Associated Press

Rockets clinch playoff berth with 116-81 win over Kings


HOUSTON (AP) — After it looked as if they’d be heading home early just a week ago, the Houston Rockets are in the playoffs after securing the final Western Conference playoff spot on the last day of the regular season.

“A lot of people wrote us off, thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs and here we are,” James Harden said.

Harden scored 38 points to lead the Rockets to an easy 116-81 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night for the playoff spot.

The Rockets never trailed and had a 64-44 lead at halftime behind 16 points from Harden and 10 each from Dwight Howard and Michael Beasley.

They won their last three games to sneak into the playoffs after losing three of the previous four to fall behind Utah and into ninth place in the West. Houston will meet top-seed Golden State in the first round of the playoffs this weekend.

“We … sat here at the beginning of the year thinking the playoffs wouldn’t have been this big of a struggle, so we had expectations of making the playoffs,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “So, now we have to get busy.”

Ben McLemore had 24 points for the Kings, in what was likely coach George Karl’s final game with the team amid reports that he could be fired as soon as Thursday. Karl went 44-68 since taking the job in February 2015, and this season is the 10th straight season in which the Kings did not make the playoffs.

Karl didn’t address his job status directly, but did reflect on his time with the Kings and said he thinks they built a good foundation for the future.

“There were many, many more good days than bad days, but there’s no question this season had a lot of negative to it,” he said. “But I think I’m proud of how we’ve persevered and fought through it and actually became a stronger team as we finished the year.”

The Rockets are in the postseason for the fourth straight year, but they certainly didn’t have the regular season they had hoped for after reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1997 last season. They returned most of the pieces from that team that won 56 games, but weren’t able to build on last year’s success.

Things went wrong early this season and coach Kevin McHale was fired after the team won just four of its first 11 games. He was replaced by Bickerstaff, but it didn’t lead to more consistent play and the Rockets were never able to keep pace with the elite teams in the West.

After a loss to the Suns on Thursday, it seemed likely that Houston would miss out on the playoffs. Instead, Utah dropped two of its next three games and the Rockets got back on track to win the remainder of their games and lock up the last postseason spot.

“We needed some big wins and guys got those,” Harden said. “Tonight we played really well. Even though the Sacramento Kings were short-handed, we went out there and just took care of business. It’s about us from here on out.”

Sacramento was overmatched in this one from the start with Houston racing out to a 10-2 lead by the first media timeout. It wasn’t surprising considering the Kings dressed just eight players, with DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Darren Collison, Rudy Gay and Caron Butler sitting out for rest, and Omri Casspi (strained right hamstring) and Marco Belinelli (sore right foot) missing the game with injuries.

Houston led by 21 in the third quarter when Harden scored the next 10 points, with two 3-pointers, to push it to 88-57.

That spurt gave Harden his fourth straight 30-point game, which ties a career high, and it was his 38th game this season with at least 30 points. He played less than a minute in the fourth quarter, and he and the rest of Houston’s starters went to the bench for good after his 3-point play with about seven minutes remaining made it 103-71.

Harden set career marks in points (29), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1) to join LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a season.


Kings: Eric Moreland did not play in the second half because of a sore left foot. … James Anderson added 13 points. … Willie Cauley-Stein had six points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.

Rockets: Howard finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. … Patrick Beverley had nine points and his six steals and 12 assists were both career highs. … K.J. McDaniels added 11 points with four rebounds. … Clint Capela had a career-high 17 rebounds.


Howard hosted a blood drive on Wednesday to honor Turner sideline reporter Craig Sager, who is fighting acute myeloid leukemia. Howard visited donors at the drive after shootaround, and those who gave blood received a T-shirt featuring illustrations of Howard and Sager. Sager, who is receiving treatment in Houston, attended the game and received a loud ovation when he was introduced in the first quarter.


LaMarcus Aldridge’s 39 points lead Spurs past Wolves, 117-101

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) – LaMarcus Aldridge had 39 points and 10 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a sluggish start to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-101 on Saturday night.

San Antonio won its third straight to move into fifth in the Western Conference five days after dropping to 10th and out of playoff position.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points and nine rebounds for Minnesota, which dropped to sixth in the West.

The Spurs had lost three straight and nine of 11 but are now unbeaten halfway through a six-game homestand.

San Antonio shot 84 percent in the second quarter, their best shooting quarter since 2010.

Two nights after battling New Orleans’ Anthony Davis on both ends, Aldridge had to take on another All-Star in Towns. Aldridge responded by leading the Spurs in scoring for the 49th time this season while helping keep Towns in check.

Aldridge scored 18 of 21 points during a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, including 12 straight. He capped the run by coming from the weak side to swat Towns’ floater deep into the seats.

Minnesota started quickly, shooting 78 percent from the floor in the first 5 1/2 minutes while San Antonio floundered at 17 percent. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called timeout, only to watch the Timberwolves’ Jeff Teague steal the ball once play resumed.

The Spurs responded behind veteran reserves Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay. San Antonio went on a 16-4 run bridging the first and second quarters to take a 29-26 lead.

Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points for Minnesota and Teague had 16.


Stan Van Gundy goes off on officials: “We got absolutely screwed all night”

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The Pistons were likely to lose to the red-hot Trail Blazers on the road, and that came to be Saturday night 100-87, Portland 12th straight win. The Pistons shot 38.8 percent for the game and had a dreadful offensive rating of 93.8 (points per 100 possessions).

Portland is one the top five defensive teams in the NBA this season, but that’s not what Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy thought was the problem — he laid the blame on the officiating.

That’s going to be a fine.

Van Gundy is frustrated — with this game and with this season. So are Pistons fans, and seemingly so is Detroit owner Tom Gores after his lukewarm vote of confidence in Van Gundy recently. They should be, this team is a disappointment and the Blake Griffin trade was a big swing that has yet to work out. The Pistons are going to miss the playoffs. Around the league, the sense is that Van Gundy will lose his GM job to former super agent Arn Tellem, who was brought in to guide the Pistons into their new building but now whose talents would better serve the basketball side of the operation. The only question is will Van Gundy still be coaching in Detroit next season — just coaching, like Doc Rivers with the Clippers — or of the change will be more sweeping than that.

Hornets’ coach gives savage, frank assessment of Willy Hernangomez

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When Willy Hernangomez was not getting much run with the Knicks this season, especially as injuries opened up space in the front line rotation, there were questions as to why. Then the #freeWillyHernangomez movement popped up.

Eventually, Hernangomez was traded to the Hornets where… he barely plays. He’s gotten more than 10 minutes just once since coming to Charlotte.

What gives? Hornet’s coach Steve Clifford didn’t hold back when answering that question to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford said at the Hornets shootaround at the Players Association’s midtown headquarters. “The reality is he wasn’t playing here for a reason. He’s got to change things…

“He’s not up to speed on what we’re doing to play a lot,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him. He’s smart, but he’s not this high-flier, phenomenal, natural athlete able to make up ground. He’s got to be on top of things, especially on the defensive end. If he’s not detailed defensively, he’s not that [athletic] guy…

“To be an every-night player, and I’ve told him this, he’s got to improve his shooting,” Clifford said. “He is right now, in my opinion, a back-to-the-basket player who can pass. But the reality is his passing doesn’t come into play until they have to get close to him and know he’s not going to knock down a shot. And he’s not a knockdown shooter.”

Well then.

Just to be clear he’s got to put in a lot more effort, become smarter on the defensive end, and improve his shooting. That’s a healthy off-season checklist.

Hernangomez has another year on his contract at a very reasonable $1.5 million before the Hornets have to make any kind of decision on him, which means whoever is the new GM in Charlotte he will choose to keep Hernangomez around. For now. He flashed potential his rookie season with the Knicks, when asked to play strictly to his strengths, but Clifford and the Hornets — and basically every other team in the NBA — is going to ask more of him.

Clifford was clear, as no doubt he has been clear to Hernangomez (Clifford is as straight a shooter as the league has). The ball is in Hernangomez’s court.

Glen “Big Baby” Davis denies drug charges while eating Popeyes on a charter plane

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Best. Denial. Ever.

Last month, former NBA player Glen “Big Baby” Davis was arrested last month at a hotel in a suburb of Baltimore by Jimmy McNulty and Lt. Daniels with 126 grams of marijuana and more than $96,000 in cash, according to a police report. He has been charged with possession and intent to distribute.

Davis has declared his innocence in the best denial video ever — eating Popeyes chicken and flashing cash and a championship ring.

I have no idea whether Davis is guilty or not, I was not at a Hampton’s Inn outside Baltimore last month. The court system will sort that out, that is what it’s there for.

But I know a brilliant video when I see one. This is it.