Howard, Houston pass first test with win over Miami

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Houston passed the first test.

The Rockets NBA’s have the best record since Jan. 1 (19-6 coming into Tuesday night) but a lot of that came against soft competition. That was the easy part, the next couple weeks come a series of tests against the league’s best — from that we’ll get a better sense of just how legitimate this Rockets team is. (Technically you could say they didn’t pass the first test, losing to the Clippers last week.)

They looked legit on Tuesday — they attacked mismatches, got balanced offense and never trailed to the Miami Heat on their way to a 106-103 victory at home.

Miami was on the second night of a back-to-back and it showed at points. LeBron James looked like a guy who had expended 61 points of energy the night before and had 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting, plus he went scoreless in the fourth quarter.

To add to his painful night, late in the game he got hit in the face (there were some reports that LeBron re-broke his nose but that has been shot down by the team). It was on a play late where, down three with 13 seconds left the Heat were trying to defend with pressure and force a turnover. They did, James Harden threw an ill-advised pass down court to Howard, LeBron went up for the steal and in so got an inadvertent elbow from Howard in the face.

Immediately after that he tried to take a game-tying step-back three with the broken nose — on the switch Dwight Howard was on him but that worked for Houston because LeBron needed a three and Howard is mobile enough and long enough that he could contest anything. The shot missed.

Miami’s problem wasn’t LeBron. He also saw doubles but when he passed out guys were not knocking down shots. Chris Bosh was 1-of-5 on the night and just seemed to coast through the game. The only guy to really step up was Michael Beasley, who had 24 off the bench.

Houston went right at the two weaknesses of the Miami, getting points out of their center and point guards.

Howard had another strong game — 22 points on 13 shots, plus 16 rebounds. He was also 6-of-8 from the free throw line, pretty much negating the hack-a-Howard idea.

At the point Patrick Beverly had 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting, hitting 5-of-8 from three (he struggled shooting once he ventured inside the arc). He also was his pesky self on defense all night, even harassing (and annoying) LeBron at points. James Harden had 21; Terrence Jones added 19 points and 12 boards.

What the Rockets really had was balance — all five starters scored in double digits. The Rockets shot 51.3 percent on one of the better defensive teams in the NBA (when they want to be). Houston attacked with 33 shots at the rim but they were also 7-of-11 from the midrange as everything seemed to fall for them.

Starting Friday the Rockets schedule is: Indiana, Portland, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago, at Miami. That’s a heck of a challenge.

But the Rockets passed the first test.

Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis lead way, Bulls blow out Kyrie-less Celtics 108-85

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CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are starting to draw attention for their play together instead of their fight with each other.

Mirotic scored 24 points, Portis added a career-high 23 and the Chicago Bulls blew out Boston 108-85 on Monday night with Celtics star Kyrie Irving sidelined because of a bruised left quadriceps.

Owners of the NBA’s worst record, the Bulls (6-20) built an 18-point lead in the second quarter against the Eastern Conference leaders. And when Boston cut it to 12 in the fourth, the Bulls simply pulled away for their third straight win.

Leading the way were two players who made headlines for all the wrong reasons before the season started.

Their fight at practice left Mirotic with facial fractures, causing him to miss the first 23 games. Portis served an eight-game suspension.

But the two have played well together the past two games.

“We need to give the credit to (coach Fred Hoiberg),” Mirotic said. “Fred is the one who is making us play. He’s the guy who is calling the plays for us and putting us in the right spots to play.”

As for the fight?

“Man, that situation’s over,” Portis said. “Everybody’s talking about that. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just trying to win games.”

Mirotic made his first start of the season with leading scorer Lauri Markkanen sidelined because of back spasms and shot 9 of 14 with eight rebounds. Through three games, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 16.3 points.

Portis shot 10 of 15 and nailed all three 3-pointers.

Al Horford scored 15 for Boston (23-6). Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier added 13 points apiece in the Celtics’ most lopsided loss of the season.

“Sometimes you get your butt kicked. It was simple as that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Chicago dictated the whole game. They played harder than we did. They played with more presence than we did. They played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. You’re not going to win many games when you play like that.”

 

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.