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Three things we learned Wednesday: MVP level Stephen Curry is back


The Miami Heat made it nine wins in a row. Kyrie Irving was dropping dimes, with 14 assists (the most ever by a LeBron teammate). The Knicks won (against the Nets, but it still counts). Even Dell Curry was draining threes. It was such a busy night in the NBA that none o that even made our list of takeaways from Wednesday night around the league.

1) MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Because the Warriors weren’t dangerous enough already. Stephen Curry is not going to win a third straight MVP award this year, it’s either going to be James Harden (I think he’s the frontrunner now by a small margin) or Russell Westbrook.

However, after a rough couple of months to start the season, MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Just ask the Hornets, who watched him drop 11 threes and 39 points on them Wednesday (a Warriors 126-111 win).

Those 11 threes left Curry one short of the record for most in a game (12, by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall) but Steve Kerr didn’t play Curry in the fourth to chase the record (Curry played just 30 minutes). That’s not a game the Warriors are playing this season, chasing records.

Things changed for Curry after the Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers. He knew he needed to be more aggressive (and not defer as much to Kevin Durant), and Steve Kerr knew he needed to put Curry in better situations to take advantage of his skill set. Curry was given a chance to run more pick-and-rolls (as he requested), and now it was Durant setting the pick more often. Curry’s shots went up by three per game, and while not all of those were “good” shots part of what makes Curry tick is taking some shots that nobody else should take — he hits a few, and it gets him going.

As noted by ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, with the ball in his hands Curry’s three-point percentage jumped from 39.7 percent before Christmas to 46.2 percent after it. The numbers bear out he’s playing like his MVP self again. His swagger is back. The Warriors are his team again.

Curry looks like the best player in the league again (LeBron James doesn’t dial it up like this for the regular season anymore).

And woe is the rest of the league when Curry plays like this.

2) Or maybe Isaiah Thomas is the best player in the game — he drops 42 on Raptors to get Celtics win. This was a big game: It was for the lead in the Atlantic Division (if anyone actually cares about NBA divisions anymore), more importantly, it was for second place in the Eastern Conference. Guys stepped up for this game — Kyle Lowry was stunningly good on his way to 32 points. It was the Jared Sullinger revenge game, and he had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Those two helped Toronto to an 11-point halftime lead, and the Raptors seemed to control the game.

Then Isaiah Thomas happened.

Maybe the hottest player in the game, he had 19 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and he led the Celtics to win the fourth 32-19 and the game 109-104.

Like Curry above, Thomas isn’t going to win the MVP award, but he’s going to get some votes down ballot (third, fourth, fifth) and deservedly so. He has the Celtics offense humming and the Celtics in second place in the East. Toronto fans would like to point out they did not have DeMar DeRozan for this game, and that’s duly noted. But this win matters because second place in the East matters — it means home court in the second round. Also, a hot Wizards team is just one game back of the Raptors now, just two-and-a-half back of the Celtics, the Wiz are in this conversation (at 22-9 they have the best record in the East since Dec. 1). What that really means is teams want to avoid being the four seed — nobody wants Cleveland in the second round. Which is why wins like this one by Boston matter. A lot.

3) Maybe the Bulls thrive in tensions and chaos, they pick up a quality win over Thunder on the road. Rumor still swirls around Chicago like paparazzi around Beyoncé. The team’s young players love Rajon Rondo more than the “leaders” of the squad. The Bulls don’t plan to trade Rondo, apparently, but the team the focus of trade rumors.  Rival executives believe Jimmy Butler will be available again via trade, in part because of tension with the front office dating back to Butler betting on himself and not taking the rookie deal extension management offered (and management threatened to play Tony Snell in front of him at the time, which didn’t go over well with Thibodeau). And all that is since the Butler/Wade bashing of the team’s young players and Rondo coming to their defense.

With all that noise and chaos around them, the Bulls have picked up two quality wins in a row. First, it was a hot Sixers team, then Wednesday the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a victory over Westbrook and the Thunder. Butler had 28 points on 17 shots, Wade had 18 points and seven assists, and Cristiano Felicio Doug McDermott each had 11 points off the bench. Rondo had another strong game leading the second unit. The Bulls looked comfortable in the win.

The question isn’t “are the Bulls on track or in turmoil?” Rather, it’s “do the Bulls thrive in turmoil?” We’ll find out over the next couple weeks, because the turmoil isn’t going away during this six-game road trip, which is followed immediately by Boston and Toronto at home.

As an aside, the highlight of the Bulls/Thunder game unsurprisingly went to Westbrook, with his rejection of Butler.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

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James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.