Three Things to Know: Durant is still very good at basketball, for Nets that’s not enough

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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 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) Kevin Durant is still very good at basketball, for Nets that’s not enough to win

Kevin Durant has a reputation for impressive returns from injury. The man tore his Achilles, missed a year, yet in the first 12 games of his return he averaged 31.3 points a game. He did the same thing last season, missing a couple of months then coming back scoring more than 26 points a game and shooting better than 50% from 3 in his first dozen games.

Friday night, his first game back after missing 21 games with a sprained knee, Durant dropped 31 on the fifth-best defense in the league. There was a little rust, Durant was 2-of-7 from 3, but not much. Durant walked back in the door ready to lead this Nets team.

For these shorthanded Nets, that’s not enough.

Not against the East-leading Heat, who have the balance to both defend the Nets and exploit Brooklyn’s defense. The Nets focused on taking away Heat 3-pointers — Miami took six fewer than its average — but that gave Bam Adebayo space to operate inside and he finished with a team-high 30 points on 12-of-15 shooting, plus pulling down 11 boards.

Tyler Herro added 27 for the Heat, who were on the second night of a back-to-back following a heartbreaking loss to the Bucks.

Maybe the big turning point was when Erik Spoelstra leaned into using a zone defense — Brooklyn could not consistently solve it. The Heat don’t zone a lot, but they played it well and the Nets did not have an answer.

This was no playoff preview — no Jimmy Butler for Miami, no Kyrie Irving or Ben Simmons for the Nets. These teams could meet in the first round — Miami as the No. 1 or 2 seed, Brooklyn as No. 7 or 8 — and they both will look very different.

Part of that is Durant will have found his groove by then. The question is will he have enough help — the Nets’ potential has been discussed by everyone all season, but can they ever get near it?

2) Give the Clippers their due after they sweep season series from Lakers

“They’re a better team.”

That was LeBron James‘ frank and accurate assessment of the Clippers after they throttled LeBron and his Lakers 132-111, led by Reggie Jackson going off for 36. With that win, the Clippers swept the season series with the Lakers 4-0.

It was another dispiriting loss for a broken Lakers team. However, we’re not going to write yet another story about what’s wrong with the Lakers and whether to blame Pelinka/Vogel/LeBron/Westbrook/’Melo/Buss/Kareem/West/Mikan or whoever. Instead, we’ll let Flea sum up the mood of Lakers fans.

We need to spend a minute praising the Los Angeles team that respects the game — the Clippers.

No Kawhi Leonard or Paul George or Norman Powell. Yet, when Clippers are faced with adversity — like when the Lakers closed out the first half with a 14-0 run — the team digs down and responds. The Clippers answered the Lakers by opening the third on a 19-2 run that grew into a 32-6 sprint, and by the end the Clippers had dropped a 40-spot on the Lakers that quarter. That was the ballgame.

This was Reggie Jackson’s game as he scored 36 and was clowning Russell Westbrook as part of their long-standing feud and rivalry. The point guard has become the Clippers’ clutch player this season and the guy they lean on to spark them, he did that in the third.

What did Tyronn Lue say at halftime that fired the team for that third quarter run?

“T-Lue just kind of comes in calm, smiles and he’s like, ‘Hey, we’re in a great place,'” Jackson said. “‘If we stop turning the ball over, we’re in a great place.'”

Lue will not win Coach of the Year with his eighth-seeded team in a season deep with impressive candidates for the award, but he deserves mention. Through all the absences and setbacks the team has faced, he has the Clippers focused and prepared every night, has them executing, has them buying into roles, and the Clippers are respecting the game and playing hard. That’s no small thing. The Clippers could have folded this season at more than a few points; instead, they have won five in a row, are three games over .500 and 5.5 games up on that team down the hall.

It’s a real contrast with what we see from the more storied and star-studded team in L.A.

3) Luka Doncic drops 41, hunts Curry to rub it in during Mavs win

Luka Doncic loves to go right at the other team’s star late in games. A few nights ago he intentionally hunted LeBron in the fourth when the Mavs beat the Lakers.

Thursday it was Stephen Curry‘s turn.

Doncic hunted Curry like a Cavs/Warriors Finals game from last decade. Doncic finished with 41 points and was one assist shy of a triple-double in the Mavericks 122-113 win.

The Warriors miss the secondary playmaking and defense of Draymond Green badly — they are not threatening the Suns and contending for a ring without him at 100%. Dallas focused on not letting Curry beat them — he didn’t even have a shot from the field in the fourth — and nobody else stepped up. Green was not there to set them up.

Dallas is going to be a problem in the playoffs the way Doncic is playing

Highlight of the Night: Ja Morant is just ridiculous

I’ve been saying it all season and I will double down now: Ja Morant is the most entertaining player in the NBA right now.

Yesterday’s scores:

Atlanta 130, Chicago 124
Boston 120, Memphis 107
Miami 113, Brooklyn 107
Detroit 108, Toronto 106
Dallas 122, Golden State113
Sacramento 115, San Antonio 112
LA Clippers 132, LA Lakers 111

Historic Jokić, Murray too much, Denver handles Miami in Game 3

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MIAMI — Denver can point to a lot of things it did right in Game 3.

This was the Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series, holding the Heat to 37% shooting and a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average). The Nuggets held their own in the fourth quarter for the first time this series, winning it by one. Then Christian Braun came out of nowhere to have a night with 15 points, and the Nuggets scored 60 points in the paint.

But it all starts with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray — they became the first teammates ever to have 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. Ever. Let alone in a critical Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

They led Denver to a comfortable 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami, and it’s basically must win for the Heat.

Miami will have to come up with better answers for the Nuggets stars, which is what every team has been saying since the playoffs started.

Jokić finished with 32 points (on 21 shots), 21 rebounds and 10 assists — Jokić had the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history. In fact, there have been five such games in NBA playoff history, and he has three of them.

“I don’t care, it’s just a stat,” Jokić said in maybe the most Jokić statement ever.

“What he does, man, he makes it look so easy,” Murray said of Jokic. “You know, you’ve got 21 boards and everybody talking about how he can’t jump, and he’s out there battling everybody, physically strong. They say he doesn’t want to doesn’t want to score, he gives you 32. And 10 assists. He just makes the game look easy throughout the game, and like I said, his free throws his touch, creativity, the no-look passes, his IQ. I could go down the line, he’s a special player.”

Then there was Murray, who led the Nuggets with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. While he shot 3-of-6 from 3, the big difference was Denver changed their screen angles in this game, it threw the Heat off and Murray got rolling downhill early. He finished with 14 points in the paint plus he got to the line eight times. With Murray attacking and being deadly from the midrange, the Heat were overwhelmed.

“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [it was 69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”

Murray was getting downhill from the opening tip. The result of that and Jokić being Jokić was Denver getting 20 of its 24 points in the paint. The game was tied 24-24 after one quarter despite the Nuggets missing all of its 3-pointers (0-of-5) and Miami shooting 9-of-23. Jimmy Butler was aggressive with 10 in the first quarter (he would finish with 28 points on 11-of-24 shooting).

The second quarter had little flow because of all the whistles — it was a Tony Brothers statement game at points — and the Nuggets’ defense.

Denver was just sharper on defense than they have been all series and that started with their activity level — it was extremely high. They were swiping at the ball, being physical and bothering the Heat. The Nuggets also were much better on their low-man help rotations, getting in front of Bam Adebayo more and taking away some easy buckets.

Miami was not making Denver pay from beyond the arc in this game, as it shot just 11-of-35 (31.4%) from 3 on the night.

The first 24 minutes were played on the Heat’s terms, but that didn’t knock Jamal Murray off his game. Murray shot 8-of-13 in the first half on his way to 20 points, including 3-of-5 from 3. Throw in 14 first-half points from Jokić and the Nuggets took a 53-48 lead into halftime. Jimmy Butler put up stats, 14 points, but on 6-of-16 shooting.

The third quarter was more Butler for the Heat — 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the frame — but he wasn’t getting help. The rest of the Heat in the third shot 3-of-14 and had just eight points. All those misses and a strong rebounding game from Denver had them running and in more of a free flow.

The Nuggets also got a significant contribution from Christian Braun off the bench, who had six points in the third, two on brilliant cuts to the rim and one on a steal and a dunk.

Denver led by as many as 19 and was up 14 entering the fourth… but that is when the Heat have dominated this series.

Not this game. Miami cranked up the defensive pressure and made some plays, but Denver was ready for the zone and the pressure. They were not rushed. They got the ball to Jokić and it settled them.

And with that, the Nuggets settled the game and took the series lead.

Report: Suns tell Chris Paul they intend to waive him, making him free agent

Phoenix Suns v Miami Heat
Megan Briggs/Getty Images
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There was a lot of talk in league circles that the Suns would try to trade Chris Paul around the NBA Draft — he still had $60 million over two years on the books, but only $15.8 million of it is guaranteed (all of that this season) with a June 28 guarantee date. Paul for a couple of rotation players would be a way for Phoenix to add needed depth to the roster.

Instead, the Suns informed Paul they intend to waive him before the deadline, making CP3 a free agent, reports Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and Yahoo.

Soon after Haynes’ Tweet, multiple other reports from Suns sources came out pushing back on the idea he would automatically be waived. Which seemed the logical path the Suns would take.

The second wave of reports says the Suns are exploring options with Paul of which waiving him is just one, with similar reporting from Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic and Shams Charania of the Athletic, among others. The idea is the Suns would explore trade options — for Paul and Deandre Ayton — but waiving before June 28 could happen, according to the reports.

So many burning questions about this.

The first question is, why did this leak now? Why wouldn’t the Suns keep their plans quiet through the NBA Draft on June 22 — when trades will be flying around — in case CP3 fits into a deal that worked for them? Another team looking to save money might have been open to a trade. If not, the Suns tell Paul they plan to waive him closer to his deadline. Or they keep him because they line up a Deandre Ayton trade. Or a few other options, like bringing him back.

This leak changes the dynamic and market for Paul.

Which may have been the plan. Paul’s camp and the Suns met to talk on Wednesday (reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski), it’s easy to draw a line after that where Paul’s camp leaked this angle to put pressure toward a buyout, which would be his preferred option because it makes him a free agent. However it went down, this it’s a strategic blunder by the Suns this got out because it shrinks the team’s options.

Another question: If it comes to it, would the Suns outright waive him (saving $15 million in salary next season, but only freeing up $5 million in spendable cap space) or waive and stretch him, which keeps him on the books for five years but at just $3.16 million a season (freeing up a little more than $12 million next season)? The big difference is the Suns can’t re-sign him if he is stretched, they can if he is waived outright.

After he is waived it leaves the Suns with just five players currently under contract for next season: Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne.

The other burning question: Where does Chris Paul play next season?

Assuming he is waived and becomes a free agent (not a sure thing by any means), the obvious landing spot is with the Lakers to play alongside Paul’s good friend LeBron James. CP3 has been wanting to return to his home and family in Southern California, the Lakers are a contender (at least after the All-Star break) in need of a game-manging point guard. Signing Paul to a deal (again for an exception, far less than the $30.8 million CP3 was under contract for) makes LeBron happy, but still leaves the Lakers room to re-sign Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura without going above the second luxury tax apron. 

Other teams would be picking up the phone and calling Paul, but the Lakers would be the frontrunners.

Paul, who will be 38 next season, averaged 13.9 points and 8.9 assists per game, and is still a quality point guard, but his skills on both ends showed clear slippage from his All-NBA years. Father time is winning the race. Wherever he plays next season, fans and the front office have to have reasonable expectations, but they are still getting a good point guard and one of the highest IQ players in the league. He would help the Lakers, the Suns and many other teams.

Where he lands is now a much more interesting subplot.

Is a rebuild coming to the Washington Wizards? League executives think so.

Detroit Pistons v Washington Wizards
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The Washington Wizards have been stuck in the NBA’s middle ground for years (at least since 2018), with a push from ownership on down to make the playoffs rather than go through a rebuild. The result was 35 wins last season, 35 the season before that, 25 before that, and you get the idea. A team that has underperformed with Bradley Beal on it.

Is that about to change under new GM Michael Winger? No decision about the short term of the franchise has been made, Winger told Josh Robbins of The Athletic (in a fantastic profile of the man). Big decisions will tip Winger’s hand this summer, with Kyle Kuzma a free agent and Kristaps Porzingis able to opt-out and reportedly looking for an extension.

However, outside the organization, the expectation is that a rebuild is coming in the next couple of years.

Many rival executives The Athletic has polled informally over the last two weeks expect Winger to undertake a full rebuild — if not this offseason, then within the next year.

Asked about his plans for the team, Winger says he’s leaving his options open.

“The raw, unfiltered truth is, I haven’t yet crafted the immediate vision for the franchise,” he says. “There are a lot of talented and high-character players on the team. I want to get to know them a little bit. The construct of a team isn’t just a matter of what is demonstrated on the court. It’s not just a matter of the box score. Team dynamics are personal, and I think that I need to understand those things before hatching an actionable plan. And I know that that’s not necessarily measurable in this moment. But it is the truth.”

If a rebuild is coming, are the Wizards better off re-signing Kuzma and Porzingis to tradable market-value contracts they can move in a year or two? Maybe spend a season running it back, see if this team can stay healthy and what they can do, then start making moves? Or, is it time to hit the reset button now and have a frank conversation with Bradley Beal?

One way or another, the long-postponed rebuild in Washington is coming. It just might not be immediate.

Lillard said he expects to be in Portland next season, so everyone starts trade speculation. Again.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers
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Everyone wants Damian Lillard to leave Portland more than Damian Lillard wants to leave Portland. We trash elite players for being mercenaries jumping teams, then the minute one is loyal, everyone questions why he would do such a thing. Welcome to NBA Twitter.

The latest on Lillard is just more of the same.

Lillard appeared on Showtime Sports The Last Stand with Brian Custer and, when asked if he expects to be a Portland Trail Blazer when next season starts, he said, “I do.” This echoes everything he has said all along, he wants to finish his career in Portland (the man just built a new house there). Lillard then reiterated what he also has consistently said — he wants a chance to compete for it all in Portland. If the Trail Blazers organization decides to go in another direction, then the conversations start.

“We got an opportunity, asset-wise, to build a team that can compete. … If we can’t do that, then it’s a separate conversation we would have to have.”

But Brian Custer leaned into the drama (although he did wait nearly 50 minutes into the pod to get to the topic), and so before asking about Lillard staying in Portland, this is how he phrases a trade question to Lillard:

“Everybody keeps saying Damian Lillard is going to be traded to the Knicks, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Heat, Damian Lillard should be traded to the Celtics, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Nets. If one of those trades went through, out of those teams, which one would you be like, that’s not too bad?”

Lillard could have, probably should have shot the premise of the question down. Instead, he’s a good guy and played along and said, “Miami obviously” and praised Bam Adebayo and called him “my dog.” He then said the same thing about Mikal Bridges, now with the Nets (Bridges is a guy long rumored to be a Trail Blazers trade target, maybe with the No. 3 pick in this draft).

All of this is nothing new. Lillard hopes to stay with the Trail Blazers and for them to put a team around him that can compete at the highest levels of the conference. They have young players and the No. 3 pick this year to make a deal for a second star (although some reports say the Blazers are not making Shaedon Sharpe available in any trade, it might take that to get the Nets to even consider a Bridges deal, and even then it may not be enough). If Portland’s front office doesn’t do that this offseason, then Lillard and the franchise need to weigh their options.

That won’t stop the speculation, even from former teammate CJ McCollum.

For now, Lillard wants to be a Trail Blazer and we should celebrate that.