James Harden, Sebastian Telfair

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.”

Paul shakes off awful start, leads Clippers past Heat 100-93

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) and forward Amare Stoudemire, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Associated Press
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MIAMI (AP) — Chris Paul had the worst possible start to his shooting day.

His finish, however, was perfect.

Paul’s consecutive 3-pointers in the final minutes were daggers to a Miami comeback, and his game-high 22 points helped the Los Angeles Clippers hang on to beat the Heat 100-93 on Sunday.

“I kept shooting it,” Paul said, “because sooner or later it had to go in.”

J.J. Redick scored 14 points, Wesley Johnson had 10 and DeAndre Jordan and Cole Aldrich grabbed 11 rebounds each for the Clippers, who won despite a 1-for-15 start from the field and swept the two-game season series with Miami.

“That was a team win because nobody really had it going,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But our defense really had it going all game.”

Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic all scored 17 points for Miami. Luol Deng added 15 points for the Heat, and Hassan Whiteside finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

“They did to us what we’ve been doing the last few games, just grinding an opponent,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s what they did to us, then made the bigger plays down the stretch.”

Paul was 0 for 7 in the opening period, the worst one-quarter shooting performance of his NBA career, and was 0 for 9 before he finally got a shot to fall. But his 3-pointers in the fourth snuffed out a Miami rally, and his lob that set up Jordan for a dunk was the clincher for the Clippers – who, after that horrid start, shot 55 percent the rest of the way.

Redick made a layup on the game’s first possession and the Clippers proceeded to misfire on their next 14 shots, but recovered to win for the 11th time in their last 13 road games, most of that with Blake Griffin sidelined by injuries.

“We’re just trying to hold it down until our big fella comes back,” Paul said.

Miami went to the oft-used strategy of intentionally fouling Jordan in the third quarter to slow the Clippers’ offense. And while it worked to a point – Jordan went 3 for 10 from the free throw line in the quarter – Miami couldn’t score. The Heat were 4 for 20 in the third, got down by as many as 11 and never led again.

“They made big plays down the stretch,” Wade said. “That’s the way we’ve been winning of late, so we can’t be mad at that. We got a little taste of our own medicine.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: G Austin Rivers will miss four to six weeks with a broken left hand. For now, the Clippers aren’t planning on making any roster changes to add depth. “We may have to make a decision but we’re just going to try to ride it out,” Doc Rivers said. … Paul has faced the Heat 19 times, and his teams are 13-6 in those games.

Heat: Whiteside took his first charge of the season. … Wade’s first point of the day gave him outright possession of 41st place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He came into the game tied with John Stockton at 19,711 points. … Deng has scored at least 15 points in five of his last six games.

 

SUPER SATELLITE

The Clippers were using a different plane than usual for their postgame flight from Miami to Philadelphia, for Super Bowl 50 reasons. They changed planes in order to have satellite television access so they wouldn’t miss any of the Carolina-Denver game.

“It’s really nice of the NBA to have us play today and then travel during the Super Bowl,” Doc Rivers said. “Just really a great move. But at least we get to watch it.”

 

NBA: Kenneth Faried got away with foul on decisive basket in Nuggets’ win over Bulls

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The Bulls’ biggest loss Friday was Jimmy Butler to injury. His absence certainly contributed to a loss to the Timberwolves the following night.

But Chicago also lost to the Nuggets on Friday, and perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if the game were called correctly down the stretch.

With Denver up two points and 21.1 seconds remaining, Kenneth Faried offensively rebounded a free throw and scored. The Bulls then intentionally fouled down the stretch, and Faried and Danilo Gallinari added a few free throws in the Nuggets’ 115-110 win.

One problem: Faried should’ve been called for offensively fouling Taj Gibson on the key putback, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Faried (DEN) extends his arm into Gibson (CHI) and dislodges him, affecting his ability to retrieve the rebound.

This was a huge swing. Instead of Taj Gibson – a 69% career free-throw shooter – going to the line for two attempts with Chicago down two points, Faried put the Nuggets up four. Even if Gibson split at the line, the Bulls would have been in significantly better shape.

As usual, we can’t know what would’ve happened if this call were made correctly. But it significantly set back Chicago.

NBA considering if jump-on-back foul should be flagrant foul

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The video above is an intentional foul — Chris Paul jumped on the back of Dwight Howard. The same thing has happened to Andre Drummond.

Is it a flagrant foul?

The Boston Celtics tweeted this out on Sunday.

The NBA was quick to let people know that this is just something under consideration — there has been no change in the rules. This may well be where the league is headed, but it’s not there yet.

The NBA defines a flagrant foul as “unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.” To me, leaping on a player’s back like that qualifies. (A flagrant two foul is “unnecessary and excessive contact” and leads to an ejection; this is not that.)

Jared Dudley — one of the more vocal players on union issues — added a good point.

Consider this part of the coming changes on the intentional fouling rules period. But this one tweak could come much faster.

NBA: Foul on Cavaliers that sparked Celtics’ comeback called in error

Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith makes a move on Boston Celtics' Evan Turner (11) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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The Cavaliers were in great shape against the Celtics on Friday, leading by four points with seven seconds left.

Then, it all went so wrong for Cleveland.

J.R. Smith was called for fouling Evan Turner on a made layup, cutting the margin to two points. Turner missed the free throw, but the ball went out of bounds off the Cavs. Then, Avery Bradley made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Boston the win.

Rewind, though, and an incorrect call drove the sequence, according to the NBA.

Smith shouldn’t have been called for fouling Turner, per the Last Two Minute Report:

Smith (CLE) makes incidental contact with Turner’s (BOS) body as he attempts the layup.

If this were officiated correctly, the Cavs would’ve had the ball and a two-point lead with 5.9 seconds left. That’s not a lock to win – they’d still have to inbound the ball and make their free throws – but it’s close.

Cleveland is definitely entitled to feel the refs wronged them out of a victory.