Three Things to Know: Lakers eliminated from playoffs after epically disappointing season

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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) Lakers eliminated from playoffs after an epically disappointing season

The warning signs were there when the Lakers went 0-6 in the preseason and got smacked around. We all ignored them, myself included.

The flaws in the roster were visible even before the season tipped off — Russell Westbrook was not a natural fit next to LeBron James, the Lakers were too old and not athletic enough, they lacked defenders — but LeBron had earned the benefit of the doubt. He wasn’t just one of the greatest players ever, he was the game’s greatest problem solver ever — he had lifted worse rosters to much higher heights. Anthony Davis is still elite and in his prime. LeBron and the Lakers would figure this out.

They didn’t. Tuesday night, the Lakers lost their seventh straight game, this time to the Phoenix Suns — a team that made sure all their stars dressed for what was a meaningless game for them because Davis said the other day the Lakers would have beaten the Suns in the first round last year if he were healthy, and the Suns took that personally. Phoenix ran Los Angeles out of the building 121-110 in a game that wasn’t that close (Phoenix led by 25 midway through the fourth, before garbage time).

The Lakers have been eliminated from even the play-in. They trail the Spurs by three games in the loss column with three to play, and the Spurs have the tiebreaker. It’s over.

That led to the Tweet of the night from the guys at Action Sports Network

With the victory, the Suns set a franchise record with 63 wins on the season.

The postmortums are coming for Los Angeles. Davis again pointed to injuries, and that played a role, but every team faced them — the Grizzlies and Suns kept winning without their stars. Russell Westbrook was supposed to bring that to Los Angeles, and he did not come close to it. Frank Vogel could have been better as coach — and he will pay the price and be fired soon — but it’s also far from all on him. This was a poorly constructed Lakers roster that needed everything to go perfect to win, and things never go perfectly. A major overhaul is coming this offseason, but we saw that last season and… the benefit of the doubt for Rob Pelinka and the front office is gone.

The only remaining question for the Lakers this season: Will LeBron play two more games to qualify for the scoring title chase? He has played 56 games, he has to play 58 to qualify. After dropping 45 on Tuesday, Joel Embiid passed LeBron for the scoring title chase (30.4 per game to 30.3 for LeBron). If LeBron comes back and wants the title, he can’t just “cruise” to some 25-point games, he is going to have to put up big numbers. Will his ankle let him? Does he want to? The logical thing is to shut him down for the season, but what has been logical about the Lakers this year?

2) Nets win, Hawks and Hornets lose, Brooklyn back up to No. 8 seed in East

Speaking of teams not living up to the preseason hype…

The Brooklyn Nets will at least make the play-in, and their chances of advancing out of that into the playoffs proper got a big boost on Tuesday when they beat the Rockets 118-105 behind 42 from Kyrie Irving.

That combined with the Hawks falling to the Raptors 118-108 (a win that moved Toronto up to the No. 5 seed) and Charlotte falling to Miami 144-115, the Nets are back up to the No 8 seed in the East. Just a reminder, the No. 7/8 seeds need to win just one of two play-in games to advance to the playoffs, while the 9/10 seeds need to win two games in a row. There is no margin for error, and even with the Nets’ firepower they would like to avoid that.

The Nets control their own destiny in getting the No. 8 seed — win out and they are in. They have three games left: At the Knicks Wednesday on the second night of a back-to-back, against the stumbling Cavaliers, then at home hosting the Pacers.

3) Toronto wins, rises up to No. 5 seed, and will be a tough out come playoffs

The Toronto Raptors are good. And dangerous come the playoffs.

That needs to be acknowledged, because this is a team where too often the conversation is about how many Celtics could travel to Toronto if the teams meet in the playoffs. It shouldn’t be. Toronto has a borderline All-NBA player in Pascal Siakam and team of long, athletic, switchable 6’7″ to 6’9″ guys led by the efficiency and smart play of Fred VanVleet at the point. The Raptors don’t play the style of any other team, and no other coach wants to deal with the wrinkles Nick Nurse will throw at them in the playoffs.

Since the All-Star break, the Raptors are 14-8 with the second best defense in the NBA. Other teams have noticed. This is a tough matchup and the top four are eyeing easier ones out there.

Tuesday night the Raptors climbed up to the No. 5 seed after beating the Hawks 118-108 behind Pascal Siakam’s 31 points and 13 rebounds, while rookie Scottie Barnes added 19 points and 14 boards. Combine that Raptors win with the Bulls losing the Bucks, and Toronto is currently the No. 5 seed (the Raptors have one tough game left against the 76ers on Thursday, followed by the Rockets and Knicks over the weekend).

Highlight of the Night: Clarkson splits the double, switch hands mid-air, gets bucket

Jordan Clarkson may not repeat as Sixth Man of the Year, but the man is still a walking highlight reel.

Utah picked up a quality win over Memphis, the kind of victory that can snap a team out of their slump.

Yesterday’s scores:

76ers 131, Pacers 122
Magic 120, Cavaliers 115
Nets 118, Rockets 105
Heat 144, Hornets 115
Raptors 118, Hawks 108
Bucks 127, Bulls 106
Wizards 132, Timberwolves 114
Thunder 98, Trail Blazers 94
Spurs 116, Nuggets 97
Jazz 121, Grizzlies 115 (OT)
Pelicans 123, Kings 109
Suns 121, Lakers 110

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

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.