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Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

Battle of the MVPs sees Antetokounmpo score 36, Harden and Westbrook get win

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets used strong defense down the stretch for a 120-116 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday night.

It was the 36th straight game with at least 20 points for Westbrook, who led Houston’s offense on a night James Harden scored 24.

Harden called their defense on Sunday night “very important” to the victory.

“Throughout the course of the game we played some really good defense,” he said. “They’re a good offensive team but we got stops when we needed to.”

Houston tied an NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a regulation game with 61, making 21 of them, and forced 22 turnovers.

“I think our execution, our certainty in what we wanted to do wasn’t where it needs to be and that starts with me,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “So, I think a lot of tonight’s on me.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 36 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists for Milwaukee. He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to have 15 games with at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a season in the last 50 years.

Khris Middleton scored 27 points and Brook Lopez added 23 as the Bucks missed a chance to clinch the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee led by one in the fourth quarter before Lopez scored the first four points of a 7-0 run that was capped by a 3 from Middleton to make it 112-104 with about 3 minutes remaining.

But Houston scored the next nine points, highlighted by a 3 and a steal from P.J. Tucker and a block by Harden on Antetokounmpo, to go on top 113-112 about a minute later.

“Usually when we’re up six two minutes to go, we usually close the game out,” Antetokounmpo said. “But we didn’t do that today, so we’ve got to learn from it and got to keep moving.”

Lopez ended Houston’s run with a basket in the paint to make it 114-113 with less than a minute to go.

Westbrook made two free throws before a shot by Antetokounmpo left Milwaukee up 116-115 with 16.5 seconds remaining.

Westbrook made two more free throws and Danuel House stole a pass from Antetokounmpo and was fouled. He added two free throws to leave Houston up 119-116 with 14 seconds left.

Middleton missed two 3-point attempts after that to allow Houston to hold on for the victory.

Harden liked the tenacity his team showed in fighting back from the late deficit.

“Things weren’t going our way, we weren’t making shots, but we just stuck with it,” he said.

Westbrook agreed.

“Adversity showed up and we showed out,” he said.

The Rockets were up by two after a basket by Westbrook with about 1 ½ minutes left in the third quarter. Antetokounmpo and Kyle Korver hit late 3s to take a 90-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

Rockets’ Eric Gordon rolls left ankle; X-rays negative but he’s out a ‘few days’

Gordon ankle
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A healthy Eric Gordon as a third playmaking option and three-point bomber is critical to Houston’s dream of taking small-ball on a deep playoff run. Which is why Tuesday night’s Rockets’ scrimmage turned out to be ugly for the team.

Late in the second quarter, Gordon stepped on Vincent Poirier‘s foot and rolled his ankle in a nasty way. Gordon was in a fair amount of pain as he was helped off the court.

Gordon did not return to the game. It was reported after the game that the X-rays on Gordon’s ankle was negative, but coach Mike D’Aonton told reporters the guard would be out a few days…

But ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski later reported it was optimistically 1-2 weeks. However, with ankles, it usually is the next day after the injury that everyone has a clear picture.

It’s highly unlikely Gordon plays in the Rockets’ opener on Friday, and the question starts to become will he be fully recovered when the playoffs start.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni went with Ben McLemore to start the second half, something likely to continue, with Danuel House getting more run off the bench, too.

Gordon missed a chunk of the season due to injury but averaged 14.5 points a game when he did play. If Houston is going to turn small ball into the story of the bubble, the Rockets need Gordon of a few years ago when he won Sixth Man of the Year.

This injury could be a real setback for the Rockets if it is more serious than things seem at first.

Report: Rockets guard Austin Rivers leaves bubble for family matter

Rockets guard Austin Rivers
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Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson, Clippers center Montrezl Harrell and Clippers guard Patrick Beverley have all left the bubble for personal emergencies.

Now, Rockets guard Austin Rivers is also departing Disney World.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Hopefully, everything is alright with Rivers and his family.

This raises the question: Will Clippers coach Doc Rivers, Austin’s father, also leave the bubble? However, Austin and Doc have lived fairly separate lives. Austin leaving doesn’t necessarily mean Doc will.

Austin is a key backup for Houston. The Rockets still have a lot of guards – James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, Ben McLemore. But the Rockets also use a lot of guards.

If he returns, Austin must quarantine in his hotel room. The length of his quarantine will depend on whether the NBA excused his absence in advance, whether he’s tested daily for coronavirus while away and, of course, whether he tests negative or positive.

Report: Rockets signing Luc Mbah a Moute

Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute
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Rockets forward Thabo Sefolosha is sitting out the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Enter Luc Mbah a Moute.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like Sefolosha, Mbah a Moute is a versatile defensive forward who can make open 3-pointers and fits well into Houston’s system.

In theory.

Mbah a Moute, who played well for the Rockets in 2017-18, looked like a major loss when he left for the Clippers in 2018. But he has struggled to stay healthy. He hasn’t played in the NBA since October 2018. Houston worked out the 33-year-old in March – and didn’t sign him. That’s telling.

Expect Mbah a Moute to fall behind Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll and Danuel House on the Rockets’ depth chart. It’d be a good outcome for Houston if Mbah a Moute helps in spot minutes.

But if Mbah a Moute proves to be effective in a Rockets uniform, that’d at least look quite natural. We’ve seen it before.