Three things to know: Jacque Vaughn has Nets defending, winning

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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) Jacque Vaughn has Nets defending, winning

Steve Nash was not the cause of all things wrong in Brooklyn.

However, the Nets needed a jolt. Nash felt he had lost the team (some might say he never had it), and the Nets were going through the motions and getting beat nightly. A coaching change was the way to shake this team out of its doldrums.

It worked.

The Nets under Jacque Vaughn have a +10.1 net rating that is the best in the league through the last seven games (they have been unlucky and gone 4-3 in those games, but are playing better).

That change started on the defensive end, where the Nets were dead last in the league under Nash. Making moves that were less about Xs and Os and more about just getting guys to play with real urgency and commitment, the Nets rallied since Vaughn took over and have had the best defensive net rating in the league through the last seven games (101.5).

The offense had a middle-of-the-pack 111.5 rating through that same time, which isn’t bad considering it is the Kevin Durant show — there is no Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons is coming off the bench and not contributing much when he does play (a knee issue is keeping him out right now).

None of that showed on Sunday, the second night of a back-to-back in Los Angeles in the middle of a long road trip, when Brooklyn came out flat and got steamrolled by an aggressive Anthony Davis, who put up 37 points and 18 boards in a 116-103 Lakers win.

However, the day before, Seth Curry got hot and scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter as the Nets held the Clippers to 95 points and got a 15-point win.

Vaughn is a former NBA player and head coach who had been with the Nets since Kenny Atkinson came in back in 2016. He had built relationships with the players, which allowed him to push them.

“It’s been great from Day 1 he got the interim job,” Curry told Brian Lewis at the New York Post. “I didn’t know what would happen, but he came in and was honest with us and just saying, ‘I’m going to work hard every day. Every day they ask me to be the interim head coach, I’m going to come in, I’m going to coach you guys as good as I can.’ That kind of mindset riled the team, that’s kind of the mindset we took on every day.”

Can the Nets keep it up? Can they evolve not only into a playoff team but a real threat in the East under Vaughn?

Maybe. It depends on how Irving fits in whenever he returns (or is that disruptive and a distraction). It depends on if Vaughn can find a way to get more out of Simmons and the Nets’ role players. It depends on Durant’s health.

But Vaughn has turned the Nets into a respectable team that plays hard and defends. That’s a huge first step.

2) Joel Embiid drops 59 on Jazz, has scored 101 over last two games

The 76ers started out 1-2 and the offense stumbled after James Harden went out. Tyrese Maxey was struggling to fill Harden’s playmaking shoes and through those first three games, the Sixers scored less than a point per possession.

Then MVP Joel Embiid showed up for the last two games for Philly and took over. He had 42 on Saturday against the Hawks.

Sunday he dropped a career-high 59 points on the Jazz, shooting 19-of-28 and getting to the free throw line 24 times (hitting 20). Maxey said he started ignoring Doc Rivers’ calls to run pick and rolls to feed Embiid and let him go to work.

Embiid had more points (59) than the Jazz starters combined (53).

It wasn’t just offense — Embiid had five blocked shots in the fourth quarter. If the 76ers are going to climb up a level and compete with the Bucks and Celtics in the playoffs, it’s that end of the floor where Embiid has to make his biggest impact. That Embiid has shown up the last two games.

He’ll get a chance to show that next weekend when the 76ers have a Bucks than Timberwolves back-to-back.

3) We’re not talking enough about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

In the way-to-early MVP conversations bouncing around NBA Twitter, a few names have bubbled up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry.

What about the guy averaging 30.5 points per game on a 62.8 true shooting percentage, dishing out 5.5 assists a night, and is top eight in the league in about every advanced stat?

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is tearing up the NBA. Sunday, he tore up the Knicks to the tune of 21 points in the third, and 37 points and eight assists for the game.

Josh Giddey had a triple-double of 24 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds and the Thunder went into Madison Square Garden and got the win 145-135.

The 6-7 Knicks got booed off the court in Madison Square Garden and their defensive effort deserved that. The Knicks came out flat for the early game and gave up the most points it has in the Thibodeau era (although OKC was red hot from 3, hitting 17-of-31).

Knicks fans may not have liked what they got from their team, but at least they got to watch Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the best players in the NBA this young season.

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.