Three Things to Know: Improved 76ers still couldn’t top Bucks in crunch

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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) An improved 76ers still couldn’t top Bucks in crunch time

“We’re just not there yet… We have to improve as a team on both ends. Our pace has to improve offensively, our spacing has to improve offensively, continuity has to improve offensively… We have to be a better team defense.”

That was 76ers coach Doc Rivers last Friday, but just a few days later on Tuesday night he got much of the improvement he hoped to see. Philadelphia’s pace, spacing and continuity looked better against the Bucks, and the defense was improved. By the eye test, Tuesday night was the 76ers best performance in a while.

But in the end, the 76ers still were just not there yet.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40, dominated the game in critical stretches — including a game-saving block of Joel Embiid — and the Bucks, who did not play their best game all night, came back in the fourth to win 118-116.

Antetokounmpo’s block of an Embiid putback with the game on the line was the kind of play an MVP makes.

The 76ers were improved, but like champions do the Bucks found their extra gear and Philly could not match it in the fourth.

In the first half, the 76ers got to see the James Harden they hoped they traded for: 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting, a couple of threes, five assists, running a brilliant pick-and-roll (or, often, pop) game with Joel Embiid. Harden even showed little bursts, getting to the rim a few times. It was his best game as a 76ers in a long time, and he finished the night with 32 points and nine assists.

But in the fourth, when the Bucks cranked up their defense and came from10 back to win the game, the 76ers got the Harden that could doom them in the playoffs: three points on 1-of-4 shooting, standing around when Embiid had the ball, being a defensive liability and not making up for it on offense.

What has to be concerning for the 76ers and the East is that it was not the Bucks’ best game — they can be that fourth-quarter team for longer stretches. They will be better. Can anyone in the East — the Heat, the 76ers, the Celtics without Robert Williams — match them?

2) Paul George returns, sparks Clippers comeback on Jazz (who it new low)

The Los Angeles Clippers suddenly look like a much tougher out heading into the playoffs — Paul George gives them a true No. 1 option on offense.

The Utah Jazz are not striking fear into anyone right now.

George returned after missing 43 games due to a torn right ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and dominated late, scoring 34 and giving a Clippers team that had looked tired and beaten down lately a jolt of energy, a “morale boost” according to coach Tyronn Lue.

Utah dominated this game through two-and-a-half quarters, more than doubling up the Clippers in the first quarter, 32-14, and cruising much of the way from there, up 25 with a little over 8 minutes left in the third. George was scoreless in the first, and it looked like the kind of ego-boosting dominant win a stumbling and struggling of late Jazz team needed.

But if one team should have known about Clipper comebacks, it’s the Jazz. Utah blew a 25-point lead to the Clippers in their final playoff game last season.

The Clippers have been the feisty comeback kids all season and George’s return just added to that — they now have four comebacks of 20+ points this season.

George took charge of the game, scoring 25 of his points from that 8-minute mark on, getting to the rim, finding open players, and fitting in perfectly with a Clippers team that has played hard and unified basketball much of the season for Tyronn Lue. George returned, dominated in his 31 minutes, and embodied the mentality these Clippers have had all season.

As for the Jazz after the game… yikes.

Utah has fallen into a tie for the 5/6 seed in the West with six games to play — and Minnesota is just two games back with the threat of play-in games looming (the Jazz have the tiebreaker over the Timberwolves, so that is really a three-game lead, but the point remains the same). For all their talent, the Jazz are in their own heads and look like the team the top teams in the West want to face in the first round.

3) Lakers fall into 11th place in West as Luka Doncic puts on show — but Davis nears return

Let’s start with the one bright spot for the Lakers: Anthony Davis could make his return for the team Friday night. The Lakers were without LeBron James or Davis on Tuesday night and will be again Thursday in Utah, but Chris Haynes of Yahoo reported Davis is targeting a Friday night return from the sprained foot that has sidelined him since January.

There is no word on when LeBron could return from his sprained ankle. That Friday night game between two teams battling for the final play-in spots in the West will be critical.

Without LeBron and Davis, the Lakers are terrible. It’s that simple. They can’t generate consistently good offense, and they don’t come close to having anyone who can slow Luka Doncic, who put on a show scoring 34 on Tuesday night with 12 rebounds and 12 assists. He did whatever he wanted against the Lakers’ defense.

With the Jazz stumbling, as noted above, the Mavericks are solidly the No. 4 seed in the West and are just one game back of another stumbling team, the Warriors, for the No. 3 seed. Doncic is playing the best basketball of his career and you can see a path for Dallas to take a postseason step forward this year and make a deep run.

As for the Lakers, if the postseason started today they would be out as the No. 11 seed and on vacation. The Lakers and Spurs are tied at 31-44 (the Spurs have the tiebreaker) and the Pelicans are one game up on both of them. Los Angeles needs wins down the stretch to pass San Antonio or catch New Orleans, and they need their stars back to have any chance of that. It all starts with the health report for the rest of the season for the Lakers.

Highlight of the Night: Mike Conley with the halfcourt buzzer-beater

When things were rolling right for the Jazz early against the Clippers, everything was falling for them, including Mike Conley with the halfcourt buzzer-beater.

But oh how things would turn.

Yesterday’s scores:

Bucks 118, 76ers 116
Bulls 107, Wizards 94
Nets 130, Pistons 123
Mavericks 128, Lakers 110
Clippers 121, Jazz 115

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

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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

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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) 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
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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
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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.