Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, Robert Sacre, Chris Paul, Earl Clark

Baseline-to-baseline recaps: Knicks win 12th straight, Clippers clinch first division title


Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while watching the two-hour season premiere of Mad Men

Knicks 125, Thunder 120: When the Knicks are knocking down threes they can beat anyone — and they hit 10 threes in the first half as they pulled away. But more impressive was the late 11-2 run to take the game behind Carmelo Anthony, who had 36 points and nine offensive rebounds. He and the Knicks bullied the Thunder and we broke it down in more detail here.

Clippers 109, Lakers 95: The Clips used a killer combination of depth and athleticism to dismantle the Lakers on Sunday, and we broke down their division-title clinching victory in greater detail here.

Pistons 99, Bulls 85: Chicago had beating the Pistons 18 straight times but that streak came to end Sunday night as the Bulls just didn’t have the defensive energy. After the first half the Pistons led 50-46 and that was in part due to Charlie Villanueva coming in off the bench and knocking down a couple of threes (he finished with 13 points). Noah was back but the Bulls transition defense wasn’t good and the Pistons took advantage.

In the third quarter Brandon Knight came out and just started taking Nate Robinson to the hole and smothering him on defense. Knight had a dozen of his 20 for the game in the third and was key to the Pistons snapping the streak.
—Kurt Helin

Celtics 107, Wizards 96: Kevin Garnett returned to the Boston lineup after missing his team’s last eight games, and finished with 12 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes of action. A 14-3 Celtics run over the first half of the third quarter sealed this one for Boston, and the Jordan Crawford revenge effort was uneventful at best, as Crawford finished with just six points, two assists, and two steals in 16 minutes of action off the bench.

Cavaliers 91, Magic 85: It doesn’t do either of these teams any good to come away with a victory at this point in the season, but Cleveland finished strong despite a dismal 3-15 shooting performance from Kyrie Irving, who finished with just nine points and 10 assists in 36 minutes of action.

The Magic, meanwhile, remain competitive to close out the season, even if they seem to know precisely when to fold the effort to secure the loss. A 26 point, 12 rebound performance from Mo Harkless, along with 21 points and 21 rebounds from Nik Vucevic were bright spots for Orlando as they ride out the regular season.

Mavericks 96, Trail Blazers 91: Mavs scored on 12 of first 18 trips down the court, raced out to a 15-3 lead. That lead grew to 26 at one point. Chris Kaman was the first half key with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Dallas was the aggressor, they played loose and looked like they were on their way to a romp. But Dirk Nowitzki was out for the fourth quarter with a minor foot injury, the Mavs scored just 15 points, and a 19-2 run late we had a ballgame. But a Shawn Marion fast break layup (he had 20 points on the night) proved to be the dagger for Dallas.

Once again the beards are in jeopardy — if Dallas can beat the Suns Wednesday in Big D they will be a .500 team and razors will be passed out around the locker room.
—Kurt Helin

Grizzlies 89, Kings 87: This was the kind of win that playoff teams obtain, on the road against an inferior opponent who has packed it in for the remainder of the season. Mike Conley led the way with a game-high 25 points, while Quincy Pondexter posted 17 for the Grizzlies off the bench.

Hornets 95, Suns 92:  The Suns have proven to be able to compete at times with its end-of-season lineup, but against New Orleans on Sunday, a third quarter in which Phoenix was outscored 35-19 doomed its chances. The Suns closed the gap a bit in the fourth, but didn’t ever threaten the game’s final outcome. This was lottery team basketball at its finest, and New Orleans wanted the win more than Phoenix did, plain and simple.

Jazz 97, Warriors 90: A couple weeks ago it looked like the Jazz were going to stumble right out of the playoffs, but the scheduled softened up and they have taken advantage — even over a not soft opponent in Golden State. Utah played like a team desperate (and with the win and the Lakers loss they move half a game ahead of Los Angeles for the eight spot). Golden State played like a team that would live to another day — and they will, they can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Lakers Tuesday.

Utah took control of the game with a 24-3 run in the second quarter. Golden State wouldn’t go away and it took 25 points from Mo Williams including a dagger three late to get them win. Al Jefferson added 19 points and 12 boards; Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 22.
—Kurt Helin

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.