LeBron plays through illness to help Heat take care of Suns

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PHOENIX — A little more than 90 minutes before tip-off, the status of LeBron James was still uncertain. With Dwyane Wade already ruled out for the second straight game with a foot injury, Miami may have been in trouble if James too was unable to go.

Thankfully for the Heat, James found a way to push through.

While he wasn’t quite his usual self, a half-healthy James is better than most at 100 percent. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, a few assists, and a couple of steals, while playing almost 41 minutes in the Heat’s 97-88 win over the Suns in Phoenix.

“Well look, he doesn’t miss much,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “I can’t even remember the last time he’s missed a practice or a shoot around. So when he missed today, obviously that makes you wonder, and you know that it’s pretty serious. We knew yesterday that he hadn’t had any food, so he went through the whole day. In the late afternoon he was starting to be able to keep down Gatorade but that was about it.

“He said it was no hesitation, that he’d never leave those guys out there. But it was a little bit in doubt with us.”

How effective James would end up being on the night was in doubt as the game got started. He began with eight first-quarter minutes that were devoid of any statistical contributions, save for a rebound and a turnover, as he tried to involve his teammates early on. He then had to leave the court to head to the locker room, as he began to feel weak once again.

“Yeah, I got a little sick,” James said of his first quarter trip back to the locker room. “So I came back here to just try to get a little more fluids in me.”

Shane Battier knocked down a few wide open threes in the first, and Chris Bosh was big with 16 first-half points. But whatever nutrition James was able to get during that brief intermission paid immediate dividends.

James played the entire second quarter, and got himself going with a few jumpers and some trips to the free throw line. But as the game wore on, he picked his spots, and was able to close the game out when his team needed him the most.

This game was largely a sloppy one from both teams at times; Miami played loose with the basketball to the tune of 19 turnovers, while the Suns weren’t much better with 17 of their own. Both teams were able to put together sizable runs that swung the game in their favor for short bursts, but neither team could keep it going for a long enough stretch to pull away before the game’s final minutes.

Phoenix came back from seven down with three and a half minutes to play, cutting the Miami lead to just two after a huge steal from Goran Dragic and a layup in transition. The Suns had a chance to tie on a jumper from Michael Beasley, but after it seemed to be just about all the way down it rimmed out, and Bosh converted two free throws to push the lead to four.

After Sebastian Telfair missed a five-footer in the lane off the back of the iron, it was closing time for Miami. And James was the one who had the ball in his hands.

As the Heat held onto that four-point lead with under a minute to play, James dribbled down the clock above the three-point arc, before making his move and driving to the basket. He spun around Marcin Gortat as if the Suns center was standing still, and calmly laid the ball in to seal the win for his team.

What made the performance from James on this night so memorable is that the outcome of this single game in November is ultimately so forgettable. For the defending champions who will measure this season’s success based on what happens five or six months from now, James could have easily sat this one out, and no one would have thought any less of him, even if his team were to have suffered a loss.

But as we know by now, James is a special player who feels a responsibility to his teammates to be out there if at all possible — even in a relatively meaningless game taking place so early in the regular season.

“It takes a lot for me not to play, for me not to be out there with my teammates,” James said. “Me at 50 percent or 60 percent is better than me not playing at all, and I was able to get a little bit of rest this early morning and afternoon. I didn’t have much energy but I wanted to be out there on the floor with my guys, and I’m happy I was able to make a couple plays to help us win.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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Did Russell Westbrook get mad at Steven Adams for not taking potential triple-double-clinching shot? (video)

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Russell Westbrook chases triple-doubles.

That hardly makes him unique. He’s just close enough to the feat more often than other players, so he chases them more often.

But he still chases them.

Late in the Thunder’s 108-91 win over the Warriors last night, Westbrook was heading toward his final line of 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. His teammates shot off his passes on three of Oklahoma City’s final four possessions before he took a seat (including one assist). The exception came when he passed to Steven Adams, who passed rather than shoot – clearly upsetting Westbrook.

Was Westbrook mad because he missed his chance at a triple-double? Maybe.

Was Westbrook mad because Adams passed as the shot clock neared expiration? Maybe.

It could be both!

Watch Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry on Golden State’s bench. They clearly found something funny.