Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Nikola Jokic’s leaner at buzzer tops Luka Doncic dunk

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Nikola Jokic’s leaner at buzzer beats Luka Doncic dunk in Denver win. Dallas may have lost six in a row and 11-of-12 coming into Thursday night, but do not question how badly Luka Doncic wants to win these meaningless games (or Dallas) down the stretch. Doncic doesn’t do tanking. He may be slumping (shooting 21.6 percent from three in his last five games) but it’s not because he’s mailing it in.

Just ask Denver, who watched him put up 24 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Thursday — and he threw down a dunk over two Nuggets with 5.8 seconds left that looked like a game winner.

Then Nikola Jokic topped it.

Denver came from 10 down in the fourth quarter, tied it on a Paul Millsap bucket that gave him 33 on the night, got lucky Doncic missed a free throw after being fouled on his clutch dunk (that and-1 point would have had Dallas up two), then gave the ball to their star with everything on the line and he hit a well-defended leaner for the win.

That shot crushed Doncic.

Denver’s win keeps them just one game back of Golden State for the top seed in the West, maintaining pressure on the Warriors not to mail in the rest of the season.

2) Pacers will not go quietly, beat Thunder to hang on to three seed in East. Indiana is not folding. First, Victor Oladipo went down and people expected the Pacers to crash and burn, but they just kept on finding ways to win. Then the Pacers hit (and are still in the middle of) a brutal patch of the schedule, but they refuse to roll over. If Philadelphia is going to be the three seed, it will have to pry it from the Pacers’ cold, dead hands. Indiana is not going away.

Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Pacers held on to the three seed for another night, coming from 19 down in the second half for a clutch home win. They can thank Wesley Matthews, the guy they picked up to fill some of Oladipo’s minutes. Matthews was the closer. First, he played good defense on Paul George.

Then he had the putback game winner (Russell Westbrook watched the ball, slid into the middle of the lane and didn’t put a body on him).

As always with the Pacers it was a team effort — Domantas Sabonis scored 26 and keeps making his Sixth Man of the Year case. Coach Nate McMillan may have found something with a lineup of Matthews, Sabonis, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Darren Collison. That group outscored the Thunder 23-10 down the stretch. The group played so well Thaddeus Young told coach Nate McMillan not to sub him in and break up what was working.

It was too much for OKC despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double and Paul George dropping 36 points.

Indiana is half-a-game up on Philly for the three seed, with Boston 1.5 back. Indy still has work to do — six of their next seven are on the road, all against playoff-bound teams — but don’t expect them to fold.

3) Kyrie Irving triple-double leads Boston to a gritty win. Pretty or ugly, the wins all count the same. And the Celtics need those wins.

The first-half Thursday was ugly for the Celtics. Boston’s shaky transition defense was getting abused by a Kings’ team that always plays in fifth gear. Plus, the Celtics shot 1-of-12 from three. Sacramento led by as many as 17 and seemed in control.

Then the second half saw toughness from Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown getting buckets on his way to 22. Then when Boston needed it, Kyrie Irving stepped up, finishing with a 31 point, 12 assists, 10 rebound triple-double.

Boston remains the five seed in the East, but the Celtics may be playing the best ball of any East contender entering the playoffs. In the postseason, grit goes a long way, and Boston has shown it has plenty when needed.

Wesley Matthews has game-winning tip as Pacers rally to beat Thunder (VIDEO)

AP
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Wesley Matthews tipped in a basket with 1.8 seconds left and the Indiana Pacers rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 108-106 on Thursday night.

Domantas Sabonis scored 26 points against his former team, and the Pacers won their second straight by erasing the Thunder’s lead in the final 15 minutes. Indiana’s magic number for clinching a playoff spot is one.

Paul George led the Thunder with 36 points in his second trip back to Indianapolis since a blockbuster trade in July 2017. Russell Westbrook added 19 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists but missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

George and the Thunder were in control most of the game.

Indiana crept back into the contest by closing the third quarter on a 16-5 run that included a 46-foot, buzzer-beating heave from Cory Joseph. They made it 88-83 when Sabonis hit the opening basket in the fourth.

After Oklahoma City appeared to steady itself with an 8-2 spurt, the Pacers charged back. They tied it on two free throws from Sabonis and took their first lead since the opening minutes when Myles Turner‘s dunk made it 102-101 with 2:50 to go.

After Bojan Bogdanovic made it 104-101, George tied it with his sixth 3-pointer and broke the tie with two free throws.

Sabonis tied it back up with another layup with 57 seconds left. George turned the ball over twice and slipped while on defense during Indiana’s final possession, leaving Matthews the space to get free for the winning putback.

Matthews had 16 points and seven rebounds.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Westbrook has 27 triple-doubles this season and 131 in his career. … Steven Adams had 17 points and eight rebounds. … Oklahoma City went 3-3 during a stretch in which they played five road games. … The Thunder fell to 6-5 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Pacers: Darren Collison had 17 points, six rebounds and seven assists. … The Pacers committed 16 turnovers. … Bogdanovic scored 23 points and extended his streak of consecutive games in double figures to 24 and his career best single-season total of 20-point games to 28. … Tyreke Evans missed his second straight game for personal reasons. Coach Nate McMillan said he expects Evans to travel with the team later this week.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Hosts the Western Conference-leading Warriors on Saturday.

Pacers: Begin a crucial four-game road trip at Denver on Saturday.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid returns, dominates inside, Sixers look like playoff threat

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Joel Embiid returns, dominates inside, Sixers look like playoff threat in beating Pacers. Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars. Tobias Harris should have been. They are all top 25 players in the NBA.

Joel Embiid is better than any of them — a true top-10 difference maker — and the Sixers need him if they are to be a real threat in the playoffs.

How much the big man in the middle means to Philadelphia was evident Sunday in his return from an eight-game absence — he had 33 points on 21 shots (18 of those points in the fourth quarter), 12 rebounds, and dominated the paint in a critical Sixers win over the Pacers, 106-89.

Embiid was a physical force inside that got Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis in foul trouble, both Pacers big men picked up their fourth foul early in the third quarter and had to be cautious the rest of the way. Also, combined the two Pacers’ bigs shot 3-of-14. Meanwhile, Embiid shot 8-of-12 at the rim (although his outside shot showed plenty of rust, as did his entire game early). The Pacers shot 40.8 percent (20-of-49) in the paint.

The Sixers as a team cranked up the defense in the third quarter to take the lead, holding Indiana to 3-of-20 shooting for the frame.

The win moved the Sixers into a tie with the Pacers for the three seed in the East, with the Sixers likely to hold on to that spot because the Pacers have the much tougher schedule the rest of the way. For the Sixers that means avoiding Boston in a first-round series, which is something both sides wanted.

The Sixers have a lot to figure out during the last 15 games if they are going to be a genuine threat in the second round and beyond of the East playoffs. The halfcourt offense looked stagnant at points. Simmons has liked playing in the post at times this season, but that’s more complicated with Embiid out there, that dance needs to be worked out. Brett Brown has to figure out his rotations. The players just need to gel, sacrifice, and learn to trust each other.

But none of that was going to work without Embiid in the middle of it all. He is their anchor, their keystone, and the guy that makes it all work. He’s back, which means the Sixers are back to being a playoff threat.

2) Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. throws down a dunk of the year candidate. Damn. This just is not fair.

That is reminiscent of some of those old Blake Griffin dunks where he just seemed to fly and threw it into the basket. That’s what Jones does here. There are not many, if any, better dunks this season.

(By the way, if you’re going to argue it’s not a dunk because he threw it in the basket just stop, go sit in a meditative pose, and question why it is you hate fun and feel the need to be contrarian on such little things. Let it go and enjoy life and all basketball has to offer.)

3) Suns snap 18-straight game losing streak to Warriors; Kevin Durant injures ankle. The Warriors are bored, but is it morphing into more than that?

Before we question the Warriors, we have to start by propping up the giant killers, the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix is one of the NBA’s worst teams, one of the three teams with the best odds (14 percent) of landing Zion Williamson, yet they have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks and now Golden State Warriors in recent weeks. The Suns snapped an 18-game losing streak to the Warriors, coming from 16 points down at one point to win 115-111 behind 37 points from Devin Booker.

Against Denver last Friday night we saw what the Warriors can do when they focus and flip the switch. That’s the Warriors we will see in the playoffs.

But the Warriors had issues in this game.

The potentially biggest was Kevin Durant going down with an ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter.

Coach Steve Kerr said he didn’t think the injury was that bad, but as with all sprained ankles it is how things look the next morning that matters most.

Kerr was frustrated with his team and late in the game was caught saying what looks like “I’m so f****** tired of Draymond’s s*** …” — and that video went viral.

What he was referring to — attitude, missed shots, missed assignments — is unknown. Emotions were high and Kerr should have been frustrated in anyone in yellow yesterday. No Warrior played well.

Particularly on defense. Starting in the second quarter (when the boredom seemed to kick in) they had a had a lot of missed assignments, they didn’t stay in front of their man, and generally just went through the motions. It was an ugly loss. After the game, Klay Thompson tried a different tack and said the team needed more from the fans.

The fans will be deafening in Oracle if they are given something to cheer for. The players failed at that assignment.

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Three Things to Know: While Lakers will go al-in, expect Anthony Davis drama to drag out

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) While Lakers will go all-in, expect Anthony Davis drama to drag out. The Lakers have learned their lesson.

When Paul George was available via trade in June of 2017, the Lakers thought he would come their way via free agency in a year so when the Pacers asked for Brandon Ingram in a deal, the Lakers said no. That was too steep a price. Which is when Oklahoma City rolled the dice — sending Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indy — and not only traded for George but then won him over the next season. George re-signed with the Thunder without ever meeting with the Lakers and is now having a season that will earn him a spot on a lot of MVP ballots.

With Anthony Davis the Lakers will not make that mistake again, they will go all-in before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. No hesitations.

The situation is different — now the Lakers have LeBron James — and with Davis’ agent telling New Orleans the best big man in the game will not re-sign with them and asking for a trade, the Lakers will not hold back on their offer. Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, anyone not named LeBron is available. Davis’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports (who also represents LeBron), is clearly trying to steer Davis to the Lakers: That’s why this was leaked now (Boston can’t make a deal until July 1 because of a CBA rule, leaking now gives the Lakers a window) and why it was leaked Boston is not a “top target” for Davis.

It’s not going to matter. This is going to drag out into the summer.

Unless a third team comes in hard over the top before the deadline (Houston?), sources told me the Pelicans are not going to feel pressure and rush a deal before the deadline a week from Thursday. The Pelicans even pushed back on the idea of a quick move — and at Rich Paul — in their official statement.

“Relative to specific talks of a trade, we will do this on our timeline. One that makes sense for our team and it will not be dictated by those outside of our organization. We have also requested the League to strictly enforce the tampering rules associated with this transaction.”

The Pelicans will very likely wait until at least May to see what happens in the NBA Draft Lottery — the Knicks want in on AD trade talks, and if they end up with the No. 1 overall pick (they currently have the second-worst record in the league) and the rights to Zion Williamson, things get very interesting.

Then there’s Boston. Most scouts/teams value their young players — particularly Jayson Tatum, but also Jaylen Brown — higher than the Lakers core, plus Boston has the Kings’ pick this draft and the Memphis pick (top eight protected this draft, top six in 2020, unprotected in 2021) which may be very valuable the way that franchises is headed. (What ultimately matters is how the Pelicans value the Lakers vs. Celtics assets, we don’t know that, but most teams prefer the Celtics’ package. Do you see a future All-Star in that Laker offer?)

Boston’s GM Danny Ainge is reportedly not slowed by Davis’ agent’s comments. Ainge knows if he trades for Davis, Kyrie Irving will certainly re-sign, those two have a bond. The other bit of leverage: If Davis left Boston after that as a free agent he leaves a boatload of money on the table.

What’s the motivation for New Orleans to get a deal done now, before Boston and others can make their best offer? Davis is uncomfortable? So what. He created the situation. And the Pelicans know the big Laker offer coming in the next few days will be on the table in July, too. The Lakers are all-in, they are not pulling out of this (they don’t have another option, Klay Thompson will get a max offer and stay in the Bay Area, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard aren’t interested in being in LeBron’s shadow).

The Pelicans should ignore the noise and do what is best for them. Maybe a surprise Godfather offer comes up before the trade deadline, but probably not.

Which means expect the Anthony Davis drama to drag out into the summer. He will get traded, just don’t expect it before Feb. 7.

2) Nuggets rally from 25 down midway through the third to beat Grizzlies. Just when you thought things were not going to get worse for the Grizzlies…

In the first half of this game, Memphis looked like the team it was the first weeks of the season, playing strong defense and holding Denver to just 41 points, while getting just enough offense to lead. Midway through the third quarter, the Grizzlies led by 25 and were in control… then the wheels came off. Denver cut the lead to 17 entering the fourth, then won the final quarter 35-15 to come all the way back and get the 95-92 win.

Nikola Jokic continued to play like an All-Star and had the go-ahead bucket.

Jokic should be named when the All-Star reserves are announced Thursday (coach’s vote).

3) Warriors win 11th in a row, just in case you forgot they are the league’s dominant force. There was one scary moment in Indiana for Golden State, but it had nothing to do with the score. It was when Myles Turner picked up a flagrant foul on DeMarcus Cousins in transition and Boogie — in just his fifth game back from a torn Achilles — went down awkwardly.

Cousins got up, shot the free throws, and the Warriors went on to roll the Oladipo-less Pacers 132-100. Cousins had 22 points, Stephen Curry 26. Pretty much everything the Warriors threw up went in, including when Shaun Livingston was behind the backboard.

The Warriors went 5-0 on this road trip and have won 11 in a row. Unless a contender can make an Anthony Davis trade before the Feb. 7 deadline, it’s difficult to see who is going to challenge Golden State in the postseason when they are playing like this.