Jeremy Lin loves New York, Knicks weak transition defense. Rockets cruise to win.

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The obvious line is easy — Jeremy Lin has always been at his best when playing in Madison Square Garden with Carmelo Anthony out.

The reality is that Jeremy Lin and his Rocket teammates are perfectly suited to expose some of the Knicks weaknesses. And some new troubling Knicks trends.

The result was Lin, James Harden and the rest of an aggressive Rockets team ran right past the Knicks, exposed their transition defense, attacked the paint and eventually handed the Knicks their first home loss of the season. Easily. The final 109-96 score made the game look closer than it was.

Lin had 22 points, 8 assists and pushed the tempo early (he had 16 and 4 of those final numbers in the first half) and was key for the Rockets to pull away from New York in the second quarter. Lin had one of his best games of the season. James Harden chipped in 28. Carlos Delfino 16 off the bench on 4-of-7 from three.

On one hand, the Knicks can write this game off. Forget it. Flush it. No Carmelo Anthony (out with an ankle injury still), no Rasheed Wallace, no Marcus Camby. Just call it an off night and move on.

But there are a few things that the Knicks should take notice out of this.

One is transition defense — New York came into this game 27th in the NBA in points per possession allowed to the other team in transition. Which is a bad matchup with the Rockets who play at the NBA’s fastest pace (99.6 possessions per game, nearly two faster than second place Dallas).

The result was, just as did their first meeting, this game felt like a 1980s throwback where the fast teams ran on everything — makes, misses, turnovers whatever. It worked for the Rockets at first as they started out 7-of-10 shooting because they attacked in transition — 16 of their first 17 points came in the paint. Houston pushed out to a nine-point lead in a signs of things to come.

But two things turned it around for a stretch — the Knicks played a spurt of better transition defense, and more importantly J.R. Smith shot 5-of-5 in the quarter off the bench and had 12 points. It was 31-29 Knicks after one quarter, one where the Knicks shot 63.3 percent themselves. It felt like we were in store for another shootout between these teams.

But the Knicks start second quarter 0-of-6, they couldn’t sustain an offensive surge without Anthony.

Meanwhile the Rockets just kept attacking — 30 or Rockets first 42 points came in the paint. They pushed lead out to 45-34. Jason Kidd was on Harden for a while and that didn’t work for New York and the lead grew. It was 56-42 Rockets at the half, Lin and Harden each with 16 on a combined 11-18 shooting with six assists. By the end of the third quarter it was a 23-point Rocket lead.

This off night defensively was not some out of the blue fluke by the Knicks — they came into this having allowed 110.2 points per 100 possessions in their last five games (via NBA.com stats). That is 26th in the NBA over that stretch and well off their 102.6 season average.

The Knicks have not played great defense of late and the Rockets exposed it. This is the kind of thing you expect Mike Woodson and Tyson Chandler to work to fix in the coming weeks. Not let it grow, not let bad habits develop.

Knicks fans looking for a bright spot, there was 29 points on 19 shots and a lot of hustle from Chris Copleland. J.R. Smith finished with 17, Chandler had 14 rebounds.

For the Rockets, maybe this is a step forward for Lin, who has struggled this season. He did well when he was paired with Harden in this game and he attacked. Of course, the Rockets went on a 16-3 run when it was just Lin on the court in the second quarter, no Harden. But baby steps, this was better than it had been.

Or maybe Lin just plays his best in the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.

Steve Kerr “disappointed” in alma mater Arizona; wants to see NCAA follow new model

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Before he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors, before he was a five-time NBA Champion playing next to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, Steve Kerr was one of the great players the University of Arizona ever produced. The crowd would echo the announcer after ever made three — “Steeeve Keerrr” — where he was an All-American and helped lead a team (with future NBA players Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert) to the Final Four.

There is a crisis around Arizona basketball right now. Coach Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton (expected to be a high lottery pick in June, possibly the No. 1 pick). Miller did not coach Saturday and changes are coming to Arizona.

Kerr was asked about it before the Warriors took on the Thunder Saturday.

Kerr said he was “disappointed” in his alma mater over the incident. Which is understandable.

Not to completely excuse it, but what Miller got caught doing is commonplace — money is funneled to families or the players of top recruits on a regular basis. What is more troubling (in my mind) is the money paid under the table to AAU coaches, family members, and others close to elite recruits to funnel them to a specific “financial planner” or agent, or a specific university. People in positions of trust with the player are bought and paid for.

Kerr put out one solution that would certainly be a big step forward: follow the Olympics model and let elite players get sponsorships that don’t end their college eligibility.

This system has its flaws as well, but it gets some of the dirty money out in the open. It would be better than the hypocritical facade of amateurism the NCAA has hit behind for years.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”

 

Report: Jimmy Butler telling people he will be back for playoffs

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We don’t know a lot about Jimmy Butler‘s meniscus injury (other than that it’s not an ACL injury as feared). Because of that, it’s impossible to put a timeline on his return. We don’t know what kind of surgery he likely needs — a traditional meniscus partial removal takes six weeks or so to get a player back on the court (but is harder on the knee long-term as cushioning in it is removed, Dwyane Wade had this), but a repair could take three months or more before he is back on the court. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said this pregame Saturday:

However, Butler himself is telling people he will be back for the playoffs.

Is that the optimism of a fierce competitor? Players are often the worst judge of their ability to return from injury.

Or, does he know that a meniscus repair is out of the question with his injury, that a partial removal is the only option (as is true in some cases)? That has a speedier return that could have him back for the playoffs.

In the short-term, Minnesota is going to need a lot more out of Andrew Wiggins, and they need to play a lot better team defense, to hold on to a playoff slot in the West. The Timberwolves have been -8.3 per 100 possessions without Butler this season, but went 2-2 in the four games he missed. Minnesota is currently the four seed in the West at 36-26, but just three games from falling out of the postseason in a crowded conference.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.