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.”

Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas will not need hip surgery, according to Danny Ainge

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With Boston watching the foundation crumble in Cleveland, the Celtics need to keep their own house in order — and healthy — to have a shot to dethrone LeBron James and reach the NBA Finals.

One step along that road, having a healthy Isaiah Thomas. Back in May, Thomas visited a specialist about his right hip injury, which he first suffered in March then aggravated in the playoffs, ending his run early. Surgery was on the table as an option.

It’s off now, Celtics president Danny Ainge told the Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach.

Hip surgery has been ruled out for Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said….

“Isaiah is making good progress,” Ainge said. “He’s out on the court; he’s shooting. He’s full-speed ahead on the stationary bike and working in the swimming pool. He’s progressing nicely.”

This is good news for Boston. This is also good news for Thomas, who is heading into a contract year.

Thomas had a career year last season, averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, while shooting 37.9 percent from three. Thomas made his first All-NBA team last season (second team), as well as being an All-Star for the second time.

Thomas’ name has popped up in trade rumors for Kyrie Irving, but that deal incredibly unlikely. First off, the Celtics would have to send Thomas, Jae Crowder, and a young player such as Jaylen Brown (or Jason Tatum) to the Cavaliers in a trade, and that price is too steep. More importantly, why would Ainge and the Celtics want to help the Cavaliers stay elite? Fans will speculate online, but no way Ainge would send out a lot of quality to help the Cavs.

Derrick Rose wanted to play where the games mattered, found Cleveland

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Derrick Rose was the point guard standing when the music stopped this summer. It seemed to catch him off guard.

There had been rumblings for a while that he didn’t understand how teams valued him — or didn’t — in a modern NBA, but this summer made it clear. Rose and his agent B.J. Armstrong tried, but the market dried up. The San Antonio Spurs decided to re-sign Patty Mills. The LA Clippers decided to stick with Patrick Beverley and Austin Rivers. The Milwaukee Bucks flirted and then passed. The Sacramento Kings signed George Hill. The Minnesota Timberwolves (and Rose’s old coach Tom Thibodeau) went and got Jeff Teague. Dallas drafted Dennis Smith Jr. The Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans re-signed Jrue Holiday then picked up Rajon Rondo.

Rose looked left out in the cold. He ultimately agreed to play for Cleveland and with LeBron James… and then the Kyrie Irving trade request story broke.

Rose is about to get what he wanted — games that matter on a team that matters, so he can re-establish his value, Armstrong told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“A one-year deal on a bad team to try and put up numbers — we did not want to entertain that way of thinking,” agent B.J. Armstrong, a three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, told ESPN on Tuesday. “Getting up every day to go to the gym to just try and put up numbers — that’s not who he is. He didn’t want to chase anything this summer other than, ‘Hey, let’s get around a group of guys who are like-minded, who are pursuing winning and be a part of that.'”

Rose is going to get a chance to prove he can still play meaningful quality minutes on a team hunting a title next season. Rose could well be the starting point guard (depending on who the Cavaliers get back in an Irving trade).

Rose put up solid numbers last season with the Knicks — 18 points and 4.4 assists per game — and on paper he looked like an average NBA point guard. He can still get to the rim. However, he also still can’t space the floor as a shooter (21.7 percent from three last season), he’s not an efficient scorer, and most importantly he’s still a defensive liability (the Knicks were 5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively last season when Rose was on the court).

How Rose looks in Cleveland will be interesting, but he is going to get his chance to prove himself on a big stage in the bright lights. Play well and you never know what the next summer will hold, although expect that to be a tighter market for everyone except the elite players (LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and the other clear max guys). Rose could find next summer rough, too, but play well and it gets a little easier.

Reports: Carmelo Anthony for Kyrie Irving trade highly unlikely, ‘Melo wants to be Rocket

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It’s been a favorite pitch of fans on Twitter and the rest of the Web the past few days: The Knicks send Carmelo Anthony and a first-round pick or two to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving. That way Anthony ends up in a place he said he would go, the Cavaliers get talent to help them remain contenders, and the Knicks get an elite point guard to pair with Kristaps Porzingis. Everyone is happy.

Except it’s not going to happen.

At least not anytime soon.

There are a few reasons, but at the top of the list is Anthony doesn’t want to go to Cleveland, he is focused on Houston (even if the deals to go there are nowhere near done, despite the rumors around the web). There have been multiple reports on this, and I heard the same thing, but Ian Begley at ESPN has the clearest explanation.

Carmelo Anthony’s top destination in any trade, per league sources, is the Houston Rockets. Nothing really has changed since ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported more than a week ago that Anthony still expected the Knicks to carry out their previous plan to trade him to Houston…

All of (the speculation about Anthony going to Cleveland) is, of course, meaningless until one of two things happen:

1. The Knicks decide to include Porzingis in a deal for Irving (unlikely).

2. Anthony decides to move on from the possibility of being traded to Houston and strongly considers playing for a Cavs team without Irving. As of late Tuesday, he wasn’t prepared to do that.

There is zero chance the Knicks will put Kristaps Porzingis in the trade for Irving… well, this is the Knicks, so zero might be too low a number. But it should be zero. Nobody expects this to happen, and if it did Knicks fans would/should revolt.

Even if Anthony relents, this trade does not fit what the Cavaliers want in a deal — they are prioritizing getting a young stud player as part of any trade package. The Knicks don’t have that (outside Porzingis, and they can’t trade Tim Hardaway Jr. until Dec. 15, if anyone thinks of him as a young stud). Anthony to the Knicks makes them older, slower, and probably worse defensively. The Knicks would need to get a third team involved to make a deal that works, which would mean giving up assets (a first-round draft pick, most likely) to make that third team happy.

Anthony could eventually reconsider. Maybe. However, he’s got two years left on his contract and can read all the same tea leaves that Irving can — LeBron James does not seem fully committed to a future in Cleveland. Anything can happen, no decision has been made, but LeBron could well leave Cleveland again. Does Anthony want to be a Cavalier in 2018-19 season without LeBron? No.

Also, if you’re Cleveland, does trading for Anthony make you a bigger threat to the Warriors? A trade straight up for Anthony does not get you younger and more athletic. For one, how does a forward combination of Kevin Love, LeBron, and Carmelo Anthony work? Can you blend that with Derrick Rose at the point? Offensively, Anthony can take Irving’s place as an isolation scorer, just from different areas of the floor that will force Love to adjust. However, defensively… that could be a mess. Even with LeBron and Tristan Thompson, it will be a mess with three negative defenders on the court at the start (and likely finish) of games. You could bring Love off the bench and start J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert at the two, but this creates its own set of problems. It’s an awkward rotational fit.

There are a lot of reasons but do not expect an Anthony for Irving trade to go down. This trade is ultimately going to be more complicated than that.

Report: Detroit Pistons become latest team with jersey ad deal, link up with Flagstar Bank

Darren Rovell on Twitter.
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Those new Nike NBA jerseys will have a little more flair and style than the Adidas ones — and I like that teams now can choose what color to wear at home, rather than be forced to don white.

Those jerseys also will have ads on them for a lot of teams.

Detroit is going to be one of them, reports Darren Rovell of ESPN. They will announce a deal Wednesday with Flagstar Bank.

When the season starts and people start to see the ads on jerseys during games… there will be a national shrug.

Sure, some curmudgeon will write a complaining newspaper column about how this is just greed, and that will get him spots on talk shows and networks to spout his “get off my lawn” rant. Fans, however, will shrug. It’s a small patch on the shoulder. In person at games, nobody will notice. On television, you will be able to see it when a guy takes a free throw and they do a close up of him, but you’ll have to look for it. Younger fans, and rational fans, will move along.

If the owners make a few more dollars — half of which goes to the players — then fine. It’s not a big deal. Will people also complain about the Nike swoosh on the other shoulder? Of course not. Of the ad deals, 25 percent goes to the team, 25 percent is shared with other owners in a revenue pool (that has numerous other sources), and 50 goes to the players through contracts (it is part of the “basketball related income” that helps set the salary cap number).

It’s progress. Times are changing, and a rose-colored glasses view of the past will not change that, in sports or anywhere else.