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Baseline to Baseline recaps: Kyrie Irving outduels Rajon Rondo

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while waiting five days for that goat cheese fire to butn itself out

Thunder 109, Clippers 98: This was a four-point game at the half, then Kevin Durant happened. The Clippers were without their star in Chris Paul — bruised knee — but when Durant gets going like this it doesn’t matter who is defending. Our man D.J. Foster broke this game down for us.

Cavaliers 95, Celtics 90: Maybe the most entertaining game of the night, because it was close down the stretch and it became Kyrie Irving against the Celtics. In fact, the only reason it was close late was Irving dropped 23 on Boston in the first half.

The key plays started when it was 84-83 Cleveland with 2:30 remaining. Boston had the ball but Kevin Garnett missed an 18-foot jumper and in going for the rebound Jared Sullinger went for the back-tap but hit it so hard it was about to go out of bounds at the other end. Rajon Rondo raced down, beat Irving to the ball, then decided to do a leaping out of bounds move to save the ball, but quickly noticed he had no teammates to pass to. He tried to throw the ball out of bounds hard off Irving’s legs. But Irving thought fast, caught the ball and made an uncontested layup. It was a big mental error that gave Cleveland an 86-83 lead.

Garnett then hit a couple free throws, but Alonzo Gee answered with a driving layup. Garnett drove and got fouled again and again made it a one-point game after free throws. Then after a couple misses Irving made the play of the game, a coast-to-coast driving layup with 52 seconds and Cleveland up by three again. Then, again, Tyler Zeller fouled Garnett who again hit free throws. Then once again Irving answered, this time blowing past Rondo in isolation, drawing the foul and getting the and-1 with 22 seconds left. That sealed the deal.

Bucks 110, Sixers 102: This game was never a total 20-point blowout, but after they took the lead with a 10-1 run in the first quarter the Bucks were in control most of the way. For much of the game it was Ersan Ilyasova who led the Bucks with 27 points and 16 rebounds. But in the fourth quarter, when the Sixers got as close as five points midway through, Brandon Jennings hit a step-back three and drained the next seven points for Milwaukee as they held on to win. Jennings finished with 25.

Pistons 105, Magic 90: This was a close game at the half because the Magic were getting to the rim and making their shots — Orlando shot 14-of-17 in the restricted area in the first half. But in the third quarter the Pistons defense got better, their big men took over the game and Detroit went on a 24-10 run. Greg Monroe had eight straight points during that third quarter on his way to 16 points then Andre Drummond had he last six points of the quarter. That was pretty much the ball game. Brandon Knight had 18 to lead Detroit, J.J. Redick paced Orlando with 26 points.

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:

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “We can use some more defensive players”

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For all the flipping between the triangle and a more modern offense, despite ball stopping by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks offense is 17th in the NBA for the season. Not good, but the middle of the pack, right around Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis — all playoff teams (or potential ones in Miami’s case).

The reason the Knicks season ends in seven games is their defense — 25th in the NBA. Put the triangle in (and get players who fit the system) or don’t, but that’s not the end of the court where the Knicks need to improve. And while system matters on defense, the fact of the matter the Knicks roster is loaded with poor and/or indifferent individual defenders.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized all this speaking to ESPN’s Ian Begley.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Now comes the time for action.

The Knicks are going to have a Top 10 draft pick (currently sixth) plus max-player money in free agency. Also, they are looking to move Anthony this summer (he has a no-trade clause so he will have to agree to it). All of which is to say they have a chance to reshape this roster into one that will have more of a defensive focus. Or any defensive focus for that matter.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks target more defensive minded free agents this summer, ones who might fit the triangle offense such as Thabo Sefolosha, or to a lesser extent Tony Allen. It’s going to be a fascinating summer in New York.

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