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.

Heat have work cut out vs. surging Sixers

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MIAMI (AP) — Philadelphia 76ers reserve guard Justin Anderson scored six points on Thursday, but he played a major role nonetheless in a 128-108 playoff win over the Miami Heat.

It was Anderson who worked on the psyche of teammate Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ All-Star center who returned after missing 10 straight games because of a concussion and left-eye injury.

“Justin was hyping me up on the bench, telling me I’m one of the best players in the league and that I have to take over,” said Embiid, who wore a mask during the game. “I liked that.”

Embiid, with that added boost of confidence, produced 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 30 minutes. He missed his first five shots from the floor and then made five of his next six, including three 3-pointers.

In addition, Embiid made 10 of 15 free throws, wrapping up his highly successful NBA playoff debut.

On Saturday afternoon, the teams will meet again at AmericanAirlines Arena in a first-round series the Heat trails 2-1.

Certainly, the Heat will try to corral Embiid, but Miami gave its own star center, Hassan Whiteside, just 13 minutes on Thursday, in part because of foul trouble.

Whiteside produced just five points, two rebounds and one block. He made his only shots from the field, but his four fouls helped to keep him off the court.

“I want to get more minutes,” said Whiteside, who led the NBA with 3.7 blocks in 2015-2016 and with 14.1 rebounds last season. “Even with the fouls, I could’ve been out there. I would not have fouled out.”

This season, Whiteside is averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But, on average, his minutes per game are down seven minutes from last season and even more in the playoffs.

Whiteside said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra “wants me to just be in a corner and set picks.”

Spoelstra, meanwhile, said “it’s part of my job to figure out how he can get to his strengths and make an impact on defense and rebounding.”

Aside from the two centers, the other big story line in this series revolves around the 76ers, a young team that won 18 of its past 19 games. After years of horrendous records amid a major teardown and rebuild effort, the 76ers have looked like the best team in the league during the past month.

They didn’t just beat the Heat on Thursday — they ran them over, making 18 of 34 3-pointers (52.9 percent). They also shot 50.6 percent overall and were plus-eight on rebounds and plus-14 on paint points.

Ben Simmons, the 76ers’ star point guard, nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and seven assists.

JJ Redick, one of the top shooters in the league, scored just 10 points, but 76ers teammates Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each scored 21 points and each hit four 3-pointers to help the offense flow.

Miami was led by 23 points and eight assists from point guard Goran Dragic. Heat reserve forward Justise Winslow scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But Miami’s top three shooting guards — Tyler Johnson, Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington — combined for just 21 points.

The game’s biggest factor was Embiid, who had been listed as unlikely to play until Thursday afternoon, when he was cleared by doctors.

Embiid had a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter, which continued a trend. In Philadelphia’s two wins in this series, they have outscored the Heat by 31 and 21 points, respectively.

Anderson said Embiid has been a team player throughout.

“One of the things (Embiid) told me during (Thursday’s) game was to tell Coach that he didn’t want any plays run for him,” Anderson said. “He just wanted to play within the scheme.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk

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For the first time this series Friday night, the Bucks looked like the more talented team.

That got them a comfortable win at home against the Celtics and set up a huge Game 4 on Sunday, with the Celtics still up 2-1 in the series. This looked more like the Bucks team that some of us picked to win the series, the team with the long and superior athletes unleashed on defense to challenge everything Boston tried. Milwaukee also got a big game out of Thon Maker at the five, which helped spread the floor because he’s a threat from three (as a team, the Bucks were 16-of-33 from deep) that the Celtics had to cover. That opens up driving lanes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo took advantage of those lanes laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk.

🛫 THE GREEK FREAK TAKES FLIGHT! 🛬

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Damn. That’s not fair.

🇬🇷💥

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Game 4 is Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee… and let’s just say I’m not betting Baynes will be able to turn the tables and put the Greek Freak in a poster.

Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers completes pass to become part owner of Bucks

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Aaron Rodgers is regularly be seen courtside at Milwaukee Bucks games, having professed his love of the sport many times. Here was there Friday night for the Bucks’ Game 3 win, sitting courtside with girlfriend Danica Patrick.

This time, he was doing it as part owner of the team.

Milwaukee announced between the first and second quarters that the Packers QB1 is now part-owner of the Bucks, having bought a minority stake in the team.

“I have proudly called Wisconsin my home for the past 13 years, and I am thankful for the friendships and the opportunities I have been given to live and play here,” Rodgers in a released statement. “I am excited and honored to deepen my connection to the region by joining Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, Jamie Dinan, Mike Fascitelli and the ownership group of the Milwaukee Bucks. As a huge fan of the NBA and the sport of basketball, this is a dream come true for me, and I look forward to furthering my affinity for Wisconsin sports as a minority owner in a team I love and support.”

Rodgers is a California native who attended Cal in the Bay Area for college and now — like many an NBA player — splits his time between living where he works in Wisconsin and Southern California.

This is a smart time to buy into the Bucks — and not just because they won Friday. Milwaukee moves into a brand new building next season which should generate a lot more revenue for the franchise. Plus, the Bucks are poised to make a leap forward in the East as a team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast (likely led by a new coach next season), which will lead to more revenue as they become a team to see on the road, one that fills buildings.

Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”