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.

New Orleans Saints fire Pelicans’ team physician

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The Pelicans have been crushed by injuries the last few years.

Why? That’s an incredibly complex question.

But the New Orleans Saints – who share an owner (Tom Benson), a front-office leader (Mickey Loomis) and other staff with the Pelicans – have found culprits for their own injury woes.

Mike Triplett of ESPN:

The Saints have fired team orthopedists Deryk Jones and Misty Suri, per source, after it was discovered that CB Delvin Breaux has a fractured fibula and will require surgery expected to sidelined him for 4-6 weeks. Breaux was originally diagnosed with a contusion

Suri is a Pelicans team physician.

Scott Kushner of The Advocate:

Fairly or not, Suri – after the Saints deemed him unacceptable – will be in the crosshairs if he keeps his job with the the Pelicans and their injury woes continue.

Rumor: LeBron James ‘100 percent’ leaving Cavaliers next summer

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Chris Sheridan was ahead of the crowd in 2014, reporting LeBron James would likely leave the Heat for the Cavaliers – which obviously happened.

But Sheridan called it a “90 percent chance,” a small – but large enough – hedge. He also said LeBron would announce the decision on LeBron’s personal website. Of course, LeBron revealed his choice in a Sports Illustrated essay.

So, maybe Sheridan knows what he’s talking about. Maybe he doesn’t.

But the longtime NBA writer just fanned the flames of the already hot LeBron-leaving-Cleveland rumors.

Sheridan:

Of course, the denials came quickly.

There have already been plenty of warning signs about LeBron’s relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, which didn’t restart in a great place.

It’s entirely believable LeBron would leave Cleveland, in large part due to Gilbert.

But it’s also fun to speculate about that salacious storyline.

Maybe Sheridan or his source got carried away for that very reason. Or maybe they know something.

Neither possibility should be discounted.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant betting odds favorites to win MVP

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Unlike the early projections for the NBA title next season, the MVP race seems wide open.

Russell Westbrook put up ridiculous numbers on his way to the award last season, but now he is going to share the rock with Paul George. James Harden made a legitimate case and would have won most seasons, but now he will have the ball in his hands less with Chris Paul running the show.

Who is going to win? Westbrook and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are the early betting line favorites, with these odds courtesy of online gaming site Bovada.

Russell Westbrook (OKC) 7/2
Kevin Durant (GS) 9/2
Kawhi Leonard (SAN) 13/2
LeBron James (CLE) 15/2
James Harden (HOU) 8/1
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 17/2
Steph Curry (GS) 11/1
Anthony Davis (NOP) 16/1
Paul George (OKC) 25/1
Chris Paul (HOU) 25/1
Isaiah Thomas (BOS) 25/1
DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 33/1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 33/1
John Wall (WAS) 33/1
Blake Griffin (LAC) 40/1
Nikola Jokic (DEN) 40/1
DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 50/1
Joel Embiid (PHI) 50/1
Kyrie Irving (CLE) 50/1
Damian Lillard (POR) 50/1
Draymond Green (GS) 60/1
Ben Simmons (PHI) 66/1
Gordon Hayward (BOS) 70/1
Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 75/1
Jimmy Butler (MIN) 75/1
Andrew Wiggins (MIN) 75/1
Kevin Love (CLE) 100/1
Kyle Lowry (TOR) 100/1
Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 100/1

Yes, it is far too early to discuss this. As a voter, I don’t even start to make a list of serious candidates until midway through the season (then that list evolves as the season wears on). But it’s fun to speculate about.

To me, the smartest bet on the board seems to be Kawhi Leonard — he could have won last year, and if anything the Spurs are going to ask more of him this season. I think Harden has a chance to win it this season even with CP3, same with Westbrook, but it feels less likely. It’s hard to imagine one Warrior being picked above the others for the award. If Giannis Antetokounmpo finds his jumper it could happen, but that feels more like something a couple seasons away. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns being in consideration.

If you’re going to bet on Kevin Love, just donate that money to charity where it will do some good.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.