Thunder have no problem with Rockets in James Harden’s return to OKC

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James Harden returned to Oklahoma City as a member of the the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, his first time doing so since the Thunder traded him out of town due to a failure to agree on a contract extension prior to the start of the season.

While the fans gave Harden a warm welcome during pregame introductions, his former teammates seemed hell-bent on making sure that his time spent playing the actual game would be nothing short of miserable.

The Thunder focused their efforts defensively in shutting Harden down, and were successful in doing so on the way to a 120-98 home victory over the Rockets.

Houston was without starting forward Chandler Parsons due to a shoulder injury, which just meant that the scoring burden would fall on Harden’s shoulders even more than usual. Playing against his former team, whose players not only knew that but also knew Harden’s tendencies, he didn’t have much of a chance, and his numbers on the night showed it.

Harden was clearly pressing in the first half, and whether trying to prove something to his former teammates or simply trying to ignite a spark for his current team, the result was a failed one all the same. He had just three points at intermission, which all came on free throws, after missing all eight of his attempts from the field, while committing two turnovers.

Harden had two of his first half shot attempts blocked viciously by Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, both of whom made sure to put a little extra on their defensive plays as a gift to their former teammate.

Harden got his first bucket of the game on a fast break layup with under a minute gone in the third, but finished just 3-of-16 from the field. He did manage 17 points thanks to two of his made shots being from three-point distance, to go along with his nine made free throws. But with no other reliable offensive threat on the floor for the Rockets to speak of, Harden faced various forms of double-teams all night long, with predictably dismal results.

OKC got a superstar performance from Kevin Durant, who finished with 37 points on 13-of-22 shooting, while playing almost 43 minutes. The man Harden was traded for, Kevin Martin, finished with 17 points in 28 minutes off the bench.

It was an unusually long and draining day for the Rockets, even by NBA standards. The team spent the first part of the day attending the funeral of Sasha McHale in Minnesota, who was the daughter of the team’s head coach Kevin McHale that passed away tragically over the weekend. The Rockets didn’t even arrive in Oklahoma City until late afternoon on Wednesday, which is highly unusual for any team playing a game in another city that very same night.

Harden’s performance should not be judged too harshly in this one, for a variety of reasons. The unusual travel circumstances, combined with the fact that his new team is simply not as good as the Thunder from a talent standpoint have to be weighed heavily when critiquing his game on this night.

Houston (and Harden) need to think of this in terms of the big picture.

Harden moved on to a better situation for himself in Houston. He got the max contract that he wanted, and he got the opportunity to be the number one option offensively as a member of his new team’s starting lineup.

Houston may not yet be able to play at the level that the Thunder can right now, but dealing for Harden was the first step in a process that the team hopes will be a successful one in making that a reality at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.