Three things to know: Pelicans take over No.1 seed in West after Suns crushed by Celtics

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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) Chris Paul returns, Celtics don’t care and thrash Suns

There are no statement games in December, but if there were this is what they would look like.

This could have been billed as a potential Finals preview — the top team in the East, the Boston Celtics, against the West-leading Phoenix Suns, who were getting Chris Paul back (he showed his rust after being out 14 games, with as many turnovers as points, four). However, the reality is there is a gap right now — based on Wednesday night, a rather large gap — between the top of the East and West.

The Celtics got 25 points each from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while the Boston defense held Phoenix to under a point per possession on offense on their way to a crushing 125-98 win. Boston led by 27 at the half and the final 24 minutes felt like garbage time.

“Feels like that game should count for two losses,” was how Devin Booker put it postgame (via Duane Rankin).

What it felt more like — especially paired with the Suns’ recent 130-111 loss to the Mavericks — is that Phoenix is the same team as a season ago: An outstanding regular season team with some deficiencies that get exposed in playoff-like (or actual playoff) games.

The loss dropped the Suns to the No.2 seed in the West for now — keep reading to check on the Pelicans — but whether it’s Phoenix or New Orleans or Memphis at the top of the conference right now, they are on a different tier than the teams at the top of the East. Boston and Milwaukee are just better.

The West’s preseason favorites — the Warriors and Clippers — both had ugly losses on Wednesday: The Warriors fell apart at the end against the Jazz (keep reading for more on that) and a Clippers team with their two stars fell to an Orlando team that had lost nine in a row. The Clippers and Warriors are keeping their heads above water and both are playing the long game, but we’re approaching a third of the way into the season neither has put it all together and looked like a threat for an extended period (injuries play into that in both cases).

Phoenix had looked like the best team in the West, and now we see the gap between them and Boston.

2) Pelicans take over top seed in West with win over Pistons

The New Orleans Pelicans are the new No.1 seed in the West.

While the Suns were getting their doors blown off by the Celtics, the Pelicans took care of a feisty Pistons team 104-98 behind 29 and 10 from Zion Williamson.

The Pelicans are legit: Sixth in the NBA in offense, third in defense (the real surprise and a sign of the work coach Willie Green is doing), and second overall in net rating behind only the Celtics. New Orleans has a balance of veterans and youth, athleticism and savvy. Having a locker room leader like CJ McCollum to get everyone pulling the rope in the same direction has been critical in the Big Easy.

The Pelicans are on a 54-win pace. If that seems high to you know Cleaning the Glass thinks that underestimates the Pelicans’ current performance and says they have played more like a 57-win team. The more conservative estimation of fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR model still has the Pels winning 50 games.

Part of that is there Pelicans also have done what great teams do: Keep winning despite its stars being out. McCollum, Herbert Jones and Brandon Ingram have recently missed time, but New Orleans has won five in a row and 10-of-12 despite the shifting lineups. They have depth, balance and an identity that carries them.

The next couple of weeks will be a real measuring stick for New Orleans: They host the Suns for two games, travel to Utah for two, then face the Suns again, followed by the Bucks. Six games against quality teams.

Expect plenty of New Orleans wins in this stretch. This team didn’t luck its way to the top of the standings, and while we can debate how far they might go in the postseason they have earned the right to be in the discussion of who could come out of the West.

3) Jazz score four points in final :07 seconds, beat Warriors

The Warriors were without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, so they can shrug off this loss if they want, but when you’re up four with 13.3 seconds left — and Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had just been ejected on a soft Flagrant 2 — this is a game you should close out.

The Warriors didn’t. First, they let this happen.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker curled off a pick and drove to the basket and the Warriors wisely were going to let him have it, but as he drove Klay Thompson “fell asleep” (his words) on Malik Beasley, who was wide open at the arc. Alexander-Walker passed out of the easy two to Beasley, who drained the 3 and made it a one-point game, 123-122.

Still, the Warriors should have closed this out — they were ahead with 6.9 seconds remaining and the ball. Inbound the ball, hit your free throws, get out with the W. Instead, after a timeout, this happened.

Golden State inbounded the ball to the red-hot Jordan Poole — he finished the night with 36 points — but Alexander-Walker stripped him, the ball caromed to Beasley who raced up in transition and he found Simone Fontecchio for the game-winning dunk.

Steve Kerr was understandably frustrated after this one.

“We didn’t take care of the ball,” Kerr said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “We turned it over, and they took the game and it’s a shame because our guys did a lot of great stuff.

“I thought, to that point, they really fought and earned the right to win the game and then we didn’t close it. And you got to close it. You got to be rock solid with the ball. You got to be smart defensively. And we were neither of those things the last 13 seconds.”

The Warriors are 13-13 and sit as the 10 seed in the West. It’s easy to say they have looked better of late and are playing the long-game coming off an NBA title — both of those things are true — but there are games like this that are a reminder this Warriors team is different and not quite as deep as the one from a season ago.

Pelicans Trey Murphy III reportedly invited to participate in Dunk Contest

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We knew three participants invited to the All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest: G-League fan favorite Mac McClung, the Portland Trail Blazers Shaedon Sharpe and the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin.

The fourth slot in that event will go to the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

No doubt Murphy can throw it down with the best of them.

The Dunk Contest will headline All-Star Saturday night, Feb. 18, from the Vivint Arena (soon to be the Delta Center again). The event will be broadcast on TNT.

The Dunk Contest is the Saturday night headline event, but it has fallen flat in recent years. Adding a G-League dunker and young, bouncy athletes such as Murphy, Martin and Sharpe could make this one entertaining. However, what fans really want to see — what made the Dunk Contest must-watch back in the day when Jordan, Kobe, and Vince Carter were doing it — is the stars. There will be no Ja Morant, no Zion Williamson, and no Anthony Edwards in this contest.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
117

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,271

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Jan. 30 at Nets
Jan. 31 at Knicks
Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 4 at the New Orleans Pelicans.

However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the record fall when LeBron returns to Los Angeles on Feb. 7 or Feb. 9.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Watch Harden run onto court from bench mid-play to defend

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It takes a second to notice, but the 76ers had just four players on the court trying to defend the Nuggets on a late third-quarter possession.

But when James Harden — sitting on the bench — notices it, he stands up and runs into play, drawing a technical.

The technical foul was for having four men on the court, not on Harden specifically.

While that may have been a rare instance of Harden rushing to play defense, the 76ers as a team cranked up their defense in the second half against the Nuggets and went on to get the home win behind 47 points from Joel Embiid.

LeBron livid over no foul call at end of regulation, Lakers fall to Celtics in OT

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“The best player on earth can’t get a call. It’s amazing.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham made that comment out of frustration after another game where the Lakers felt robbed at the end. He wasn’t the only Laker.

LeBron James was once again brilliant — 41 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — but with the game tied against the Celtics and 4.1 seconds on the clock, he drove the lane and didn’t get the foul call when it clearly looked like Jayson Tatum hit him on the arm as he shot.

After the game, referee crew chief Eric Lewis admitted the officials missed the call:

There was contact. At the time, during the game, we did not see a foul. The crew missed the play.”

Patrick Beverley picked up a technical foul for bringing a photographer’s camera over to the referee to show evidence of the foul.

These losses are a punch to the gut for a Laker team with little margin for error and trying to make up ground in the West (at 23-27 they sit 13th in the conference). But LeBron sees a pattern — he is scoring 30.2 points per game (sixth in the league) but is getting to the line just 4.9 times per game, fewer than anyone else in the top nine in the league in scoring.

“I don’t get it. I’m attacking the paint, just as much as any of the guys in this league that’s shooting double-digit free throws a night, and I don’t get it. I don’t understand it,” James said postgame in Boston.

The other Lakers were a little more direct.

Boston pulled away in overtime to get the 125-121 win, snapping their own three-game losing streak.

LeBron finished with 41, Anthony Davis 16 (on 6-of-15 shooting off the bench) and Beverley had 15 including a key putback dunk. Jaylen Brown scored 37 for Boston, Tatum 30 and Malcolm Brogdon had 26 off the bench.

There are no moral victories for these Lakers more than halfway into the season, playing the team with the best record in the NBA close and almost winning does not count. Time is running out on LeBron and his team, they need to string together some wins. They felt they should have gotten the chance to win this one.