Three things to know: Damian Lillard is back, Lakers 0-3 because of it

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LOS ANGELES — 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) Damian Lillard is all the way back. The Lakers are 0-3 because of it.

What they built before had stalled out, so in the past year Portland overhauled its roster. The Trail Blazers front office leaned hard into more athletic players who could provide defense and versatility — Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Justise Winslow, and re-signing Anfernee Simons.

But it was all a bet on Damian Lillard. Could the core muscle surgery he had last season bring him back close to his All-NBA level self?

Does his back-to-back 41-point games answer that question?

The second of those came Sunday against the Lakers, where Lillard led a comeback from seven points down with less than two minutes to go. The 106-104 win improved Portland to 3-0 on the young season — and dropped the Lakers to 0-3.

Lillard has his explosion, his burst back, he’s extending better around the rim again, but his shot never went anywhere. His biggest jumper of the night was a pull-up 3-pointer with :12.4 seconds left in the game to give the Trail Blazers the lead. Vintage Dame Time.

Portland made their run in the fourth quarter for a few reasons. The biggest strategy change was Chauncey Billups deciding to put Jusuf Nurkic on Russell Westbrook — that allowed the Blazers’ big man to play back in the paint, take away Westbrook’s driving lanes and daring him to shoot jumpers (Westbrook was 1-of-5 shooting outside the paint Sunday), all while being in position to help others. The Lakers never figured out how to attack the Trail Blazers with Nurkic back like that.

Second, the Lakers’ shot selection was unimpressive under pressure. The most egregious example was with the Lakers up by one with :27 seconds left in the game and the ball, and Westbrook took a pull-up midrange jumper with :18 seconds left on the shot clock (he said after the game he was trying to go for a two-for-one). Coach Darvin Ham ended up sitting Westbrook for the final seconds.

The other key late: Anthony Davis picked up his fifth foul. He couldn’t be as aggressive defensively, which showed with the game on the line, tied at 104-104, and Grant went right at LeBron and got a shot up around Davis — it was the game-winner.

The vibe around the Lakers after the game was ugly — this was one they felt they should have won. It’s one thing to lose two games to start the season to two teams that are the favorites in the West — the Warriors and Clippers — and another to blow a lead at home to a team the Lakers will be fighting for a postseason spot. There was palpable frustration in the Lakers’ press conferences and locker room.

The Lakers are defending better for Darvin Ham, they are playing faster and doing a lot of things right, but it all gets cut off at the knees because this team can’t shoot from the outside.

Lillard can — he is back. And the Blazers’ bet on him has paid off with a 3-0 start to the season.

2) Break up the Jazz

The Utah front office told anyone who would listen this offseason, “we’re not trying to lose,” a statement greeted with eye rolls if not outright laughter.

The Jazz are the ones laughing now — they have started the season 3-0 after a Kelly Olynyk finger roll in overtime proved to be the game-winner against the Pelicans.

Even after trading Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neal, there are still quality NBA players on the Jazz roster: Mike Conley, Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton, among others. They are also playing with the edge of a disrespected team.

Markkanen had 31 to lead the Jazz, getting some of that by going right at Zion Williamson. While Zion finished with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting, he was -7 because his defense could be exploited. Utah was in control of this game but things changed after Zion suffered a posterior hip contusion and had to sit out. Willie Green also sat Jonas Valanciunas at the same time, went smaller with Larry Nance Jr. at the five and a bunch of bench guys, and almost pulled off the win.

The Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram only played 11 minutes and none in the second half after he was hit in the face in a collision with Naji Marshall. He was being checked for concussion-like symptoms.

How long Utah’s hot streak to start the season holds out remains to be seen, but the pictures of Danny Ainge driving the tank for this team to get Wembanyama may be premature.

3) Donovan Mitchell has his third 30+ point game to start season

Donovan Mitchell is a bucket.

That was always going to fit just fine in Cleveland, which needed the additional shot creation and scoring. Mitchell has been worth the price early, dropping 37 on Sunday — and the Cavaliers needed every one of those to beat the Wizards in overtime, 117-107.

Mitchell is the first Cavaliers player ever to score at least 30 points in his first three games with the team. He had to pick up the scoring on Sunday with Darius Garland out (left eye laceration). Mitchell got some help off the bench in this one with Cedi Osman scoring 16 and Dean Wade adding a dozen.

Bradley Beal had 27 for the Wizards, while Kristaps Porzinghis had 18 points and 11 boards.

Both the Cavaliers and Wizards are 2-1 to start the season.

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.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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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) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?