Baseline-to-Baseline recaps: James Harden reminds Thunder he’s good

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while you were calling 9-1-1 then asking police to bring you some cigarettes….

Lakers 113, Celtics 99: Dwight Howard played maybe his best game as a Laker and was a force on defense, Steve Nash was carving up the defense and making passes and shots, Kobe Bryant was leading — for a night at least the Lakers would have made Jerry Buss proud. Our own Brett Pollakoff broke the game down in more detail.

Rockets 122, Thunder 119: James Harden scored a career-high 46 points against his former team, and it took him just 19 shots to get there. That’s because he knocked down 14 of those attempts, including going 7-8 from three-point distance and 11-12 from the free throw line.

The Thunder actually held a 14-point lead with seven minutes remaining in this one, before the Rockets battled back on the strength of their defense. Harden and Jeremy Lin hit big three-pointers late to take this one home, capping a 29-12 Rockets run to end the game.

Kevin Durant had a rare off night offensively, but finished with a triple-double line of 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, despite his 4-13 shooting.
—Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 125, Knicks 91: This was simply a game where the Knicks didn’t show up, and the Pacers were ready to lay the wood to a team sitting ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.

New York managed just 18 first quarter points, and allowed the Pacers to shoot better than 61 percent in the opening period to take control from the very start. Indiana put up a ridiculous 74 points in the first half to lead by 30 at the break, and the game was never in doubt in the final two periods, where the Pacers built the lead as high as 39 points before it was all said and done.
—Brett Pollakoff

Nets 97, Bucks 94: Milwaukee led most of the way, then starting just before the start of the fourth quarter the Nets went on a 31-8 run and that propelled them to the win. The Bucks shot 2-of-18 during that stretch while Deron Williams was leading his team, on his way to 23 points.

It got interesting in the final 100 seconds — the Nets led by a dozen when a Larry Sanders dunk sparked a 9-0 run that brought the Bucks back. Monta Ellis was fouled taking a three with 2.4 seconds left and the Bucks down three. But he missed the first two free throws throw and the Bucks chances bounced off the rim with it. Brandon Jennings did have 31 points and 11 assists for Milwaukee, which falls below .500 now.

Heat 103, Hawks 90: It was a rough day for Josh Smith. After hearing his name in trade rumors all afternoon he got to go head-to-head with LeBron James at night. And LeBron torched him, scoring 19 points in the first half and keeping the Heat in the game while Chris Bosh played about as well as he did in the All-Star Game. At the other end Smith was 5-of-13 shooting and clanking his shots outside the pain but destroying the rim with dunks inside. Al Horford had 27 points (and looked far more All-Star worthy than Bosh).

Atlanta led by 10 entering the fourth quarter, but LeBron dished eight assists in the final 12 minutes and the Heat outscored the Hawks 40-17 in the final period to win. The Hawks finished the game with 21 turnovers and that is death against the Heat, who have won 8 in a row.

Grizzlies 88, Raptors 82: Rudy Gay returned to the Grindhouse and got a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side against the Memphis defense — Toronto shot just 25.7 percent in the first half, scoring just 32 points. But they were down just 11 because it was a brick house in Memphis. Early in the fourth quarter the Raptors went on a 17-7 run and we were tied up at 77-77 and we had a ballgame. But it wasn’t to be for the Raptors as Memphis’ Mike Conley sank the dagger with a three with less than two minutes to go to seal the win. Zach Randolph had 17 points and 17 boards because he’s really good.

Timberwolves 94, Sixers 87: This was a game the Sixers could have used Andrew Bynum, as the Timberwolves just owned the paint. Nikola Pekovic was the man for Minnesota with 27 points and 18 rebounds. Derrick Williams looked like the kind of guy you might want to trade for with 17 points. Philadelphia got the lead down to four a couple times in the final minutes, but Pekovic drew a foul once and got an offensive rebound the next to set up a Ricky Rubio three.

Pistons 105, Bobcats 99: Pistons fans got the win, but should be a little concerned about Brandon Knight, who tweaked his knee in the third quarter when Kemba Walker fell into him. He left the game of his own power, came back in, but eventually had to go to the locker room and there will be an MRI Thursday.

Charlotte was pesky in this one. Early in the fourth quarter Rodney Stuckey was attacking on the drive (he had 7 points in the fourth) and that helped he Pistons create a little space. Then Byron Mullens made consecutive threes and it was close again. Like 98-97 Pistons inside two minutes to go close.

The Piston passing was impressive much of those final two minutes. Greg Monroe found a cutting Jose Calderon who was fouled and hit is free throws. Later Monroe got the ball back on a pretty pick-and-roll with Will Bynum and Monroe scored two of his 10 fourth quarter points on the play (19 points, 7 boards for the game). Kemba Walker kept it close with some free throws (he finished with 24 points), but Calderon hit his free throws them made a steal after pressure was put on Walker and he turned it over late. He and Monroe were key at the end.

Warriors 108, Suns 98: Nothing helps stop a six game losing streak like playing Phoenix. Just ask he Warriors. Golden State had an early 7-0 run and pretty much led the entire way, although never really by that much (12 was the max). Golden State got big games from its stars — Klay Thompson had 28 points, Stephen Curry 20 points and 11 assists, and David Lee had 19 points and 11 rebounds. The Suns made runs late, led by Goran Dragic who had 20 points and 10 assists, but it was Curry who took control of the offense late and led a 10-2 Warriors run with a couple threes to seal the win.

Cavaliers 105, Hornets 100: This was a tight game throughout, until Kyrie Irving decided it was time to put it in the win column for his Cavaliers.

Irving finished with 35 points, but scored 20 of those in the fourth quarter while playing just over seven minutes. We’ve seen him do it a few times this season, and it’s getting to the point where as long as Cleveland keeps it tight heading into the final period, the team can expect some late-game heroics from Irving to make sure they come away with the victory.
—Brett Pollakoff

Mavericks 111, Magic 96: This was a close game through the second half until a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter sealed it up for Dallas. Brandan Wright scored six points in that run, It was a really balanced Dallas attack all night with six guys in double figures, but Shawn Marion and Elton Brand led the way with 17 a piece. It didn’t feel like it would be close at all after Dallas put up 42 points in the first quarter on 64 percent shooting, but they returned to earth with 17 points on 23.8 percent shooting in the second quarter. And we had a ballgame. Until the fourth. Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 21.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.