Three Things to Know: With about 10 games to go, NBA playoff/play-in races tight

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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) In East, 10 playoff/play-in teams set, but race for seeding is on

Here are the standings in the East as of Tuesday morning.

Despite its stumbles, including an ugly loss to Philadelphia on Monday night, the Miami Heat are still in the driver’s seat and likely finish No. 1.

Then it gets insane: The 76ers, Bucks, and Celtics are in a virtual tie for seeds 2/3/4. Philadelphia is in that tie because on a night Joel Embiid and James Harden were both out Monday, Tyrese Maxey scored nine in a row in the clutch and had 13 of his 28 points in the fourth to lift the 76ers past the Heat.

Boston remains the hottest team in the NBA — they beat the Thunder Monday to make it nine wins in their last 10 — but they have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. The Bucks also have a brutal 11 games left, while the 76ers have by far the easiest schedule of the three. That said, the 76ers also have had some ugly losses of late. Boston/Milwaukee/Philadelphia could finish in any order 2/3/4, but the team that finishes No. 2 stands a very real chance of getting Brooklyn in the first round. Will teams jockey to avoid that?

The Bulls beating the Raptors on Monday night keeps Chicago as the No. 5 seed. It feels as if the Bulls will win enough to avoid sliding back to No. 7 and falling into the play-in. Cleveland has been slipping of late — 3-4 in their last seven, and two of those wins required overtime — and that includes a loss to their old friend LeBron James and the Lakers on Monday (keep scrolling down to see how LeBron James dunked all over Kevin Love).

There is good reason for the Bulls/Cavaliers/Raptors to avoid the play-in — whoever finishes No. 7 likely hosts the Nets in the first round, meaning both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving… unless it’s Toronto, then no Irving. A loss to Brooklyn in that first play-in game would mean one game to make the postseason, a fate teams want to avoid.

Big showdown Thursday when the Raptors host the Cavaliers. That could go a long way to determining who ends up in the play-in.

Despite its flaws and questions, Brooklyn should finish eighth, but the Hornets are going to make them work for it as they keep picking up dramatic wins, like Monday over the Pelicans. LeMelo Ball is clutch.

3) Out West, the race to avoid the play-in is real

Here are the standings in the West as of Tuesday morning.

Phoenix will finish with the best record in the NBA, and it’s going to get Chris Paul back sooner than expected from his fractured thumb. The Suns have been the best team in the NBA this season and the road to the championship goes through Phoenix. That is the team to beat.

With Stephen Curry out, it will end up the Memphis Grizzlies No. 2 and the Golden State Warriors No. 3 (they are still a threat if Curry is healthy for the postseason, as expected, but does Golden State have the time to build the postseason chemistry it needs?).

Utah and red-hot Dallas look locked in for a 4/5 playoff series that will be the best in the first round, either conference. The Jazz have not looked like a contender down the stretch and fell to the Nets on Monday, while Dallas picked up a win over a red-hot Timberwolves team despite Karl-Anthony Towns dunking all over Luka Doncic (Doncic got his revenge later).

The biggest race in the West is if the Timberwolves can overtake Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets and get the No. 6 seed, avoiding the play-in. Minnesota has a tougher schedule the rest of the way, but mark your calendars, the two teams play April 1 in Denver. That will be a huge game.

The Lakers will not fall out of the play-in, especially after their win in Cleveland Monday behind LeBron James getting 38 in his old home. Everyone is talking about how LeBron did his old friend Kevin Love wrong with this poster dunk.

The friends were joking about that at the half, then after the game on social media.

The Spurs keep getting enough wins that it’s possible they catch the Pelicans for the final play-in spot, but they will need to win on March 26 (Saturday) when the two teams face off to make it a reality.

3) Jamal Crawford officially retires and he will be missed

After 20 NBA seasons, and at age 42, Jamal Crawford officially retired from the NBA Monday.

I have a soft spot for unrepentant gunners off the bench who play with confidence and flair, and few if any filled that role better than Jamal Crawford. I simply loved to watch him play, to watch him use his insane handles to create space and treat the NBA game like it was the asphault at the local park. The court was his playground.

He also racked up plenty of hardward during his career, including three Sixth Man of the Year trophies.

There were also few around the game who were as genuine and down to earth as Crawford — everyone loved him for it. He was real, he was comfortable with himself regardless of the situation, and he just loved playing the game. He will be missed.

Highlight of the Night: LaMelo Ball sinks dagger in Pelicans

We could have gone a lot of different directions with this highlight tonight, but it’s worth noting as the games get tight that LaMelo Ball is clutch for such a young player. Just ask the Pelicans, he stuck the dagger in them Monday with a beautiful floater.

Also out of this game — no way Herb Jones should have been ejected for this. Offensive foul? Yes. Flagrant One because it was a blow to the head? I guess, the league has told officials to guard against concussions. But ejection? Come on now.

Listen to the Hornets broadcasters react to that call. You know a call is wrong when the on-air people for the team that benefited seemed shocked.

Yesterday’s scores:

Charlotte 106, New Orleans 104
LA Lakers 131, Cleveland 120
Portland 119, Detroit 115
Philadelphia 113, Miami 106
Brooklyn 114, Utah 106
Chicago 113, Toronto 99
Houston 115,Washington 97
Boston 132, Oklahoma City 123
Dallas 110, Minnesota 108

Donovan Mitchell is not looking back on summer, says now is happiest he’s been in league

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The New York Knicks chose not to go all-in last summer and bring Donovan Mitchell home. The kid who played his AAU games in Manhattan and grew up a Knicks fan watching games at the Garden was open to it, but the Knicks lowballed the offer and Koby Altman and the Cavaliers swooped in.

Mitchell returned to New York Sunday, but he wasn’t looking back — he’s happy where he is now in Cleveland, on one of the up-and-coming teams in the league. Via Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“What’s done is done, and I’m happy as hell to be where I’m at,” he said. “At the end of the day, this decision was made and I don’t think I’ve been happier since I’ve been in the league. But I think for me it’s always going to be motivation to come back and play well in my hometown, but you could say that about anybody. But with what happened this summer, it’s over with, it happened and I’m happy to be with the Cavaliers.”

Whether Rose holding back picks — concerned about having enough ammunition to bring in the next star to New York to go with Mitchell — was a mistake will play out over time. It depends on what bold move Rose makes next with the roster. Whatever decision he makes will be compared to the “what if” of Mitchell, fair or not.

Mitchell has been better than expected in Cleveland — averaging 28.4 points a game shooting 42.1% on 3-pointers — and has fit beautifully in the backcourt with Darius Garland, as well as with the front line of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Together those four form the cornerstone of a team that could contend for a title in the coming years. Mitchell is loving every minute of it.

That group (minus Allen, who remains out with a lower back contusion) wasn’t enough on Sunday against a desperate Knicks team. New York got the 92-81 win behind 23 from Jalen Brunson (Mitchell also had 23).

 

Three things to know: Anthony Davis, Lakers playing up to Darvin Ham’s vision

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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 that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Anthony Davis, Lakers playing up to Darvin Ham‘s vision

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.” —Lakers coach Darvin Ham before NBA training camps opened. 

This is what Darvin Ham envisioned.

In his last five games, Anthony Davis is averaging 35.6 points on 66.7% shooting with 13.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks a game. He has been dominant — and his 55-point game leading the Lakers to a win over the Wizards on Sunday put him in historic company.

What Ham envisioned was more than just Davis playing the five and going back to an All-NBA — if you ask Patrick Beverley or Kristaps Porzingis after the game, MVP — level, it’s that the rest of the team would follow.

So far it has. In its last 11 games, the Lakers are 8-3 with the third-best offense in the NBA and a top-10 defense over that stretch, with a +7.2 net rating. What’s more, the shooting woes that dragged them down early in the season have also righted themselves.

This hot streak started against a soft part of the schedule, but road wins over the Bucks and Wizards show it isn’t a fluke. This is a team gaining confidence, and while it likely will not sustain this level of success for the remaining five months of the season, it’s a sign of what this team is capable of when clicking.

Los Angeles also still has a lot of work to do. Even with this recent run they are 10-12 and sit 12th in the West — they have to keep this going long enough to get into the playoff mix. Then we can discuss what kind of postseason threat they are.

Two Wizards notes out of their loss to the Lakers Sunday.

First, Bradley Beal left the game in the first quarter with hamstring tightness. He did not return and after the game there wasn’t much of an update on whether he will miss time, and if so how much. It’s not a good sign for a Wizards team without much margin for error.

Also, Daniel Gafford had maybe the dunk of the year. This is insane.

2) Damian Lillard returns to court and Trail Blazers

With Damian Lillard sidelined by a strained calf, the Trail Blazers dropped 7-of-8 and fell to .500 on the season (11-11). They were not the same team.

Sunday he returned — looking unbothered by any calf issue — and suddenly the ball was moving again, and the offense clicking in a win over the Pacers. Lillard was 5-of-10 from 3 on his way to 21 points, but just his presence opened up the offense so Jerami Grant could score 28. Anfernee Simons, coming off his insane 45-point night, added 22.

Lillard doesn’t have to carry Portland, he doesn’t have to drop 40 every night to have a chance to win (see Doncic, Luka). Grant and Simons can help carry the scoring load. But this is also a team without much margin for error, so they struggle without the threat of Lillard, the floor shrinks and the ball doesn’t move the same way.

With Lillard back, the Trail Blazers are a threat every night. In a tight West — the Trail Blazers are tied with the Clippers and Warriors for the sixth seed — they can’t afford any more slumps like the recent one. And they can’t afford to be without Lillard for an extended stretch.

3) Does he have a puncher’s chance? Floyd Mayweather wants to buy NBA team

The instinct is to bet against Floyd Mayweather ever owning an NBA team for a couple of reasons, but when you’re talking about a boxer with a 50-0 career record, bet against him at your own risk.

Mayweather said at a recent public event he was working to buy an NBA team and has made a $2 billion offer for one.

“I’ve been working on buying a NBA team outright. One of my other business partners, Brent Johnson, he’s here. So we’ve been working on the NBA team for a while now. It’s kinda, it’s rough…

“It could be the Vegas franchise. It could be the Seattle franchise or I could be buying a franchise that’s already up and running. So the first offer, we offered them a little over $2 billion for majority ownership. Do I have it? Absolutely, I have it, but it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a lot when you have so many different businesses all around the world. It’s a lot.”

There are two key questions about Mayweather’s being able to purchase an NBA team.

The first is, does he really have the money? Mayweather says he does, and last year said his net worth was above $1.2 billion. Whether that is true, and whether that money is liquid or if it’s tied up in speculative investments, is not something we know (it’s not like Mayweather has to make his financial situation public). However, you can be sure it’s something the NBA would have its accountants look into — Mayweather would have to open his books to them to get into the club.

The second issue is Mayweather’s history of controversies — including homophobic comments and pleading guilty to domestic violence charges. The NBA vets its owners looking to avoid public relations blowback, and you can be sure a Mayweather ownership would lead to a lot of hard questions for a league that paints itself as progressive.

Even if he has the $2 billion and the league approves him, Mayweather will need partners in this process. The only NBA team publicly known to be for sale is the Phoenix Suns and the sale price for that may be double the $2 billion number Mayweather threw out. As for potential expansion teams (probably headed to Seattle and Las Vegas), those are years away according to league sources (think the second half of this decade), and the entry price to get into those is going to be well above $2 billion.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Jose Alvarado put up a 38-spot for the Pelicans and had the New Orleans fans singing his name.

Jose Alvarado had Pelicans’ fans singing his name after 38-point game

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jose Alvarado brought fans to their feet repeatedly, and they gleefully sang his name.

Alvarado highlighted a career-high 38-point performance with a career-best eight 3-pointers, and the Pelicans won their fourth straight game by beating the Denver Nuggets 121-106 on Sunday.

“I’m happy he had a big night,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “It’s fun. This is why you watch the game. This is why guys go out and compete and work hard, to have moments like this.”

Alvarado, a 6-foot guard whose production has far exceeded expectations since he went undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2021, came off the bench with the Pelicans trailing by 14 in the first quarter and immediately scored eight points during an 11-1 run.

“Jose, in that moment, he felt his number was called and he he had to make a play – do something. He did that and more,” said Pelicans star forward Zion Williamson, who added 25 points in his typically forceful way around the basket. “The shots he made were huge.”

It wasn’t long before fans began serenading Alvarado with a soccer-crowd-style chant replacing “Ole,” with “Jose.”

“Jose was the guy tonight,” Nuggets forward Bruce Brown said. “He killed us.”

Denver coach Mike Malone said his team “never adjusted” when it became apparent Alvarado was going to be a premier scorer in the game.

“Give him credit,” Malone said, “but we did a poor job, obviously, of guarding him.”

Alvarado hit 12 of 19 shots and missed just three of his 11 3-point attempts. He also scored on explosive driving floaters over significantly taller defenders in the lane.

“I’m not a big scorer,” said Alvarado, whose game-high in college was 29 points.

He couldn’t recall scoring as many as 38 at any level, adding with a smile, “This is the one I’m going to remember.”

When he checked out of the game, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered wildly. Teammates hugged Alvarado as he came to the bench, and some playfully poured water over his head after the game ended.

“This team is special,” Alvarado said. “It’s more than just teammates to us. We’re all brothers and we all want to see each other win. When someone’s hot, they’re going to give you the ball and that’s what they did.”

Because Alvarado lacks the “physical attributes a prototypical NBA player would have,” Williamson said, the reserve guard represents the type of “underdog story” people love.

“He’s making an impact. He’s the X-factor for us,” Williamson said. “So, when people see that, and he’s telling them to stand up and get hyped, it’s infectious energy. You can’t help but want to be a part of that.”

Jonas Valanciunas added 13 points for New Orleans despite being limited to less than 14 minutes by foul trouble. Willy Hernangomez, who played nearly 20 minutes in place of Valanciunas, responded with 12 points and eight rebounds.

Trey Murphy scored 12 points, including a pair of driving dunks and a 3-pointer from 27 feet away. That helped the Pelicans, who were without Brandon Ingram for a fourth straight game, win for the ninth time in 11 games.

Nikola Jokic had 32 points and 16 rebounds for the Nuggets, who’ve lost two straight on the heels of four straight victories. Aaron Gordon scored 19 points and Jamal Murray 18 for Denver.

But Denver committed 19 turnovers, which led to 18 Pelicans points.

“When you play better teams on the road, you can’t beat yourself,” Malone said. “Unfortunately, tonight was another example of us doing that.”

Jokic had 13 points in the first nine minutes. His end-to-end layup as he was fouled and two free throws shortly after gave Denver an early 30-16 lead.

But about the time Jokic checked out, Alvarado checked in and hit two 3s and a driving layup to help the Pelicans close it to 31-27 by the end of the opening quarter.

Jokic had 21 points and Alvarado 19 by halftime, when Denver led 60-59.

Watch Anthony Davis drop season-high 55, Lakers handle Wizards 130-119

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Anthony Davis dazzled so much, he heard fans chanting “MVP!” And that came while playing on the road.

Davis scored 55 points on sizzling 22-of-30 shooting and added 17 rebounds, leading the Los Angeles Lakers over the Washington Wizards 130-119 Sunday night.

After scoring 44 points against Milwaukee in his previous game, Davis came close to his career-high of 59 against Detroit in 2016. He’s averaging 35.3 points in his last nine games.

“Coming off a huge win in Milwaukee, can’t get complacent, get comfortable,” Davis said.

Davis was 2 of 3 on 3-pointers and made all nine of his foul shots. He scored 31 points in the second half.

LeBron James had 29 points as the Lakers won their fourth straight road game. They are 8-2 in their last 10 games while trying to extricate themselves from a 2-10 start.

“Our team is locked in right now,” Davis said. “Very focused on both sides of the ball. Overall, we’re just trying to make up ground.”

Washington lost leading scorer and three-time All-Star Bradley Beal to a hamstring strain with 8:31 to play in the first quarter. Beal sat on the bench after an early substitution, talked with a trainer, then went to the locker room. He did not return and is day-to-day.

Los Angeles led by 21 points in the first half. It was 85-56 early in the third quarter before the Wizards rallied within nine points in the fourth.

The 6-foot-10 Davis presented a rare match in wingspan for 7-3 Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis. Both have 7-foot-6 wingspans.

But Davis’ mobility and scoring from every level on the floor helped him control the matchup Sunday. Porzingis shot 11 of 25 for 27 points.

“When you talk about people in MVP race or category, (Davis) should be up there for sure,” Lakers point guard Patrick Beverley said.

The Wizards were 5-for-25 from behind the 3-point line in the first half. Three of those five makes came from backup shooting guard Corey Kispert, who finished with 16 points.

Former Laker Kyle Kuzma added 26 points for Washington before he fouled out.

The Lakers travel to face Cleveland next. James, an Akron, Ohio native and former Cleveland star, said he will have a lot of friends and family at the game. But he’s more focused on the Lakers’ resurgence.

“We never tipped over the glass when things weren’t going well,” James said. “We just continued to work. Continued to get better. Understood that we’re a new team being put together. New coaching staff, new system. We had to figure out some things. We haven’t done anything. We want to continue to work.”