Three Things to Know: Irving makes home debut but loss to Hornets drops Nets to 9th

Charlotte Hornets v Brooklyn Nets
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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 great.

1) Kyrie Irving makes home debut but loss to Hornets drops Nets to 9th in East

Kyrie Irving is playing in Barclays Center again.

That was not enough to help the Nets on Sunday — they watched LaMelo Ball put up 33 and 7, leading the Hornets to a win that moved them in front of the Nets to No. 8 in the East — and it’s fair to ask how much Irving can help Brooklyn come the playoffs.

None of that mattered to Brooklyn fans, who welcomed Irving with a standing ovation.

Irving missed home games up until this point because he refused to get vaccinated. He can play now because New York Mayor Eric Adams put an athletes and performers exception into the employer vaccine mandate. Irving happily jumped through that loophole and after the game said he stood for “freedom” called for an end to all mandates. The one that kept him out and has led to more than 1,400 New York City employees being fired is still in place, mostly because many large New York employers want it in place. But Irving got his exemption, so he’s back.

The Nets are unquestionably more dangerous with Irving back, and they have five of their remaining seven games at home.

With Irving, the Nets are banking on an overwhelming offense to cover up an underwhelming defense (24th in the league his season, using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers), but that was not the case Sunday against the Hornets. Brooklyn was on the second night of a back-to-back, and like many older teams, they struggle with tired legs. The Nets are now 2-10 this season on the second night of a back-to-back. Irving finished with 16 points on 6-of-22 shooting overall and 1-of-9 from beyond the arc.

LaMelo Ball was the best player on the court in this one, and the Hornets were hot from 3. That was the difference.

The loss dropped the Nets into a tie with the Hornets for the 8/9 seed in the East (both teams are 39-36), with Charlotte now owning the tiebreaker. Brooklyn has the easier remaining schedule, plus most of its games at home. Getting the No. 8 seed matters — the No. 8 seed has to win one-of-two games to make the playoffs, the No. 9 seed needs to win two games to advance.

None of the top teams in the East want to face Durant, Irving and the Nets in the first round — there are no back-to-backs come the playoffs. Brooklyn will be a tough out, and it’s easy to see them winning a series.

But with that defense, can they win three series in a row to make the Finals? Four in a row to win it all? It seems a big ask coming out of the play-in.

2) LeBron injures ankle, could that roll Lakers out of play-in?

In a game that mattered for play-in positioning, the Lakers had a 23-point lead over the Pelicans in the first half and were up 20.

They couldn’t hold it. Even more concerning, LeBron James rolled his ankle in the second quarter, and while he played through it and scored 39 (but he was 2-of-8 in the fourth with some key misses down the stretch), he limped in and out of his postgame press conference and said the ankle felt “horrible.”

Brandon Ingram returned from a 10-game absence and scored 26 — the Pelicans are 7.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season, and his return for the stretch run is critical for New Orleans.

With the win, the Pelicans move into the No. 9 seed in the West and now have the tiebreaker over the Lakers, who fall to No. 10. Which means New Orleans would host the first win-or-go-fishing play-in game in the West this postseason — and it may not be against the Lakers.

Los Angeles is one game ahead of San Antonio for the 10th and final play-in spot. The Lakers have a much tougher remaining schedule than the Spurs, are without Anthony Davis (sprained right foot) and it’s possible LeBron misses time with that sprained ankle.

The Lakers missing out on even the play-in is a real possibility.

3) Mavericks take command of No. 4 seed in West with win over Jazz

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks look like they will start the playoffs at home.

The most likely first-round matchup for the Mavericks is a 4/5 showdown with the Jazz, and Sunday Doncic scored 32 points leading Dallas past Utah 114-100.

That win moved the Mavericks a game up on the Jazz in the standings (although the Jazz have the tiebreaker because the NBA uses the arcane idea of divisions as the first tiebreaker, and the Jazz lead theirs). While one should never read too much into regular season matchups when projecting playoff series, the Jazz and Mavericks split their four meetings, with the home team winning each game.

It is possible the Mavericks will catch the stumbling Warriors (who lost again Sunday), Dallas is just two games back of Golden State. It’s also possible the stumbling Jazz will fall behind Denver and into the No. 6 seed.

Most likely, however, it is Mavericks vs. Jazz in the first round, which is a tough matchup for Utah. And now it looks like Dallas will have home court.

Highlight of the Night: Smart alley-oop off the backboard to Brown

The Celtics are the hottest team in the NBA and they are feeling it. They handled another hot team in the Timberwolves by 22 on Sunday, while Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown were going playground.

Yesterday’s scores:

Knicks 104, Pistons 102
Celtics 134, Timberwolves 112
Wizards 123, Warriors 115
Suns 114, 76ers 104
Pelicans 116, LA Lakers 108
Hornets 119, Nets 110
Mavericks 114, Jazz 100

Three things to know: Can someone explain the Miami Heat?

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks
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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) Can someone explain the Miami Heat?

Friday night, Jimmy Butler returned to the Heat lineup and was a force down the stretch, Bam Adebayo played like an All-NBA big man and the Heat picked up a don’t-forget-about-us win over the best team in basketball, the Boston Celtics.

Two nights later, with Butler still in the lineup, the Heat fell to a Grizzlies team without Ja Morant or three other starters. The listless loss felt like a low point in the season.

Until Tuesday. That’s when Jimmy Butler got a scheduled rest day and the Heat fell apart in the second half and lost 116-96 to a struggling Pistons team without Cade Cunningham. The Heat defense, one of their strengths on the season, was a mess on Tuesday as they could not contain the ball. More importantly, as has happened too often this season, the Heat simply got outworked.

Typically around 20 games into the season, you have a sense of a team and what it can be. Not the Heat. They are 11-14 and sit 11th in the East, outside even the play-in. They tease with flashes that remind you they came within a made Butler 3 of going to the Finals a season ago, but on more nights they come nowhere near that potential.

Offensively, this team is bottom 10 in the league, and it showed against Detroit. The only true shot creators on the roster are Butler and Tyler Herro — if one of them isn’t on the floor Miami barely scores a point per possession. Against Detroit, if it wasn’t a Herro/Adebayo action, the play seemed to go nowhere.

Last season, when the team was shorthanded for a night, the reserves stepped up the energy — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin stepped up and made plays. This season, when the stars are out that same energy is not there.

Injuries are part of the issue — Kyle Lowry is their iron man, having played in every game (a sentence I never thought I would type). Herro has missed eight games, Butler 10, and reserves such as Duncan Robinson and Vincent have spent time on the shelf. Victor Oladipo made his debut on Tuesday. Eric Spoelstra constantly has to juggle his rotation, nothing feels settled.

But this team isn’t playing every night with the fire we have come to expect from the Heat. Last season (and traditionally every year), even when the stars had to sit the Heat were a tough out because of the intensity and execution with which they played. Not this season. That Heat culture has not shown through the same way.

It’s also too early to write this team off (and they could make a move at the deadline to boost the rotation). Despite the slow start they are just 2.5 games back of the Hawks and the No. 4 seed, there is time to make a run, but games like the loss to the Pistons Tuesday make one wonder if this version of the Heat has that in them.

2) Donovan Mitchell drops 43, outshines LeBron in Cleveland

There’s a little extra shine on the game any time LeBron James returns to Cleveland. The spotlight is a little brighter.

Donovan Mitchell stole that spotlight on Tuesday.

Mitchell dropped a season-high 43 points and continued to look like one of the best moves of the offseason, sparking the Cavaliers to a 116-102 win over the Lakers.

The big concern from Los Angeles’ end was Anthony Davis left the game in the first quarter due to “flu-like symptoms” and did not return. His status for the team against the Raptors Wednesday night is unknown.

Jarrett Allen returned from injury for the Cavaliers and with Davis out he ate, scoring 24. But it was the Mitchell show in the second half, when he scored 29.

3) Progress toward new CBA reportedly slowed down

It’s long been the conventional wisdom that the owners and players are both making too much money to risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs — they would find common ground on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Things were going too well for them to risk any labor trouble (and how that would play publicly).

But that may underestimate billionaires’ greed — an internal fight among owners might screw it up.

New CBA talks have reportedly slowed largely because some owners are pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” — a hard cap by any other name. Marc Stein was among the first to report on this months ago and added yesterday in his newsletter things have gotten serious enough that the sides may need to extend the Dec. 15 opt-out date for the CBA to give them more time to negotiate.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell:

• Some owners want to rein in the spending of other newer, richer owners. Since the punitive luxury tax isn’t doing the job, those owners want a hard cap (possibly to replace, or at least alter, the current tax system).

• There are a minority of owners are willing to shrug off the tax. For example, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are poised to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, plus $144.7 million in luxury tax, for a rough total of $336.6 million in salary and tax. The Warriors are likely closer to $360 million this season in salary and tax, and the Nets will be in the same ballpark. For comparison, the Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll, (20 NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less).

• There is zero chance the players union will approve a CBA with anything resembling a hard cap. The owners know this.

• The owners’ squabbles are part of a larger fight going on across the sporting world, not just domestically but internationally. To use soccer as an example during the World Cup, the oil-rich country of Qatar owns French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain FC and has paid for a front line of Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe. They crush domestic competition most seasons because they can outspend them. The Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund has bought Newcastle United in the English Premier League and their spending — not just on players but staff and facilities — has turned Newcastle into a Champions League looking team in a year. And the list goes on and on in soccer.

• Earlier this year, the NBA approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the arms of these oil-rich countries, or other nations — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team. That has not happened yet, but the door is open.

• As wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — jump into the NBA, some of the older owners feel squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That older group is pushing back to rein in those new owners who (they feel) disrupt the system with their spending.

• This dispute among the owners has suddenly put the dreaded idea of a lockout back on the table. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. This is not a player thing, this is all Adam Silver and the owners, and they need to get their house in order, not risk the league’s standing over their internal issues.

TOP HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT: Kenny shoves Shaq into the Christmas Tree. That is never not funny.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).