Three Things to Know: Don’t look now, but the Miami Heat are first in the East

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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) Don’t look now, but the Miami Heat are first in the East

Brooklyn is not the same with Kevin Durant out with a knee sprain (and Joe Harris still out after ankle surgery, and Nic Claxton missing seven games with a hamstring issue). The Nets are 5-5 in their last 10. The Chicago Bulls can’t get a stop without Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso out (more on that below, keep reading), plus Zach LaVine has missed the last five games with a knee issue. The Bulls have lost 6-of-7.

Both of those teams are looking up at the Miami Heat in the East on Monday morning.

Miami held on late to beat the Lakers Sunday — despite another strong game from former Heat player LeBron James, who had 33 — behind a triple-double from Jimmy Butler (20 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) and 25 points from sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. Of course, the Heat role players were making themselves felt, like Max Strus draining a step-back 3 over Russell Westbrook.

No team has been more resilient this season than the Heat. Miami weathered a rash of injuries this season — Bam Adebayo missed 25 games, primarily due to thumb surgery, Jimmy Butler has missed 18, Markieff Morris is still out with neck issues after the cheap shot from Nikola Jokic, and the list goes on and on — plus the usual mix of COVID absences (Tyler Herro right now) and kept on winning.

Miami’s big 3 of Butler, Adebayo and Kyle Lowry have played just 14 games together this season — and the last time they did was close to Thanksgiving — yet it has not slowed this squad.

Heat culture has been on display all season with Strus stepping in as a deadly shooter, Omer Yurtseven playing well and earning minutes on the front line, Gabe Vincent stepping up, and the list goes on and on. The Heat are 30-17, not only good enough for first but also in position to solidify that spot as the two teams below them now battle a rash of injuries.

Miami is top 10 in the league in offense and defense for the season, the sign of a contender and something only one other team in the East can claim (Milwaukee, using NBA.com stats). Maybe most concerning for the rest of the East, this Heat team is better built for the playoffs — they have versatility of scheme, tough individual matchups, and strong defense needed n the postseason, plus Butler thrives in the short-term intensity of the playoffs.

The top of the East is tight, the first-place Heat are just one game up on the fourth-seed Bucks. There will be more shuffling ahead.

But when mentioning contenders, do not leave Miami off the list.

2) Bulls are in trouble and Grayson Allen‘s price is just one game

Chicago’s surprising fast start — at least surprising to many outside the Windy City — was fueled by a better-than-expected defense. On paper, this looked like a bottom 10 (maybe bottom five) defense, but in November the Bulls’ defensive rating of 107.6 may not have been elite but it was good enough for 11th in the league. Combined with a potent offense and the Bulls were racking up wins.

Over their last 10 games, the Chicago defense has a 116.3 net rating, bottom 10 in the league, and the team is 3-7 after giving up 114 points to Orlando in a loss Sunday.

The Bulls are trying to find their defense without Lonzo Ball (out 6-8 weeks with knee surgery) and now Alex Caruso, who will miss 6-8 weeks following wrist surgery — the Bulls have a 118.8 defensive rating when both Ball and Caruso are off the court. It could be a tough few weeks in Chicago.

Caruso is out after the Bucks Grayson Allen took him out of mid-air, brought the right hand over to make it an unnecessarily and excessive foul, and threw Caruso to the ground.

For that, and saying they took Caruso’s injury into consideration, Grayson Allen was suspended just one game.

Welcome to Adam Silver’s NBA, which has made a conscious effort not to be as harsh with penalties as David Stern had been. Silver has a better relationship with the players and the players’ union.

But the league has to do more to protect vulnerable players from injuries, or what is the fear of injuring a player? Allen deserved more than a game; three seemed better. Nikola Jokic got one game for a blindside hit on Markieff Morris that has cost the Heat player more than 30 games (yes, Morris instigated that and deserved punishment as well, but that was a cheap shot by Jokic to the back that deserved more from the league). Those are just the most high-profile cases, but there was nothing for what Jonas Valanciunas did to Chimezie Metu last season. The league is wildly inconsistent with its punishments for these plays. Will Kelly Oubre feel more than a slap on the wrist for this play Sunday? (Oubre at least showed remorse and checked on Hunter, that’s more than we can say for Allen.)

Silver wants to keep the league’s players, and its stars in particular, on the court. This is an entertainment product. But player safety has to be paramount and slaps on the wrists for players who put the health of other players in jeopardy runs counter to that.

3) What slump? Jayson Tatum hits nine threes, scores 51 in Celtics win

Jayson Tatum had missed his last 20 3-pointers and could not find a rhythm going into Sunday’s game against the Wizards.

That changed fast. Tatum drained nine 3-pointers on his way to 51 points — 48 in the first three quarters — leading Boston to a comfortable win over Washington on Sunday.

The Celtics faithful that filled the Washington Arena gave Tatum a standing ovation when he checked out.

“When you’re missing shots, you know what you’re capable of, and sometimes you’ve got to laugh it off,” Tatum said postgame, via the Associated Press. “It’s as simple as sometimes you just don’t make shots. You play so many games.”

Highlight of the Night: Jalen Suggs is a bad, bad man

Jalen Suggs was going to the rim and DeMar DeRozan was not going to get in his way.

He wasn’t done, Suggs had an in-game 360 dunk in him as well.

Get that man in the dunk contest.

Last night’s scores:

New York 110, LA Clippers 102
Boston 116, Washington 87
Miami 113, LA Lakers 107
Orlando 114, Chicago 95
Portland 114, Toronto 105
Atlanta 113, Charlotte 91
Philadelphia 115, San Antonio 109
Dallas 104, Memphis 91
Minnesota 136, Brooklyn 125
Denver 117, Detroit
Golden State 94, Utah 92