Kevin Love, James Harden

Baseline to Baseline recaps: James Harden leads dramatic Boxing Day finishes

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of all the games yesterday in NBA action. Or, what you missed while wondering exactly what you’re going to do with the Salt-N-Pepa salt and pepper shakers you got for Christmas….

Rockets 87, Timberwolves 84: James Harden is making quite the All-Star case, and making the Rockets look more and more like a team that will not just fall out of the playoffs in the West. Minnesota took a 14-point lead in the third quarter after an 11-0 run and it seemed Minnesota was going to pull away. But the Rockets scrapped back in it with a 15-2 run and we had a ball game headed to the fourth.

That was James Harden time — he scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and had 15 of the Rockets final 17 as they pulled away at the end to get the win. Harden score pretty much every way you can imagine — he hit a three but he also attacked and drew fouls, then his final four points to give the Rockets the lead and the win were driving isolation plays where he was too quick for the defense and made shots over them anyway.

Chandler Parsons had a dozen for the Rockets. J.J. Barea had 18 to lead the Thunder, Alexey Shved added 16.

Knicks 97, Suns 95: The Knicks were without Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton due to injury, but J.R. Smith had an active all-around game to make sure his team got the win anyway. Smith finished with 27 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals, while also hitting the tough, fading game-winning jumper as time expired.

The Suns were without starting point guard Goran Dragic for the entire second half, thanks to the flagrant foul from Smith near the end of the first half that resulted in a non-specific wrist/back/hip injury. Smith’s performance spoiled a career night from Jared Dudley, who poured in 36 points on 11-of-17 shooting in 42 minutes of action.
—Brett Pollakoff’

Nuggets 126, Lakers 114: The Lakers saw their five-game winning streak come to an end in Denver, just one day removed from putting together a complete and impressive performance in a Christmas Day victory over the Knicks.

The emotional letdown might have had something to do with this one, but L.A. couldn’t muster the intensity defensively to slow a Nuggets team that likes to push the pace and is typically successful in scoring inside. Denver got 58 of its points in the paint and outscored the Lakers by 20 there, while outrebounding them by 10, and grabbing 20 boards as a team on the offensive end of the floor. Kenneth Faried was the poster child for this effort, and Dwight Howard was ejected in the third quarter for his overly-physical attempt to try to slow Faried down.

As is often the case against the league’s marquee teams like the Lakers, the random guys off the bench rise to the occasion and have otherworldly performances which help their team win. Corey Brewer was the one exemplifying the trend on this night, going for 27 points and hitting six of his seven three-point attempts in the process. He did all of that damage in a mere 24 minutes of action. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers by continuing his torrid scoring pace, pouring in 40 points in 44 minutes, to go along with four rebounds and six assists.
—Brett Pollakoff

Heat 105, Bobcats 92: Big surprise — the defending champs handed a team that hadn’t won in its last 15 games its 16th consecutive loss.

LeBron James finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists, while Dwyane Wade added 29 points and nine rebounds of his own to put this one away as expected. Charlotte never led, while the Miami lead was as high as 19 at one point before the game reached its foregone conclusion.
—Brett Pollakoff

Sixers 99, Grizzlies 89: Philly coach Doug Collins had announced Dorrell Wright as a starter as a plan to match up with Rudy Gay, only Gay was not with Memphis for personal reasons. Wright started anyway and just dropped 28 and keyed the Sixers win. After the game Collins totally should have played the “that’s why I started him, I knew this was coming” line but didn’t

A little discussed issue is the last 10 games the Memphis offense has been terrible. They are at 97.3 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, which would be 29th in the league (by NBA.com’s own stats). That leaves them no margin for error. So if they have a rough night defensively there is no margin for error, and that pretty much sums up this game. The Grizzlies made a run and got the Sixers lead down to two in the fourth quarter, but the Sixers answered back with a 13-0 run and that was pretty much it. Jason Richardson had 28 in the win.

Hornets 97, Magic 94: New Orleans snapped its 11 game losing streak behind the offensive powerhouses that are Robin Lopez (29 points) and Greivis Vasquez (27). So, just what we all expected.

What really got the Hornets the win was one of the offensive draughts the Magic have gone through this season — Orlando didn’t make a field goal in the final six minutes of the game and was 5-of-24 in the fourth. Part of that was the Hornets six blocked shots in the quarter. The Hornets owned the fourth and that was enough. Jameer Nelson had 28 for Orlando, but had key turnovers in the fourth when he and was trapped by Anthony Davis out near midcourt.

Hawks 126, Pistons 119 (2OT): The Hawks have proven themselves to be fool’s gold in recent seasons, with their talented team piling up regular season wins only to go on to underachieve year after year in the postseason.

This game was a great example of that, as Atlanta got out to a 22-point fourth quarter lead, only to take the foot off the gas to the point where the Pistons were able to stage a comeback large enough to the point where they had a real chance to win. Detroit scored 39 fourth-quarter points, thanks to 26 combined from Will Bynum and Charlie Villanueva in the period. Austin Daye drained a three with four seconds left that gave the Pistons a one-point lead, but Al Horford took the ball strong to the basket on the next possession to draw the foul, and he converted one of two free throws to send the game into its first overtime session.

It took two overtimes, but some timely threes from Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver in the second OT helped the Hawks re-establish control, while the Pistons simply didn’t have enough left in the tank to sustain the attack.
—Brett Pollakoff

Bucks 108, Nets 93: Deron Williams was out, which meant a whole lot of C.J. Watson and Tyshawn Taylor for the Nets. Not so coincidentally, Monta Ellis had 20 points on 14 shots and Brandon Jennings had 25 points on 15 shots. The back court won this game for Milwaukee and did it handily — the Bucks took control with an 18-3 run in the second quarter. While the Nets tried to make it interesting in the fourth but you just never felt like they would make it all the way back. As part of the Bucks easy win, Ersan Ilyasova had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, as did Larry Sanders with 12 and 12.

Spurs 100, Raptors 80: Did you really think this was going to end any other way? San Antonio took control with a 14-4 run right before the half and never looked back. What changed is that the Spurs started to run, more, something they did in the second half — Toronto isn’t that good defensively when they do get to set. The Spurs killed them not so much with the fast break but the secondary break and early in the clock plays. Tim Duncan had 15 and Manu Ginobili 14.

Warriors 94, Jazz 83: Things are going like this now for Golden State — Andris Biedrins can come in, play key minutes, hold Al Jefferson in relative check (18 points) and be at the heart of another Golden State road win. They are just finding a way to get it done.

The Warriors controlled the tempo and that was key in this one as the Jazz had to work for their points (they miss Mo Williams), meanwhile Golden State got a lot of easy buckets and went on a 12-2 run right before the half, which was when they took over and never looked back.

Stephen Curry had 23 but went cold for a stretch in the third — he even shot an air-ball — but it didn’t matter because the Warriors were in control. And the Jazz were listless.

Trail Blazers 109, Kings 91: This was the opposite of Sacramento’s Sunday night win over these same Blazers. Well, except for DeMarcus Cousins not being there — he missed both games after feuding with his coach. But most everything else was different.

The Blazers had a number of guys put up double-doubles — LaMarcus Aldridge (28 points,12 rebounds), J.J. Hickson (17 points,14 rebounds), and Damian Lillard (17 points and 11 assists). Portland attacked and got 50 of their points in the paint, 20 off fast breaks, and they had a dozen dunks. John Salmons had 19 points to lead the Kings, which is something only his fantasy owners care about.

Cavaliers 87, Wizards 84: Kyrie Irving’s 26 points and eight assists were enough to get Cleveland their seventh win of the season over a woeful Wizards team that has just three wins of its own.

Washington was in this one throughout, at least. The Wizards led by 12 in the first quarter and nine midway through the third, before the Cavs ultimately were able to find their way back.

Irving found Tristan Thompson for the and-1 at the rim with 24.4 seconds left, and that ended up being the key play that finished Washington this time. Jordan Crawford had an open look at a long three at the buzzer that would have tied it, but it rimmed out, and the Cavaliers held on for their second straight victory.
—Brett Pollakoff

Bulls at Pacers, PPD: In case you missed it, this game was postponed by the league due to the storm that was largely shutting down Indianapolis. No date has yet been set for the rescheduled contest.

Report: Timberwolves signing Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 08: John Lucas III #15 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 8, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the 76ers 77-69. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Alert: Kick your Ricky Rubio trade theories into gear.

The Timberwolves, despite saying they’d keep Rubio for now, are acting like they might not. Minnesota is reportedly signing a couple point guards: Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III.

The Timberwolves already have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries, including three point guards: Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones. Keeping Murry or Lucas would require a roster move.

It could be Kevin Garnett retiring, buying out Nikola Pekovic or some smaller trade. But unless that minor deal involves Jones – Dunn, the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, isn’t going anywhere – Minnesota would still have enough point guards. Most teams carry three.

The Timberwolves obviously aren’t trading Rubio because they have Murry and Lucas. But Murry or Lucas would help if Minnesota trades Rubio.

Lucas had his best season with Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, and he can create instant offense in Thibodeau’s grind-it-out scheme. Murry has the length to make an impact defensively.* Most importantly, both play extremely hard – an especially big deal to Thibodeau.

*Murry’s size also allows him to play the wing, which offers him another avenue for sticking. But his frame, special for a point guard, is merely ordinary at shooting guard or small forward.

The Timberwolves still might not be quite ready to trade Rubio. But if Minnesota does deal him to slide Dunn into the starting lineup, Murry or Lucas would provide a decent contingency with Jones in reserve.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey: James Harden ‘only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch’

Daryl Morey, James Harden
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Do you struggle with evaluating James Harden?

I know I do.

Harden’s Rockets, projected by some to contend for a championship, struggled to a 41-41 record last season. A fair share of their downfall could be pinned on him.

His defensive disinterest is appalling, and it sets a tone. His leadership is questionable, which matters a great deal for someone so empowered. He relies on tricking referees to draw fouls, frequently hooking his defender to create contact.

But I still put him on my All-NBA team, because his offense was so darned effective.

Elite individual offensive contributions are incredibly valuable. Harden’s defensive shortcomings can be hidden in a better team scheme. His leadership issues would matter less in a better team culture. But you can’t simply create what Harden provides offensively.

Long story short, Harden can be tricky to assess no matter how deeply you dive into his plusses and minuses.

Unless you ask Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey, via Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insiders:

“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”

Morey has long defended Harden. That’s what general managers do for the superstar they acquired in tenure-defining trades.

But Morey also put his money where his mouth is. The Rockets will pay Harden an extra $20 million over the next two seasons just to get him locked up one extra year – and that extra year will cost about a max salary.

For better or worse, the Rockets are all in with Harden.

I think that’s a good plan given the alternatives, but I’m also not so sold on Harden that I find it foolproof.

51 Questions: Who is better, Bulls or Knicks?

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 31: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls looses control of the ball after being hit by Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks at the United Center on October 31, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Knicks 82-81. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Today PBT launches its 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). And we start with a fun topic:

Who is better, the Bulls or the Knicks?

Two proud franchises in two of the nation’s biggest markets, with two fan bases that demand results (but haven’t gotten them lately). Those fan bases are restless because we are talking about two franchises that disappointed and missed the playoffs last season.

That put a lot of pressure on the front offices of the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, and both were aggressive making changes this summer — Chicago traded Derrick Rose to New York, in one of the bigger deals of the offseason.

Expectations are high in New York and Chicago, with the playoffs considered a baseline.

But did those teams improve that much? Will either make the playoffs?

And which team is better?

Forced to choose, I’d say the Bulls. Barely.

Both are going to be in a battle with other teams — Washington, Charlotte, Miami, Milwaukee, maybe Atlanta,— for the final few playoff spots in the East. Both teams could conceivably miss the playoffs again.

Sorry Derrick Rose, your Knicks are not a superteam.

Rose is the common thread between these two team’s summers.

The Bulls needed to choose between him and Jimmy Butler, and they wisely chose the younger and, at this point, just flat out better Butler. It was the only call (outside trading both for a bottom-out rebuild, which wouldn’t have been wise). The Bulls traded Rose away then proceeded to surround Butler with older guards — Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo — who are not great defenders, have had injury issues, don’t space the floor with their shooting, and need the ball in their hands to be their best. They also added a solid big man in Robin Lopez to the paint, he should at least block some of the shots from opposing wings who blow by Rondo and Wade.

Wade can still score — he averaged 19 points a game last season and showed in the playoffs (and other short stretches) he can put a team on his back and still be a force. He’s not vintage Wade, but he hasn’t slipped as far as critics suggest — most nights now he is good, not great. The knee maintenance program from Miami that had Wade resting some nights (although fewer last season) needs to come north and be part of the plan for him in Chicago.

The Bulls have decent raw talent and depth with Butler, Wade, Lopez, Taj Gibson (at least until he is traded), Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Bobby Portis, and Denzel Valentine. That’s why I have them just slightly ahead of the Knicks. But there are real questions about the fit of this roster. They are going to have defensive holes on the perimeter. On offense, there isn’t near enough shooting to keep opposing teams from just packing the paint and taking away driving lanes for Wade and Butler. (It’s why I think Mirotic will have to start and get heavy minutes with the first unit, they need the floor spacing shooting, the downside is he hurts the defense.) None of this fits what coach Fred Hoiberg ideally wants to run, and does the young coach have the force of personality to keep this team pulling the same direction on the rope?

The Knicks were the team that took on Derrick Rose — then landed Joakim Noah as well. Combine them with Carmelo Anthony and, if this were 2011, they would be title favorites.

The Knicks starting five could be quite good: Rose, Courtney Lee, Anthony (fresh off the Olympics), Kristaps Porzingis, and Noah. But will that group even play 50 games together healthy? If the starters are together for 60-plus games this season, the Knicks almost certainly are a playoff team (and better than the Bulls). But we all know the injury history: Rose missed 244 games in the last five seasons and is not nearly the explosive MVP version of himself, while Noah has missed 68 games the past two seasons and does not move like the Defensive Player of the Year anymore. Anthony has had his injury issues too. That trio could well fall below Knicks’ fans expectations.

Also, none of those guys seem ready to run like new coach Jeff Hornacek wants. The depth behind that starting five is unimpressive, with Brandon Jennings at the point being the best one of the bunch. When those starters start missing games — or just when the starters go to the bench — the Knicks drop off fast. This was a 32-win team last season, how much better did they really get?

Two things could have me underestimating the Knicks. One is Porzingis. He was impressive as a rookie and on his way to being very good, but how big a leap does he make this season? He will certainly be improved, he remains the future Knicks fans build altars to, and if he makes a bigger leap than I predict (which is possible) he can carry this team to the playoffs.

Second, this is contract year Derrick Rose — does he rise to the occasion? Will he be healthier, a better jump shooter, and just more creative than we have seen in recent years.

The bottom line: Both of these teams will be hovering around .500 and in a scramble for the playoffs. Both teams made short-term moves that don’t make a lot of long-term sense considering they have good young pieces to build around. Both fan bases expect more than these teams are going to deliver.

The Bulls depth should have them playing slightly better. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Of course, the real answer to all questions about who is better in the East should just be answered “Cleveland.”

Jazz guarantee more than $1 million to No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboy, a rare commitment to someone drafted so low

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 18:  Joel Bolomboy #21 of the Weber State Wildcats handles the ball in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 18, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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In the first five years of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, two players drafted in the 50s received a $1 million guarantee the same offseason they were selected.

This year, the list has doubled.

The Cavaliers guaranteed $1 million to No. 54 pick Kay Felder, and No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboyjust signed by the Jazz – will get even more.

Bolomboy’s $600,000 salary this season is fully guaranteed, and $452,625 of his salary next season is guaranteed, according to Basketball Insiders. That’s a grand total of $1,052,625 guaranteed on a three-year contract.

Only Tornike Shengelia (No. 54 pick in 2012 from Nets) and Kris Joseph (No. 51 pick in 2012 from Celtics) got more as players picked in the 50s who signed the same offseason under the current CBA. Both received two fully guaranteed seasons.

Bolomboy successfully leveraged a salary-cap environment relatively more favorable to second-rounders than first-rounders. If Utah didn’t make him such a favorable offer, he could’ve accepted the required tender and become a free agent within a year – with numerous potentially offering him a contract. The Jazz, with more cap space than they know what do with, probably didn’t mind paying Bolomboy a little more to secure him at what’s still a low rate for the next three years.

This likely wraps up any preseason competition in Utah for a regular-season roster spot. Bolomboy becomes the 15th Jazz player with a guaranteed 2016-17 salary, so he’ll almost certainly stick beyond the preseason – another plus of this contract.

This gives him security as he tries to develop into a player worthy of a second – presumably higher-paying – NBA contract.