Three things to know: ‘Pickup game’ Warriors can’t get stops, fall to 3-4

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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) “Pickup game” Warriors can’t get stops, fall to 3-4

“I think it looks like a pickup game out there.”

Unlike the teams in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the Golden State Warriors have more than earned the benefit of the doubt — maybe they are off to a slow start, but the team that just held a parade through the streets of San Francisco last June. Cut them some slack.

Steve Kerr sounds done with that mindset — that’s his pickup game quote. The Warriors’ 115.2 defensive rating to start the season is 23rd in the league, and Sunday the Pistons had a 127.8 rating on their way to a 128-114 win at home, dropping the Warriors to 3-4 on the season.

The reality is that while Stephen Curry has come out putting up low-key MVP numbers — 31 points a game, shooting 39.5% from 3, plus 6.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game — the Warriors’ core six players are treating the early regular season like champions often do. That core — Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, and Jordan Poole — is playing in second gear, if not outright coasting, for stretches.

That coasting is what gets the defense in trouble — the Warriors get the other team’s best shot nightly. Opponents are attacking and Golden State doesn’t consistently match that intensity. The young stars asked to pick up the slack and provide that intensity — Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman, Moses Moody — have not been up to the task so far. Veteran addition Donte DiVincenzo has been in and out of the lineup and JaMychal Green has been fine but not elite.

Detroit’s young stars showed when many pundits had them in the mix for a play-in spot this season. Cade Cunningham controlled the show and finished with a near triple-double — 23 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Detroit got huge nights from Saddiq Bey (28 points) and Isaiah Stewart (a career-high 24 points plus 13 boards and quality defense in the paint).

It’s a quality, confidence-boosting win for the Pistons.

It is a long season, and it’s far too early to sound any alarm bells about the Warriors. They will be fine.

But they have coasted through the first couple of weeks of the regular season, and it’s got them below .500. Expect Kerr to put his foot on the gas soon.

2) Lakers’ jump shots finally fall, they pick up first win of season

The Lakers’ jump shots finally showed up for a game.

Los Angeles entered Sunday night averaging less than a point per possession on the season, but put up a 124.7 offensive rating — or, in the numbers on the scoreboard, 121 points — and that was enough to earn its first victory of the season.

Their stars drove it: LeBron James had 26 points, Anthony Davis 23, Russell Westbrook 18 (with eight rebounds and assists) and 18 points from Lonnie Walker IV.

The reason for the Lakers’ win was pretty simple: Their jumpers finally fell. Los Angeles was 15-of-40 on 3-pointers (37.5%) and they were 9-of-15 shooting from the midrange (outside the paint but inside the arc, for our purposes here).

Nikola Jokic was good but human with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Jamal Murray added 21 points, but backup point guard Bones Hyland was out (hip strain) and Ish Smith left the game with a calf strain, and suddenly the Nuggets were light on secondary shot creation. Denver fell to 4-3 on the young season with the loss, and their defense continues to be bottom 10 in the league (it’s holding the team back so far).

For the Lakers, it’s not a win that erases the previous five games or the issues and concerns those losses exposed — this roster isn’t suddenly filled with good shooters, but it takes the pressure off for a night.

3) Zion returns, powers Pelicans past still-struggling Clippers

Zion Williamson was back on the court and showed the Clippers he is more than straight-line drives and dunks —he’s always had soft touch around the rim, but now he has improving craft. His passing stood out Sunday afternoon, dishing out seven assists and making the right play — he’s not just a guy using brute force to get to his spots anymore. He finished with 21 points, too.

Combine that with the floor general leadership of CJ McCollum and the Pelicans will put up points — 112 points on Sunday against the Clippers.

The Los Angeles offense could not begin to keep up — leading to its fourth loss in a row, this time 112-91.

“Either we gotta get better at it or we gotta do something different,” coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “I’m not to that point yet, but we just gotta do some things better. We’re not a very good basketball team right now. We gotta change that.”

For a team loaded with shooters, the Clippers aren’t taking that many 3-pointers — they came into the game taking the second fewest per game in the league, and were bottom 10 in the percentage of their shots that are from deep. They did better against the Pelicans getting up 36 from beyond the arc, but hit just 11 (28.2%).

The Clippers don’t move the ball as crisply (third fewest passes per game in the league coming into Sunday) and at points Sunday that led to them dribbling into contested shots (against a sneaky long Pelicans team). However, the Clippers were missing the open ones, too:

Paul George 5-of-19
Reggie Jackson 4-of-12
Marcus Morris 5-of-12
Nicholas Batum 1-of-5.

That and a slow-paced offense from Los Angeles resulted in 91 points on a 48.3 true shooting percentage for the night. That is not going to get the job done.

The Clippers fell to 2-4 on the young season. There is no panic with the Clippers, they are treating this season as a marathon. Lue said pregame, “I think, it’s gonna take us some time, a couple of months to, you know, get up to speed offensively.”

The Clippers need to find a little more urgency now. A team can fall far enough back in a marathon it’s impossible to catch up — losses now count just like the ones later in the season, and the Clippers could be playing themselves into a tougher postseason matchup.

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.

Watch Pacers rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
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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) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.