Three Things to Know: As Nets falter, Bucks are team building title habits

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Clippers
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LOS ANGELES — 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) Bucks starting to look like themselves, meaning title contenders, in beating Clippers

“I think a few of the games in January, it wasn’t us,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said, looking back on a 7-8 month for the defending champs where they had a league-average defense. “No matter if we score 100 points 130 points, 90 points, we defend. And when you go to a game and don’t defend and the other team scores 130 points — even if we won — it wasn’t us that game.”

The Bucks have looked like themselves the past two games.

Saturday night, they thrashed the Trail Blazers 137-108 behind a 30-point night on 11-of-13 shooting from Bobby Portis.

Sunday, on a back-to-back, the Bucks used a 39-point third quarter — and a run from the late second through the third quarter where they hit 9-of-12 from 3 — to pull away from a feisty Clippers team and win 137-113.

Suddenly the Bucks are one game back in the loss column (half a game in reality) from leading the East.

More importantly, the Bucks are looking like the team that won the title last season again. Key injuries — Brook Lopez played opening night and not a game since — and the COVID absences every team has had to deal with have kept these Bucks off balance. There have been flashes but no consistency.

The defending champions have started to find their rhythm over the last couple of nights. That begins on defense — they shut the Clippers down through the middle of the game — and includes dominating the third quarter, something they have struggled with all season. With 27 games left, Milwaukee has started to focus on the things they know matter come May and June.

“When you come down to playoff basketball, it’s about halfcourt games, it’s about adjusting to what the other team is doing. It’s like a chess match,” said Pat Connaughton, who hit three early 3-pointers after halftime that got his team rolling. “So, for us, we’ve wanted to get a lot better at adjusting in halftime. Taking what coach says at halftimes and coming out and executing it at a high level in the third quarter.”

“We tried to set a tone, we tried to build good habits, and man, these last couple of games have been fun,” Antetokounmpo said before cracking a dad joke at the end of his postgame press conference.

The fun Bucks look like themselves, like a team finally finding its footing. Portis had 24 against the Clippers, and Jrue Holiday settled the Bucks down in the fourth when Los Angeles made its inevitable run; he finished with 24.

This Milwaukee team, the one back to being itself, would be bad news for the rest of the East. These Bucks have the defense, the floor balance, the length and athleticism, and the shooting (when healthy) to overwhelm every other team in the league.

Like champions tend to do, the Bucks looked at the calendar and have started to focus on building good habits and being ready for the postseason. That is bad news for the rest of the East.

(One side note from this game: Norman Powell made his Clippers debut and was exactly what the team needed, scoring 28 points off the bench on 9-of-16 shooting. His ability to hit threes, then drive and create, is something the Clippers lack consistently with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George out. The trade to get Powell may have been primarily about next season in Los Angeles, but he can help out this season, too.)

2) Nets drop eighth straight, Blake Griffin says its time to be concerned

If the playoffs started today, the Brooklyn Nets would be in the play-in games. They have dropped eight straight after Sunday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, where the reigning MVP was the best player on the court.

Blake Griffin, what’s the concern level around the Nets?

“Very high.”

It should be.

Not just because of the eight straight losses (although no team with a seven game or longer losing streak during the season has ever won the title). Not just because Kyrie Irving is in and out of the lineup. Not just because of the drama around a potential James Harden trade becoming a distraction. Not just because of the wave of injuries that has hit this team.

But mainly because this team has yet to form an identity.

While the Nets have 29 games left, time is running out.

Steve Nash points to injuries forcing revolving lineups as what has hampered chemistry. On Sunday, there was no Kevin Durant, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joe Harris, or Nic Claxton.

“We’re not going to panic, there’s still plenty of games after the all-star break when Kevin gets back,” Nash said. “Hopefully have Kevin and James. You’re talking about five guys. That’s your starting lineup, potentially.”

Will Harden be with the Nets after the All-Star break? While Steve Nash confirmed the Nets don’t plan to trade the All-Star, and Kevin Durant said he wants Harden in town, there is still some skepticism around the league they will keep him. Daryl Morey and Philadelphia are trying to get their foot in the door (it will take at least an offer of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle to get the Nets to listen, and even then it may not matter).

There is still a sense around the Nets that once they get everyone back after the All-Star break, there will be time to build the chemistry and good habits needed to live up to their billing as pre-season title favorites. Maybe. But they have key questions left to answer, starting with:

Who are these Brooklyn Nets, what is their identity?

3) Cavaliers trade for Caris LeVert, give up quality picks to Pacers in deal

Since he went down with a torn ACL, the Cavaliers have missed what Ricky Rubio brought next to All-Star point guard Darius Garland.

Sunday they made a move to replace it, trading for Caris LeVert from Indiana but giving up a lot: Their own 2022 first-round pick lottery-protected, the Rockets’ 2022 second-round pick (likely top four in the second round), and a 2027 second-round pick (via Utah).

LeVert is the second shot creator the Cavaliers need, and he is an upgrade who averages 18.7 points and 4.4 assists a game. Cleveland is a jump-shooting team that doesn’t drive a lot, and since Rubio went out that has been worse. LeVert can get to the rim and create for himself and others. He’s not a great shooter (neither was Rubio) nor a great defender, but he plugs in reasonably well for the Cavaliers. Also, he is under contract for next season at $18.8 million (about the going rate for a starting two guard).

The big concern is the price the Cavaliers paid to get him — that is two quality picks that went to the Pacers. Cleveland’s own 2022 pick will convey this season unless they plummet down the standings over the final 30 games (as of today that pick would be 24th) and that Rockets’ pick is a high-value second rounder. Indiana could select a couple of quality players to develop into role players with those picks.

But the Cavaliers got a quality role player in LeVert who can help now, and that’s what they needed.

Highlight of the Night: Jaylen Brown is getting to the rim and Mo Bamba will not stop him

Jaylen Brown, this is just nasty.

Brown should be one of the first names called out of the East as an All-Star replacement.

Last night’s scores:

Philadelphia 119, Chicago 108
Minnesota 118, Detroit, 105
Denver 124, Brooklyn 104
Cleveland 98, Indiana 85
Boston 116, Orlando 83
Dallas 103, Atlanta 94
New Orleans 120, Houston 107
Milwaukee 137, LA Clippers 113

Martin, Butler spark Heat to resilient Game 7 win on road, beat Celtics to advance to Finals


This is what resilience looks like. What heart looks like.

Miami had to fight through the play-in, coming back late against the Bulls to earn the No. 8 seed. Then they beat the feared Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Then they beat the feisty New York Knicks. All that to get the most talented team in the NBA on paper, the Boston Celtics.

Miami raced out to a 3-0 series lead, then watched the Celtics climb back in — taking a punch to the gut with Derrick White’s putback to win Game 6 and force a Game 7. Most teams would have rolled over after that loss.

Miami came out hungry in Game 7, punched the Celtics in the mouth in the first quarter, pulled away in the second to a double-digit lead, and never let Boston all the way back, eventually taking their hearts and the game, 103-84.

The Miami Heat advance to the NBA Finals, flying directly after this game to Denver where they will face Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets starting Thursday night.

Caleb Martin was the MVP of this game — 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting, plus 10 rebounds — and was the Heat’s best player all series long.

However, the voters gave the Eastern Conference Finals MVP award to Jimmy Butler, who scored 28 in this game and bounced back after a couple of rough outings.

For Boston, the game may have turned on the team’s first possession when Jayson Tatum turned his ankle, landing on Gabe Vincent after a jumper. He stayed in the game and finished with 14 points, but he never moved the same and was not the threat the Celtics needed as a shot creator with the ball in his hands. Postgame Tatum admitted it impacted his play.

With Tatum injured, the Celtics ran a lot of their offense through Derrick White and he responded with 18 points.

With Tatum down, the Celtics also needed more Jaylen Brown, who scored 19 points but on 8-of-23 shooting with eight turnovers. It was not nearly enough.

Both teams were tight to start the game (as is often the case in Game 7s) and it showed mostly with the Celtics shooting 0-of-10 from 3. Miami started slow but did a better job settling into their offense and led 22-15 after one quarter. Their hot streak extended to a 25-7 run into early in the second.

The Heat stretched the lead up to as much as 17 and led by 11 at the half thanks to 14 from Caleb Martin and 11 from Jimmy Butler in the first 24. The Celtics were lucky to be that close shooting 4-of-21 from 3 and Jayson Tatum only scoring seven points. What kept Boston close was the seven offensive rebounds.

Miami made a push in the third quarter, had momentum for stretches with White hitting shots and making plays, but they couldn’t get stops and entering the fourth they were still down 10.

Then the Heat started the fourth on a 7-0 run, which was the ballgame.

Philadelphia 76ers reportedly hire Nick Nurse as new head coach

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics
Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Doc Rivers could not take a contender in the Philadelphia 76ers — a roster with the reigning MVP in Joel Embiid and a former one in James Harden — past the second round. Again. As good as the Sixers have been in the regular season the past few years, it has not translated to playoff success.

Now Nick Nurse will get the chance.

Nurse will be hired as the 76ers’ new head coach, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

The buzz around Nurse to Philadephia spiked in the last 24 hours after Milwaukee announced hiring Adrian Griffin as their coach. Wojnarowski says Nurse chose Philadelphia over the Phoenix Suns, although it’s unclear if Phoenix made any kind of formal offer to Nurse (he did interview for the job, where assistant Kevin Young is rumored to have the momentum to land the gig).

Nurse makes sense for the 76ers as a coach who is unafraid of unorthodox, out-of-the-box strategies, which is part of the reason he was able to lead the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title. His defenses in Toronto were aggressive and tried to force turnovers, then the Raptors ran off that. He is considered a more creative Xs and Os person than Doc Rivers, the man he replaces in Philly.

Nurse also has a connection to Philadelphia president/GM Daryl Morey, who hired Nurse to coach the Houston Rockets’ G-League team the Rio Grand Valley Vipers back in 2011 (when Morey was running the Rockets). That connection was another reason the league sources thought of Nurse as the frontrunner in Philly.

The question is what the roster Nurse will coach looks like. James Harden is a free agent with persistent rumors he might return to Houston, does bringing in Nurse influence his decision?

Philadelphia will be in win-now mode with MVP Embiid, rising star Tyrese Maxey (who will have to shoulder much more responsibility if Harden leaves), plus quality players such as Tobias Harris, De'Anthony Melton, Shake Milton and others. However, expect changes over the summer.

Nurse walks in the door facing high expectations but with a roster capable of reaching them.

NBA investigating if referee Eric Lewis had burner Twitter account defending himself

2023 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

About the last place an NBA referee should want to spend time is Twitter — pictures of puppies and ice cream can draw dark and cruel reactions in that social media space. One can only imagine fans’ reactions to the people making calls against their team (the legitimacy of those calls is moot).

Yet the NBA is investigating if referee Eric Lewis had a Twitter burner account where he defended himself, something first reported by Marc Stein. The account — now deleted — had the username “Blair Cuttliff” with the handle @CuttliffBlair.

The NBA has a rule that referees cannot comment on officiating publicly (outside of specific, authorized moments).

There was some commentary on Twitter that Lewis’ brother, Mark, ran this account, not Eric. That will be part of the league’s investigation.

Lewis has been an NBA official for 19 seasons and is highly rated by the league, having worked an NBA Finals game along with numerous playoff games. The last game he officiated was Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Nuggets on May 16.

This is not the first time the league investigated a Twitter burner account. In 2018, then 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo stepped down after Twitter burner accounts — linked to him and his wife — criticized 76ers players and more. Kevin Durant has admitted to having Twitter burner accounts in the past (which is not a violation for players).

Three things to watch in Game 7 between Miami Heat, Boston Celtics


After three games, the Boston Celtics looked done — not only did they get blown out in Game 3, they dropped the rope. They quit. This looked over. But Boston found their pride and won Game 4, then won Game 5 at home, and finally came the insane Derrick White Game and a Game 6 win to become only the third team ever to go down 0-3 and force a Game 7.

Miami was in control of this series, but some cold shooting nights — particularly from their stars — and a lot of turnovers opened the door for the Celtics. Miami and its vaunted culture, find itself in the exact place it was a year ago, having to win a Game 7 against these Celtics to advance to the Finals — if Jimmy Butler hit an open 3-pointer late a year ago the Heat would have advanced. Can they take that one more step now?

Game 7. The sweetest two words in sports, and we get one Monday night from the TD Garden.

Here are a couple of things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Butler/Adebayo or Tatum/Brown? Which stars show up?

The last time we saw Jayson Tatum in a Game 7 was just two weeks ago, when he dropped a record 51 points on the 76ers in that deciding game. A season ago in a Game 7 against these same Heat, Tatum scored 26 points and hit 4-of-7 from 3, while Jaylen Brown added 24 points.

This item really isn’t about them. While the Celtics’ stars have to have good games, it’s reasonable to expect them to.

This is all about Jimmy Butler, and to a lesser extent Bam Adebayo. For the first 43 minutes of Game 6 these two shot a combined 7-of-35 and were not good enough. Butler had 14 points and was a non-factor in Game 5. For the last three games he has looked tired, he’s lacked some of his explosion, and he has struggled with the Celtics length as they have packed the paint and taken away his easy shots inside for buckets.

“Like I told the guys on the bench, I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we’re not even in this position, honestly speaking,” Butler said after the Game 6 loss. “And I will be better. That’s what makes me smile, because those guys follow my lead. So when I’m playing better, I think we’re playing better as a whole.”

Butler turned things around in the final minutes of Game 6 — sparking a 15-4 run — mainly by attacking and drawing fouls, although he hit a 3-pointer in there as well. That Butler needs to show up Monday night in Boston, they need his points and they need his defense (he will draw Brown or Tatum as his assignment for much of the game).

If Miami is going to win, Butler has to be the best player on the floor. It’s that simple. If he struggles again, the rest will not matter.

2) Are the Celtics hitting their 3-pointers

Among the many ways the Heat have to feel they let a great opportunity slip away in Game 6 was this: Boston shot 7-of-35 from 3. The Celtics’ offense this season has been much more dependent on the 3-pointer, and the Heat did not take advantage of a bad 3-point shooting night from the Celtics.

Boston’s shooters — particularly role players such as Grant Williams and Derrick White — tend to be more comfortable 3-point shooters at home, and if this team gets rolling and hits 15 or more 3s and is shooting 40% or better on those, it’s lights out. Especially if they are breakMiami, even on a good Butler day, will have trouble keeping up.

It’s simplistic to say it’s a make-or-miss league, but when it comes to the Celtics shooting from beyond the arc it applies

3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendation for Game 7

In the last 16 Game 7’s when the total moved at least five points lower than the previous Game 6 total, the Under is on a 14-2 winning streak (87.5%), which is in play here. The total for Game 6 opened at 213.5 and closed at 209.5. Game 7 opened at 206.5 and is down to 203.5, so the trend is in effect with a 10-point or 6.0 point-move depending on how you look at it.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)