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Sixers snap 26-game losing streak with blowout win over Pistons

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PHILADELPHIA — The Sixers came into Saturday night’s contest against the Pistons riding a 26-game losing streak, tied for the longest in NBA history. But this is a unique team in an almost unprecedented situation, so it wasn’t weighing on them in the way you might expect.

Feeling no pressure, Philadelphia came out with an energy level much higher than its opponent, and quickly jumped on a Pistons team in a downward spiral of its own. The Sixers led by double digits in the first quarter, had put up 70 points by halftime and built a lead of as many as 32 points before settling on a 123-98 victory, the team’s first since January 29.

This was the plan all along in Philadelphia — maybe not to this extent, and probably not set in motion with the intent of entering the record books. But rebuilding and all that goes with it was going to be not only the way the team chose to go about handling its business this season, but would become a rallying point of sorts through what have been some unusually tough times.

“When you look at it, Sam Hinkie was hired (as GM) in May, and came in and was extraordinarily transparent about the direction that we were going to take on,” head coach Brett Brown said. “The draft happened, and an All-Star was traded in Jrue Holiday. I was hired in August. We inherited a team that was the youngest in the history of the game. On trade deadline, we traded three of our top six players to reconfirm our position that we are here to rebuild.

“And now we find ourselves here,” he continued. “And you know, it’s something that we’ve admitted, that losing is difficult, that the pain of a rebuild is difficult. And so here we are, and it doesn’t change our message — we’ve been transparent from day one. We’re here to try to build something unique.”

While the commitment to a plan has been evident in Philadelphia despite all the losing, there’s been nothing of the kind visible in Detroit. The Pistons replaced their head coach midseason with one who continually trots out lineups that have been statistically proven to be ineffective, and who appears to have little control over his players.

Brandon Jennings wanted no part of this one early, and picked up two quick technical fouls and an ejection for arguing a relatively pedestrian call in the first quarter. Josh Smith picked up a technical of his own a little later, and appeared to try to get tossed after not getting a whistle of his own, but the officials chose to let his actions slide.

Detroit lost to a Heat team playing without two starters in Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers on Friday by 32 points at home, and then followed that up by getting waxed by a team that hadn’t won a game in nearly two full months.

Saturday’s lopsided result was perhaps a visual representation of the jarring difference between the place each franchise finds itself in. The Pistons, on paper, have more talent now. But they don’t have a long-term solution at head coach, and they have a general manager that could be gone once the season is finished.

The opposite is true in Philadelphia, where Brown has already taken some positives from what everyone knew would be a losing campaign from the start.

“I look out and I see Thaddeus Young, who’s expanded his game and expanded his leadership (albeit in a losing season) in significant ways,” Brown said. “I look out and see James Anderson, a gypsy wingman that’s come on and really shown he belongs, and is arguably a starting two guard in the NBA. You have Tony Wroten, a 20-year old kid who’s come out of nowhere and can get to the rim when he wants. You have Nerlens Noel, who would have been a shoe-in for the first player chosen in the draft had it not been for the injury, that we’ve been able to break down his shot this entire year. He would have been the number one pick in the draft. And we have, in my opinion, the rookie of the year (in Michael Carter-Williams). So that’s not a bad start to move forward with.”

Winning wasn’t in the plan for this season, but neither was losing 27 straight. Now that the team has avoided making the wrong kind of history, it will continue to do what it’s done all year long — work hard, and focus on the future.

“I see daylight,” Brown said. “It allows me to sleep at night, to feel good that the path that we’ve put ourselves on, albeit hard now, is the correct one. And we do not want to accept and wallow in mediocrity. Winning 34-42 games every year for the past decade is not what we want to do. We aspire to do something better. And to do that, you have to take risks. You’ve got to put yourself out there. We have. Here we are. I’m proud of our guys, and we’ll continue to stick with the formula that we said we were going to in the summer.”

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)
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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.

Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

James Harden’s 12th triple-double helps Rockets end 2-game skid

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NEW YORK (AP) James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game.