Jeremy Lin, James Harden

Jeremy Lin wants Rockets to finish strong no matter the team’s place in the standings

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PHOENIX — The Rockets aren’t overly concerned with playoff seeding as they look ahead to their final game of the regular season, and maybe that’s a good thing considering the hit the team took on the chin from the Suns in Phoenix on Monday.

Houston was unable to match the intensity of their opponent from the opening tip, and allowed the Suns season highs in first quarter points (39) and first half points (67) on the way to a 119-112 loss that was a serious blow to the team’s chances of avoiding Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round of playoffs.

“No excuse, just a lack of desire maybe,” Jeremy Lin said afterward of his team’s slow start. “I think that’s kind of been one of our problems all season is just that focus. It usually comes with a younger team [like ours]. At this point of the season, it’s really not an excuse for us. Every game means so much. We’re talking about playoff seeding, we’re talking about matchups — things that are more important than anything we’ve played for all season. So this one hurts.”

The Rockets now find themselves in a situation where it’s more likely than not that they’ll see either the Thunder or the Spurs in the playoffs.

The scenarios for Houston look like this: A loss to the Lakers in the season finale means finishing as the eight seed, because although the Rockets would be tied with L.A. in the standings, the Lakers hold the tie-breaker based on a better record against teams within the conference.

A win over the Lakers, however, would net Houston the seven seed, except in the unlikely event that the Warriors were to lose in Portland, which would get the Rockets back to the much more preferable six spot — something that Lin was quick to point out when asked about the more ominous matchups looming against one of the West’s top two teams.

The matchup in L.A. is an elimination game for the Lakers, so for them, the playoffs begin on Wednesday. Anyone in the Rockets’ locker room who was asked about finishing the season strong for the best possible playoff position said all of the right things, but Lin knows it’s going to be a tall task to match the intensity of the home team on the final night of the regular season.

“They’re going to be tough to guard,” he said. “I know that for a fact. They’re going to run a lot of [Mike D’Antoni] stuff. You have [Dwight Howard] in the middle, you have Pau Gasol, who’s been making a lot of good basketball plays recently. We’re going to have our hands full.”

It may be understandable for the Rockets to overlook a Suns team that didn’t have anything left to play for, but it’s hard to envision them doing the same for Wednesday’s showdown in Los Angeles. Simply put, no one lays down against the Lakers while playing on one of the game’s biggest stages at Staples Center, especially not on national television with a playoff berth hanging in the balance.

Lin understands that the stakes may be higher for the Lakers than his own team in that one, but would still like to finish the regular season on a positive note rather than continuing the slide by dropping four of the team’s final six games heading into the postsason.

“It’ll be a hostile environment,” Lin said. “They’re going to be playing for the playoffs, so in one sense, they may be playing for more than we are. But we really can’t see it like that.”

Russell Westbrook’s 5th straight triple-double lifts Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dunks ahead of New Orleans Pelicans forward Terrence Jones (9) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Oklahoma City won 101-92. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook became the first player with five consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-92 on Sunday night.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook’s triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook’s 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA’s leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state.

Oklahoma City led 49-41 at halftime. Westbrook had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists at the break, and Davis kept the Pelicans in it with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Westbrook threw down a vicious right-handed jam on a drive down the middle in the third quarter that gave Oklahoma City a 57-47 lead. He clinched the triple-double on an assist to Kanter for a dunk with 2:14 left in the third quarter. The Thunder took a 78-66 lead into the fourth quarter.

Hield drained a 3-pointer to cut Oklahoma City’s lead to four with just under two minutes to go, but Westbrook’s 3 with 51.3 seconds to go bumped the Thunder’s lead back to 99-92.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: Hield got a standing ovation when he checked in late in the first half. … G Jrue Holiday started for just the third time this season. He missed the first 12 games while his wife, former U.S. women’s national team soccer player Lauren Holiday, recovered from surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.

Thunder: Made 14 of 15 2-point shots and missed all nine of their 3-pointers in the first quarter. … C Steven Adams sprained his left ankle in the first quarter and did not return. … The Thunder missed all 15 3-point attempts in the first half, then made 6 of 13 in the second. … Westbrook leads active players in career triple-doubles. … Thunder are 26-2 the past two seasons when Westbrook has a triple-double.

 

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.

Serge Ibaka lifts Magic over Pistons 98-92 in return of Reggie Jackson

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, left, and Jeff Green (34) celebrate against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Orlando won 98-92. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — For about ten minutes on Sunday night, it appeared the Detroit Pistons had solved the Orlando Magic’s lock-down defense.

Like the rest of the NBA, they will have to keep searching for answers.

Orlando gave up 27 points in the first 9:30 but then shut the Pistons down in a 98-92 victory.

“I’m proud of our guys, because that team was averaging 118 points their last three games, and that was on the road,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “We held them to 92, and most of that was our second-half defense. They were at home, and they got 42 points on 37 percent shooting in the second half.”

Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, while Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds.

The Magic have held 10 of their last 11 opponents under 100 points.

“We just changed our mindset,” Ibaka said. “We knew we could play defense, and now we’re playing for each other on offense. We knew we could play this well. We just had to keep working.”

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit’s first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

“I felt good out there, but I wish we could have gotten a win out of it,” Jackson said. “I think there might have been a little rust, but I was able to do everything I need to do. I wouldn’t be out there if I was going to be physically limited.”

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

“We were terrible on defense,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Our offensive numbers were good enough to win, especially against that defense, but we didn’t guard anyone. We just didn’t want to put in the effort.”

On Jackson’s first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play – he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead.

Morris had 14 points in the first 7 minutes but didn’t get much support from his teammates. The Magic scored 35 points in the second quarter to take a 58-50 halftime lead. Orlando shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the half to Detroit’s 51.2 percent and only turned the ball over four times.

“We’re starting to see the value of the pass on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “If we pass with good timing, good intent and good delivery, it will help us shoot the ball, and we’ve got good shooters.”

The Magic led by 11 late in the third, but the Pistons narrowed the gap to 78-73 at quarter’s end. Orlando moved the margin back to double figures with nine minutes left, with the Pistons struggling to get open looks against one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Ibaka ended a Pistons run with a 3-pointer to make it 90-80 with 5:32 to play, then blocked Drummond’s dunk attempt at the other end.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to pull the Pistons within 95-90, but Jeff Green clinched the game with a turnaround jumper.

TIP INS

Magic: Former Piston Jodie Meeks had seven points in 15 minutes in his second game of the season. Meeks only played three games last season for Detroit due to chronic foot problems.

Pistons: Jackson spent most of the game matched up against D.J. Augustin, the main player given up by the Pistons in the three-team trade that brought him to Detroit in 2015.

TROUBLE FROM THE LINE

The Pistons were 0 for 5 from the free-throw line in the first half, with Drummond missing four in a row. He came into the game shooting 47.4 percent from the line after setting a league record at 35.5 percent in 2015-16.

RARE STREAK

The Magic have won two straight road games for the first time this season. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-88 on Friday.

ONLY A SINGLE-DOUBLE

Vucevic fell two rebounds short of his seventh straight double-double. He had a nine-game double-double streak in 2012-13.

 

Brilliant dig: Knicks fans chant “Derek Fisher” as Kings’ Matt Barnes inbounds ball

Sacramento Kings' Matt Barnes (22) reacts during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (Photo/Andres Kudacki)
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I had hoped never to write of this again, but alas… remember when Matt Barnes got in a fight with then Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher over the latter spending time with Barnes’ estranged wife? It cost Barnes a couple of game suspension.

Barnes is playing well for the Sacramento Kings this season, who were making their annual stop in Madison Square Garden Sunday. As Barnes was inbounding the ball in the fourth quarter, some Knicks fans started a “Derek Fisher” chant.

It’s not original, some Pacers fans had done it before. But it’s still a Cameron Crazies worthy ploy.

The Knicks got 20 points each from Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose to get the 106-98 win, despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins.

Zaza Pachulia steals ball, starts break, blows open layup against Suns (VIDEO)

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Zaza Pachulia is riding the Golden State Warriors train for all it’s worth, in the good and the bad. In November, Pachulia hit a mid-range jumper and did a horse dance. If that was the zenith, Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns was the nadir.

Particularly because Pachulia blew a breakaway layup in which he definitely should have scored.

Instead, the Warriors big man stuffed the ball between the iron and the backboard, clumsily squandering his opportunity:

*Sad trombone*