Three Things to Know: Put some respect on the Suns’ name, they are the best in NBA

San Antonio Spurs 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 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) Put some respect on the Suns’ name, they are the best in NBA now and may be in June

The Phoenix Suns are not getting enough credit.

This is a team that has won 10 in a row — the last seven of those without their starting center — and at 40-9 has the best record in the NBA. They are the only team with a top-five offensive and defensive rating for the season. They are the best clutch team in the NBA at 19-3 (in games within five points in the final five minutes). They have NBA Finals experience to build upon.

Yet it feels as if many fans treat them as a perfunctory add-on when talking about title contenders (“Oh, and the Suns, I guess”). At our partner Points Bet, the Suns are the third favorite to win the title (+650), behind a Nets team that is both banged up and never found its identity this season, and a slumping and injured Warriors team.

Phoenix absolutely can win the title. If the playoffs started today, it would be the obvious choice.

They win as an ensemble with versatility and unselfish play, but they have stars who can step up in the biggest moments. Sunday that was Devin Booker, who had shot 2-of-7 from 3 for the game until the final minutes, when he drained two 3-pointers to seal the win over the Spurs.

They also win because of Monty Williams.

James Jones just got his contract extended as GM, and his smartest move in that role was not bringing in Chris Paul (although that’s a close second), it was hiring Williams away from the Spurs. Williams has been at the heart of building the Suns culture, developing both players — Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne, and the list goes on and on… — and developing coaches. Williams empowers his coaches and they benefit from it. If you don’t believe me, ask Willie Green in New Orleans (where he is now in the big chair).

Williams and his staff will be coaching Team LeBron in the All-Star Game — Sunday’s win over the Spurs clinched the Suns having the best record in the West on the cutoff date of Feb. 6. It’s a well-deserved honor.

All that, and the Suns will still improve this season.

The Nets and Warriors are the betting favorites for the Finals because of their stars and untapped potential (well, the Warriors did tap it earlier this season). The Suns have tapped theirs, even with Ayton out the last seven games with a sprained ankle and Jae Crowder out with a bruised left wrist. It hasn’t mattered. They brought Bismack Biyombo in on a 10-day hardship contract and he was so good, so instrumental they signed him for the rest of the season. Cameron Johnson has been so good the Suns didn’t have to rush Crowder back.

On Tuesday, the Suns face those betting favorite Nets (albeit a Nets team without Kevin Durant and potentially without James Harden). Whatever happens in that game, many fans will keep sleeping on the Suns.

That’s okay with Phoenix. Keep sleeping on them, just like last season, when fans woke up and found them in the NBA Finals. The Suns plan to be back there.

2) Nikola Jokic carves up defending champion Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks defense has been off the past couple of weeks, a 116 defensive rating that is 24th in the league over that stretch and 7 points worse than their season average (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Not the best time to run into Nikola Jokic,

The reigning MVP carved up the Bucks to the tune of 18 points and 15 assists (plus 9 rebounds). The Nuggets destroyed the Bucks 136-100.

Aaron Gordon added 24 for the Nuggets, who have won five in a row, the last four of those on the road (including wins over the Bucks and Nets). Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 to lead Milwaukee.

3) Slumping Utah loses Joe Ingles to knee injury

The Jazz have issues: They have lost four in a row and 8-of-10, Donovan Mitchell has missed seven in a row because of a concussion, Rudy Gobert is out those four straight losses with a calf strain, and rumors those two are not getting along again, which could lead to a trade deadline shake-up.

Now this: Joe Ingles went down with what appears to be a serious knee injury. Here’s the video, but if you are squeamish or just don’t like to see major knee injuries, don’t watch.

The MRI comes Monday, but doctors reportedly were not optimistic. He is likely out for an extended period.

Ingles came in second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season and averages 7.4 points and 3.5 assists per game. Those numbers, however, do not do justice to him as a playoff matchup problem or a critical part of Jazz culture.

Highlight of the Night: Cade Cunningham is making plays, sinking daggers

We’ve written it in this space before but it is worth repeating: Cade Cunningham is starting to figure it all out in Detroit.

As evidence, here he is draining a step-back dagger 3-pointer to beat the Cavaliers.

And here is the kind of passing that had the Pistons taking him first overall.

There’s a long way to go in Cunningham’s development, but he is hitting his stride.

Last night’s scores:

Hawks 129, LA Lakers 121
LA Clippers 115, Charlotte 90
Chicago 130, Portland 116
Detroit 115, Cleveland 105
Orlando 110, Dallas 108
Denver 136, Milwaukee 100
Minnesota 126, Utah 106
Phoenix 115, San Antonio 110

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.