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Three things to Know: Mavericks slumping way right out of playoffs

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Tom Haberstroh joins Brother From Another to examine the NBA's problem with officiating following a series of blown calls and players complaining about the referees.

LOS ANGELES — Three Things To Know 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) Mavericks slumping way right out of postseason

This is how bad things look for the Mavericks: If the postseason started today, not only would Dallas miss even the play-in, but their No.11 pick in the draft would go to the New York Knicks, the team that took Jalen Brunson from them last summer (the pick heads to NYC as part of the Kristaps Porzingins trade from four years ago, but it is top-10 protected).

Things are bleak in Dallas — the Mavericks dropped their second game in a row to the tanking Charlotte Hornets (without LaMelo Ball) on Sunday, making it four straight losses and 7-of-9 for a team that took a big swing at the trade deadline landing Kyrie Irving.

Irving has not been the problem — the Mavericks have a +4.8 net rating when Irving is on the court (and +4.6 when he and Dončić are both on), and the reports out of Dallas are he has been a model citizen in the locker room. And Dončić is not the problem, he dropped 40 on Sunday (he started 0-of-6 shooting but found his groove).

The problem is the Mavericks were a too-small, 24th-ranked defensive team before they sent their best defenders to Brooklyn to land Irving. Now they can’t stop anybody, particularly inside — even lowly Charlotte scored 22 more points in the paint than Dallas, and the Hornets had 20 more rebounds, including 11 more offensive rebounds.

The Mavericks started Dwight Powell (he only played four minutes) and Josh Green at the 4/5 and they combined for five points.

Now Dallas faces Myles Turner and Indiana on a back-to-back, and will do it without Dončić, who picked up his 16th technical on the season — triggering an automatic suspension — when he complained a little too much after not getting a call on a leaning baseline jumper.

At 36-39, the Mavericks are a full game back of the Thunder and Lakers, who currently are tied for the 9/10 seeds in the West, and Dallas has the hardest remaining schedule of those three. No wonder Dončić is frustrated.

They will not choose this path, but should the Mavericks pack it in and tank to get into the top 10 of the NBA Draft and try to keep their pick for this season? That seems the smarter franchise-building move as opposed to trying to salvage this season by making the bottom of the play-in and trying to win a couple of games to be the No.8 seed. It’s also not something Dallas would do with Dončić and Irving on the roster.

In which case, the Mavs had better find a way to get a few more stops and improve their play in the paint, because it’s more that than their stars keeping them out of the postseason.

2) LeBron returns from foot injury, scores 19 off bench, Lakers still lose

LeBron James said the first two doctors he spoke with suggested he get surgery after his foot injury last month. However, he went and saw the preeminent foot doctor in Los Angeles and he said not to go under the knife and came up with a treatment plan. A month later, LeBron James was back on the court Sunday, scoring 19 points for the Lakers off the bench in his return.

It was not enough Sunday.

Even with LeBron, the Lakers remain a team with no margin for error and Zach LaVine carved Los Angeles up for 32 points on 13-of-19 shooting, while DeMar DeRozan added 17 points and 10 assists back home in L.A., and the Bulls picked up the 118-108 win.

Patrick Beverley even too-smalled LeBron.

And the Bulls won despite Nikola Vucevic getting a quick-trigger ejection, although he didn’t fight it so he must have said some magical words.

The Bulls have quietly gone 10-5 since the All-Star break and have the second-best defense in the NBA over that stretch. They have climbed up to the No.10 seed in the East and are tied in the loss column with the 8th-seeded Hawks — the Bulls making it out of the play-in to the playoffs is not a crazy idea.

The Lakers may only be one-game back of the Warriors in the loss column for the No.6 seed in the West, and now they have LeBron back in the lineup, but this is still a below .500 team whose margin for error is too small. The Lakers look like a play-in team. For more than 70 games the Lakers have struggled to string together consistent play, do we really think they will start doing it now?

Play-in or not, with LeBron and Anthony Davis, you know that Denver and Memphis — the likely top two seeds in the West — are looking down at the play-in and thinking they want no part of the Lakers in the first round.

3) Anthony Edward returns, KAT is clutch and Minnesota beats Golden State

Could the Timberwolves pass the Warriors and move into the top-six in the West, sending the defending champs to the play-in?

That looked much more realistic Sunday when the Warriors got sloppy when it mattered — they turned the ball over 11 times in the second half — and Karl-Anthony Towns knocked down two critical 3-pointers down the stretch, and the Timberwolves beat the Warriors 99-96. This play pretty much sums up the key moments of the second half.

The Timberwolves deserve credit — they played tough, opportunistic defense when it mattered. Jaden McDaniels doesn’t score much but he has become critical for them. Naz Reid led Minnesota in scoring with 23 off the bench. Edwards, in his return from a sprained ankle, looked rusty early but found a groove late and was a team-best +12 on the night.

Minnesota is the No.7 seed in the West, half a game back of the Warriors but tied in the loss column. Their schedules are pretty even down the stretch.

It’s hard not to pick the defending champs to hold on to the top-six seed, but after a frustrating season where they have not consistently stood out on either end of the court, it’s hard to picture them flipping the switch for the final six games as well. Maybe this is not their year… which we might have guessed back in training camp when Draymond Green punched Joran Poole.