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Three things to know: Why couldn’t the Pelicans or Grizzlies win the West?

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 11: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans celebrates during the game against the Phoenix Suns on December 11, 2022 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

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 that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Why couldn’t the Pelicans or Grizzlies win the West?

If forced to predict today who will come out of the West and make the NBA Finals, I would lean Golden State Warriors. While they are barely above .500 (14-13) and have been inconsistent all season — because of middle-of-the-pack defense and up-and-down play from their bench — they have Stephen Curry playing like an MVP, have started to figure things out, and show in flashes they can get back to playing at a championship level (see Saturday’s the win over the Celtics as example 1A). The Warriors have coasted much of this season, looking like a bored championship team waiting for the games to matter again.

But if something shifts and it’s not the Warriors, why can’t it be the Pelicans? Or the Grizzlies?

In a West where no team has run away and looked like a contender, the teams we thought were maybe a season or two away could be threats right now. They are the top two teams in the West standings.

The Pelicans beat the Suns twice over the weekend, including on Sunday 129-124 in overtime (granted, no Devin Booker for Phoenix in that one).

New Orleans has all the traditional marks of a contender: 18-8 record with a +6.9 net rating that is second best in the NBA, with a top-five offense and defense. In Zion Williamson they have a playoff matchup nightmare, and when paired with Brandon Ingram (currently out with a left big toe sprain but expected back in the next week) and CJ McCollum, the Pelicans have guys who can create their own shot late in the clock or against elite defenses.

New Orleans’ impressive defense — led by on-ball hawk Herbert Jones, but with other solid defenders such as Jose Alvarado and Jonas Vaanciunas — has been the biggest surprise with this team. It’s also the thing there are questions about once it gets tested under serious playoff pressure. But if the Pelicans can continue to defend, they will be a matchup nightmare for everyone.

The same is true of the Grizzlies. Ask the Warriors about their title run last season and they will say Memphis was a more challenging matchup for them than even the Celtics — the Grizzlies are just far more athletic than the Warriors.

Count me in the group that thought Memphis would plateau this season — no sneaking up on teams, and they lost quality role players in De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson. I didn’t expect a step forward. Yet even with their second-best player, Desmond Bane, having missed the last 13 games with a sprained toe, the Grizzlies have top-10 offense and defense with a +2.9 net rating (seventh best in the league). Ja Morant is playing at an All-NBA level, giving them the shot-creating superstar they need, and there is plenty of depth around him.

We’re still more than four months from the start of the playoffs and a lot can shift — the West could look very different come mid-April. Trades will happen, injuries will happen, teams will climb up and fall off. But right now, approaching the one-third mark of the season, the Pelicans and the Grizzlies sit first and second in the West. It’s time we started including them in the list of potential contenders in the West.

2) A.J. Griffin is the Hawks’ go-to guy for game-winner. Again.

That’s two for A.J. Griffin. The rookie had a dramatic game-winner last month and did it again for the Hawks on Sunday in the wildest ending to a game we have seen all season.

The game was tied 119-119 after Coby White drained a 3-pointer with 22.8 seconds left, and the Hawks wisely held the ball and looked for what they thought would be the last shot of the night. After getting doubled on every pick-and-roll in the OT, Trae Young waived off the pick, attacked in isolation, and knocked down a pull-up midranger with :01 left to put Atlanta up by two.

Chicago had one last chance and everyone knew the Bulls’ preference was to get the rock to DeMar DeRozan. They did, he missed but Bogdan Bogdanovic fouled him on the 3-point attempt. DeRozan sank all three and the Bulls had a 122-121 lead with just :0.5 left.

The Hawks had one-last chance and got Griffin free inside for the game-winner.

That loss was a punch to the gut for a struggling Bulls team.

3) RIP Paul Silas

“Probably one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever been around.”

That’s what LeBron James said of Paul Silas, his first coach in the NBA — and LeBron echoed a lot of people with that sentiment.

Silas died at the age of 79, a story first reported by Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe (and since confirmed by others).

Silas is the father of Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas.

The elder Silas played 16 seasons in the NBA and was a defensive rock for two Boston Celtics title teams during the Dave Cowens era, plus he was a critical part of Seattle’s title team of 1979. He never left the game, becoming an NBA coach after he retired and doing so for a dozen seasons, including coaching LeBron in Cleveland.

Silas is best remembered on the court as a solid anchor to the Cowens/John Havlicek Celtics, where he won two rings. He went on to win a third with the Seattle Supersonics in 1979. His coaching career included stops with the Clippers, Hornets, and Cavaliers, coaching players such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and LeBron.

He finished his career with more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, one of just 38 players ever to do according to Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference.

Tributes poured in as the news got out around the NBA.

Our thoughts are with the Silas family.