Three Things to Know: Suns make statement in clinching playoff berth vs. Heat

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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) Suns make statement in clinching playoff berth vs. Heat

It’s just one regular season game. Go ahead and dismiss this win if you want. The Heat were without Jimmy Butler, the Suns were without Chris Paul. If these two conference-leading teams fight their way through to meet in the Finals, both teams will look and play very differently than they did Wednesday night.

However, the Suns were not dismissing this rematch of conference leaders. Rarely do teams admit they wanted to make a regular season statement, but the Suns did.

“We just wanted to prove a point,” Devin Booker said postgame. “They’re playing the best basketball over here in the East and we’re doing the same in the West so it was a heavyweight matchup.”

Miami had come into Phoenix and stomped the Suns by 23 in mid-January. That game felt like a “take us seriously” statement for the Heat.

Wednesday night, it was Phoenix’s turn:

The Suns are the best team in basketball this season and the championship road goes through Phoenix.

The Suns, on the second night of a back-to-back and the third game in four days (also the final game of a road trip), made their statement and beat the Heat 111-90 behind 23 from Devin Booker, who returned after missing four games due to COVID protocols.

With the win, the Suns become the first team to officially clinch a playoff spot. When it’s all said and done, they will have the top seed in all the playoffs.

The Suns were not racking up highlights in this game, they were their usual, solid, deep selves. Booker combined with Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to score 63 points. Part of what makes the Suns dangerous is that depth combines with ball movement — they trust anyone on the floor to beat you. JaVale McGee had 11 points off the bench. Landry Shamet got buckets. Other nights of late its been Cameron Johnson (who was out with a right quad contusion in this one).

The Suns are that good. There are questions that can be asked of them in the playoffs — do they have another gear? How will they deal with a team of multiple elite wings — but the Suns are the team to beat this season. We’ll see if they can live up to that billing and take the final step in the playoffs.

2) Young Rockets run past old Lakers, hand L.A. another embarrassing loss

It’s not effort, despite the cries of some fans on Twitter. It’s not coaching.

The Lakers are just bad. They are a poorly constructed team with weaknesses even rookies know how to attack — Jalen Green said the quiet part out loud and admitted postgame the overtime strategy was to isolate Carmelo Anthony and go at him. The Rockets started overtime on a 13-0 run.

On a night LeBron James had a 23/242/12 triple-double and efficient Russell Westbrook showed up — 30 points on 11-of-21 shooting against his old team — it was not enough. The Lakers lost 139-130 to the team with the worst record in the West, letting the 27th-ranked Rockets offense put up a 119 offensive rating for the game (almost 12 points higher than Houston’s season average).

It wasn’t all on ‘Melo — even with LeBron kicking to him for a potential game-winner in regulation and ‘Melo missing it. Green said they targeted rookie Austin Reaves as well. More importantly, the Lakers were terrible in transition defense all night and the young Rockets just ran right past them.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the Lakers chose a roster path that steered away from the “surround LeBron and Anthony Davis with quality defenders and shooters” model — which won them a title in the bubble — and traded that depth to get a third star in Westbrook who was never a natural fit next to LeBron. When Davis is out — as he is right now with a sprained foot — the Lakers lack anyone who can consistently and effectively protect the rim, or a big who can switch a pick-and-roll. They don’t have stoppers on the perimeter.

The young legs of rookie Green took advantage and put up a career-high 32 points (he’s been finding a groove of late).

Do the Lakers even make the playoffs?

Fivethirtyeight.com predicts the Lakers to finish 34-48 and be the No. 10 seed in the West. That means Los Angeles would need to beat both New Orleans and the loser of the Timberwolves vs. Clippers game — the Clippers swept the season series from the Lakers — just to make the playoffs.

Do that and their reward is the Suns (see item No. 1 above).

The Lakers are just bad. Laker fans are ready to jump to the offseason and watch this roster get rebuilt.

3) Simmons is going to sit on the Brooklyn bench in Philly tonight and it will get ugly

Tonight’s spectacle is brought to you by the quest for more money.

The 76ers fined Simmons more than $19 million while he sat out this season, then traded him to the Nets in a blockbuster deal. In the coming weeks, Simmons and his agent will file a formal grievance against the Sixers and try to get that money back (the issue goes to arbitration).

Simmons’ argument is he wasn’t mentally ready to play for the 76ers, and his mental health should be treated like a sprained knee or other physical injury — he should get paid for rehab. 76ers president Daryl Morey said he believed Simmons had mental health issues preventing him from playing. The 76ers will argue Simmons sat out as part of a trade demand, not simply mental health concerns.

This brings us to tonight. Simmons will show it wasn’t about not playing in Philly by sitting on Brooklyn’s bench during a game against the 76ers in Philadelphia and getting booed and heckled. Simmons is not playing Thursday due to back issues, but he will be there in the building. You can watch it all unfold on TNT.

Does Simmons sitting on the bench prove anything about his mental health? Not really. But he’s going to sit there anyway. It will be dramatic.

The person I really feel sorry for? Whoever the arbitration judge is in this case.

Highlight of the Night: Terrence Ross throws down 360 slam

Terrence Ross still has some serious hops.

Watch that one more time and enjoy how Tony Snell sizes up the situation and makes a business decision to get out of the way.

Yesterday’s scores:

Boston 115, Charlotte 101
Chicago 114, Detroit 108
Phoenix 111, Miami 90
Milwaukee 124, Atlanta 115
Houston 139, LA Lakers 130 (OT)
Minnesota 132, Oklahoma City 102
Orlando 108, New Orleans 102
New York 107, Dallas 77
Toronto 119, San Antonio 104
Utah 123, Portland 85
Denver 106, Sacramento 100
LA Clippers 115, Washington 109