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.

Rumor: Add Denver Nuggets to list of teams talking to Bulls about Jimmy Butler

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The Denver Nuggets are starting to build something. Mike Malone has brought a needed new culture to the locker room, they have found a franchise cornerstone in Nikola Jokic and running the offense through him, and they have quality young pieces around him such as Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. The Nuggets just missed the playoffs last year, and they — and hopefully their defense — are poised to take a step forward next season.

Jimmy Butler would fit in well with that.

Denver is part of the long list of teams that have reached out to the Bulls about the star wing, reports Jeff Goodman of ESPN.

Denver has spoken to the Bulls about Jimmy Butler, source told ESPN. Would include multiple young players, not Nikola Jokic, and picks.

Jokic is about as close to untradable as it gets in the NBA.

Would a pick or two with Harris, Emanual Mudiay, and a veteran that can help now such as Wilson Chandler get the job done? Maybe not, the Bulls have been asking a lot for Butler which is why deals have withered. However, Denver has the assets to make this potentially work so the conversation should move forward.

Smart money is on Butler in a Bulls uniform to start next season, but the rumors are not going to stop.

Report: Cavaliers, Spurs have discussed Danny Green trade

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While the majority of teams in the NBA are thinking more about trying to contend in 2020 and beyond — when LeBron James has, in theory, faded in the East, and maybe the Warriors have slowed or broken apart a little — there are a handful of teams that should be targeting a run at the top of the mountain next season.

San Antonio and Cleveland are two of those teams.

Which is why the Spurs and Cavaliers are talking about a potential Danny Green trade, reports Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

On the surface, you can see how this works for both sides. Green fills an obvious need for shooters and wing defenders for the Cavaliers. Since none of the Cavaliers’ role players would be an upgrade in return, for the Spurs this is more likely about clearing cap space to make a run at Chris Paul or another elite free agent.

Most likely this deal does not go through. The Spurs are going to want something specific in return, and the Cavaliers have limited options considering their roster. But it’s something worth watching.

Reports: Utah Jazz talking about Patrick Beverley trade, active in trying to move up in draft

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The buzz around the league has been for a while that momentum has Gordon Hayward leaving Utah this summer as a free agent. That’s not set in stone, however, and the Jazz are not going quietly into that good night.

They are being very active in the run-up to Thursday night, and a team known for not allowing leaks has seen some things get out about how hard they are pushing. For example, with it likely George Hill is gone as a free agent this summer, they are looking at Patrick Beverley to replace him, reports Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune.

That is not the only activity going on, the Jazz want to move up in the draft to land some shooting, reports Jody Genessy of the Deseret News.

Utah is not an organization that is going to do anything rash, they are not going to overpay. If they end up making their multiple picks at the end of the first round, they will bring them into one of the best player development programs in the league and see what happens.

However, if they can do something that shows Hayward they will do what it takes, they will. Genessy says the Jazz are “pretty comfortable” that Hayward will return. Much of the rest of the league sees it differently, but only one person knows for sure and his mind is not made up on the issue.

All the Jazz can do is remind him how committed they are to him, and draft night moves could help that.

Report: Timberwolves active in trying to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler

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Minnesota is one of the NBA’s best positioned up-and-coming teams. They have a franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns, a quality No. 2 in Andrew Wiggins, maybe like Zach LaVine can blossom into an All-Star, and players such as Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica could be part of the picture. Maybe Ricky Rubio, too, although he’s further along his career arc. A lot of people look at this team and think around 2020, when the Warriors fade (or break apart), the Timberwolves can step up to elite.

Tom Thibodeau is apparently not willing to be that patient — he’s looking to get in the Paul George/Jimmy Butler talks, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Thibodeau helped develop Butler in Chicago and they have a great relationship, he certainly makes the Timberwolves better next season. Same with George, although he’s a rental who almost certainly bolts after the coming season

My question to the Timberwolves: Why?

What was wrong with the building trajectory they are on? I get it, they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, a ton of money was just sunk into upgrades at the Target Center, and the owner is not getting younger. Those are all non-basketball reasons to screw up what the basketball side is doing right. It’s the mistake of poor franchises to let that happen.

I also get Thibodeau wants a veteran voice to help lead this young core and help show them how to win. That doesn’t need to be an elite player that comes at a high price, however.

Could the Timberwolves use a point guard of the future, more depth on the wings and better defenders all around? You bet. But they don’t need to rush the development program either. If Minnesota can land Butler only giving up Rubio and a protected future first or something, sure, but the Bulls continue to ask a very high price for a deal.

Outside of personal feelings, why would the Timberwolves do that?