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.”

LeBron James says he doesn’t see Cavaliers-Warriors as rivalry

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers passes while under pressure from Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Tyronn Lue said Cavaliers-Warriors could eventually match Celtics-Lakers as a rivalry.

First, if you ask LeBron James, Cleveland-Golden State would have to become a rivalry at all.

LeBron, via Joe Vardon Cleveland.com:

“We don’t look at it as a rival,” James said. “They’re a great team. They’ve been the best team the last couple years, last three years.”

“It’s just the next game, it’s Golden State,” James said. “They’re a helluva team, like I said the best team in the league and they’ve been that way the last three years, four years, however long it’s been, I’m not quite sure. But, listen, you guys know, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket for one game.”

Of course, Cavaliers-Warriors is a rivalry. These teams have met in the last two NBA Finals, played each other with relentless intensity, talked plenty of trash and remained elite.

LeBron just doesn’t want the Cavs to become comfortable. They’ve beat Golden State in four straight games – the last three of the 2016 Finals and on Christmas – and could extend the streak to five today. Beating a rival that frequently is a cause for celebration, and celebration leads to contentment. LeBron would rather keep Cleveland focused and hungry. Hence, saying the Warriors aren’t a rival.

Andre Drummond hits 3-pointer from inside Pistons’ own 3-point arc (video)

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Andre Drummond is really good at these deep heaves.

His 3-point percentage (44%) is even better than his free-throw percentage (38%) the last two years, though that says too much about his work from the line.

Drummond wasn’t the only Pistons player converting to end quarters. Ish Smith and Tobias Harris also stepped up in the Pistons’ 102-97 win over the Lakers:

NBA: Suns got away with offensive foul before key points in win over Spurs

Phoenix Suns Devin Booker acknowledges a foul as San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker lies crumpled on the floor, in the second half of their regular-season NBA basketball game in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
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Devin Booker scored 39 points in the Suns’ 108-105 win over the Spurs on Saturday in Mexico City.

But Booker’s last four – which put Phoenix up for good – came directly after incorrect calls, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Booker drew a (legitimate) foul on Pau Gasol with 1:08 left and made both free throws. The problem: One second before that, Suns center Tyson Chandler should have been called for offensively fouling Tony Parker, according to the league:

Chandler (PHX) sets the screen on Parker (SAS) and makes leg to leg contact that affects his ability to defend the play.

That would’ve ended Phoenix’s possession rather than allowing Booker to get to the line.

The other missed call in the two-minute report is trickier, because it directly benefitted the Spurs but indirectly benefitted the Suns.

Manu Ginobili got away with travelling with 59.1 seconds left, according to  the league:

Ginobili (SAS) moves his pivot foot.

But he coughed up the ball moments later anyway, and – thrilled to gain possession with a live-ball turnover rather than a dead-ball turnover – Booker turned the miscue into a fastbreak dunk.

Rather than debate how to evaluate San Antonio getting away with a travel and it ultimately helping Phoenix more, let’s stick to just the uncalled Chandler offensive foul. That netted the Suns two points. Their lead when the Spurs began intentionally fouling? One.

Russell Westbrook puts up 20th triple-double of season, lifts Thunder past Kings (VIDEO)

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Through 41 games — half the season — Russell Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists a game. Those numbers are insane, particularly considering his 42 percent usage rate. He has to put up numbers and do so fairly efficiently or the Thunder stand no chance of winning — and he has the Thunder on pace for 48 wins this season.

The Thunder picked up another of those wins Sunday night knocking off the Sacramento Kings behind Westbrook’s 20th triple-double in 41 games — 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The video highlights are above.

It’s going to be fun watching him and James Harden go back-and-forth in the MVP race for the next few months.