Game of the Night: LeBron, Miami outclass Stoudemire, Knicks

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Even if you believe your city has a legitimate reason to hate LeBron James, it might be best to drop it when the Heat come to town. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned this season, it’s that you won’t like LeBron James when he’s angry. LeBron, who has always played well at Madison Square Garden, absolutely rained sulfur upon the Knicks on Friday, finishing with 32 points on 14-23 shooting from the field and a triple-double. Just like he did in Cleveland, LeBron responded to an extremely hostile crowd with an absolute virtuoso performance. Amazingly, LeBron did most of his damage with his jumper — 23 of LeBron’s 32 points came from outside of the paint, and LeBron only shot three free throws the entire game. The Knicks weren’t playing terrible defense on LeBron, but he was simply determined to silence the MSG crowd.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, their big free-agent acquisition and MVP candidate had no answer for the Heat on either side of the floor. After allowing the Knicks to score 57 points in the first half, Miami’s top-ranked defense clamped down. They trapped the pick-and-roll effectively and didn’t allow the Knicks to keep the floor spaced the way they had in the first half. They executed on offense, forcing the Knicks to play more half-court basketball.

Those two factors forced the Knicks to rely on Amar’e isolations at the elbow for most of their offense. Those isolations work against most teams in the league, but on Friday night the Heat were able to keep Amar’e from beating them by collapsing on him when he drove and stripping the ball without fouling him and unleashing Joel Anthony upon Stoudemire. Anthony’s defense on Stoudemire was absolutely superb. He got a hand in Stoudemire’s face when he pulled up, made him take jumpers from further out than he wanted to, stayed in front of Stoudemire at all times, and was strong enough to prevent Stoudemire from bullying him inside.

When the Heat had the ball, Stoudemire’s defensive issues were exposed. Coming into this game, the Heat were 29th in the league at 33.6 points in the paint per game, while the Knicks ranked 4th at 45.4 points in the paint per game. On Friday, the Heat outscored the Knicks 46-38 in the painted area, and that happened with LeBron only scoring eight points in the paint all game. Chris Bosh, who was met with “O-ver-ra-ted” chants when he went to the free-throw line, was as aggressive as he’s been all season. He repeatedly drove right at (and then through) Stoudemire, and finished with 26 points on 11-16 shooting from the field. As brilliant as Stoudemire is offensively, I’m not sure if it would be possible for him to be a key part of the stifling defense that held him to an 11-28 shooting night on Friday.

Friday night’s game was, of course, only one game, it’s still December, and Amar’e has had stretches of brilliance while LeBron has had some rough patches. But during that one game, Stoudemire’s limitations were exposed while James played the kind of game that suggests he doesn’t have any.

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward says he’s open to returning this season

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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics guard Gordon Hayward says he is open to playing this season, but says it will depend on how fast he is able to heal and show progress as he works his way back from a broken left ankle.

Hayward was at TD Garden on Friday for Boston’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, the team he left this past summer in free agency after seven seasons to sign a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics. He was injured in Boston’s season opener at Cleveland.

Wednesday marked a milestone in Hayward’s recovery process, when he was able to shed the walking boot he’s been using since his surgery in October. He will continue to wear a protective brace during the rehab process.

He said he doesn’t know how long he will have to wear the brace. But he said he is now allowed to do some shooting and begin working more on mobility.

 

Russell Westbrook triple-double keys OKC in 3OT thriller vs 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, and Oklahoma City and the Philadelphia 76ers went basket-for-basket in a three-overtime thriller before the Thunder pulled out a 119-117 victory on Friday night.

Andre Roberson scored the winner with 10 seconds left for the Thunder. But one of the early contenders for NBA game of the year belonged to Joel Embiid and Westbrook as they drove, blocked and rebounded their way toward one big play after another.

Embiid scored 34 points in 48 minutes with an achy back and rallied the Sixers from a 17-point hole.

Embiid, Philly’s franchise center and social media star, grabbed his lower back when he took a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. Embiid grimaced during timeouts on the bench and trudged into position a few times.

Embiid sucked it up and carried the Sixers in the fourth and the first overtime. His feed to a charging Ben Simmons on the baseline for a two-handed dunk tied the score at 94-all with 53 seconds left in the quarter. The Sixers closed the fourth on an 11-0 run.

Embiid scored the first bucket of OT and the Sixers led for the first time in the game. The Sixers’ five-point lead with 1:20 left in overtime was wiped out on Paul George‘s 3-pointer and a Westbrook bucket that made it 102-all. The Sixers blew their final possession on an ill-conceived 3 for Dario Saric.

Round 2 was just as fun.

Westbrook and Robert Covington exchanged 3s and George tied it at 109 on a driving layup. Westbrook and Embiid swapped buckets that kept it even and the Sixers had one more chance to win it with 1.2 seconds to go in the second OT.

Embiid and Westbrook combined to score eight straight points in the third overtime, and Embiid even waved goodbye as the crowd went wild when Steve Adams fouled out of the game.

But Embiid seemed gassed at the end and there’s no telling how the heavy workload may affect his availability the rest of the week.

The Sixers were featured on ESPN on Friday as part of Philadelphia All Access, and Sixers’ related content was aired throughout the day on all platforms.

“I’m not a fan,” coach Brett Brown said. “I like living behind closed doors.”

But Brown understood the exposure would help build the brand and serve as a recruiting pitch of sorts to any free agents intrigued about becoming part of The Process. The Sixers put on a show in the fourth until Embiid gave them a scare.

Embiid’s health woes have dogged him since his college career at Kansas and every slip, ache or bump throws Sixers fans into a panic. Embiid has been banged-up lately but he calmly went to the line and made both free throws. He fell again when he tripped over Adams, who earned a foul, and sank two more free throws to make it 78-72.

 

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder won in triple overtime, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.