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.”

Anthony Davis on Kevin Garnett saying he regrets not leaving Timberwolves sooner: ‘It makes you think’

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Kevin Garnett spent his first 12 seasons with the Timberwolves, only once advancing past the first round. Yet, he remained loyal to Minnesota. Finally, he helped facilitate a trade to the Celtics by signing a contract extension contingent on the deal. His first year in Boston, he won a championship while playing with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.

Jay King of MassLive:

Keep in mind, this is only Pierce’s description of Garnett’s words. Even if completely accurately relayed, it’s easier for Garnett to say this in hindsight – and while he’s mad at the Timberwolves.

But no matter the context, this resonated with Anthony Davis, who missed the playoffs in four of his first five years with the Pelicans and has never won a postseason game.

Davis, in an interview with Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

When you hear that, it makes you think. Not gonna lie. It makes you think, because you’re wondering if you’re following in that same path. But then again, you’re like, oh, this year could be the year. You don’t know. So, you’ve just got to take it year-by-year and just see, see where the team is going, what direction they want to go to and just see where their head is.

For years, Davis insisted his loyalty to the Pelicans was unwavering. Now, he keeps dropping hints he could move on.

That doesn’t mean he will. I still believe winning in New Orleans is his priority.

But what if the Pelicans don’t win? If they re-sign DeMarcus Cousins, they’ll be deeply committed to a roster that isn’t even a playoff lock. If they don’t re-sign Cousins, they’ll have no mechanism to add a comparable replacement. It’s the same damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice that led to Jrue Holiday‘s massive contract last summer.

At some point, Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – might have to choose between major winning and New Orleans. And he might leave.

He’s so good already, but even he must imagine how he’d perform on a team with even more weapons around him. He in particular can use the support.

Maybe the Pelicans can upgrade his supporting cast. He seems to be applying pressure on them to do so.

But if not, we’ll at least have seen his departure coming.

Kings aim to bring NBA All-Star game to Sacramento

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The Sacramento Kings are looking to bring the NBA All-Star game to California’s capital city for the first time ever.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and local tourism officials are set to detail plans for the bid for the game in either 2022 or `23 later Thursday and officially submit an application to the league on Friday.

Getting the All-Star game would cap a remarkable comeback for Sacramento, which nearly lost its franchise to Seattle in 2013 before Ranadive bought the team and put together a deal to build a state-of-the-art downtown arena.

“I think it would be a recognition of the fact that the city went all-in on the Kings,” Ranadive said. “It would be the ultimate recognition that the city pulled it off. There’s a love affair between the Kings and the city and the NBA. It would be an exclamation point on that love affair.”

Winning the bid won’t be easy. The Golden State Warriors are seeking the game for their new arena in downtown San Francisco that is set to open for the 2019-20 season. Milwaukee is also bidding to play the game in its new arena set to open next season and other cities also will get involved.

Commissioner Adam Silver said at the All-Star game last weekend in Los Angeles that he generally supports a bid from Sacramento with one major caveat.

“Sacramento and the surrounding communities provide a tremendous opportunity for an All-Star. Wine country, great golf, great scenery, all kinds of wonderful things that I think people would love to visit around an All-Star. But at the end of the day, we have to have a sufficient number of hotel rooms,” he said.

Ranadive said new projects will ensure that there will be enough hotel rooms to meet the NBA’s requirement of about 6,000 rooms in the area. But the bid will offer even more options with up to 1,000 rooms through a partnership with Airbnb, as well as two or three 300-room small luxury cruise ships in the Port of Sacramento.

Silver said he would be open to that possibility, pointing out that USA Basketball players and guests have used cruise ships in the past for accommodations at the Olympics, including the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

“Not only will we meet the requirement but we’ll also give them a choice,” Ranadive said. “Do they want to be on a beautiful river? Do they want to be in a beautiful home? Or do they want to be in a hotel room? All of that will be accessible in less than 30 minutes.”

The events surrounding the game will be anchored by the Golden 1 Center, with an indoor-outdoor Global Pavilion near the capitol to host concerts and food events that show off the region.

The bid promises to be able to transport fans from transportation hubs to accommodations and venues in 30 minutes or less by the use of self-driving vehicles and dedicated traffic lanes.

It also will show off arena that Ranadive believes raised the bar on technology and environmentalism for sports venues. There are “smart turnstiles” that allow fans to enter at more than triple the usual speed and the NBA’s first 4K ultra HD video board that stretches 84 feet long.

The arena is the first professional sports venue powered completely by solar energy, saves about 1 million gallons of water a year compared to a typical venue of its size, was built with recycled material from the mall that stood at the site before construction began and gets 90 percent of its food and beverages from within 150 miles.

“I think when we built the arena we had a goal that it would be the best arena that had ever been built,” Ranadive said. “It would be an iconic structure to look at. It would give the fans an experience like no other. To be able to share that with the entire basketball loving world is obviously a huge privilege and would be a treat for us to do that.”

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Dirk Nowitzki on Mavericks sexual harassment allegations: “It’s very disappointing. It’s heartbreaking.”

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Dirk Nowitzki is the face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise, the best player in Dallas history, the future Hall of Famer who led them to a title.

Nowitzki was not named in the bombshell story detailing sexual harassment in the Mavericks’ workplace, nor were any of the players, coaching staff, or basketball operations people. It was all on the business side of the house. That doesn’t mean Nowitzki wasn’t going to be asked about it, as was done by Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

“It’s tough,” Nowitzki said after the team practiced at USC in advance of a Friday game against the Lakers. “It’s very disappointing. It’s heartbreaking. I’m glad it’s all coming out. I was disgusted when I read the article, obviously, as everybody was. I was shocked about some of the stuff.”

“So really, really disappointed that our franchise, that my franchise, that stuff like that was going on,” Nowitzki said. “It’s very sad and disappointing. But I think [Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban] is trying to step up and lead this franchise to the right direction, and that is hiring investigators, finding out all the little details that we have to know as a franchise what really was going on. I think Mark is going to step up here …

“As a franchise, obviously, we feel bad for the victims and for what happened to some of these ladies. Like I said, it’s truly, truly disgusting. Our thoughts and prayers are definitely with some of these victims.”

That’s exactly what Nowitzki (and the other players) should say. We are all disgusted having read what was going on, and clearly since the misconduct started with a former CEO it sets a tone for the organization that this is acceptable. It is not.

There would be no reason that Nowitzki and other players would have or should have had any idea what was going on over on the business side of the Mavericks organization. Mark Cuban on the other hand… there are still questions to answer, even if he is saying and doing the right things now.

LeBron James on 1-16 playoff seeding: ‘Let’s not get too crazy’

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The NBA’s first newly formatted All-Star game went well (especially for LeBron James). It’ll probably go even better next year when the All-Star draft is televised.

Adam Silver also discussed breaking from another tradition – playoffs divided by conference. The NBA commissioner said 1-16 seeding has gotten “serious attention” from the league office.

LeBron, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“I would disagree with that,” James said Wednesday afternoon following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first practice since the break. “I think our league has been built the right way as far as when it comes to the postseason.”

“It’s cool to mess around with the All-Star Game, we proved you can do that, but let’s not get too crazy about the playoffs. You have Eastern Conference and you have Western Conference. You have Eastern Conference champions, you have guys from the Eastern Conference that win the big dance and sometimes you have it from the West as well.”

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, usually traversing an easier road to the NBA Finals than the Western Conference champion. With the West projecting to remain better for the foreseeable future, does this hint LeBron plans to stay East and wants to keep his advantage? Remaining with the Cavaliers seems slightly more likely now, though maybe LeBron will leave for the 76ers or some other Eastern Conference team. I doubt he knows yet, but I also think he cares about his conference-title streak for legacy reasons – to the point it could affect his free agency. So, this could be preemptive lobbying.

In the past, LeBron has had Silver’s ear. But Silver specifically said in Los Angeles he wasn’t concerned with the tradition issues LeBron raises.

I’m not either.

The NBA has always split the postseason by East and West, but teams have been too fluid between the conferences to feel beholden to the current setup. Current Eastern Conference teams Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic have all been in the Western Conference while in their current locations. And vice versa with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. (The New Orleans Hornets were in the Eastern Conference before they became the Pelicans and surrendered their history to Charlotte, and the Pelicans are now in the West.)

To Silver, the obstacle is travel. Concern is frequently raised about the possible effects of cross-coast playoff series.

I’m more concerned about the regular season.

Right now, teams play 52 intra-conference and 30 inter-conference. To most logically implement 1-16 seeding, the NBA would have to balance the regular-season schedule. That not only means more travel, it means more awkward start times due to time-zone difference. East Coast fans don’t want to stay up until 10 p.m. to watch their favorite team tip off during Western Conference road trips. West Coast fans don’t want to rush home from work or school to see their favorite team tip off at 4 p.m. during Eastern Conference road trips.

And then there’s the biggest and maybe only real issue: It’s virtually impossible to see enough Eastern Conference owners, who benefit from the current format, voting to change it.