Three Things to Know: On big stage, Durant steps up while Harden melts


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) On big stage, Durant steps up while Harden melts

The real winners from this game: The Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat. They look far more like deep, versatile, battle-tested, playoff-ready teams set to make deep runs than the flawed teams that took the court in Philadelphia Thursday.

That said, Thursday night in Philadelphia may not have been a playoff game but it felt like one.

Philadelphia fans filled the building with emotion — mostly anger at Ben Simmons, and they let him hear it early — and legends such as Allen Iverson and Dr. J showed up and sat courtside. The 76ers were 5-0 in games James Harden played since he was traded for Simmons, and with the Nets in town fans were eager for the honeymoon to continue.

Then a familiar big game/playoff game pattern returned:

Kevin Durant stepped up and was the best player on the floor — he has two Finals MVP trophies for a reason.

James Harden didn’t get the foul calls he is used to early, struggled against a pressure defense, and faded into the background shooting 3-of-17 on the night. It fits a career arc that has seen him struggle in big playoff moments.

The end result was a blowout 129-100 win for the Brooklyn Nets, who dominated the game from the opening tip.

Brooklyn threw out some exploitable defensive lineups early, but the Nets also played with playoff energy and physicality, something the 76ers could not match. Durant and the Nets were not backing down.

Durant and Kyrie Irving were putting up numbers — a combined 47 points on 52.9% shooting with 18 rebounds and 12 assists — but they got real help with Seth Curry and James Johnson stepping up with quality games.

Doc Rivers has some work to do. Joel Embiid is a good rim protector and the Sixers have Matisse Thybulle. Still, there are places to attack a team with James Harden on the court for heavy minutes, plus has to lean on DeAndre Jordan for backup minutes at center (or play Shake Milton and others). When Harden is on, the 76ers can overwhelm with offense, but his playoff history suggests the 76ers will need to find other ways to win games when it really matters.

The Nets just brought that message home.

2) Yes, Philadelphia fans did get a chance to boo Ben Simmons

Thursday’s game was the hottest ticket in Philadelphia in years because Sixers fans wanted to vent their anger and frustration at Ben Simmons. They were mad because he melted down last playoffs. They were angry because he held out this season saying he was not mentally ready to play while waiting for a trade. He was not playing on Thursday, but he was in the building and on the bench.

He could hear the “f*** Ben Simmons” chants from the crowd. Simmons also heard it when he came out and went through a light pregame warmup.

When Simmons dunked the ball — something he did not do in a critical moment against the Hawks in the playoffs a year ago — he got a Bronx cheer from the Sixers faithful.

The problem for the Sixers is Durant and Irving heard all those boos and chants, too, and they came out ready to have their teammate’s back. See item No. 1 on this story to see how that went.

3) Steve Kerr may have found closing lineup, Warriors beat Nuggets

It’s still some serious small sample size theater, but Steve Kerr may have found part of his closing lineup: The three-guard combo of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole have a +40.3 net rating when on the court together so far this season. Kerr used that trio — with Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins — to close out against the Nuggets Thursday, and Poole was up to the challenge.

Poole’s 3-pointers iced the game and the Warriors beat the Nuggets 113-102.

Stephen Curry had 34 points on the night, Poole finished with 21 off the bench.

Nikola Jokic continued to put up MVP numbers: 23 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists.

Unlike the earlier game Thursday, this one didn’t feel like a playoff game, mostly because of who was not suited up to play. Draymond Green, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. watched this one. These teams will look different come the playoffs (Green says he returns Monday, substitute him for Looney in the Warriors closing group and Kerr may have his new death lineup).

Still a quality win for the Warriors on the road.

Highlight of the Night: Bones Hyland leaves fellow rookie Kuminga in his dust

Bones Hyland, this is just nasty.

The steal, the behind the back, and then the move that left Jonathan Kuminga standing there looking lost.

Players noticed.

Yesterday’s scores:

Brooklyn 129, Philadelphia 100
Golden State 113, Denver 102

Brad Stevens confirms Joe Mazzulla will return as Celtics coach


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

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

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.

Celtics’ Payton Pritchard reportedly wants a trade this summer

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Payton Pritchard saw his role as a reserve guard with the Celtics shrink this season, which may have had less to do with the changeover to Joe Mazzulla as coach and more to do with the addition of Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

Either way, Pritchard doesn’t like it and wants to be traded this offseason, reports Jay King and Jared Weiss of The Athletic (in a must-read breakdown of the Celtics’ season and where they ultimately fell short.

With the new onerous CBA rules looming after next season, the front office will likely have to decide in the next 12 months whether it can afford its expensive veteran depth. Payton Pritchard has made it clear he hopes to be traded this summer, according to multiple team sources, so will the Celtics move him if they trade one of their core guards?

Pritchard may not get his wish for the financial reasons mentioned by King and Weiss — Boston has some hard decisions to make coming up. For next season, the Celtics are already $4 million into the luxury tax with 12 people on the roster, and that is without re-signing Grant Williams (if they can) or thinking about the super-max contract Jaylen Brown is about to sign that will kick in for the 2024-25 season. With the draconian threat of the second “lead” tax apron looming in a year, the Celtics must trim salary. One way to do that this summer is to trade one of Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon, which is what is widely expected to happen around the league.

With one of those three gone, minutes open up for Pritchard, who has a team option for $4 million next season. That’s a great value contract the Celtics likely want to keep.

Meaning Pritchard may not get his wish to be sent out of Boston, but if he ends up staying, he should see more run next season.