Three Things to Know: This is now a Ja Morant stan page

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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) This is now a Ja Morant stan page

Is there anything Ja Morant can’t do?

Early this season, I was saying Ja Morant is the most entertaining player in the league. He is that, but he is also so much more than that. In his second season, Morant is an All-NBA level player, a “think about me for your MVP ballot” player. He has made a massive leap.

He is still the most entertaining player in the league. He almost ended Jakob Poeltl with the Dunk of the Year on Monday night. Then, just 2:17 later, he may have topped it with the Buzzer Beater of the Year off a Stephen Adams length-of-the-court pass.

Morant has set a career-high in his previous game with 46 points, then topped it Monday night with 52 against the Spurs — and the Grizzlies got the win.

If you’re not loving Ja Morant this season, you just don’t love the game.

Unless you’re Jakob Poeltl, he gets a pass.

2) Scottie Barnes makes first 11 shots in Raptors win over Nets

This will not be another “just wait until they get healthy” Brooklyn Nets story — we’ll write that when we see it.

This is a “damn, Scottie Barnes could be very special” story.

Barnes has flown a little under the Rookie of the Year radar, but he has probably had the second-best season of any rookie, and with nights like this he could give Evan Mobley a run for his money.

Barnes made every shot he took in the first half — 10-of-10, the first rookie to have a 10+ shot perfect first half since Derrick Rose in 2009 — and ultimately his first 11 shots on his way to 28 points and a season-high 16 rebounds. What is impressive is the versatility of his game, he can hit from three…

Or post up inside.

The Raptors blew out the Nets 133-97.

Barnes became the first rookie since Shaq with 25+ points, 15+ rebounds and 5+ steals in a game. He could be something special for the Raptors.

3) Lakers waive DeAndre Jordan (headed to 76ers) to pick up D.J. Augustin

This move by the Lakers was not about DeAndre Jordan, even though he’s the biggest name in the transaction.

It’s really about a bigger name: Russell Westbrook.

Monday, the Lakers waived Jordan to create a roster spot to bring in veteran point guard D.J. Augustin.

Augustin can shoot the rock from 3, hitting 40.6% this season in Houston, and the Lakers need that.

At age 34 (the Lakers got older with this move) and in his 14th NBA season, Augustin can be a solid floor general but mostly looked like Father Time was winning the race with the Rockets this season (who waived him to create roster space for Dennis Schroder). The Lakers need a player like him coming off the bench behind Westbrook — a shooter and a solid enough playmaker who historically hasn’t turned the ball over a lot (this season in Houston is the exception) — more than they need another traditional big on the roster.

Jordan is going to land on his feet, with Adrian Wojnarowski reporting the 76ers having strong interest. (The reports the 76ers might claim him off waivers is a Lakers’ fantasy, it would cost Philly an extra $2.3 million in luxury tax to do that, so why would they? They will wait a day and sign him as a free agent.)

One thing clear during the two game James Harden honeymoon in Philly is the 76ers need help at the backup five, Paul Millsap is not the answer. Jordan has not looked like the answer at all in Los Angeles, but desperate times call for desperate measure, so…

Highlight of the Night: Markelle Fultz is back on the court

After more than a year out with a torn ACL, Markelle Fultz was back on the court for the Orlando Magic, and that was simply good to see. This is a player who went through a lot in Philadelphia but put in the work out of the spotlight in Orlando to become a solid NBA point guard. Then he tore his ACL

Monday night, he was back.

And he was getting some buckets, he finished with 10 points.

Yesterday’s scores:

Minnesota 127, Cleveland 122
Orlando 119, Indiana 103
Toronto 133, Brooklyn 97
Miami 112, Chicago 99
Memphis 118, San Antonio 105
Milwaukee 130, Charlotte 106
Sacramento 131, Oklahoma City 110

Jokić conducts a symphony on offense, Nuggets pick up 104-93 Game 1 win over Heat

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DENVER — This is what the Denver Nuggets have done to every team that faced them this postseason. And most of the ones in the regular season, too.

There are no good answers to slowing the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll. Their passing and off-ball movement are elite. They have shooters everywhere. They have size across the board. And they play enough defense that it becomes impossible to keep up with their scoring.

Combine that with Heat shooters going cold for long stretches of Game 1 and you end up with a 104-93 Nuggets victory that wasn’t as close as the final score made it seem.

The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0, with Game 2 Sunday in Denver. It was a raucous, fun night for Nuggets fans who got everything they wanted from the franchise’s first-ever Finals game.

Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — Miami has to find a way not to let him both score and distribute if they are going to have a chance in this series. Of course, that’s what the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all said.

Murray added 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Aaron Gordon scored 16 on 7-of-10 shooting.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 26 points and 13 rebounds, shooting 13-of-25. He played well and hard all night, but the Nuggets will be happy if he is the Heat player taking the most shots every game.

From the opening tip, Denver’s size advantage on paper became a problematic reality for Miami – 18 of Nuggets’ first 24 points were scored in the paint. The Nuggets used their size advantage to pummel the Heat inside on offense, and turn them into jump shooters on the other end.

“You have to credit them with their size and really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender,” Spoelstra said postgame. “Things [we do] have to be done with a lot more intention and a lot more pace, a lot more detail.”

Miami also just missed shots they made in the previous series, shooing 9-of-26 (34.6%) in the first quarter. For the game things got a little better, but the Heat had an unimpressive 102.2 offensive rating on the night.

The shooting trend continued into the second, as the Heat didn’t play terribly on the offensive end for most of the first half, moving the ball and getting clean looks, but they weren’t falling — Max Strus was 0-of-7 in the first half (six from 3) and those were essentially open looks. Miami did make a little push in some non-Jokić minutes in the second and cut the lead down to six with 5:47 left in the half on a Haywood Highsmith dunk.

But the first half’s final minutes were a disaster for the Heat. They didn’t score for 3:30 after Highsmith’s bucket and shot 2-of-10 the rest of the quarter. Denver got rolling at the end of the quarter, went on a 16-5 run, and it was a 17-point Nuggets lead at the break, 59-42.

At the start of both the third and the fourth quarters the Heat made runs — 7-0 to start the third, 11-0 to start the fourth — and cut the lead to 10 both times. In the third,d things returned to first-half form and the Nuggets ran out to a 21-point lead after three.

In the fourth, the Heat kept it close, partly thanks to 18 points from Highsmith off the bench, and the lead got down to single digits for a possession. But Miami was too far back for their comeback magic, especially against a team with Jokić orchestrating a symphony on offense.

Brad Stevens confirms Joe Mazzulla will return as Celtics coach

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Despite the sting of losing to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t expect sweeping changes in Boston. Not to the Celtics’ coaching staff and not to the roster.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Steven made that clear in his end-of-season press conference. It starts with bringing back Joe Mazzulla, which was expected after he was given a multi-year contract extension during the season. Stevens was asked if Mazzulla was the right person to lead the Celtics after an uneven season (hat tip NBC Sports Boston).

“Yeah, I think he is,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a really good job with this group. Everybody’s going to overreact to the best players and coaches after every game. That’s always the way it is. We know that going in, so we have to be able to judge things on the whole.

“He’s a terrific leader, he’ll only get better at anything that he can learn from this year, because he’s constantly trying to learn. And he’s accountable. Those leadership qualities are hard to find. I know they’re easy to talk about, but when you can show all those through the expectations and the microscope that he was under, that’s hard to do. Our players, our staff, everybody around him believe(s) in him, and we’ve got to do our best to support him going forward.”

The expectation is that veteran coaches — ideally at least one person with NBA head coaching experience — will be added to Mazzulla’s staff to help with the maturation process of the young coach. But he will be back.

Stevens also was asked about Jaylen Brown, who is eligible for a supermax extension of around $295 million over five years (his making All-NBA made him eligible for 35% of the salary cap). Stevens was limited in what he could say due to (archaic) tampering rules.

“I’ve had nothing but great conversations with Jaylen, but we can’t talk about all that stuff,” Stevens said. “I’m not allowed to talk about the contract details, let alone the extension because it’s not of that time yet right now. His window is between July 1 and October or whatever it is.

“But I can say without a doubt that we want Jaylen to be here. He’s a big part of us. We believe in him. I’m thankful for him. I’m really thankful for when those guys (Jayson Tatum and Brown) have success, they come back to work. And when they get beat, they own it and come back to work. I know that’s what they’re about, and that’s hard to find. Kinda like what I talked about with leadership earlier. Those qualities aren’t for everyone. Jaylen had a great year, All-NBA year and he’s a big part of us moving forward in our eyes.”

Despite Brown’s struggles against the Heat, it’s a no-brainer for the Celtics to retain the 26-year-old All-NBA player entering his prime. They should offer him the full supermax, and his public comments made it sound like that’s what he expects. Mess around in negotiations and try to get Brown to take less than the full max and then the threat of Brown leaving becomes more real. Only one player has ever rejected a supermax extension: Kawhi Leonard when he was trying to force a trade. (If Boston puts the full 35% max on the table and Brown rejects it, then the game changes and they have to trade him this summer, but don’t bet on him walking away from more than a quarter of a billion dollars).

There will be changes on the Celtics roster, but expect Brown and Mazzulla to return.

Purdue’s Zach Edey headlines list of players to withdraw from NBA Draft

Fairleigh Dickinson v Purdue
Dylan Buell/Getty Images
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The winner of the 2023 John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year Award is headed back for another year in the college ranks. And it’s the right move.

Zach Edey headlines the list of 181 players who withdrew their names from the NBA Draft, and he is headed back to Purdue for another season. He confirmed it on Twitter in his own way.

Edey averaged 22.3 points a game on 60.7% shooting and 12.9 rebounds a game last season for the Boilermakers, and his measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were hard to ignore — 7-3¼ barefoot, with a 7-10½ wingspan. However, his lack of elite athleticism, questions about his ability to defend in space, and an old-school, near-the-basket game are not natural fits with where the NBA is trending. He was expected to get picked in the back half of the second round (meaning no guaranteed contract), if at all.

With that, he made the right decision to return to college. If the Toronto native can arrange a new student visa that allows him to better capitalize on NIL money, a return to Purdue is likely the right financial decision as well.

Here are some of the biggest names among the 181 who withdrew from the NBA Draft (via Jonathan Givony of ESPN), with all projected to go after No. 40 or later:

Trey Alexander (Creighton)
Reece Beekman (Virginia)
Adem Bona (UCLA)
Jalen Bridges (Baylor)
Tristan da Silva (Colorado)
Zach Edey (Purdue)
Coleman Hawkins (Illinois)
DaRon Holmes (Dayton)
Josiah-Jordan James (Tennessee)
Dillon Jones (Weber State)
Judah Mintz (Syracuse)
Dillon Mitchell (Texas)
Terrence Shannon (Illinois)

The NBA Draft takes place on June 22.

Lakers rumored to prefer sign-and-trade options for D’Angelo Russell, eye Fred VanVleet

2023 Play-In Tournament - Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images
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D'Angelo Russell helped the Lakers turn their season around after the All-Star break. He provided needed shot creation at the point, averaged 17.4 points per game while shooting 41.4% from 3, and generally fit nicely on the court. However, his limitations — particularly on the defensive end — were exposed in the playoffs, especially by the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

Russell is an unrestricted free agent and the Lakers are faced with choices: Re-sign him, let him walk, or maybe find a sign-and-trade that can bring back a player who is a better fit for a Lakers roster with championship aspirations next season. The Lakers would ideally like the sign-and-trade option, suggests Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

My read on the situation is that the Lakers would prefer to use D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, but I’m not sure the market is there.

Landing Kyrie Irving for Russell is shaping up to be a pipe dream, especially with Dallas unlikely to help Los Angeles out. Fred VanVleet, a Klutch client, looms as a possibility, but adding him would require Toronto to agree to terms with Russell (or take on the Beasley and Bamba contracts).

Forget about a Kyrie Irving sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Russell, that appears off the table (unless the Lakers add so many sweeteners Dallas can’t say no… and didn’t the Lakers just gut their roster for a guard in Russell Westbrook?)

Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times adds this.

Fred VanVleet’s name has been mentioned since even before he joined Klutch Sports, though the Lakers could again be in a position where they’d be forced to part with one or more draft picks in a deal. Russell’s postseason struggles were probably a little overblown after a disastrous Western Conference finals, but expect the Lakers to look at upgrade options. There’s still a chance Russell returns on a good deal and the Lakers actually get the continuity they’ve spoken about building.

VanVleet has a $22.8 million player option he is widely expected to opt out of seeking more money and years. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.2 assists a game last season, is a respectable defender, and is a former All-Star and NBA champion.

The questions start with, what are Toronto’s plans? They have yet to hire a new head coach after firing Nick Nurse, and there isn’t a sense of whether they will try to re-sign VanVleet, extend Pascal Siakam and run it back, break the entire thing up, or travel a middle ground reworking the roster. Dreams of a sign-and-trade only work if the Raptors play along. And, if the Raptors come around to consider a sign-and-trade for VanVleet, do they want Russell in that deal? Plus, the Lakers likely have to throw in the last first-round pick they can trade to get Toronto even to consider it.

All of which is to say, it’s a long shot VanVleet is a Laker. Not impossible, but not likely.

The smart money is on the Lakers re-signing Russell and considering trade options at next February’s deadline or next summer, if they feel it’s time to move on.