Joe Johnson hits the overtime game-winner to send Nets past Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX — Joe Johnson’s game-winning layup as the overtime buzzer sounded gave the Nets their first road win of the season, a hard-fought 100-98 victory that came without the team’s starting point guard, Deron Williams.

Williams was lost early in the first quarter to a sprained left ankle, but the play of Shaun Livingston, along with Johnson’s big-time shots late were enough to overcome a Suns team that continues to battle to the end, no matter the circumstances.

It was another wild one for the Suns, who for the second time this season gave up a large lead by being on the wrong end of a huge run, only to battle back and eventually take control. Against the Nuggets a week ago, Phoenix was able to stabilize and pull away for the win. Some poor shot selection late, however, along with a mad scramble at the finish saw the Suns drop a heartbreaker for the second straight contest.

Johnson’s heroics were a big reason the Nets were able to get just their third win of the season in eight tries. He was 3-of-14 from the field through three quarters, but has a history of making shots when they matter most. Johnson hit three of his last five, and the last two were the ones that first kept Brooklyn’s hopes alive, and then sent a wave of euphoria through the hearts of his teammates.

Johnson hit a runner with 29 seconds left in regulation that tied the game at 92, and then came the game-winner on a transition play where the Suns didn’t seem to have a chance.

Channing Frye missed a three with just over seven seconds remaining, and after the ball was tipped a couple of times, Kevin Garnett tapped it out to Johnson at the elbow. Goran Dragic tried for the steal, but once the ball landed in Johnson’s hands, there were no defenders in place and he was off to the races.

“I knew once KG tipped it out to me I looked up and there was four and a half, maybe five seconds left,” Johnson said afterward. “I knew I didn’t have to take a rushed shot. I just took my time coming up the court, and was able to get in the paint there and make a play.”

P.J. Tucker ran back to try and defend, as did Frye, who ran straight to the rim. Johnson hesitated near the three-point line just enough to make Tucker do the same, and he was able to shake the defender closing on the perimeter before getting the game-winner to go over Frye inside.

“I hesitated to make them think I was going to pull up,” Johnson said. “The way I was shooting I had no intention of pulling up.”

It was an important win for the Nets, if only to try to gain some footing in this young season that hasn’t exactly gone as expected. The loss of Williams will hurt depending how much time (if any) he ultimately misses, but the Nets rode Brook Lopez by feeding him plenty in the second half, and that’s a formula they can use to have success against most teams. Livingston’s speed and playmaking were both fantastic in this one, and if he can deliver that while Williams is out, the team can use this game as a building block moving forward.

“You know, it could be a domino effect,” Johnson said of the way his team won. “Hopefully it will be, but this was a tough one — probably because it was our first win on the road. We just showed a lot of resiliency. Deron went down, and Shaun stepped up and played big, man. And that’s what we needed.”

Johnson’s teammates understandably stormed the floor after his game-winning bucket, wanting to enjoy one of the few positive moments of this trying early season. But after playing almost 45 minutes and with a tough game against the Clippers on the horizon the very next night, Johnson had no interest in the extended celebration.

“I couldn’t even celebrate I was so tired,” Johnson said. “I was ready to get out of there. Those guys are trying to celebrate, I’m ready to go to the locker room and get a shower.”

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.

Watch James Harden, Rockets drop 90 on Suns — in first half

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This game had all the drama of The Last Airbender. Which is to say none. It was essentially over when the Rockets went on a 21-6 first-quarter run — unlike Boston in the earlier Thursday game, Phoenix isn’t built to come back against elite teams.

When the 15-1 Rockets run came at the end of the first quarter, it was clear Houston could do what it wanted on offense, and by half the Rockets put up 90 points. The Rockets were putting on a show (and eventually won 142-116).

James Harden had 33 points on 12 shots in the first half (he finished with 48 points for the night). Ryan Anderson hit four threes on his way to 18 before the break. Eric Gordon had 10. As a team, Houston shot 62.2 percent, and 60 percent from three in the first half. They got to the line 25 times. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If you want more highlights, here is Harden’s 48 for the night. Enjoy.

 

Paul George getting comfortable with new Thunder teammates

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George couldn’t find a rhythm on offense his first few weeks with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The four-time All-Star struggled to fit in with fellow All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony after he was traded from the Indiana Pacers. He settled for jumpers too often, shot too quickly at times and didn’t get to the free throw line as often as usual. As he adjusted, the Thunder started the season with a 4-7 record.

Once George broke out, the Thunder turned their fortunes. George erupted for 42 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers last Friday, then scored 37 points in a victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He scored just 13 points in a win over Chicago on Monday, but his shots were higher quality and flowed with the offense better.

The Thunder take a three-game win streak into Friday’s game with San Antonio.

“I’m just staying in attack mode, playing downhill, being aggressive when I have the ball, being aggressive off the ball,” George said.

George leads the Thunder with 21.9 points per game. It’s quite a feat to be the top scorer on a team with Westbrook, a two-time scoring champion and the reigning league MVP, and Anthony, the No. 24 scorer in NBA history. But George has that kind of talent, and he gets to play off the other two stars.

“It’s hard because they have so many options,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “A lot of times you have the one-two option, but they have the one-two-three option. It’s tough.”

George said during the preseason that he was adjusting to how fast Westbrook moves in transition. Now, he’s in better position to attack because he is prepared. That has led to easy baskets and more free throws. He has shot 26 free throws the past three games after shooting just 27 in the previous 11 games.

“I think just trying to get out ahead of him as much as possible, I think, is key,” George said. “That way, when he’s making plays in full court, I’m already in position ready to receive the ball instead of catching up, getting my feet ready, trying to decide what to do. I’m ready to shoot or attack at that point.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said George is starting to figure out how to use his shot selection to keep defenses guessing.

“I think he’s just been balanced,” Donovan said. “He’s an elite scorer. He can do it a lot of different ways. He’s done it off the dribble, he’s done it off of catch and shoot, he’s done it off the drive. I think it’s just his balance of getting more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively and trying to figure out spots where he can be aggressive.”

Donovan said the best part of George’s performances against the Clippers and Mavericks was his efficiency – he only took 22 shots in each contest.

Even when George doesn’t shoot well, he’s effective as both an on-ball and off-ball defender. He leads the league with 2.4 steals per game.

“Honestly, defense is the part that I lock in at,” George said. “Offensively it is going to come, defensively is where I like to leave a mark and really try to be special on that end. It’s just sticking to the game plan personally in matchups, sticking to the gifts that God has given me.”