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