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