 16 3-pointers in the first period en route to a 33-29 lead.

Antetokounmpo, in his 10th season with the Bucks, played in his franchise-record 712th game, surpassing Junior Bridgeman. Antetokounmpo already was the franchise leader in points, assists, triple-doubles, free throws and minutes played. “It’s a great feeling. I wasn’t aware of it coming into the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s been a long, long journey. There’s more to be accomplished yet, I believe.”

Three things to Know: Breaking down wild, wide-open West playoff race


Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-day-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 that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breaking down wild, wide-open West playoff race

There may be no clear-cut, runaway, team-to-beat in the West, but NBA rules state one of these teams will make it to the Finals. Which one? Your guess is as good as anyone’s at this point, but let’s break down a wide-open race.

• No.1 seed: Denver has lost 5-if-7 and Nikola Jokić was right in saying “we need to be concerned” after a loss to the Knicks on Saturday… they just don’t have to be concerned about being the No.1 seed in the West. After a bounce-back win against the Nets on Sunday — behind a Jokić triple-double — they have a four-game cushion for the top seed. This losing streak exposed questions about their defense and depth for a deep playoff run, but the standings haven’t changed much.

• No.2-3 seeds: Memphis and Sacramento are tied for the No.2-3 seeds at 43-27 — they will finish as those two seeds, the only question is which one will get the No.2 spot and have home court in a potential second-round matchup with each other. Memphis has the easier schedule the rest of the way and should get Ja Morant back from suspension this week, but count the Kings out at your own peril.

• No. 4-6 seeds: Here’s where things get messy. Only four games separate Phoenix at No.4 and New Orleans at No.12 — there is a lot of volatility in these spots. With the Suns expected to get Kevin Durant back before the end of the season, they are the logical pick to hold on to home court in the first round of the playoffs, but they also have a tougher schedule than the Clippers (one game back in the loss column) and Mavericks (two games back). The Clippers can’t afford to rest Kawhi Leonard as much down the stretch, they have lost seven in a row without him. With Dallas, the question is when does Luka Dončić return? These three teams likely finish 4-6 if they can play at least .500 ball the rest of the way, but if any team 4-12 in the West gets hot for the final games it could change everything.

• No.7-12 seeds: One game separates 7-12 in the bottom of the West, any little run could have the team at least in the 7/8 spots for the play-in (and only needing to win one game to make the playoffs. The team to watch is Oklahoma City, which has gone 7-3 in their last 10, has the easiest schedule of this group the rest of the way and is a tough out whenever Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays. The Lakers sit 10th after an Austin Reavesfueled win over the Magic on Sunday, but they have the second-easiest schedule of this group and Darvin Ham said they expect LeBron James back before the end of the season. Can Golden State get a win on the road where they have lost seven straight (their 10 remaining games are split evenly home and road)? Fortunately for Minnesota, Anthony Edwardsankle injury is not as severe as it looked at first, but it’s unclear when he will return and this team has been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions without him this season. Utah has the toughest remaining schedule in the West, but they have been gritty all season and will not go away, doing things like beating the Celtics over the weekend. Without Zion or a consistent offense, New Orleans may be the hardest of this group to back.

Portland sits 13th and has lost six in a row, mathematically they are not out of it but it’s hard to envision them turning things around, despite how well Damian Lillard is playing.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo has perfect shooting triple-double in Bucks win

It feels like Giannis Antetokounmpo will have to put up triple-doubles nightly to keep up with Jokić and Joel Embiid in the MVP race, but the one he put up Sunday in leading the Bucks past the Raptors was special because he was a perfect 9-of-9 from the field.

If Wilt only did it twice, you know it’s hard to do.

We’ll dive into the East standings tomorrow, but the Bucks are sitting pretty as the league’s only 50+ win team (51-20) and have a comfortable 2.5-game cushion over the Celtics and 76ers. That matters, in part because Milwaukee will have home court for the entire playoffs, but more importantly, it puts them on the other side of the bracket from Boston and Philly and lets them fight it out in the second round.

3) Ted Lasso can hoop, too.

The Shot of the weekend goes to Jason Sudeikis. He and some others from Richmond F.C. were courtside at the Knicks game Saturday (promoting Ted Lasso, as it were) and he did this pregame:

Is there anything Ted Lasso can’t do?