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.”

Sixers’ Joel Embiid officially has knee surgery, expected to be back on court in summer

Associated Press
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“The… follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid‘s left knee appears to reveal… the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

When Philadelphia’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said that in a statement announcing Joel Embiid was being shut down for the season, the chance of knee surgery to clean up that meniscus was possible. Friday it became a reality, the team announced.

CSNPhilly.com had the details.

The team expects Embiid to resume basketball activities during this summer, according to Sixers director of performance research and development Dr. David T. Martin. Embiid will begin his rehab in Los Angeles with specialists and Sixers medical and training staff members.

“The overall status of Joel’s lateral meniscus and his cartilage is very good,” surgeon Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache, M.D., who performed the surgery, said in a statement. “Today’s procedure focused on removing a small portion of the meniscus that was responsible for his symptoms.

“The recovery program that has been established targets Joel transitioning back to full weight-bearing in approximately two weeks, at which point a conservative approach to his rehabilitation will be introduced.”

After Embiid missed two seasons with foot issues, there is a tendency to lump everything together and call him injury prone. This, however, was a minor surgery with a relatively short recovery period, even as the Sixers bring him along slowly. There is reason for concern, but this shouldn’t be an issue by next training camp.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.

Devin Booker demolishes youthful scoring records

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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When a 20-year-old LeBron James scored 56 points in a game, he called it, “probably the best game of my life.”

Devin Booker just topped him with 70 points in a game at age 20.

LeBron has obviously gone onto bigger and better things since dropping 56 in a loss to the Raptors during his second year, but that game was a harbinger. Booker – whom LeBron singled out before the season as an under-the-radar rising star – could be on a similar track.

Or Booker could be following Brandon Jennings, who scored 55 in his seventh game, also at age 20.

The future is bright – and unknown – for the second-year Suns guard.

What’s clear: His accomplishment last night is unmatched, and nobody else has come close. Here are the highest-scoring games in NBA history by someone under age 21:

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This is the result of Phoenix going so young and Booker playing so well. Not every team would provide such an opportunity, but Booker seized it.

Not only is he the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game, he’s the youngest to score 60 in a game.

Somebody ought to buy him a drink to celebrate – in October, once it’s legal.

Union: Joakim Noah would not have been suspended under next CBA

Elsa/Getty Images
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Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator LGD-4033 was not banned by the current Collective Bargaining Agreement when it was enacted.

The next CBA will offer a new challenge policy for failed drug tests.

Perhaps Joakim Noah, whom the NBA suspended 20 games, just tested positively at the wrong time.

SARM LGD-4033 (Ligandrol) was added to the banned list after the current CBA was signed in 2011. The drug is also banned by the next CBA, which will take effect July 1.

But the next CBA would also allow Noah an opportunity to contest his suspension – which his union says he would have done successfully..

National Basketball Players Association:

“After a thorough investigation, the National Basketball Players Association believes that Joakim Noah did not intentionally or knowingly violate any policy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).  Under the recently negotiated CBA effective July 1, a player’s unintentional ingestion of a prohibited substance would be taken into consideration, and we believe the conduct here would not result in discipline.  Unfortunately, the current CBA does not permit such consideration.”

“Joakim was completely forthcoming and cooperative throughout the investigation and we believe that this isolated occurrence was a regrettable mistake.  Joakim has offered his deepest apologies for this infraction, and neither he nor the NBPA will pursue an appeal.”

Unlike the current CBA, the new CBA allows a player to challenge a suspension if he “did not know or suspect, and could not reasonably have known or suspected, even with the exercise of considerable caution and diligence, that he was taking, ingesting, applying, or otherwise using” the drug. He must also establish how the drug entered his system.

That’s obviously a high burden. The CBA even defines it as an “unusual circumstance.”

Could Noah have presented such convincing evidence? Maybe, but it’s far easier to make that claim in a statement than actually convince an arbitrator.

Stephen Curry with touchdown pass to Andre Iguodala, who finishes with reverse lay-up (VIDEO)

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The 49ers may want to give Stephen Curry a call, because I’m not sure Brian Hoyer can throw that pass.

Curry showed a soft touch on a touchdown pass over a defender to the streaking Andre Iguodala, who had to finish with the reverse layup, a little no-look flip. It was vintage Warriors, a little playground in transition.

The Warriors beat the Kings 114-100 behind 27 from Curry. With the win the Warriors are 2.5 games up on the Spurs for the best record in the West, but Golden State has a tough road back-to-back this week in Houston than San Antonio. Get at least a split there and the Warriors will be tough to catch.