Three Things to Know: Kyrie Irving can play home games. That doesn’t make Nets favorites.

0 Comments

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 great.

1) Kyrie Irving can play home games. It doesn’t make Nets title favorites.

Kyrie Irving got his wish — he will soon be able to play home games in Brooklyn.

Not because Irving did the mature thing and got vaccinated, but because New York Mayor Eric Adams will officially announce Thursday he’s exempting athletes and performers from the city’s vaccine mandate for private workers (but if you work in government and other jobs covered by the mandate, you still have to be vaccinated). Adams had echoed players like Kevin Durant, who had said the exemption for visiting players/performers made it unfair: unvaccinated players from other teams could play at the Barclays Center, but not Irving. Adams is changing that.

Now Irving can take the court for the Nets’ final nine games, plus playoff games (except any in Toronto, where he cannot travel because he is unvaccinated).

Are the Nets back to being title favorites?

No.

Without question the Nets just got much better and more dangerous with the Mayor’s move. Brooklyn just got a top-15 player in the world and its second-best player back for every game, not just half of them. They become a bigger playoff threat.

It’s not enough to make them favorites in the East, and Wednesday’s loss to the shorthanded Grizzlies is a reminder of why.

Irving scored 43 points on 15-of-27 shooting, with six 3-pointers and eight assists in Memphis.

Kevin Durant added 35 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists. Brooklyn scored 120 points and had an efficient 119.6 offensive rating for the game. With those two stars on the floor, Brooklyn will be an offensive force.

Brooklyn still lost to the Grizzlies by a dozen points. A Grizzlies team without Ja Morant.

And therein lies the biggest problem for the Nets — they are not a good defensive team. They are bottom 10 defense in the league this season, a 114 defensive rating via Cleaning the Glass. When Durant and Irving are on the floor together this season, the defense is slightly worse (-0.6 worse in net rating; if you want to argue that’s basically the even as the season rating, fine, it’s still bottom 10).

Memphis attacked and got the shots it wanted, with seven players in double figures scoring and three with 20+ (Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, and De'Anthony Melton). Without Ben Simmons on the court — and he is not currently doing any on-court work — there are multiple places to attack the Nets defense.

Now project ahead to the postseason (likely without Simmons, but if he returns, fitting him in will not be simple). The Nets are the No 8 seed and coming out of the play-in tournament. As of today, they would have to travel to Toronto for the first play-in game (where Irving cannot go), but the Raptors could pass the slumping Cavaliers and send Cleveland to the play-in. If the Nets lose that first game they will host a win-or-book-your-flight-to-Cancun game against the winner of Hornets Hawks.

The Nets will win one of those two play-in games, probably the first one.

Their reward for winning that first game would be the 76ers, or — much worse for the Nets — Celtics or Bucks in the first round. Without Simmons, Brooklyn doesn’t have the defender to stop Jayson Tatum, let alone Tatum and Brown and a Celtics team with the best offense in the league since the All-Star break (Durant is a good defender, but how much can be asked of him carrying a massive offensive load, too). The Nets don’t have the defenders to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

We saw the Nets beat the 76ers recently (Philly has its own defensive issues, and James Harden would need to show out big in this series for the 76ers to win). Miami’s halfcourt offense can bog down and they need a lot out of Jimmy Butler (like they did in the bubble). Brooklyn against Miami or Philadelphia would be a great series, but it’s a toss-up. Miami can defend. Philly has Joel Embiid. Both could beat the Nets.

Botton line: Even with Irving the Nets have not shown themselves to be good enough to be considered title favorites.

But the Nets did get better on Wednesday.

2) What does Butler/Spoelstra/Haslem incident on Heat bench mean?

Miami Heat players should have been frustrated and pissed off — they were getting run out of the gym by a Warriors team sitting Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

That bubbled over to an altercation on the bench between the firey and opinionated Jimmy Butler and coach Erik Spoelstra, with Udonis Haslem in Spo’s corner.

After the game, as expected, the Heat played it off as just run-of-the-mill stuff. Spoelstra joked it was an argument about postgame dinner reservations. Bam Adebayo said this is what Heat practices look like. Other players said it was frustration from losing and nothing to worry about.

Does this bench blowup mean anything?

Probably not. Lowry and his teammates are not wrong; this is a veteran group capable of putting it behind them and moving on, focusing on the playoffs. This loss should have frustrated Miami. Still, the Heat are the No. 1 seed in the East and will enter the playoffs that way.

However, the last three Heat games against quality opponents — Warriors, 76ers, and Timberwolves — are all losses. The Heat are a title contender, but they haven’t played like the Bucks or Celtics in recent weeks. Miami’s halfcourt offense can get stagnant. There are issues to work out before the playoffs.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns, Jae Crowder get into it, but Suns just do what they do

Minnesota has been a dangerous team of late, Karl-Anthony Towns has been playing at an All-NBA level, and he was feeling it as the Timberwolves jumped out in the first half on the Suns.

Towns threw down a poster dunk on Jae Crowder and let him know about it, and the veteran forward was not going to take it.

Minnesota led for the vast majority of three quarters, then in the fourth the Suns did what they always do: executed. Devin Booker was 3-of-3 shooting for 11 points, Landry Shamet came off the bench and hit a couple of 3-pointers and had 10, and Deandre Ayton scored 11 of his 35 on the night in the fourth. Towns and the Timberwolves could not stop Ayton inside as he added 14 rebounds to the mix on the night.

Ayton outscored Towns by 20 and his team got the win. Without their All-NBA point guard Chris Paul. Consider this your 3,547th reminder the Suns are the best team in the NBA.

Highlight of the Night: Damian Jones with game-winning tip for Kings

No Domantas Sabonis for the Kings, he was out against his former team. No Richaun Holmes either.

That left Damian Jones as the starting center, and he was up to the task — he had the game-winning tip-in.

It was not exactly the revenge game Tyrese Haliburton hoped for, he shot 4-for-14 for 13 points but did have 15 assists. Davion Mitchell had another strong game for the Kings, 25 points and seven assists, that’s a couple in a row for the rookie.

Yesterday’s scores:

Knicks 121, Hornets 106
Pistons 122, Hawks 101
Kings 110, Pacers 109
Celtics 125, Jazz 97
Warriors 118, Heat 104
Grizzlies 132, Nets 120
Suns 125, Timberwolves 116
Thunder 118, Magic 102
Mavericks 110, Rockets 91
76ers 126, Lakers 121
Spurs 133, Trail Blazers 96

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

0 Comments

The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

0 Comments

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) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
0 Comments

Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.