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Three things to Know: Denver drops third straight. How concerning is that?

Zena Keita joins Brother from Another to explain why the Denver Nuggets are the team to beat in the West due to the unpredictability of the majority of other teams in the conference.

Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out 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) Denver drops third straight. How concerning is that?

Have the Denver Nuggets — with their comfortable five-game lead in the West — taken their foot off the gas?

They looked passive for much of their game Sunday against the Nets, especially to start the second half, and they ended up down 15 midway through the fourth. The Nuggets flipped the switch — and Nikola Jokić did his part with 35 points, 20 rebounds, and 11 assists — but his attempted game-winner clanged off the rim and the Nets got the 122-120 win.

Give the Nets credit, Spencer Dinwiddie dished out 16 assists and this is a quality road win for a team trying to hang on to a top-six seed. Brooklyn may not be the same threat they were before the trade deadline, but they are not a pushover.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s reaction to the three-game losing streak? “It happens ... We probably spoiled a lot of people.”

The Nuggets have seemed more passive of late, beyond just this three-game losing streak, as evidenced by Jokić. There was buzz about him shooting less a few games back after he was 5-of-8 in a win over the Raptors (he has shot more during this losing streak, including 14-of-23 attempts on Sunday). And as Matt Moore of the Action Network has pointed out, Jokić has called a lot more drop coverage for himself of late on defense, which is not his strength and can lead to a team like the Spurs scoring 68 points in the paint and getting the win (Jokić is a much better defender on pick-and-rolls when active and up at the level of the ball — when he’s engaged and not passive).

The question is, should we read anything into it? Is it, as Malone suggested, a blip in what has otherwise been the most consistent high-level performance in the West? Is this just a mini-slump from a good team — Boston had a three-game losing streak recently, too. Probably. But Boston went to the Finals a year ago had has our trust. Same with the Bucks if they lose a few in a row, they have a ring and continuity. Denver has yet to earn that level of trust.

The Nuggets need to prove they are a contender during these playoffs. No team enters the postseason with more pressure, and no player with more pressure than Jokić. But for now, we’ll go with Malone and say, “it happens.”

(Don’t bring the idea these games have special weight in the MVP race either. The debate around that award — and the debate around the debate — has grown increasingly toxic and stupid. It’s a season-long award, and no single magic bullet stat decides it, no stretch of three games swings it. Each voter will decide for themselves what matters most, what stats, what about a player’s performance separates guys in a tight race. There is no wrong choice between Jokić, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo in my book, there is a legit case for any of them. The need to tear down the other guy to make the case for your guy has become one of the worst trends of the MVP debate.)

2) Julius Randle, Knicks outduels D’Angelo Russell, Lakers to earn win

What a duel. Julius Rankle finished with 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists for the Knicks. D’Angelo Russell finished with 33 points, eight assists and five rebounds for the Lakers.

The difference was the supporting cast. RJ Barrett came alive and scored 20 of his 30 points in the second half, and the Knicks’ size as the Lakers played smaller led to New York getting the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots. Add in the fact Anthony Davis was not elite like these LeBron-less Lakers need him to be — 17 points on 8-of-18 shooting, some key missed free throws, but with 16 boards — and Spike Lee got to watch his Knicks hold on and beat the Lakers 112-108.

What really matters to these teams is the return of their stars, the guys that make their offenses click. LeBron James was not in a walking boot anymore and coach Darvin Ham said his recovery is “going according to plan,” but it will be a couple of weeks before he is re-evaluated. Jalen Brunson continues to get treatment on his foot and Tom Thibodeau did not have a timeline for his return, he has missed four of the Knicks’ last five games.

3) Trey Murphy III goes off for nine 3-pointers, scores 41

The Pelicans need some big performances down the stretch. Especially with Zion Williamson out (but maybe returning during the regular season) as well as Brandon Ingram (he still has soreness in his sprained right ankle). And especially against a Trail Blazers team trying to crawl back into the bottom of the play-in race.

Enter Trey Murphy III, who hit nine 3-points and scored 41 against Portland Sunday.

CJ McCollum added 22 for New Orleans.

The Pelicans are in a four-way tie for the 9-12 seeds in the West with the Jazz, Thunder and Lakers. That makes the Pelicans game hosting the Lakers Tuesday a big one.No matter how many stars are missing it.