Three things to know: Early season overreactions to 76ers win, Nets loss

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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) The 76ers pick up first win. So is everything good now?

Maybe P.J. Tucker should yell at his teammates more often.

Philadelphia picked up its first win of the season Monday against Indiana. Sure, it took the 76ers facing a Pacers team playing its third game in four nights, but when the schedule maker hands you a win, you take it and say thank you. Philadelphia did just that, getting a big night from James Harden — 29 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds — on their way to a comfortable 120-106 victory over Indy. You know it’s a good night in Philly when Harden breaks ankles and does everything but the shimmy.

There were a lot of positives for Sixers fans: Philadelphia was firing more from beyond the arc (43 3-point attempts), Joel Embiid pitched in 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and the bench that struggled early stepped up with George Niang adding 16 points and DeAnthony Melton scoring 11. It was an all-around improved effort.

So everything is good with the 76ers then?

Not exactly.

Philly was never as bad as some wanted to believe with the 0-3 start, but they have a lot of work to do to be the contenders many people predicted they could be. The flaws and concerns with the roster and how it is coming together early are still there.

The ball movement was improved against Indiana, but there were still too many possessions of Harden pounding the ball into the ground and starting the offense late in the clock. It still seems like Embiid and Harden are taking turns, not playing with and off each other. Tyrese Maxey is still looking for his shot to start the season (3-of-11 against the Pacers). Still, all those issues can be worked out over time. Philly is a middle-of-the-pack offense after the first week, but give it time and it will climb up the league ladder.

The bigger concern is defense. There will always be challenges defensively for a team that plans to play Maxey and Harden heavy minutes together in the backcourt. The problem is a slowed Embiid to start the season has not been able to cover for them protecting the rim, and the wing defense has been an issue. Unlike the offense, which just needs time to meld, Doc Rivers needs to find schemes and energy to pick up what has been a bottom-10 defense to start.

Philly has too much talent to struggle for long, it will find the wins. Whether the 76ers find their way up to contender status may take longer to determine.

2) Is Kevin Durant‘s brilliance masking flawed Nets team?

Watching Kevin Durant play basketball is sublime. Like listening to Thelonious Monk play the piano or Meryl Streep on the big screen, we know greatness when we see it, and Durant is unquestionably one of the greatest scorers and players the game has ever seen. On Monday night, a Durant bucket moved him past Alex English into 20th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

But are Durant’s Nets a good team? Not right now. Not the way they are defending to start the season. Through three games, Durant leading a strong offense has covered up the league’s worst defense.

Durant got help from Kyrie Irving on Monday night (both scored 37 points) but it was not enough as the Grizzlies put up 134 behind 38 points each from Ja Morant and Desmond Bane. Brooklyn fell to 1-2 on the young season with the 134-124 loss to Memphis.

No team has a defender who can stay in front of Ja Morant, both Nic Claxton and Royce O’Neal got torched in the role, but the help rotations were slow to nonexistent much of the night.

There were mistakes on switches leaving Memphis shooters open multiple times in this game. However, the biggest issue: The Grizzlies simply outworked the Nets all night long, particularly on the glass.

Ben Simmons‘ start to the season can be summed up this way: He has more personal fouls than points. Both he and coach Steve Nash talked about him still shaking off the rust and finding his footing to start the season. Okay. But his unwillingness to shoot is something other teams will exploit.

It’s just three games, far too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the Nets. But in the NBA defense starts with effort, and the Nets have played with the energy of a team that feels entitled to wins. The league doesn’t work that way. The Nets must find some grit and toughness in their identity to compete with the best in the East.

As a palate cleanser, here’s your ridiculous Ja Morant highlight of the night.

3) Are the 4-0 Portland Trail Blazers for real?

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Damian Lillard admitting he has never been to the Oregon coast is shocking and will cost him points with Oregonians — he’s built up enough loyalty points to get through this, but it’s going to come up. A lot. And for the record, the Oregon coast is in my top 10 “places you need to visit in the USA.” Just go, Dame.

As for the Trail Blazers…

They might be for real.

They just beat the Lakers and Nuggets on what is one of the toughest back-to-backs in the league — the Lakers present the physical challenge of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and then to travel all night, deal with the Denver airport (if you know, you know), and have to play a game at altitude against the two-time MVP is just brutal. The Trail Blazers swept both ends of the back-to-back, and outplayed the Nuggets in the second half when their legs should have been spaghetti. Throw in a Portland win over Phoenix this season, and this team might be for real.

Damian Lillard is back — his explosion, his extension at the rim when he finishes looks like the guy from five years ago — and a night after dropping 41 on the Clippers he had 31 against Denver. He’s gotten help from Anfernee Simons, who has played up to his new contract and had 29 in Denver (but Blazers social media, the “Anferno” nickname… you can do better).

Portland revamped this roster in the offseason, and they added more athleticism around Lillard — so far that has worked. This team just meshes well. Portland has been getting it done on both ends this season, and while it’s early they have a top-10 offense and defense.

Can the Trail Blazers sustain this for 78 more games? Where do they fall in the West’s hierarchy? It’s a long season and we will find out. But one week in, this team looks for real.

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.

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.