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Baseline to Baseline recaps: Serge Ibaka is to be feared as Thunder beat Spurs

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of the day in NBA action. Or, what you missed while thinking “if you’re going to play Santa make sure you fit down the chimney”….

Rockets 109, Knicks 96: Jeremy Lin was back in New York and he doesn’t just play well at Madison Square Garden when Carmelo Anthony is out, he plays well against bad transition defense. He got all of that in an easy Rockets win we broke down here.

Thunder 107, Spurs 93: Serge Ibaka is a man to be feared.

Or at least he should be if you’re a Spur. Ibaka — he of the still developing game — had 25 points and 17 rebounds to led the Thunder. Ibaka started out hot, going 6-for-6 with 10 points with four boards and a blocked shot in the first quarter as he had a lot of success running the pick and roll with Kevin Durant (something the Spurs struggled to stop because Ibaka can both pop out for the midrange or roll hard to the hoop). This was a three-point game at the half but an 11-0 run sparked the Thunder to win the third quarter 29-16 and it was over before the final 12 minutes. Gregg Popovich didn’t even play his stars in the fourth quarter. Tony Parker had 14 points and seven assists. Russell Westbrook had 22.

Grizzlies 80, Bulls 71: You had to figure a showdown between the teams tied for the best defense in the NBA coming into the night (both allow 97 points per 100 possessions, via Hoopdata). You got just that — the winning team shot 37.5 percent. This wasn’t as much a case of terrible offense as it really was two lock-down defenses doing their thing.

Two key things separated the Grizzlies. One was the offensive glass — the Grizzlies grabbed 18 offensive boards, or to be more blunt they got a second chance on 38.7 percent of their missed shots. The other key was the Grizzlies bench, which outscored the Bulls bench 31-16. Wayne Ellington, Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur put together the second quarter Memphis run that gave them the lead for good in this one.

Clippers 88, Pistons 76: If the Clippers were going to go cold for a night shooting, against the Pistons was the place to do it and still get a win — their 10th in a row.

Los Angeles started out ice cold shooting 31.8 percent in the first quarter, and it felt like this might be the night the win streak ended. But the Clippers continued to defend well (Detroit shot just 40 percent), had a 12-2 third quarter run to take control, and got 15 points each from Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin. It wasn’t pretty for the Clippers but a win is a win. Or 10 of them.

Magic 102, Timberwolves 93: Ricky Rubio played for the Timberwolves Monday and will sit out Tuesday against Miami, part of the reasoning was to try and get the more likely win. The best laid plans of mice and men…

Minnesota led by 15 in the third quarter as they got 23 points and 15 rebounds from Kevin Love. But a 21-6 run started a dramatic comeback that included the Magic shooting 63 percent (12-for-19) in the fourth quarter. Glen Davis had 28 points, J.J. Redick had 18. Maybe the best way to look at it is Minnesota’s Love, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic combined to shoot 17-for-29 in the first half but just 6-for-22 in the second half.

Suns 101, Kings 90: This battle of western conference bottom dwellers was a classic ‘tale of two halves’ game. Led by Jimmer Fredette’s 12 first half points (22 for the game), the Kings found themselves up 54-43. They were controlling the glass on both sides of the ball, benefitting from poor Suns’ shooting (37% in the half), and were well on their way to only their 2nd road win of the year.
In the 2nd half, however, the game turned around completely. Fueled by a dominant 3rd quarter that saw them hold the Kings to only 14 points (while scoring 31 themselves), the Suns grabbed the momentum. Shannon Brown scored 14 points in the period (on 6-7 shooting) while Luis Scola handed out 5 of his game high 10 assists (to go along with his 14 points). In the 4th quarter, the Kings made one last run but that was shut down by two Jared Dudley three pointers and a classic Scola scoop shot in the closing minutes that allowed the Suns to hold on.
—Darius Soriano

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

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