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Three things to know: Brooklyn’s defense is getting better, which should scare league

Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson discuss what the starting lineup for the NBA All-Star Game should look like, debating James Harden vs. Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard vs. Luka Dončić.

The NBA season is in full swing, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.

1) Brooklyn’s defense is getting better, which should scare the league

Thursday night’s much-anticipated Nets vs. Lakers showdown was an NBA Finals preview… in that players wearing Los Angeles and Brooklyn jerseys could meet in the NBA Finals in July. And games would be played at Staples Center.

That’s about it for takeaways from the Nets 109-98 win. The Nets and Lakers will be different teams if they meet again in July. The Lakers likely will have Anthony Davis then, the walking mismatch who is critical to their defense. The Nets likely will have Kevin Durant back, and he has played at an MVP level when on the court this season. Plus, teams evolve and change over time, and the Finals are five months away. These teams will look and feel different.

Brooklyn may have a respectable defense by then — it’s already improving.

The Nets defense was solid against the Lakers in a much-anticipated national showdown on Thursday, holding the Lakers to 98 points and a 104.3 net rating (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers, which filters out the large amount of garbage time in this one). Part of that was luck, the Lakers shot 8-of-30 from three, and they are a team that is shooting 35.8% from deep for the season. The Lakers have not been as sharp the past couple of weeks — their offense is bottom 10 in the league the past eight games due to Davis missing time and the Lakers as a whole looking a little tired — but the Nets will still take it.

It’s not a one-game thing; the Nets defense over the last five games is 18th in the league, with them holding two teams under 100 points (the Lakers being one). Over their last eight games, the Nets are 19th in the NBA in defense (although with an unimpressive defensive rating of 116, it’s just other teams have been worse).

Those are not lock-down, Utah Jazz-level defensive numbers, but when a team has all the Nets’ firepower, just a league-average defense could take them deep in the playoffs.

If this is not a mirage, Brooklyn’s improving defense should worry the rest of the league.

The Nets struggled defensively all season, especially after the James Harden trade — Brooklyn’s defense wasn’t good before that, and in that deal they sent out their best defender and rim protector in Jarrett Allen. It showed, the Nets were in a shootout every night and trying to win by just outscoring teams. Nets coach Steve Nash and several players pointed to a loss a couple of weeks back to Detroit — where the Nets couldn’t stop one of the NBA’s weaker squads — as a wake-up call. Here is what Joe Harris said postgame, via Malika Andrews of ESPN.

“I think after our game against Detroit, obviously it was a game in which we struggled really badly on the defensive end and it was sort of, not a breaking point, but it just happened pretty repeatedly up to that point,” Joe Harris said. “I think after that game just the level of focus, the attention to detail and the intensity on the defensive end has really ramped up.”

The Nets have been much better protecting the paint since then, and it’s helped.

Can Brooklyn sustain this improvement and even get better on the defensive end? Is average on defense good enough to get them out of the East? We’re not going to know the answers to those questions until June. But improvement has to start somewhere.

There are no statement wins this early in the NBA season, although if beating the Lakers boosts the Nets’ confidence, then good on them. But if the Nets defense really is making a statement, that is something worth listening to.

2) Kevin Durant, LeBron James are your All-Star captains, here are the starters

The NBA is going ahead with the All-Star Game in Atlanta on March 7.

Does anyone not a Turner Broadcasting executive think this is a good idea? Robbing elite players of needed downtime during a condensed schedule to host a large gathering during a pandemic? No. But money talks, and with that there will be a game — complete with a dunk contest at halftime — and you can watch it from the comfort of your home. Just don’t go to Atlanta looking for parties. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is asking you to stay home.

LeBron and Durant got the most fan votes from each conference, making them the captains who will select teams (the league will continue with the playground-style captains choosing teams format that has worked pretty well the past few years). LeBron and Durant will choose their teams first among the starters, then pick their reserves (those players are voted on by the coaches and announced next week). The Elam Ending — setting a fixed target for teams to reach — will be back as well.

Thursday, the NBA announced its starters for the All-Star Game, as voted by the fans (50%), media (25%), and players (25%):

Western Conference

• Stephen Curry (Warriors)
• Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
• LeBron James (Lakers)
• Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
• Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)

Eastern Conference

• Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
• Bradley Beal (Wizards)
• Kevin Durant (Nets)
• Joel Embiid (76ers)
• Kyrie Irving (Nets)

The big “snub” controversy would be Damian Lillard. Except he’s still going to the All-Star Game, just not as a starter, so it’s not really a snub. But if Portland fans need to get angry about something, then go for it. The fan voting had Curry and Doncic as the starting guards, with Lillard third and coming off the bench. Both the media and players had Lillard second and Doncic third (Dan Feldman and I had Lillard as a starter, as discussed in this week’s PBT Podcast). That left Lillard and Doncic tied in the NBA’s ranking system, but the fan vote breaks ties, so Doncic will start. Go ahead and be outraged.

The reserves will be announced this week.

3) Toronto beat Milwaukee, sweeping two-game set and handing Bucks fifth straight loss

Trends to follow in the East besides Brooklyn’s defense?

The Milwaukee Bucks have lost five in a row after they could not stop Norman Powell (29 points) or Pascal Siakam (27), and Toronto beat Milwaukee comfortably 107-92. More importantly out of this, it was the second of a two-game set against Toronto, and in the first game the Raptors clamped down on Khris Middleton and took him and his playmaking out of the picture. In the second game, it was more of the same. The Bucks didn’t (or couldn’t) adjust. Middleton shot 9-of-21 overall and 1-of-6 from three in the two games, for a combined 24 points in the two games. He averages 20.1 points a game for the season.

We wrote about the Bucks not hitting the panic button a couple of days ago, and after the game again Giannis Antetokounmpo talked about improving, taking steps, and seeing the big picture. There’s a lot of season left, it is too early to panic.

However, much like the Nets defense mentioned above, it’s a trend worth watching.