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.”

Rumor: Cavaliers, Pacers, and Nuggets discussed 3-way deal with Paul George, Kevin Love

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Don’t count the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the Paul George sweepstakes just yet.

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein and Chris Haynes, the Cavaliers are still working on a way to get George with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Ohio.

The latest rumor involves a three way deal being discussed between the Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, and Denver Nuggets. According to Hayes, the deal would send George and Kenenth Faried to Cleveland and Kevin Love to Denver.

Presumably, Indiana would end up with good picks and a few young assets.

Via Twitter:

There is a lot to think about here given the potential for this trade. The first is how the Cavaliers would be able to complete a deal without a general manager in place. Owner Dan Gilbert fired David Griffin just last week. The Cavaliers are still talking to former NBA player Chauncey Billups about a chance to run the front office, but nothing has been decided just yet.

As good as George is, with the way that Kevin Love played in the 2017 NBA playoffs, it’s a wonder that the Cavaliers would want to let him go. The Golden State Warriors ate up Tristan Thompson in several of their Finals games, and Love was often the best player outside of LeBron on the floor for Cleveland.

Rumors also have George as being adamant that he is a one year rental only. His preferred landing place is still Los Angeles with the Lakers.

How a one year rental would work in exchange for one of Cleveland’s best players is sort of confusing. Even if the Cavaliers landed George and Faried, they would need to add yet another piece in order to get over the hump as the Eastern Conference strengthens and as they try to face off against the Warriors yet again.

This NBA off-season has been particularly crazy, and I don’t expected to calm down anytime soon.

Watch Isiah Thomas work out Lakers No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball (VIDEO)

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Lonzo Ball Is finally a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic Johnson & Co. took him with the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday.

Despite a few issues with his draft workouts with the Lakers, Ball was still the top choice for Los Angeles when they came to select after Markelle Fultz was off the board. The Lakers have already given Ball more control of the team after trading D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets last week.

Before the draft, Ball took some time out to work in his back yard and on his home court with NBA legend Isiah Thomas.

Check out the interaction between the two and see where Ball grew up learning to shoot his oddly-formed but highly-accurate jumper.

Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki to Harrison Barnes: “You need major skill to get to 20 years”

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Harrison Barnes is set to be a foundational piece for the Dallas Mavericks for years to come. He is trying to learn all he can from one of the greatest Mavericks of all time in Dirk Nowitzki.

So what has Barnes learned under Nowitzki’s tutelage?

Well, for one thing, he’s going to need to learn an elite-level skill if he wants to lead when Nowitzki is gone.

Speaking with the Dallas News, Barnes said that Nowitzki sarcastic but tough when it comes to gym habits and player development.

Via Dallas News:

“Honestly, I’ve just been trying to work as hard as I can and spend as much time as I can with him in the gym. I remember one day at practice we’re standing on the sidelines on the gym and said, ‘Oh man, Dirk, you’re about to get to 20 years. That’s impressive. Do you think I can get to 20 years?’ He’s like, ‘No way man. You need major skill to get to 20 years.’ So that’s kind of the nature of our relationship. I just want to try to become the best basketball player that I can and follow the mold that he’s set here in Dallas for years and years of just constantly getting better every single year.”

Knowing Dirk’s personality, there is a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek happening here but he’s not entirely wrong.Barnes was a jack of all trades for the Golden State Warriors before he signed his contract with the Mavericks. Nowitzki is one of the greatest scores in NBA history, and he obviously has more than one major skill under his belt.

Even still, it’s good advice for Barnes moving forward.

It’s time for No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz to turn 76ers into winners

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Markelle Fultz already has his first turnover as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

It came in an Instagram post sponsored by a watch company. “Excited to head to (City) and join the (team name). (at)Tissot.us is helping me get started with my (team name) watch,” Fultz posted, not bothering to actually fill in the blanks.

Ah, it’s a process. Or rather, The Process. And the Sixers have plenty of blanks to fill in on their roster before becoming a playoff contender.

The No. 1 overall pick in this NBA draft has become an instant fan favorite before signing his rookie contract. The 6-foot-4 guard out of Washington has gone on late-night TV and boasted of his love of Philly cheesesteaks, made a social media connection with franchise player Joel Embiid and dazzled on draft night with a pair of orange sneakers made of the same leather used to make NBA game balls.

If that wasn’t enough, Philly fans found an open love letter from Fultz to the city on The Players’ Tribune.

“What’s up, Philly? You good? I’m pretty good,” Fultz wrote . “Today is a good day. Today we take The Process to another level.”

Long the league laughingstock, it’s the Sixers’ turn to clap back, with Embiid and Ben Simmons poking fun on Twitter at Lonzo Ball and his father, LaVar.

Moments after LaVar Ball went on TV and declared of his son, “From the words of Zeus, Jesus, everybody said he gonna be a Laker,” Simmons simply tweeted, “Crazy pills .” Embiid quickly chimed in with, “Please dunk on him so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him.”

But the Sixers aren’t counting on the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid core to simply entertain in 140-character bursts. They expect the trio to help lead the franchise to their first playoff appearance since 2012 and first championship since 1983.

“It’s been a while,” team president Bryan Colangelo said, pointing toward championship banners hanging in the team’s New Jersey complex.

Here’s a look at how they might get to 35-50 wins over the next two seasons:

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STEP ON THE GAS

First, Simmons and Embiid need to be healthy.

Embiid, who missed his first two seasons with foot injuries, was placed on minutes restrictions in 2016-17 and was banned from playing both games of back-to-back contests. Despite the precautionary steps, Embiid played in only 31 games and needed surgery on his left knee in March.

Simmons missed his rookie season with a broken right foot.

“I think both Ben and Joel are on course for recovery,” Colangelo said Friday. “We anticipate a full, healthy roster.”

Colangelo said Embiid would have no minutes’ restrictions this season, provided he stays healthy.

“He plays with reckless abandon and some of that has got to be controlled,” Colangelo said.

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IT TAKES TWO

Coach Brett Brown had said all year that Simmons would open next season as the point guard. Simmons seemed excited at his shot to run the show until a confluence of events and a trade with Boston for the No. 1 pick that netted Fultz.

No worries, for now. Brown said Simmons and Fultz, who will play in the summer league, could work well together in the backcourt, no matter which player is the ballhandler.

“It’s a really exciting challenge to have where you try to grow those two players and let them coexist and learn more about each other,” Brown said. “The start of the season and training camp and the month of September are really going to be important for us to allow those guys to feel each other and the coaching staff to be able to truly see it on the court.”

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TOUCH OF GREY

So who shall lead the talented trio of Embiid-Fultz-Simmons, a trifecta of first- and second-year players. The Sixers have long needed a veteran both in the locker room and to help lead on the court.

“Those young guys need nurturing and they need veteran leadership. To think that you’re going to go into a season with a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old and Joel Embiid, as much as we love him and see how special he is, the reality is those three players have played a cumulative 31 NBA games,” Brown said. “And holding a locker room, growing those guys, helping them navigate NBA life and NBA games is a very powerful message when it comes from a player. And trying to identify veterans that have the ability to nurture and help those three, especially, is one of the main priorities.”

WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART

Sixers fans have been very patient, and they may have stay that way.

They waited two years for Dario Saric to come from his overseas commitments. They waited two years for Embiid to recover from injuries.

They may have to wait two more years for Latvian center, and first-round pick, Anzejs Pasecniks. Pasecniks, who most recently played with Gran Canaria, a Spanish basketball club, has two more years left on his deal and may not immediately join the Sixers. Second-round picks Jonah Bolden and power forward Mathias Lessort out of France also won’t join the team next season.

But when they do, they could be the final pieces for a contender.

“Everything is designed with a championship in mind,” Colangelo said.

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