Three Things to Know: Nets soap opera drama continues as team loses to Cavaliers

Brooklyn Nets v Cleveland Cavaliers
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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) Nets soap opera drama continues as team loses to Cavaliers

Will James Harden leave Brooklyn? Will Kyrie Irving get vaccinated? When will Kevin Durant return and how far will the Nets fall without him? Would Brooklyn really trade Joe Harris?

To find out the answers to these questions and more, tune in to the next episode of As Brooklyn Turns.

Or maybe The Bold and the Beautiful Nets? Empire, Brooklyn? Days of Our Lives in Brooklyn? Brooklyn Landing?

We’ve got to workshop the name, but there is definitely a soap opera surrounding the Brooklyn Nets right now. One that did not stop — in fact, was brought into sharper focus — on Martin Luther King day when the Nets clearly missed Durant while being knocked off by the Cavaliers, 114-107. The Nets had the star power, but the Cavaliers had the highlights.

Here are the highlights of the Nets soap opera on Monday:

• Irving said that nothing basketball related — including Durant being out and the team losing without him— would lead to him getting vaccinated so he can play in Nets’ home games. He returned to talking about this being a protest to the vaccine mandate and what was best for his family, and he is not coming off the shaky logic of those positions.

“I made my decision already and I’m standing on it… It’s not going to be swayed by one thing in this NBA life that is somehow brought to my attention as being more important than what’s going on in the real world. It’s just not happening for me… I’m just standing rooted in what I believe in. And though we’re dealing with this right now with Kev, I know I am protected by the organization, I’m protected by my teammates, all the doctors I talked to, I’m rooted.”

This means Brooklyn will have different starting lineups and rotations in the playoffs based on whether the game is at home or on the road. What could possibly go wrong with that?

• Rumors are circulating around the league that Harden would be open to a change of scenery after this season — which has Daryl Morey holding onto hope of a Ben Simmons for James Harden trade.

Harden has talked both about how hard it would be to leave Brooklyn and this situation with Durant, and how he has never been a free agent, never been recruited like that, and wants that experience. He could go through the free agency process this offseason, meet with teams, then decide to return to Brooklyn.

If he leaves, it is likely because he opted-in to his $46.9 million option for next season and found a trade, or worked out a sign-and-trade (the teams with cap space to sign a max player next offseason are rebuilding, like the Thunder, and not places Harden can go and compete for a ring). A sign-and-trade, as he would likely use to go to Philadelphia, would hard-cap the 76ers and force them to shed salary and critical rotation players beyond Simmons, robbing the team of depth. It’s a complicated mess, but Morey could do it to pair Harden and Embiid and hope that is enough to win the East.

The most likely outcome? Harden signs an extension to stay in Brooklyn, but anything can happen.

• The Nets need to find a way to keep their heads above water without Durant and Harris, both injured. The loss to Cleveland showed just how much KD — playing at an MVP level this season — has meant to Brooklyn. The Nets have 11 of 16 games left before the All-Star break on the road.

2) After LeBron promises Lakers will be better, they deliver with win against Jazz

I’m not about to say, “THIS is where the Lakers turn their season around” because we’ve seen this movie before: Los Angeles gets up for one big game, LeBron James looks like an MVP, enough other players execute around him, and they pick up an impressive win. Then next game (or a few later) their bad habits and fit issues return, and they fall back to around .500. One game does not change a season.

But Monday’s win over the Jazz was a good step.

The day before, LeBron promised Lakers fans the team would be better.

Monday night they were better… at least LeBron and the bench players were. LeBron finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists, 10-day contract player Stanley Johnson had 15 on 7-of-9 shooting, Malik Monk added 14, and Russell Westbrook was at least playing downhill.

Utah, the team that takes and makes the most 3-pointers in the league, went ice-cold down the stretch, going 0-of-9 from 3 while the game was decided. More concerning, Utah was -22 in the minutes LeBron was at center — small ball bites the Jazz again. That has been a concern in a few losses lately, and it’s what they will see come the playoffs. The Jazz have to answer that question to reach the Finals.

3) Bam Adebayo returns, Heat pick up win

Through a rash of injuries and COVID-related absences this season, the Miami Heat kept finding a way to win. It has been a tribute to their culture and player development that guys deep on the bench, such as Max Strus and Omer Yurtseven, have contributed to wins.

Now Bam Adebayo is back.

The All-Star center had missed 22 games following thumb surgery, but he returned against the Raptors and, while he looked a bit rusty, still had 14 points and nine rebounds in the game.

Jimmy Butler had a triple-double of 19/10/10, and Tyler Herro continued his Sixth Man of the Year campaign with 23 off the bench.

With Brooklyn and Cleveland struggling, Miami has moved up to second in the East. Despite all the hits and health issues they have. We tend to talk about a healthy Bucks or Nets team coming out of the East, but Miami may be more than just a sleeper. This team is a legit problem.

Highlight of the Night: Ja Morant with 360 layup against Bulls

We could just rename this the “Ja Morant Highlight of the Night” and do well, because every time he steps on a court something impressive happens. Against the Bulls, it was a 360 layup that left Chicago shook.

Morant and Desmond Bane each had 25 in the Grizzlies win.

Last night’s scores:

Boston 104, New Orleans 92
Charlotte 97, New York 87
Washington 117, Philadelphia 98
Cleveland 114, Brooklyn 107
LA Clippers 139, Indiana 133
Memphis 119, Chicago 106
Atlanta 121, Milwaukee 114
Portland 98, Orlando 88
Miami 104, Toronto 99
Dallas 104, Oklahoma City 102
Phoenix 121, San Antonio 107
LA Lakers 101, Utah 95

Celtics’ Grant Williams undergoes hand surgery as he enters pivotal offseason

Boston Celtics (102) Vs. Miami Heat (128) At Kaseya Center
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics forward Grant Williams had surgery Friday to repair a torn ligament in his left hand and is expected to be sidelined from basketball activities for the next two months.

The team said that Williams, 24, will need 6-8 weeks to recover following the procedure.

Williams averaged career highs in minutes (25.9), points (8.1) and rebounds (4.6) during the regular season. But each of those numbers fell during the playoffs as he slipped in and out of the rotation.

He is a restricted free agent this summer with interest from teams around the league.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said last week that he thinks Williams got caught in a numbers’ situation regarding his reduced playing time this season.

“He is a good player who was on a really deep team,” Stevens said. “With the addition of (Malcolm) Brogdon last year it was going to require that guys that had gotten a little more opportunity weren’t going to get as much. That obviously hit a few of our players. … But everybody around the league knows Grant can add value to any team.”

Three reasons Denver has a commanding 3-1 Finals lead over Miami

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MIAMI — The Heat are on the NBA Finals stage because they are relentless. They never quit when things got hard in the postseason, they would just up their intensity and pressure their opponent.

When they cranked up that pressure on the teams with the two best regular season records in the NBA — the Bucks and Celtics — those teams melted. Miami was left standing.

Denver will not melt. They will not beat themselves.

If anything, the Nuggets are putting the pressure back on the Heat, which is why they are up 3-1 and in command of these NBA Finals after an impressive Game 4 win. The best example was when the Nuggets withstood more than five minutes in the fourth quarter without their two-time MVP (due to foul trouble) and didn’t miss a beat.

It feels like Game 5 in Denver could be a coronation of Jokić and the Nuggets. Here are the three reasons we got to this point, with the Nuggets one win away from the franchise’s first title.

1) Miami can’t score enough to hang with Denver

The Heat were always going to have to put up a lot of points to keep pace in this series — the Nuggets had a top-five offense in the league this season led by a two-time MVP. They were not going to be shut down by anyone and had just come off having an impressive 118 offensive rating against the best defense in the NBA after the All-Star break in the Lakers. Maybe Maimi could slow Denver some, but the Heat were going to have to put up offensive numbers like they did against the Celtics.

Through four Finals games, the Miami Heat have a 109.5 offensive rating. That is 3.8 behind their unimpressive regular season offense (25th in the league) and 9.2 below what they did against Boston. Or, look at it this way: The Heat had a 129.1 in its Game 2 victory, but 102.2 in the other three games, all losses (stat via John Schuhmann at NBA.com)

The Nuggets’ length across the board is clearly bothering Heat shooters inside the paint and out at the arc.

Outside of the fourth quarter of Game 2, nothing has worked the way the Heat wanted on offense. In Game 4, the emphasis was on playing downhill and getting to the rim, maybe getting Jokić in foul trouble.

“[Coach Spoelstra] definitely made it an emphasis to attack the rim, to really get to the rim, me and Jimmy, everybody included, really get downhill and make things happen,” Bam Adebayo said of his team’s Game 4 strategy.

Miami did as its coach asked and shot 14-of-18 in the restricted area. But look at the rest of the shot chart.

That’s a lot of red.

Jimmy Butler and Adebayo have put up numbers throughout the Finals but haven’t been efficient. Game 4 was the perfect example, the Heat All-Star duo combined to score 45 points, but they shot below 50%, 17-of-36, to get there. They have not been the force they have been in other series. Butler will never blame his sore ankle, re-aggravated in Game 7 against the Celtics, but he’s not showing the same lift or explosion he did last series.

Neither of the Heat’s stars are expected to space the floor, that shooting falls to the role players, but the Heat were 8-of-25 from 3 in Game 4. Gabe Vincent and Max Strus combined to go 0-of-7 from deep.

Spoelstra has to try something in Game 5, maybe start Duncan Robinson (5-of-7 on the night, shooting 3s and attacking closeouts) over Strus. There are other tweaks he can make. But at this point it’s really as simple as the Heat need to start finishing their chances, contested or not.

“All we are going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305,” Spoelstra said. “Get this thing back to Miami. And things can shift very quickly,” Spoelstra said. “It’s going to be a gnarly game in Denver that is built for the competitors that we have in our locker room. By the time we are getting on that plane, all we’re thinking about is get this thing back to Miami.”

2) Miami can’t stop Denver from scoring

Through four games, Miami has a 119.6 offensive rating (and a +10.1 net rating in the series). That is an offensive rating close to Sacramento’s league-best throughout this season.

What makes the Nuggets so hard for the Heat or anyone else to stop is it’s not just one thing.

However, it starts with the Jokic and Jamal Murray two-man game.

In Game 3, that duo ran 32 pick-and-rolls and the two stars each had 30+ point triple-doubles on the night. Miami learned its lesson, and in Game 4, the Heat were determined not to let Murray get rolling and beat them. The Nuggets defense focused on Murray, blitzing him with the ball when he came off picks, pressuring even the inbounds after baskets, bringing double-teams on drives and doing whatever it took to get the ball out of his hands.

It worked on a superficial level, Murray had 15 points on 5-of-17 shooting in Game 3.

He also had 12 assists and no turnovers. His teammates stepped up and made plays.

“Jamal, regardless of what’s going on, he’s going to step up. He’s going to find a way to impact the game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The most impressive thing for me was he had 15 points tonight, and he was 5-of-17 from the field. But 12 assists and zero turnovers, and just kind of, all right, they’re putting two on me, let me make the right play. He did not get bored with making the right play. He did not say, I’m going to save us and try to carry the team. He just read the defense, made the right play, and trusted. That’s a big part of our culture is trusting one another.”

Murray’s teammates are the other key to this series.

3) Denver’s role players outplaying Heat role players. It’s not close.

Miami had a game plan and executed it. They completely sold out to stop Murray, while Bam Adebayo continued to battle and challenge Jokić. The two Nuggets’ All-Stars combined to shoot just 13-of-36 on the night.

But Aaron Gordon stepped up with 27. Bruce Brown scored 21, including 11 in the fourth quarter, taking over the offense in the clutch.

On the other side, Heat starters Max Strus and Gabe Vincent combined to shoot 1-of-10. Caleb Martin was better in Game 4, with 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but he’s not looked anything near the player who nearly won the Eastern Conference Finals MVP. The list just goes on.

“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Spoelstra said after Game 4. “That was certainly a frustrating part of the game…

“For the most part, I thought that that part of the game [Miami’s defense on Jokić and Murray] was okay. It’s the Gordon dunks or cuts; [Michael] Porter had a couple cuts; and then Brown, when Jokic was out, those drives and plays that were kind of just random plays, attacking plays, which he is fully capable of doing. Those were probably the most costly things.”

Malone had enough trust in Brown to give him the keys to the offense in the second half of the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“Bruce Brown in the fourth quarter was amazing,” Malone said. “He had I think 21 points, 11 of those were in the fourth quarter. They were giving Jamal so much attention that [we decided] let’s get Jamal off the ball, let Bruce make some plays. He was aggressive, got to the basket, made shots, and tonight was an impressive performance.”

“When he did a step-back three, I wanted to punch him, but when he made it, I was so happy,” Jokić said.

Brown had a chance to step up because Gordon had been making plays and finishing all night long. He ended the night with a game-high 27. But it was the team aspect of the Nuggets, the variety of ways they can beat you — and the execution of those players under pressure — that has proven too much for the Heat.

“I thought Aaron Gordon was huge all night long,” Malone said. “He brought his hard hat tonight and was just a warrior on both ends for us. Nikola, he had another great game. And one of the best stats of the night was Jamal Murray had 12 assists, no turnovers. In a game where he was getting blitzed and bodies thrown at him all night long, did not have one turnover, and that’s just remarkable.

And the Nuggets are now, remarkably, within one win of an NBA title.

Denver keeps executing under pressure, Gordon and Brown spark win to take command of series

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MIAMI — The Nuggets just kept executing.

Nikola Jokić gets sent to the bench with five fouls — after Bam Adebayo earned an Oscar nomination drawing it — and it feels like the game and the series were about to turn. The crowd rocking and the Nuggets’ lead that was at 10 when he went out quickly was just five. But when Jokić returned after 5:16 of game time the Nuggets were still up nine. Without the two-time MVP, the Nuggets just kept executing their offense.

The Heat played their most physical, intense defense of the Finals, selling out to slow Jamal Murray in particular and not letting him score 30+ again. The Nuggets just executed their offense, and Murray finished with 12 assists without one turnover while others stepped up — led by Aaron Gordon with a game-high 27 and Bruce Brown with 21 points off the bench, including 11 in the fourth, highlighted by a critical step-back 3.

“When he did a step-back three, I wanted to punch him, but when he made it, I was so happy,” Jokić said.

It was like that all game long. Whenever Miami would make a run — the kind of stretch that became an avalanche and overwhelmed Boston and Milwaukee — Denver would just get the ball to Jokić, or Murray would draw the defense and kick to an open shooter, and the Nuggets executed their offense and got a bucket. They calmed things down, they didn’t contribute to their own demise.

It was championship-level execution from the Nuggets as they closed the game on a 17-7 run. The Nuggets were doing to the Heat in Miami what the Heat had done to every other team they faced this postseason.

Denver won Game 4 108-92, sweeping the two games in Miami (both by double digits), and now have a commanding 3-1 NBA Finals lead.

Game 5 is Monday night in Denver and it may feel more like a coronation than a basketball game.

Miami played hard. The Heat came out with their plan, they attacked the rim and did get 46 points in the paint, outscoring the Nuggets there.

But facing Denver’s elite offense, Miami needs more points and the path to that is knocking down their 3s — Miami was 8-of-25, 32%. Denver was 14-of-28 (50%) from beyond the arc.

Early on this felt like it could be a Heat night. The game was a rock fight from the opening tip, with both teams playing intense defense and missing shots they have hit much of the series. However, Denver appeared comfortable in that style and pushed their lead out to seven. Then Jimmy Butler scored seven points in a 10-2 Heat run to end the quarter and it was 21-20 Miami after one.

The start of the second quarter would prove to be a foreshadowing of the critical stretch of the fourth quarter.

The Nuggets were +1 in non-Jokić minutes to start the second thanks to eight points from Gordon in that stretch. Gordon stretched that out to 16 in the quarter and helped the Nuggets lead by four at the half — 55-51 — in a game that continued to be played in the Heat’s preferred style. Jokić had 16 points at the half but just two assists.

Denver started the third playing maybe their best basketball of the series and looking to blow the game open, getting the lead up to 13. But then came a stretch of sloppy basketball that let the Heat get the lead down to six and hang around the game. Things were getting intense…

Then came a several-minute break to check a bent rim and backboard that were at an angle. They were pulled there by a Bam Adebayo missed dunk (he missed a lot of bunnies this game), a problem noticed by Kyle Lowry. Jokić tried to hang on the rim to fix it, but it took a guy in a suit going up a ladder with a level and some tools.

Soon after Jokić to the bench with 9:24 left in the game and it felt like the entire Finals were going to turn.

The Nuggets just kept executing. Nothing changed.

“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the night. “That was certainly a frustrating part of the game. Brown was a big part of — some of his random drives and plays in the middle of the paint when you’re expecting it to be Murray or somebody else.”

Those plays have the Nuggets one win away from the franchise’s first NBA title.

Nuggets reportedly trade draft picks with Thunder to help keep title window open

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The Denver Nuggets are just two wins from the franchise’s first NBA championship.

While Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray are trying to pick-and-roll their way to those wins, the Nuggets front office has made a trade to try and keep their title window open. The Nuggets are trading their 2029 first-round pick (protected) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 37 pick in this June’s NBA Draft and the worst of the Thunder’s 2024-first round picks, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Nuggets now control the No. 37 and 40 picks in the 2023 NBA Draft, plus this additional 2024 pick. The Nuggets will try to use this 2024 first-round pick to move into the first round of this year’s draft, reports Mike Singer of the Denver Post. (Denver’s first-round pick at No. 27 belongs to Charlotte through a series of trades.)

A first-round pick and some high second-round picks allows Nuggets GM Calvin Booth to bring in several low-priced rookies who can potentially be part of the roster and rotation, freeing up money to keep an expensive core of Jokic, Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the rest. The hope is to find another Christian Braun at the back of the first round who can contribute as a rookie.

With Jokić, Murray, Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon all locked in on big deals for the next two seasons after this, the challenge for the Nuggets is keeping quality rotation players around them to help them compete for a title without going deeper into the tax than ownership wants. Jeff Green is a free agent this summer and Bruce Brown has a $6.8 million player option that he will certainly opt out of (he will get an offer for more than $10 million a season). The Nuggets already are $7 million into the luxury tax (via Spotrac) and are looking for a way to keep below the second tax apron, making bringing those key players back a challenge.

Hence the trade, as the Nuggets look for ways to fill out their rotation with quality, but affordable, players. Good drafting — like Braun — is a way.

What does OKC get out of this? They have more first-round draft picks than they can use in the coming few years, this spreads a pick out to 2029, which they can use then or trade, depending on their needs at the time.