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


Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out 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

Brad Stevens confirms Joe Mazzulla will return as Celtics coach


Despite the sting of losing to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t expect sweeping changes in Boston. Not to the Celtics’ coaching staff and not to the roster.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Steven made that clear in his end-of-season press conference. It starts with bringing back Joe Mazzulla, which was expected after he was given a multi-year contract extension during the season. Stevens was asked if Mazzulla was the right person to lead the Celtics after an uneven season (hat tip NBC Sports Boston).

“Yeah, I think he is,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a really good job with this group. Everybody’s going to overreact to the best players and coaches after every game. That’s always the way it is. We know that going in, so we have to be able to judge things on the whole.

“He’s a terrific leader, he’ll only get better at anything that he can learn from this year, because he’s constantly trying to learn. And he’s accountable. Those leadership qualities are hard to find. I know they’re easy to talk about, but when you can show all those through the expectations and the microscope that he was under, that’s hard to do. Our players, our staff, everybody around him believe(s) in him, and we’ve got to do our best to support him going forward.”

The expectation is that veteran coaches — ideally at least one person with NBA head coaching experience — will be added to Mazzulla’s staff to help with the maturation process of the young coach. But he will be back.

Stevens also was asked about Jaylen Brown, who is eligible for a supermax extension of around $295 million over five years (his making All-NBA made him eligible for 35% of the salary cap). Stevens was limited in what he could say due to (archaic) tampering rules.

“I’ve had nothing but great conversations with Jaylen, but we can’t talk about all that stuff,” Stevens said. “I’m not allowed to talk about the contract details, let alone the extension because it’s not of that time yet right now. His window is between July 1 and October or whatever it is.

“But I can say without a doubt that we want Jaylen to be here. He’s a big part of us. We believe in him. I’m thankful for him. I’m really thankful for when those guys (Jayson Tatum and Brown) have success, they come back to work. And when they get beat, they own it and come back to work. I know that’s what they’re about, and that’s hard to find. Kinda like what I talked about with leadership earlier. Those qualities aren’t for everyone. Jaylen had a great year, All-NBA year and he’s a big part of us moving forward in our eyes.”

Despite Brown’s struggles against the Heat, it’s a no-brainer for the Celtics to retain the 26-year-old All-NBA player entering his prime. They should offer him the full supermax, and his public comments made it sound like that’s what he expects. Mess around in negotiations and try to get Brown to take less than the full max and then the threat of Brown leaving becomes more real. Only one player has ever rejected a supermax extension: Kawhi Leonard when he was trying to force a trade. (If Boston puts the full 35% max on the table and Brown rejects it, then the game changes and they have to trade him this summer, but don’t bet on him walking away from more than a quarter of a billion dollars).

There will be changes on the Celtics roster, but expect Brown and Mazzulla to return.

Purdue’s Zach Edey headlines list of players to withdraw from NBA Draft

Fairleigh Dickinson v Purdue
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The winner of the 2023 John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year Award is headed back for another year in the college ranks. And it’s the right move.

Zach Edey headlines the list of 181 players who withdrew their names from the NBA Draft, and he is headed back to Purdue for another season. He confirmed it on Twitter in his own way.

Edey averaged 22.3 points a game on 60.7% shooting and 12.9 rebounds a game last season for the Boilermakers, and his measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were hard to ignore — 7-3¼ barefoot, with a 7-10½ wingspan. However, his lack of elite athleticism, questions about his ability to defend in space, and an old-school, near-the-basket game are not natural fits with where the NBA is trending. He was expected to get picked in the back half of the second round (meaning no guaranteed contract), if at all.

With that, he made the right decision to return to college. If the Toronto native can arrange a new student visa that allows him to better capitalize on NIL money, a return to Purdue is likely the right financial decision as well.

Here are some of the biggest names among the 181 who withdrew from the NBA Draft (via Jonathan Givony of ESPN), with all projected to go after No. 40 or later:

Trey Alexander (Creighton)
Reece Beekman (Virginia)
Adem Bona (UCLA)
Jalen Bridges (Baylor)
Tristan da Silva (Colorado)
Zach Edey (Purdue)
Coleman Hawkins (Illinois)
DaRon Holmes (Dayton)
Josiah-Jordan James (Tennessee)
Dillon Jones (Weber State)
Judah Mintz (Syracuse)
Dillon Mitchell (Texas)
Terrence Shannon (Illinois)

The NBA Draft takes place on June 22.

Lakers rumored to prefer sign-and-trade options for D’Angelo Russell, eye Fred VanVleet

2023 Play-In Tournament - Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

D'Angelo Russell helped the Lakers turn their season around after the All-Star break. He provided needed shot creation at the point, averaged 17.4 points per game while shooting 41.4% from 3, and generally fit nicely on the court. However, his limitations — particularly on the defensive end — were exposed in the playoffs, especially by the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

Russell is an unrestricted free agent and the Lakers are faced with choices: Re-sign him, let him walk, or maybe find a sign-and-trade that can bring back a player who is a better fit for a Lakers roster with championship aspirations next season. The Lakers would ideally like the sign-and-trade option, suggests Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

My read on the situation is that the Lakers would prefer to use D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, but I’m not sure the market is there.

Landing Kyrie Irving for Russell is shaping up to be a pipe dream, especially with Dallas unlikely to help Los Angeles out. Fred VanVleet, a Klutch client, looms as a possibility, but adding him would require Toronto to agree to terms with Russell (or take on the Beasley and Bamba contracts).

Forget about a Kyrie Irving sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Russell, that appears off the table (unless the Lakers add so many sweeteners Dallas can’t say no… and didn’t the Lakers just gut their roster for a guard in Russell Westbrook?)

Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times adds this.

Fred VanVleet’s name has been mentioned since even before he joined Klutch Sports, though the Lakers could again be in a position where they’d be forced to part with one or more draft picks in a deal. Russell’s postseason struggles were probably a little overblown after a disastrous Western Conference finals, but expect the Lakers to look at upgrade options. There’s still a chance Russell returns on a good deal and the Lakers actually get the continuity they’ve spoken about building.

VanVleet has a $22.8 million player option he is widely expected to opt out of seeking more money and years. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.2 assists a game last season, is a respectable defender, and is a former All-Star and NBA champion.

The questions start with, what are Toronto’s plans? They have yet to hire a new head coach after firing Nick Nurse, and there isn’t a sense of whether they will try to re-sign VanVleet, extend Pascal Siakam and run it back, break the entire thing up, or travel a middle ground reworking the roster. Dreams of a sign-and-trade only work if the Raptors play along. And, if the Raptors come around to consider a sign-and-trade for VanVleet, do they want Russell in that deal? Plus, the Lakers likely have to throw in the last first-round pick they can trade to get Toronto even to consider it.

All of which is to say, it’s a long shot VanVleet is a Laker. Not impossible, but not likely.

The smart money is on the Lakers re-signing Russell and considering trade options at next February’s deadline or next summer, if they feel it’s time to move on.

Celtics’ Payton Pritchard reportedly wants a trade this summer

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Payton Pritchard saw his role as a reserve guard with the Celtics shrink this season, which may have had less to do with the changeover to Joe Mazzulla as coach and more to do with the addition of Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

Either way, Pritchard doesn’t like it and wants to be traded this offseason, reports Jay King and Jared Weiss of The Athletic (in a must-read breakdown of the Celtics’ season and where they ultimately fell short.

With the new onerous CBA rules looming after next season, the front office will likely have to decide in the next 12 months whether it can afford its expensive veteran depth. Payton Pritchard has made it clear he hopes to be traded this summer, according to multiple team sources, so will the Celtics move him if they trade one of their core guards?

Pritchard may not get his wish for the financial reasons mentioned by King and Weiss — Boston has some hard decisions to make coming up. For next season, the Celtics are already $4 million into the luxury tax with 12 people on the roster, and that is without re-signing Grant Williams (if they can) or thinking about the super-max contract Jaylen Brown is about to sign that will kick in for the 2024-25 season. With the draconian threat of the second “lead” tax apron looming in a year, the Celtics must trim salary. One way to do that this summer is to trade one of Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon, which is what is widely expected to happen around the league.

With one of those three gone, minutes open up for Pritchard, who has a team option for $4 million next season. That’s a great value contract the Celtics likely want to keep.

Meaning Pritchard may not get his wish to be sent out of Boston, but if he ends up staying, he should see more run next season.