Williams, bold moves make Nets a fun team… for now

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The Brooklyn Nets are a much better team right now than they were 72 hours ago.

They will walk onto the court at the Barclays Center with an entertaining lineup, a team with offensive firepower, something you couldn’t really say about the squad last seen in New Jersey (they move to Brooklyn this fall). They should be a team on the second tier in the East along with Indy, Boston and the Knicks. They won the battle to keep the face of the franchise in point guard Deron Williams. They should be popping champagne at the Nets headquarters tonight.

But they are not title contenders, not unless guys who have never been good at it suddenly learn to defend and board. And the way this team is built — with massive contracts for some players seeming past their prime — the moves of the last 72 hours will come back to haunt them in a couple years.

And Dwight Howard is not going to be bailing them out — all these bold moves make it nearly impossible for the Nets to trade for Howard (and there is no way they can sign him as a free agent next summer now). Howard still wants to land in Brooklyn, but it is going to take a Houdini-like escape from the confines of the CBA to find a way to free up salary to pull it off.

Nets GM Billy King was clearly under orders from owner Mikhail Prokhorov to get a team together that could open a new building, one that could compete in the nation’s largest market with the much more established Knicks. Something the Nets could sell.

He did.

Deron Williams is an Olympian and arguably the second best point guard walking the face of the earth. He’s also taken to living in New York City and will be a great ambassador for the team.

They added Joe Johnson and while we can all agree his contract is ridiculously large — $89 million over four more years — the guy is an All-Star and he can play. Johnson averaged 18.5 points per game last year, shot 38 percent from three and had a PER of 18.5.

The Nets also have Gerald Wallace, a guy who averaged 15.2 points a game, is an efficient shooter and can defend. Somehow the Nets held on to MarShon Brooks, the impressive rookie that a lot of teams coveted. They added Mirza Teletović, a quality stretch four from Europe. Reggie Evans will be a fan favorite but drive coach Avery Johnson crazy.

There are some pieces to like. This Nets roster should put up points. If Avery Johnson can get them to defend as a unit they could be better than just good.

But they are still looking up at Miami (as is everyone) and a healthy Chicago. And getting more quality pieces to change that will be nearly impossible. As you read this, the Nets have $54 million committed to six players (via Zach Lowe at Sports Illustrated who did the math). The salary cap is $58 million, and what is more by using the full $5 million mid-level exception on Teletović the Nets have locked themselves in with essentially a hard cap of $74 million they cannot exceed.

Bottom line is the Nets have $20 million to round out the roster and we haven’t talked about re-signing Brook Lopez or Kris Humphries yet. And they want to keep Lopez for sure, ideally both. Very quickly the Nets are going to be looking and inexpensive veteran minimum deals because they will be running out of space below the $74 million apron (as it is called in the CBA).

Which comes back to the dream of trading for Howard. First off, the Magic have consistently rejected an offer of Lopez, Brooks and picks for Howard and that is not suddenly going to change. The Magic have all summer or longer to make a move, they are not the ones that take the PR hit for how they handled the situation. They are more than happy to let Howard twist in the wind. And they sure as heck don’t care where he wants to go, they want the best deal for themselves.

More than that, Howard (set to make $19.5 million next year) along with Johnson, Williams, Wallace and the other couple guys already under contract but not shipped out would be owed nearly $70 million. So that leaves $4 million to get seven more guys. You’re not getting quality for that.

There are scenarios you can create where the Nets get some third party to help them out, taking on salary and opening the door for them to get Howard. But not realistic ones. And you can bet no GM in the East is going to help the Nets create another Super Team in their conference.

No, what you see with the Nets is pretty much what you get. They will be good. They will be fun. They will compete with the Nets and the fans in Brooklyn will love them. Jay-Z will love them.

But in a few years the real cost of opening the Barclays Center the right way will come home to roost.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.