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Three Things to Know: Return of Joe Johnson, Lance Stephenson sparks nostalgia, joy

The Phoenix Suns are firing on all cylinders, but Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are always liable to go off. Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson preview the NBA's best Christmas Day game.

Three Things 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 going that make the NBA great.

1) Return of Joe Johnson, Lance Stephenson sparks nostalgia, joy

This latest COVID-19 surge is sucking the joy out of this NBA season — and the stacked Christmas Day slate. No Luka Doncic (he just went into health and safety protocols yesterday), likely no Kevin Durant or Trae Young or a host of other players that would have suited up on Christmas. Every game, every night is impacted by players out because of positive tests, and makeshift rosters have led to some ugly basketball.

But through those dark clouds have poked rays of sunshine, pure moments of joy — like the return of Joe Johnson and Lance Stephenson to the NBA on 10-day hardship replacement contracts. They follow on the heels of Isaiah Thomas returning to the NBA (and getting considerable run with the shorthanded Lakers).

In a month of gloomy sports headlines, fans have reveled in the idea of a bit of nostalgia, of the comfort of seeing some old, familiar faces back on the court. (That always has been part of the draw for the Big3, where Johnson won an MVP award.)

Johnson made history on Wednesday night, stepping back on the court for the Celtics in 2021 — 20-years after a Boston team that still had Red Auerbach in a front office drafted him. The seven-time All-Star received a standing ovation when he entered the game.

Then, he got himself a bucket amid “ISO Joe” chants from the crowd.

Lance Stephenson, out of the NBA since 2019, not only returned but played 23 minutes for a depleted Hawks team. Stephenson also got an ovation upon his return.

Eventually, health and reality will return to the league (*knocks on wood*), and guys like Thomas and Johnson and Stephenson may be out of the league again and pounding on teams’ doors, trying to get a chance. But for right now, they have been a ray of sunshine and a nice trip down memory lane in an otherwise dreary sports world.

2) Another fun change Wednesday night: Tacko Fall, NBA starter

Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are both out for the Cavaliers due to health and safety protocols. That has left coach J.B. Bickerstaff searching for frontcourt combinations that work.

Wednesday night in Boston, that meant Tacko Fall getting the start. He got a huge ovation from the Celtics’ faithful before the game, and impacted it early.

Fall also rejected Jayson Tatum at the rim (although that might have been a goaltend).

Fall played 19 minutes, had 4 points, 10 rebounds and a couple of blocks. It wasn’t enough as Boston cruised to a 111-101 win, snapping the Cavaliers’ six-game winning streak.

3) Derrick Rose is out a couple of months following ankle surgery

The one thing that has kept the Knicks season afloat was their bench play: When Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin were on the court together the Knicks had a +15.7 net rating. Rose, averaging an efficient 12 points and four assists a night, has been mentioned in early Sixth Man of the Year conversations.

Now the Knicks will need to get by for a couple of months without Rose, who underwent ankle surgery, the team announced.

Rose injured his ankle against the Rockets, and for the last two games he tested it in pregame warmups before deciding he couldn’t go. Rose could return earlier — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports there is hope this could be closer to a six-week absence — but still this is a blow to the Knicks.

Rose may not have been the best Knicks player, but if not he was the most consistent. He could be counted on, and that has helped keep the Knicks within striking distance of a play-in, or maybe even playoff spot. However, that’s not all on Rose: If the Knicks don’t start to get more out of Julius Randle and Evan Fournier (and probably Mitchell Robinson) what Rose does when he returns will not matter.

Highlight of the Night: Christian Wood puts Jordan Nwora in his poster

Give David Nwora credit. He could have made a business decision and gotten out of the way of this, knowing he wasn’t going to stop anything. But he rotated over and tried to stop Christian Wood from attacking the rim and… it didn’t end well for Jordan.

Last night’s scores:

Orlando 104, Atlanta 98
Celtics 111, Cavaliers 101
Bucks 126, Houston 106
Thunder 108, Nuggets 94
LA Clippers 105, Sacramento 89
Raptors at Bulls, postponed