James Harden scores a career-high for the second time this season against the Suns

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Before the Suns faced the Thunder on Wednesday, Alvin Gentry had some high praise for Oklahoma City’s James Harden.

Phoenix’s head coach said that he and his staff were talking about Harden in preparing for this matchup, and once they got past Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, they were hard-pressed to name a two-guard in the entire league who has played as well as Harden has this season.

Maybe it was a premonition, or maybe it was simply observation, based on the way Harden torched the Suns for what was, at the time, a career-high of 30 points. But Harden once again had a career night against the Suns, this time pouring in 40 points in the Thunder’s 109-97 win in Phoenix — one that kept OKC just a half-game from the top spot in the Western Conference standings, and one that, for now, has Phoenix on the outside of the playoff picture entirely.

Harden’s night was as efficient as it was effective. His 40 points came on just 17 shots, and they actually came on 12-of-15 shooting before he missed his final two attempts with the game having already been decided. Harden added seven rebounds, three assists, and four steals, and impacted the game every moment he was on the floor.

Things started slowly for the Thunder before Harden sprang into action. The Suns came out aggressive, and ran out to a 21-8 lead in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes. Steve Nash had three quick assists during that span, and Phoenix was hitting open shots that were loosely contested, at best.

Then, the Thunder brought the intensity. Or more to the point, they brought Harden.

The bearded one checked in with five minutes left in the first, and sparked a monster 18-4 run to end the period, scoring 10 points during that span to put his team up four after they had trailed by as many as 13.

Harden continued to score from inside and out, but the Thunder weren’t able to pull away until late. The game had a playoff-style pace to it, but it never felt like one the Suns would be able to win. That’s because the Phoenix offense, which had been so prolific in recent weeks, especially at home, was unable to find a rhythm for much of the night.

Nash is usually unstoppable no matter what the defense throws at him, but the Thunder were able to contain him with excellent pick-and-roll defense. After those three early assists, Nash, who leads the league in that category, tallied just two more for the rest of the game, finishing with just five — to go along with five turnovers.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks attempted to explain how his team was able to shut Nash down.

“We wanted to be able to jump the ball and really have him see a crowd and see four hands,” he said. “And our bigs and our guards did a good job of doing that and not allowing those easy passes. You can do that, and the next game he could have 12 assists and 15 points, that’s how good he is. But we did a good job on it. Our rotations were on point; we rotated quickly and got out to the shooters, also.”

It didn’t help that Nash’s main pick-and-roll partner, Marcin Gortat, struggled to find the basket, and finished just 2-of-13 from the field. He was clearly bothered by the length of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka inside, but he also missed some close shots that he usually gets to go down.

The Suns didn’t let this one get away without showing some visible signs of frustration — Steve Nash and Alvin Gentry picked up consecutive technical fouls late in the third while the game was still in reach, and Sebastian Telfair was playing a little extra-physical with Harden in the fourth, and let his words get away from him enough to pick up a technical, as well.

The loss temporarily dropped Phoenix to ninth in the standings, a half-game behind Utah and two games behind Denver, both of whom they’ll get a chance to play head-to-head before the season is through.

Thankfully for the Suns, they won’t have to face Harden anymore in the regular season. Two games, two career-highs in points for Oklahoma City’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate off the bench.

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” he said. “It’s not particularly the Suns, I just had two good games. Especially coming off that bad second half (in Monday’s loss to the Clippers), we wanted to bounce back, and I just tried to spark some energy off the bench.”

Report: Detroit Pistons become latest team with jersey ad deal, link up with Flagstar Bank

Darren Rovell on Twitter.
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Those new Nike NBA jerseys will have a little more flair and style than the Adidas ones — and I like that teams now can choose what color to wear at home, rather than be forced to don white.

Those jerseys also will have ads on them for a lot of teams.

Detroit is going to be one of them, reports Darren Rovell of ESPN. They will announce a deal Wednesday with Flagstar Bank.

When the season starts and people start to see the ads on jerseys during games… there will be a national shrug.

Sure, some curmudgeon will write a complaining newspaper column about how this is just greed, and that will get him spots on talk shows and networks to spout his “get off my lawn” rant. Fans, however, will shrug. It’s a small patch on the shoulder. In person at games, nobody will notice. On television, you will be able to see it when a guy takes a free throw and they do a close up of him, but you’ll have to look for it. Younger fans, and rational fans, will move along.

If the owners make a few more dollars — half of which goes to the players — then fine. It’s not a big deal. Will people also complain about the Nike swoosh on the other shoulder? Of course not. Of the ad deals, 25 percent goes to the team, 25 percent is shared with other owners in a revenue pool (that has numerous other sources), and 50 goes to the players through contracts (it is part of the “basketball related income” that helps set the salary cap number).

It’s progress. Times are changing, and a rose-colored glasses view of the past will not change that, in sports or anywhere else.

Magic sign 2nd-round pick Wesley Iwundu

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – The Orlando Magic have signed second-round pick Wesley Iwundu to a contract.

Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman announced the deal on Tuesday. Reports from Iwundu’s agent, Austin Walton, said the deal was worth $4.1 million over three years, with a partial guarantee on the final season.

Iwundu was selected No. 33 overall in last month’s draft. In the Orlando Summer League he averaged 5.6 points per game on 30.3 percent shooting.

In college, he played in 132 games, with 124 starts, in four years at Kansas State where the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 rebounds a game.

Watch the top 100 dunks of the last NBA season (VIDEO)

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Like you’ve got something better to do on a Wednesday morning than watch 22 minutes of dunks.

Every night on the NBA calendar — from opening night through the NBA Finals — there are impressive dunks. NBA players are insane athletes who need only the smallest gap to create memorable plays, and occasionally they don’t even need a gap. It’s a fun watch.

Although, with all due respect to Victor Oladipo, I don’t know how Larry Nance Jr.’s throw down over now teammate Brook Lopez came in second.

 

Anthony Davis says he is tired of losing, Pelicans look good on paper

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis says a New Orleans Pelicans are “tired of losing” and have the roster to do something about it.

That is, if they can find a new offensive scheme that suits their mixture of incumbent starters and recent acquisitions.

“We can’t wait for the season to come and try to make some noise here in the loaded West,” Davis said Tuesday afternoon while promoting a youth camp he’ll host in early August.

“We’re doing everything, whether it’s signing players, trading players … whatever it is to just try to make sure that we try to be a winning organization,” he added. “We have the tools right now to be successful. … Right now, I think we look good on paper. So we’ve just got to figure it out.”

The Pelicans will likely need the right scheme, good chemistry and good health to contend in the Western Conference, which features defending champion Golden State as well as Houston, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Davis is optimistic that could happen. He’s been working out this offseason with fellow All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins, and he fully endorsed the recent signing of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo.

Davis said Rondo’s savvy play-making and defensive acumen will strengthen the New Orleans on both ends while also allowing Jrue Holiday to become more of a scoring threat from the shooting guard spot.

When the Pelicans re-signed Holiday to a five-year, $126 million contract to open free agency, general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry mentioned the possibility of playing Holiday off the ball more, and the acquisition of Rondo should allow that, Davis said.

“When I first heard about Rondo, I thought it was a good situation for us,” Davis said. “He knows when to get guys involved, when to make that pass.”

Davis said Rondo and Holiday also will be a formidable defensive tandem along the perimeter, meaning the Pelicans’ All-Star big men should have more chances to protect the rim and rebound. He said Rondo’s long arms and big hands help him disrupt drives and passes as well as rebound.

“They’re going to give a lot of guards, this year, problems,” Davis said. “It’s always good when you can add a guy who knows how to play defense.”

By the time Davis hosts his clinic for kids Aug. 7-8 at the University of New Orleans, he’ll have spent a considerable portion of the offseason working out with Cousins, who was acquired in a trade after last season’s All-Star game.

As the fellow All-Stars prepare to enter their first full season together, Davis said Cousins is trying to adapt and further develop his game. Coaches and teammates have complemented Cousins this summer on how he looks after committing to a conditioning program than has helped him shed some weight and improve his endurance.

“We know we’re going to be the big focal points on every team’s scouting report, so we just wanted to get together and work at it together and figure out the things we like to do,” Davis said. “He’s trying to adapt. He wants to win for sure and we didn’t have that much time last year. … He’s trying to do whatever the team asks him to do.”

Davis said he’s supposed to meet with new assistant coach Chris Finch soon to start discussing the offensive scheme he envisions when New Orleans’ top two front-court stars are playing together. Finch could be a good fit because of his recent experience on Denver’s staff helping versatile young big men Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic play effectively as teammates.

Davis said the Pelicans want to emulate “how they ran their offensive package with those two bigs who are very skilled.