CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 29: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks for a pass while under pressure from Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on December 29, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Celtics 124-118. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Three things we learned on Thursday: Boston improving, not at Cleveland’s level yet

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It’s the last “three things we learned” of 2016, we tried to make it a good one.

1) Boston is improving, finding its groove, but there is still a gap to Cleveland. Boston players may have tried to deny this was a measuring stick game in the run up to it, but this was a measuring stick game. After stumbling to start the season, the Celtics had won six of seven and looked more like the team we expected before the season — one on par with Toronto in the East’s second tier.

It didn’t look like that early on Thursday night. For three quarters, this was a blowout, with the Cavaliers offense carving up what has been lately a solid Celtics defense. Kyrie Irving was the head of the snake and finished with 32.

Cleveland was up 15 early in the fourth and seemed to be cruising in for the win before Boston started a comeback that eventually cut the lead all the way to one. Boston’s fourth quarter run was sparked by Marcus Smart/Tyler Zeller pick-and-rolls, which the Cleveland bench — specifically Channing Frye — struggled to stop when he had to switch. This was also an efficient night from Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting (he got to the free throw line 13 times).

Boston is showing signs of life, but they are not at Toronto’s level yet — and they are certainly not at Cleveland’s. Maybe the Celtics can get to a spot where they are a threat to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs, the fourth quarter comeback shows that kind of spark, but the first three quarters reminds us of the real pecking order in the East.

2) Russell Westbrook gets ejected, and with it dreams of a Thunder comeback died. Oklahoma City Thunder was already down by 16 points to Memphis when Russell Westbrook lost it midway through the third quarter and got sent to the showers early. Meaning OKC was well on its way to racking up a loss. The ejection just killed the idea of a comeback, and the Thunder ended up getting beat by 34, 114-80.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star was ejected with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter after complaining during a trip to the free-throw line for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first technical came after Andre Roberson fouled Memphis’ JaMychal Green — officials said after the game Westbrook was arguing about whether the ball had touched the rim before the foul, and he was hit with his first technical by Brian Forte for not relenting when the official said the discussion was over. That continued through the ensuing free throws, and finally, the officials had enough and gave Westbrook a second.

You can be sure a fine is coming for Westbrook, not for the ejection but his postgame comments.

As noted above, that was the end of any comeback, the Thunder have no offense to speak of without Westbrook on the court. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and no assists, but he is still averaging a triple double.

3) Another ugly second half shows how teams have adjusted to Lakers, and they have not progressed. That fast 10-10 start for the Lakers seems so very long ago. They have gone 2-14 since, a slide that began with some injuries but has morphed into much more than that — and there is a lot of frustration in the locker room. The Lakers have played slightly better of late as they have gotten healthy, but it’s hard to see a path to a lot of victories — they don’t have the defense, and they don’t have easy answers to how the league has adapted to them.

The latest evidence of that was Dallas — with no Dirk Nowitzki all game and no Andrew Bogut most of the second half — blowing out the Lakers after the break and winning 101-89 in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lakers just do not have answers for teams that can attack with a good pick-and-roll and have athletes who can space the floor. Coach Luke Walton was frustrated with his team’s focus and effort after the game, and it’s hard to argue with him.

That said, the Lakers problems on defense or more than effort and focus — I’m not sure they have enough plus defenders out there to make a difference consistently anyway. They certainly could be better with more effort, but do they have the players to get the job done?

On offense, you don’t see the ball movement — or movement off the ball — needed to handle the pressure and ball denial tactics they are seeing. Try to pressure a good offense like defenses now pressure the Lakers and that offense responds with strong weak-side action, counters that open things up, and the ball moves to get good shots away from the pressure. The Lakers aren’t doing that, and they are not a team loaded with guys whose instinct is to pass like that anyway.

There is real frustration in Los Angeles with this team’s progress — from the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. But welcome to rebuilding — it’s a frustrating process. One that is long, has setbacks, and is just difficult all around. It takes time and patience. I think Charles Barkley may be right that despite all that talent the Lakers do not have a Top 10 player on that roster, something they will eventually need to get to contend for another banner. However, this core of potentially good to very good players — D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in particular — have a ways to go before that kind of elite free agent thinks “I want to play with them.”

Bonus thing we learned Thursday: Dan D’Antoni gets it. Dan D’Antoni is the brother of Mike, a former NBA assistant coach who now coaches college ball at Marshall. But he gets it. And he shot down an old-school, pound-it-inside reporter beautifully.

Kawhi Leonard’s 34 points rally Spurs past Timberwolves, 122-114 (VIDEO)

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 34 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a strong start by the Minnesota Timberwolves for a 122-114 victory Tuesday night.

Leonard’s fourth straight 30-point game helped him become the first San Antonio player to score 950 points in the first half of a season since Tim Duncan in 2003.

Coming off a career-high 38 on Saturday against Phoenix in Mexico City, Leonard was 12 for 17 from the field.

LaMarcus Aldridge added 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting, spoiling Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau’s 59th birthday.

San Antonio had difficulty with Minnesota’s explosive starting lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points and 16 rebounds, and Ricky Rubio added 21 points and 14 assists. Zach LaVine scored 18, Gorgui Dieng had 17 and Andrew Wiggins 10.

Minnesota’s 41 points in the second were a season high for any period and the most points in a quarter by a San Antonio opponent this season.

The Spurs were more active in the second half, holding the Timberwolves to 43 points.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: LaVine has 29 points, nine rebounds and three assists in two games since returning from a two-game absence caused by a bruised left hip. . Minnesota is 4-22 when allowing 100-plus points. . The Timberwolves’ last win against San Antonio was April 8, 2014, a 110-91 victory at home. . Minnesota’s previous high for a quarter was 39 points in the first against Orlando on Nov. 9. Its previous high for the second period was 35 in that same game against the Magic. . The Timberwolves are 5-15 on the road.

Spurs: Leonard has scored in double figures in 73 straight games, the seventh-longest active streak in the NBA behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins. . Parker collected his 6,500th career assist, joining James as the only two active players with 6,500 assists and 18,000 points. John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton and Oscar Robertson are the only other players to reach those milestones. . San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was assessed his fourth technical foul of the season with 3:41 left in the first quarter for berating Michael Smith over a non-call. After Aldridge appeared to be shoved from behind on an attempted offensive rebound, Popovich walked the sideline screaming and shadowing Smith and had to be restrained near midcourt by Spurs assistant Ettore Messina. . The previous high for free throws attempted by an opponent was 38 by Sacramento on Oct. 27.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

Spurs: Host the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.

In salary cap move, Hawks trade Mo Williams to Denver

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 31: Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after hitting a three point shot during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at Quicken Loans Arena on March 31, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Nets 107-87. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***Mo Williams
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Mo Williams decided before the season he was done — he walked away from basketball and left the Cavaliers without a reliable backup point guard. LeBron James is still complaining about not having one.

But just because he wasn’t playing didn’t lead the Cavaliers to shed his salary. That was dead money that could be useful in a trade — such as landing Kyle Korver. The Hawks landed Mo Williams in that deal (along with Mike Dunleavy Jr. and a pick).

Now the Hawks have moved Williams on to Denver in a salary cap move for both teams, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Hawks worked out Gary Neal recently and saw the veteran as a shooter who could help them fill the hole left by Kover.

This is simply a salary cap trade. It’s not changing anyone’s rotation.

Mavericks edge Bulls 99-98 for 3rd straight win (VIDEO)

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CHICAGO (AP) Wesley Matthews made a go-ahead 3-pointer from the wing with 12 seconds left, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the Chicago Bulls 99-98 on Tuesday night for their first three-game winning streak of the season.

Six players scored in double figures for the Mavericks, including all five starters. Harrison Barnes had 20 points, Seth Curry added 18 and Dirk Nowitzki finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Dallas trailed 98-96 after Jimmy Butler made a long jumper over Matthews with 23 seconds left, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle decided against a timeout and Deron Williams drove into the lane before kicking out to Matthews for the 3.

Chicago had one last chance, but Dwyane Wade missed a potential game-winning jumper from the corner on his 35th birthday as time expired.

Butler finished with 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds for the Bulls, who had won two in a row. Robin Lopez scored 21, and Wade had 17 on 8-for-21 shooting.

Wade’s fadeaway jumper gave the Bulls a 94-90 lead with about 3 1/2 minutes left, but they were unable to close out Dallas. Chicago has dropped four in a row against the Mavericks, including a 107-82 loss in their first meeting of the season.

Chicago played without forward Taj Gibson, sidelined by left ankle soreness. Paul Zipser, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, started in Gibson’s spot and finished with five points and three rebounds in his 13th game of the season.

Gibson, averaging 12 points and 7.3 rebounds, could return Friday night at Atlanta. He had played in every game this season.

Dallas put together a 15-4 run spanning halftime to open a 64-51 lead on Barnes’ turnaround jumper with 8:38 left in the third. But Chicago kept chipping away at the deficit, and Lopez’s three-point play off a pass from Butler trimmed the Mavericks’ lead to 76-74 heading into the fourth.

Williams had 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds for Dallas, and reserve J.J. Barea scored 12 points. Matthews went 3 for 5 from 3-point range and finished with 11 points.

TIP-INS

Mavericks: C Andrew Bogut missed his third straight game with a right hamstring strain.

Bulls: Butler received his Olympic championship ring during a pregame ceremony. He helped the U.S. win gold in Rio de Janeiro last summer. … F Doug McDermott, who scored a career-high 31 points in Chicago’s 108-104 victory at Memphis on Sunday night, finished with seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

UP NEXT

Mavericks: Visit Miami on Thursday night. The Mavericks have lost nine of their last 10 regular-season games against the Heat.

Bulls: Visit Atlanta on Friday night. The Bulls have dropped five in a row against the Hawks, including a 115-107 defeat at Atlanta on Nov. 9.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

Goran Dragic scores 21 as Heat stun Rockets, 109-103

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MIAMI (AP) The way the Miami Heat saw it, this was a reward.

Goran Dragic had 21 points and eight assists, Wayne Ellington scored 18 off the bench and the Heat – saddled with one of the worst records in the NBA – overcame another triple-double from James Harden to beat the Houston Rockets 109-103 on Tuesday night.

Dion Waiters scored 17, Tyler Johnson had 16 and James Johnson added 15 for the Heat, who trailed by a point midway through the fourth quarter before putting the game away with a 20-5 run.

“I’m glad to see our guys get rewarded finally for all the work, but that doesn’t guarantee anything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We talk about it all the time. You keep on putting in deposits, to the team, to the work, continue to work to get better … trust that process.”

Harden had 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for the Rockets (32-12), his 13th triple-double of the season. He shot 12 for 30 from the field and got his triple-double with an assist to Montrezl Harrell with 12.6 seconds left, an uncontested dunk with the Heat simply waiting for the clock to run out.

Harrell had 13 points for the Rockets, who got 12 from Patrick Beverley.

“They played hard and they beat us,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not much else to say.”

Hassan Whiteside added 14 points and 15 rebounds for Miami in a game that had 19 lead changes and 15 ties.

Dragic found Ellington for a corner 3 with 1:41 left to give Miami an 11-point lead – the largest either team had to that point. The Rockets turned it over on their next possession, James Johnson got a runout dunk and the Heat (12-30) soon finished off the win.

“We got open shots. We just missed them,” Harden said. “We gave ourselves a chance, especially in that third quarter. Fourth quarter we didn’t play as well as we need to.”

TIP-INS

Rockets: Clint Capela returned after missing 15 games with a small left fibula fracture and started at center. He was scoreless in nine minutes. … The Rockets were without Ryan Anderson (flu), and Eric Gordon – bothered by a sore ankle – shot 3 for 17. … Harden’s triple-double was only the seventh posted by an opposing player in a game (including playoffs) at Miami – and the second in three weeks, after Russell Westbrook did it on Dec. 27.

Heat: It was Miami’s first home game since Jan. 1. … Okaro White was signed to a 10-day contract Tuesday, but did not play. … Floyd Mayweather was courtside, as he’s been for several Miami games this season. … Miami held the Rockets to a 9-for-39 night from 3-point range. … Miami’s bench outscored Houston’s 51-32.

TECHS FOR EVERYONE

Spoelstra received a technical early in the third quarter, upset after Rodney McGruder got hit with his fourth foul in 13 minutes. D’Antoni drew a technical with 5:40 left, and Beverley got one with 1:12 left.

HARDEN IN MIAMI

Shooting has never been easy for Harden in Miami.

He was 3 for 18 in two games at AmericanAirlines Arena in the NCAA tournament for Arizona State in 2009. He’s a 38 percent shooter in 11 games at Miami as a pro, 30 percent from 3-point range – and his teams are 3-8 in those games.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Host Milwaukee on Wednesday, part of a four-game, five-night swing.

Heat: Host Dallas on Thursday in the second game of a four-game homestand.