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.”

Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to re-sign with Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) celebrates as he leaves the court during the final minute of the second half in an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, April 11, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Mavericks won 101-92. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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Dirk Nowitzki will opt out of the final year of a contract that would’ve paid him $8,692,184.

The big question: Why?

Does Nowitzki want a higher salary? More years? A lower salary that enables the Mavericks to upgrade their supporting cast?

He could command whichever of those he desires.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN, transcribing Nowitzki’s interview on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas:

Nowitzki reiterated Monday that he is committed to remaining with the Mavs for the rest of his career, saying that decision was essentially made when Dallas won the championship in 2011.

“That would have been the only scenario where I go somewhere at the end to kind of hang on and maybe try to win one,” Nowitzki said, referring to if he didn’t have a ring. “But ever since I won a championship here and we did that, I want to finish my career here. I always said that. The only scenario where I’ll try to go somewhere is if we’re rebuilding, if we really say, ‘This is the end of the line. We tried every which way and we can’t go any further and we’re starting basically with five rookies.’

“Obviously, that’s not what I want my last couple of years. But knowing Mark and Donnie, they always want this to be a winning franchise, so there’s no reason for me to go anywhere.”

“We had one more year on the contract, but I think this is the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re going to sit with Mark [Cuban] and Donnie [Nelson] obviously over the next few weeks and figure out how to improve this franchise again.

“Ever since after the championship, we’ve been basically a first-round exit. We’ve been a seven, eight seed. We’ve only won a few playoff games, and obviously the goal was to compete at the highest level in my last couple of years. So there is some moving to do, some thinking, some putting our heads together the next few weeks heading into free agency, heading into the draft. So this is just one move that hopefully starts a chain reaction for us to get better again, to compete really at a high level. We’ll see how it goes.”

Usually, I’d say this would at least open the door to the player leaving. But it’d be difficult for the Mavericks to pivot into rebuilding now. They don’t have their own first-round pick, and Justin Anderson is their only young player of consequence.

With Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea signed long term and Nowitzki intent on returning, it makes far more sense to try to win now. Dallas might fail, but it’ll almost certainly be the goal.

The Mavericks project to have about $20 million in cap space accounting for cap holds for Chandler Parsons ($19,969,950), Nowitzki ($12,500,0001), Deron Williams ($6,454,769) and Dwight Powell ($1,180,431). If those players sign elsewhere or get renounced, Dallas would clear more room.

Nowitzki could accept a lower salary than his cap hold, and his first-year salary would become his cap number once signed. Essentially, he could monitor free agency and slide his salary requirement depending on the quality of free agent the Mavericks could sign with the available money. Land a star, and maybe Nowitzki would take far less to accommodate him. Strike out, and Nowitzki might want a raise.

He has leverage, though it seems he’s set on using it harmoniously with management.

Still, what if Dallas flops majorly in free agency? Could Nowitzki leave? I expect the Mavericks to land productive veterans, and I doubt Nowitzki would leave anyway. But by opting out, he has the ability to walk.

The Mavericks have an opportunity to improve this offseason. Two years ago, they leveraged Nowitzki’s commitment to the franchise into a below-market deal that helped them sign Parsons. The goal should be once again involving Nowitzki in the process and having him help.

The better Dallas does in free agency, the more likely Nowitzki will be to sacrifice for the team.

Report: LeBron James to star in Space Jam 2

FILE - In this Wed., July 15, 2015 file photo, NBA player LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, accepts the award for best championship performance at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater, in Los Angeles. The NBA star and his company, SpringHill Entertainment, have signed a content creation deal with Warner Bros. that includes potential projects in film, television and other digital properties. Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced the partnership Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
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LeBron James said in 2012 he wanted to star in Space Jam 2.

After years of conflicting reports, renewed interests and small steps, it might actually be happening.

Rebecca Ford of The Hollywood Reporter:

Justin Lin and Andrew Dodge are ready to shoot some intergalactic hoops with LeBron James.

The Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond helmer is in talks to direct Warner Bros.’ sequel Space Jam 2 while Dodge will write.

The Cleveland Cavaliers NBA player, who recently appeared in Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, will star in Space Jam 2.

The original Space Jam with Michael Jordan was a huge success. If they can parlay that popularity into a profitable sequel, good for everyone involved. Many NBA players – including Blake Griffin and Isaiah Thomaswill vie for parts.

It probably won’t even matter if the movie is good. Basketball fans – younger ones and those nostalgic for the 90s, huge cross sections – will flock to see it regardless. So, let’s hope it’s good.

Raptors gaining ground on Cavaliers when adjusting for playoff rotations

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan, left, and Patrick Patterson during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
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The Warriors and Cavaliers were clearly the best teams in their conferences during the regular season.

Adjusting for playoff rotations only furthered those teams’ advantages.

But Golden State fell back into the Western Conference pack when reevaluating for the second round, because of Stephen Curry‘s injury.

Does Cleveland maintain its big lead in the East?

I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Eastern Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) during the regular season and first round, counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Here’s each team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Offensive rating: 111.4 to 117.4
  • Defensive rating: 105.1 to 106.8
  • Net rating: +6.3 to +10.6

2. Toronto Raptors

  • Offensive rating: 110.9 to 113.7
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.2
  • Net rating: +4.9 to +9.5

3. Miami Heat

  • Offensive rating: 107.2 to 112.5
  • Defensive rating: 105.3 to 106.7
  • Net rating: +1.9 to +5.8

4. Atlanta Hawks

  • Offensive rating: 105.9 to 105.4
  • Defensive rating: 103.0 to 101.8
  • Net rating: +2.9 to +3.6

Observations:

  • The order of these teams matches seed, which leaves the Cavs at the top.
  • The Raptors narrowed the gap – from where they stood overall in the regular season and adjusted for playoff rotation entering the first round – with Cleveland. Key for Toronto: Removing Luis Scola from the rotation. Though he’s a fine player, the Raptors have fared better with him off the court.
  • Gerald Green was barely in the Heat’s first-round rotation. Remove him, and Miami’s adjusted offensive/defensive/net rating jumps to 115.3/106.8/+8.5. That’s still not as good as the Raptors’, but it’s much closer.
  • The Hawks have less ability to change their adjusted rating by trimming their fringe rotation players, Mike Muscala and Tim Hardaway Jr. Drop those two and Atlanta’s adjusted rating gets a little worse: 105.6/102.3/+3.3. If the Cavs play up to their potential, I’m not sure the Hawks have a gear that can match hit. But it will be interesting to see the conference’s best adjusted offense (Cleveland) face its best adjusted defense (Atlanta).

David Blatt expected to interview with Rockets, still in Knicks mix

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Head coach David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers speaks to the media after their loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Are the Knicks actually interested in David Blatt?

Though Kurt Rambis remains the apparent frontrunner, Phil Jackson seems to keep pushing the idea that there’s another candidate.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

David Blatt “still is in the mix” for the Knicks head job, according to an NBA source.

Blatt is expected to be interviewed for the vacancies with the Rockets and Kings

The Kings’ interest was known, but the expected Houston interview is news. The Lakers and Nets were both reportedly interested in Blatt before they hired Luke Walton and Kenny Atkinson, respectively.

Blatt won 67% of his games and reached the NBA Finals in his only full season. Yes, he had LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and an expensive supporting cast, but that’s still impressive. Blatt has replaced Mark Jackson as the preeminent “I’m not sure he’s actually a good coach, but his record was so darn good that I have to take a look” coaching candidate. That’s clearly getting him interviews, but will it get him a job offer?