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.

Heat’s Josh McRoberts says he broke foot in Game 6 vs. Raptors, remains out

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Josh McRoberts #4 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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To call Josh McRoberts‘ time in Miami injury plagued might be the understatement of the decade.

Now with Chris Bosh out, the Heat could really use McRoberts at the four, but “shockingly” he is not healthy. Wednesday he finally admitted the reason he has been limited in training camp with foot issues.

McRoberts run of bad luck continues. And foot injuries — when your job involves running up and down a hardwood floor — are something that has to be taken seriously and allowed to fully heal, lest they become chronic. I’m not sure the Heat can bet on a lot out of McRoberts this season.

With no Bosh and McRoberts, expect Derrick Williams, Udonis Haslem, and maybe Luke Babbitt will get some run there. Coach Erik Spoelstra also likely will have some small lineups where Justise Winslow will play the four.

51Q: Will Larry Bird’s renovation of the Pacers pay off?

Larry Bird, Paul George
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we 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.

There are two types of basketball analysts: Those who believe the Pacers improved by swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague and those who believe Indiana got worse in the trade.

Teague uses his superior quickness in the pick-and-roll to score and assist more. Hill defends better, commits fewer turnovers and shoots more efficiently.

I prefer Hill. Larry Bird opted for Teague.

I can’t wait to see who’s right.

Though I’m inclined to value Hill’s less-flashy contributions – and like his lead-guard skills if he were called upon for that role – I’m also not arrogant enough to believe I certainly know better than Bird. An all-time great who has excelled as a player, coach and executive deserves some benefit of the doubt.

Bird is leveraging it now.

Seemingly unsatisfied with the team that reached consecutive conference finals in 2013 and 2014, Bird has now fully torn down the roster to build a more dynamic offense around Paul George. The Pacers president has long talked about the change, and we’ll learn this season whether his vision will bear fruit.

In addition to trading Hill for Teague, Bird let Lance Stephenson leave in free agency, deemphasized and traded Roy Hibbert, offended David West into leaving and fired Frank Vogel. In came Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Teague and Nate McMillian.

And Bird hasn’t stopped after jettisoning everyone who regularly started with George in those conference-finals runs. Indiana will miss Ian Mahinmi‘s defense – maybe more than Al Jefferson works as a change-of-pace in the low post. But Bird is fully embracing the course of trading defense for offense.

Debate how he addressed it, but the team’s identity was clear. In the last four years, the Pacers stunk offensively and thrived defensively. Their rank in points per possession:

  • Offense: 20th, 23rd, 23rd, 25th
  • Defense: 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd

The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see an excellent defense propping up an offense that could have been better. Bird saw a struggling offense and couldn’t look past it.

Indiana now has a deep squad of players who can break down opponents off the dribble. They will have matchup advantages – if they pass well enough to find the player in favorable position. The ball will move plenty between the hardwood and the dribbler’s hands. Between players? That’s a major question mark.

It’s one of numerous hitches in Bird’s plan.

He tried to fast-track the offense last year by moving George from small forward to power forward. Despite Bird’s demands, George resisted. The plan was largely scrapped early in the season.

McMillian was also a curious choice given Bird’s stated goals. McMillian’s Trail Blazers and SuperSonics teams usually played slow. Still, perhaps the coach can adapt his scheme to fit his players (and appease his boss). Bird chose McMillian for a reason, after all.

Bird chose it all.

This is the team he long desired – for better or worse.

Lakers GM Kupchak tries to brush off Jim Buss’ timeline discussion

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks to reporters at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2016. With Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary, ravenous shot selection and dominant personality gone from the basketball team after 20 years, Kupchak says he will meet with head coach Byron Scott and owner Jim Buss in a few days to discuss their options for the Lakers, which finished with the NBA's second-worst record at 17-65 in Bryant's farewell season. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)
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Consider this a little preview: On Thursday the ProBasketballTalk podcast returns, opening with a discussion of the Lakers and the Pacific division with Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. We talk about the young core — D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, etc. — and how Luke Walton fits with them. How this is a team that if handled properly could develop into something of quality in a couple of years as these players come along. Patience is key.

But then we got to what Medina called the “elephant in the room”: Jim Buss’ timeline for returning to contending. He’s the head of basketball operations and vowed to at least make the second round of the playoffs at least by this season. Which is not happening. Will Buss be patient? Is he grounded in today’s NBA reality? Will the woman with the hammer, Jeanie Buss, hold him to that timeline? Does she have the backing of the other Buss children to push him out? (Reportedly she does.) It has Shakespearian drama potential.

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak was asked about that Tuesday and wanted no part of the question. Via Medina at the Daily News.

“I’m not in a position to debate the stuff you talked about,” Kupchak said on Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m not sure what was said with certainty. From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into really good NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with older veterans to help us win games. I’m excited about our coaching staff….

“Wins and losses, I couldn’t pick a number,” Kupchak said. “I could guess. But I would not guess in front of you. That’s not something I would do. That’s something I would stare at for the rest of the year.”

The Lakers should win more than the 17 of last year, maybe climb into the upper 20s, with 30 wins being the goal. That would signify a good season. But what matters is development, and if the Lakers are better at the end of the season, if their young players are on the right track, then that is success for this season.

Everyone around the Lakers understands that.

But is that enough to save Jim Buss’ job? That’s a different question.

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”