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NBA Season Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: 15-67, second worst record in the NBA last season, although at the end of the campaign they were playing worse ball than the Nets.

Head Coach: Kurt Rambis enters his second year with this question: How good a coach is he? I’m not sold we’ll get the answer. The Timberwolves brought him in to run the triangle offense then gave him personnel that poorly suits it (strong shooting point guards, for one). Minnesota didn’t totally abandon the traditional triangle, but it was pretty heavily modified last season. Will it be more of the same this season?

Key Departures: Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins

Key Additions: They brought back Darko Milicic for four years at $20 million. I am not as down on the idea of bringing Milicic back as most — he’s a good passing big man who is a decent fit if they’d run the triangle offense — but the price is mind numbing. They were bidding against themselves for his services yet they seemed to keep driving up the price. If this were two years $6 million, it would be a decent risk. At this price it’s a mistake.

The other additions are not as bad: No. 4 overall pick Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley (really a good risk to take, they got him for nothing), Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Tolliver, Sebastian Telfair.

Best case scenario: GM David Kahn’s best case is at the deadline they are able to make a trade that pulls in the superstar player they need to vault Minnesota to the upper echelons of the West.

Most fans best-case scenario is for them to just take a step forward and play some entertaining basketball.

For that to happen: For Kahn’s best case, it will require and act of God. But he is right in this sense — the next step is for this team to get a star player that can really lead them. Debate amongst yourselves if Ricky Rubio is that guy (he’s good but probably not that good). Love, others on this team could be good number twos but there needs to be an Alpha dog. The question is if you think Kahn can get one? Now we’re back to an act of god.

If that is the future, here is the question for this season: What kind of team is this? Kahn keeps saying a running team yet he brought in a coach that runs the triangle (while transition points is one of the core principles of the triangle, it is not a classic running offense). They have not looked like much of a running team in their couple of preseason games.

Until the Timberwolves decide what they are and then build accordingly, they will live in limbo.

If you’re a running team — get Ricky Rubio over here, draft athletes and pure shooters, and go seven-seconds-or-less. Michael Beasley, Martell Webster and Anthony Tolliver could be fits if you go that direction. (And a more fluid, fast paced European style may be the way to go — they have some athletes on the wings and guys like Kevin Love and Darko that can run the pick-and-pop well. But if you’re doing that, why Rambis? Why Luke Ridnour?)

If you’re a triangle team, you need a guy who can create and penetrate from the wing (and please don’t think Beasley is that guy) and get a center who can protect the rim on defense (might want to do that either way). Luke Ridnour and Darko are decent fits here.

Whatever it is choose one path, then from the owner on down to the guy who has to wash the uniforms, be committed to it. Right now you are all over the map.

Whatever direction they go, one thing needs to happen — get Kevin Love the ball more. Did anyone see what happened when you put this guy on Team USA this summer? He was the best rebounder and outlet passer on the squad. He can be a stretch four or bang inside. He makes smart passes. If the Timberwolves are going to run they need his rebounding and outlet passing. If they are going to run the triangle they need to get him the ball at the elbow and run the offense through him. Just give him the ball; you get better when it happens.

I think the Beasley pickup was a good one — for them to reach their goals they need him to break out. That probably won’t happen, but as they gave up just a couple second rounders for him it was a good risk. He has not done well playing the three spot, he is more skilled and efficient near the basket, but that spot is taken up on the Timberwolves. They are asking him to play the three and he is going to have to figure it out — and defend better on the perimeter — for them to take a step forward.

The other thing the Timberwolves will need is rookie Wesley Johnson to take on a bigger role. It would be asking a lot, but then again a lot is asked of you if you are the No. 4 overall pick.

More likely the Timberwolves will: Be better than last year, but not good.

For all the sniping we do at David Kahn around these parts, the fact is the Timberwolves are a deeper team now than they were last season, and that should win them some more games. There has been some talent stockpiled on this roster.

Luke Ridnour will likely take a step back but be a steady hand at the helm. Webster can score and he may well lead this team in that category. Beasley will be inconsistent and frustrate T-Wolves fans, and Wesley Johnson may ultimately be the swingman of the future (or maybe not, lots of questions there and as a rookie he will be inconsistent, too). Kevin Love will be good. Darko will be nice. But it’s hard to see where the cohesion comes from.

Prediction: 24-58. And another high lottery pick. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

James Harden’s 37 helps Rockets over Celtics 107-106

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s coaching staff emphasized to the players that Boston led the league in fourth-quarter scoring.

So when they Rockets found themselves down by six entering the final frame they knew they’d have step things up to escape with a win.

Harden made sure they did that, scoring 13 of his 37 points in the fourth before Al Horford missed a shot just before the buzzer to allow the Rockets to hold on for a 107-106 victory Monday night.

“The fourth quarter we just picked up … we just wanted to lock in and get stops and offensively be aggressive,” Harden said.

The game was tied before Harden scored five straight points to make it 107-102 with less than a minute remaining. Avery Bradley made a jump shot and Harden received a flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Marcus Smart in the face. Smart made both free throws before Isaiah Thomas missed a layup.

But Houston knocked the ball out of bounds with 5.2 seconds left, giving Boston one last chance. Horford drove into the lane, but his shot rolled off the rim and Harden grabbed it to secure the victory.

“I felt good when I shot it, but it just didn’t go down,” Horford said.

Horford had 21 points and Thomas added 20 for the Celtics, who had won two straight.

It was the ninth 30-point game this season for Harden, who also had eight assists and seven rebounds.

An 8-2 run by Houston, powered by a pair of 3-pointers by Eric Gordon, cut Boston’s lead to one with about 8 1/2 minutes left. Smart made a 3-pointer for the first of seven straight points for the Celtics that made it 96-88. Smart also had a big defensive play in that stretch when he blocked a one-handed dunk attempt by Montrezl Harrell.

Houston scored eight straight points, topped off with a dunk from Harrell, to take a 102-100 lead with about 3 1/2 minutes left.

Harden raved about Harrell’s work.

“You see how he’s flying around everywhere,” Harden said. “He does a lot of different things, some things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that helped contribute to this win.”

The Celtics trailed by 12 early in the third quarter before using a 15-2 spurt to take a 68-67 lead with about 7 minutes left in the quarter. Boston made three 3-pointers in that span, capped by one from Horford. Houston missed five shots, including four 3s, and had two turnovers to help the Celtics close the gap.

“We guarded at a different level and our first unit played pretty well in the third,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “In one stretch in the fourth we turned the ball over and that was hurtful.”

The Rockets were up by three points with 2 minutes left in the first half before Smart fouled Harden on a 3-point attempt and he made all three free throws. Houston had extended the lead to seven when Smart again fouled Harden on a 3-point try and his three free throws made it 58-48 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Celtics: James Young missed the game with an illness. … Thomas received a technical for arguing a call at the end of the first half. … Bradley finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. … Smart had 13 points.

Rockets: Made 12 3-pointers to extend their NBA record of consecutive games with at least 10 3-pointers to 20. … Trevor Ariza started despite dealing with back spasms and had 15 points and eight rebounds. … Gordon finished with 19 points and made four 3-pointers to give him six straight games with at least four 3s.

PERFECT

Harden tied a franchise record for most free throws without a miss by making all 18 of his attempts on Monday night. Kevin Martin also went 18 for 18 on March 20, 2011 against Utah. He lamented committing the offensive foul on Smart late instead of drawing the foul and getting a chance to go to the line and set the record.

“Of course I wanted two free throws at the end of the game instead of a flagrant, but we won,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

LATE PUSH

The Rockets have developed a knack for scoring late. After managing just 13 points in the fourth quarter of a 105-103 loss to Oklahoma City on Nov. 16 the Rockets have picked things up, averaging 27.9 fourth-quarter points in the last 10 games.

THEY SAID IT

Stevens on Harden: “Harden is a really good player. I don’t know what else to say. We could go through and dissect every play, but overall he is just a really good player.”

 

Insane: Klay Thompson drops 60 on Indiana in three quarters (VIDEO)

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Oh yea, don’t forget the Golden State Warriors have Klay Thompson, too.

It’s not that the Indiana Pacers forgot, they just couldn’t do anything about it. Thompson hit 21-of-33 shots, 8-of-14 from three, on his way to 60 points in three quarters as the Warriors ran the Pacers out of Oracle Arena 142-106. Thompson was hitting from anywhere and everywhere.

Klay shotchart

The rest of the Warriors loved it.

Russell Westbrook’s sixth straight triple-double leads Thunder past Hawks 102-99

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ATLANTA (AP) — Russell Westbrook extended his streak of triple-doubles to six games, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 102-99 victory over the skidding Atlanta Hawks on Monday night.

Westbrook scored 32 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and doled out 12 assists, giving him the NBA’s longest streak of triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven in a row in 1989.

Westbrook’s run has sparked a six-game winning streak by the Thunder. He’s now reached double figures in all three categories in half of the Thunder’s 22 games.

By contrast, Jordan had 15 triple-doubles for the entire 1988-89 season.

Westbrook kept his streak alive with plenty of time to spare. Despite a poor start shooting, he already had 15 points and 11 rebounds when he picked up his 10th assist with 6:20 left in the third quarter.

Scooping up a loose ball after a turnover by the Hawks, Westbrook led a 2-on-1 that ended with a pass to Victor Oladipo for a layup that gave the Thunder a 69-59 lead.

Westbrook, who missed eight of his first nine shots, suddenly found his touch in the third quarter. He made five of his next seven shots, three of them beyond the arc, and finished with 16 points in the period as the Thunder stretched a one-point halftime lead to 83-69 heading to the fourth.

Atlanta rallied down the stretch, but Westbrook closed it out for the Thunder. He finished with 27 second-half points to send the Hawks to their seventh straight loss and 10th defeat in the last 11 games.

It’s the longest losing streak for the Hawks since they dropped eight in a row in February 2014.

Coach Mike Budenholzer decided to shake things up, sending Kyle Korver to the bench and putting Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup. The Hawks also were bolstered by the return of Paul Millsap, who had missed three straight games with a sore hip. He led five players in double figures with 24 points.

It didn’t matter. Westbrook made sure of that.

Atlanta had a shot to send the game to overtime after Korver forced a jump ball.

The Thunder clamped down defensively off the inbounds play, and Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer failed to hit the rim.

MONSTER JAM

Oladipo wasn’t afraid to take on Dwight Howard in the lane.

During the second quarter, the 6-foot-4 Thunder guard drove the baseline and slammed one over Atlanta’s 6-11 center, rocking the rim and drawing gasps from the crowd.

Oladipo savored the moment, pumping his fists, stomping his feet and posing briefly in the lane even as the Hawks took off the other way.

RECRUITING DWIGHT

Billy Donovan made a recruiting pitch to Howard while coaching at Florida.

During his pregame chat with the media, the Oklahoma City coach recounted a visit to Howard and his father at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.

Donovan quickly gave up any hope of getting Howard to attend college.

“All I had to do was watch one AAU game and then I stopped recruiting him immediately,” he quipped.

Howard, of course, went straight from high school to the NBA in the days before the rules required at least one year of college. He was the first overall pick of the Orlando Magic in 2004.

 

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

Al-Farouq Aminu active for Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 25: Al-Farouq Aminu #8 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates with a teammate after hitting a three point shot in the first quarter of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on April 25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. 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. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu is active for their game against the Chicago Bulls after being sidelined by a left calf injury.

Coach Terry Stotts says Aminu will be restricted to around 20 minutes Monday night “depending on how it goes.”

Aminu started the first eight games of the season before he got hurt Nov. 8 against Phoenix. He is averaging 6.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.