Three things to know: Physical Zion, Pelicans run roughshod over 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 must-watch.

1) Physical, aggressive Zion, Pelicans run roughshod over Nets

The big question for Brooklyn, the one even Kevin Durant was asking, was how will this Nets roster respond when adversity hits? The talent on the roster is unquestionable, but does this team have the grit, the toughness, the determination to push through when things get hard?

We’re going to be finding out sooner rather than later.

Adversity came early to Brooklyn — Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans ran straight through and over the Nets on opening night.

The Pelicans pounded a soft Nets defense inside all night long. New Orleans had 23 more shots in the paint than Brooklyn. The Pelicans grabbed the offensive rebound on 45.3% of their missed shots — 21 offensive boards — on their way to 36 second-chance points (the Nets had four). Brooklyn didn’t make up for it from the outside, shooting 10-of-33 from beyond the arc.

The Pelicans started the game on a 20-4 run and never looked back, cruising to a 130-108 beatdown of the Nets on opening night.

Zion was unafraid to go at the Nets’ best perimeter defenders in Royce O’Neal and Ben Simmons. The Pelicans star uses a low center of gravity on his drives — he gets lower than his 6’6″ frame — and seemingly easily went through and around the guys the Nets are banking on to slow the other team’s best players.

Zion was energetic, tough (especially on the offensive boards), and finished with 25 points on 11-of-22 shooting (every shot taken in the paint), with nine rebounds and four steals. The scary thing for the rest of the league? He still didn’t look all the way back with his explosiveness and athleticism. It’s just one game after missing an entire season, but Zion appears on the path to being the guy we remember seeing — an aggressive, attacking, physical force of nature with a soft scoring touch around the rim. And his defense was improved.

It’s just one game after missing a season for Simmons, too, but he was not aggressive, not looking comfortable, and was not the player the Nets needed him to be. On offense he looked like an awkward fit trying to figure out how to playoff off Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Simmons finished with four points on three shots, and just did not impact the game like the Nets needed him to. He fouled out in 23 minutes.

Kevin Durant looked great, scoring 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting, and he even had four blocks. But the other Nets did not step up to his level and did not show a lot of fight in this one — a concerning issue on opening night. Kyrie Irving had 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. The Pelicans defended well enough on the perimeter to force the Nets into more midrange shots — Brooklyn missed Joe Harris and Seth Curry, both out with injuries — and the Nets didn’t step up and knock down enough of those looks.

Other Pelicans did step up — they had balance. Brandon Ingram looked like his All-Star self with 28 points, CJ McCollum had 21with six assists, and Trey Murphy III impressed off the bench with 16. Jonas Valanciunas had 13 rebounds to go with his 15 points, and he was a big part of the Pelicans dominating in the paint.

It’s just one game, too early to read too much into the Nets. Irving will have better games. Simmons has to get his legs under him. Getting their best shooters healthy will help. Brooklyn is better than this.

But the Pelicans challenged the Nets and ran right over them — the toughness and grit needed to win in the NBA was not on display. Brooklyn has to find it and find it early — they will be every team’s target — if they want to reach the contender status where they think they belong.

2) The Damion Lee show caps off 22-point Suns comeback — and revenge — against Mavericks

For 24 minutes, this looked and felt too much like Game 7 of the playoffs last season — a blowout Dallas win that eliminated the favorite Suns and made everyone outside the locker room question the Suns as contenders. With Luka Doncic running the show, the Mavericks were up by 22 and seemingly in total control of the game.

Then Phoenix got its revenge.

Two huge shots from Damion Lee capped off a dramatic and cathartic comeback. The first was a 3-pointer to put the Suns up four with 1:38 left.

Doncic wasn’t done — he finished with a game-high 35 points on 23 shots, plus had nine assists — and hit an and-1 to tie the game up at 105.

Then it was Lee one more time, this time with a tough game-winner.

Lee’s old Warriors teammate Stephen Curry loved it.

Doncic got a clean look at a long 3-pointer to give the Mavs the win, but it hit the front of the rim, and Phoenix got the 107-105 victory.

A win that helps exorcize the demons of last season. Sure, it’s just one win to open an 82-game marathon of a season, but this was the win the Suns needed to shake off the end of last season.

One thing to watch out of this game, Chris Paul sat on the bench at the end and Monty Williams went with Cameron Payne. After the game Williams said he was riding the hot hand, which may be the case, but Paul had six points on 1-of-6 shooting on the night, although he did dish out nine assists. It’s just something to keep an eye on going forward.

3) Paolo Banchero puts up historic 27/9/5 line in first game

Paolo Banchero might be special.

His opening night put him in historic company — Banchero finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

The Magics’ other young stars stepped up, too — Jalen Suggs had 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and Franz Wagner added 20.

It wasn’t enough to get the win against a Pistons team that might be pushing for a play-in spot when this season ends. Bojan Bogdanovic had 24 points as the veteran, and Cade Cunningham had 18 points and 10 assists. Rookie Jalen Duren might be a steal, he had 14 off the bench.

Other games of note from opening night in the NBA:

Ja Morant and Jalen Brunson put on a show late but Morant was a little better — 34 points and nine assists — and he got a little more help as the Grizzlies beat the Knicks 115-112.
• Upset of the night: Revamped Utah wasn’t tanking opening night, pulling off a 123-102 victory against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets.
• In games in the East between projected playoff/play-in teams, the Bulls upset the Heat 116-108 behind 37 from DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors beat the Cavaliers 108-105.
Jerami Grant‘s old-school three-point play gave the Trail Blazers the lead with 50.4 seconds to play and Portland beat Sacramento 113-108 on a night Damian Lillard was not his peak self (but still had 20 points).

76ers blow 9-point lead in final :34 seconds, then hang on to beat Lakers in OT

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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It was almost a legendary comeback win for the Lakers — and a legendary blown lead for the 76ers.

Philadelphia had the game in hand, up 18 in the fourth quarter, and while Los Angeles staged a comeback the 76ers were still up by nine inside :45 seconds. And yet…

The 76ers took care of business in overtime — aided by the Lakers settling too much and going 0-of-5 outside the paint but also 1-of-5 in the paint in OT — and picked up the 133-122 win.

In a battle of two teams that have been inconsistent all season, they lived up to that billing – both teams had huge lapses and stretches of impressive play. It led to streaks, including the wild final minutes.

Joel Embiid started out hot scoring 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points and finishing the night with 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

James Harden looked better than his first game back and finished with 28 points and 12 assists.

However, Philly’s breakout star of the night was DeAnthony Melton, who grew up a Clippers fan and said he wanted to take it to the Lakers — he scored 33 points with eight made 3-pointers.

Anthony Davis finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds for the night. Austin Reaves came off the bench and hit 4-of-6 from 3 on his way to 25 points, while LeBron James had 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.