MVP favorites James Harden, Russell Westbrook in first-round showdown

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HOUSTON (AP) — While everyone must wait more than two months for the NBA’s MVP to be announced, the league will showcase the two front-runners for the honor in James Harden and Russell Westbrook when the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder open a first-round playoff series Sunday night.

“I think the league is very prosperous because we’ve got some great players that are doing things that I don’t think any fan has ever seen, or they have seen and they probably can’t remember it because it’s been so long,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Putting up unbelievable numbers, unbelievable seasons and some great story lines. It’s good for the NBA. It’s great for business.”

The Rockets had the third-best record in the NBA and are eyeing a deep playoff run in their first season under D’Antoni after being ousted in the first round by Golden State last year. Oklahoma City is in the unfamiliar role of underdog after reaching the Western Conference finals last season before also being eliminated by the Warriors.

Most expect either Harden or Westbrook to take home the MVP trophy on June 26 after both players had stellar regular seasons. Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game- all career bests – in helping Houston to a 55-27 record.

Harden had 22 triple-doubles and became the first player in NBA history to have 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659) in a single season.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double by scoring an NBA-best 31.6 points a game, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He set an NBA record for most triple-doubles with 42, allowing the Thunder to withstand the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency and secure the sixth seed.

Harden and Westbrook are former teammates in Oklahoma City and remain good friends, but neither seems drawn by the hype that this series is all about them. Harden cut off a reporter before he could finish his question about how the focus entering this series is on him and Westbrook.

“I don’t really care about the talks,” he said. “I just want to win.”

When prodded about what makes Westbrook so good, Harden provided some praise for the fellow point guard.

“Obviously he’s talented, really explosive (and) athletic,” Harden said. “He just goes out there and plays relentless.”

Westbrook acknowledged it will be “cool” to match up against his friend in this best-of-seven series.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “Something that we can talk about later on down the line. Definitely, it’s good.”

Some things to know about the Thunder-Rockets series.


Houston’s Patrick Beverley and Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson have perhaps the toughest jobs in this series, as they’ll guard Westbrook and Harden. Both teams will certainly employ various tactics to slow down the other’s star, but Beverley and Roberson will be the first line of defense.

“Pat is probably the unsung hero,” D’Antoni said. “His edginess and what he has to do, he has to guard Westbrook … he is a big, big part of what we do.”

Beverley embraces the challenge.

“It’s going to be hard as hell,” he said. “He’s one of the most explosive point guards probably to ever play the game. But you know me. It will be fun.”

Roberson feels the same way about Harden.

“I definitely like a challenge, and I like to go against the best,” he said. “Go out there and prove we’re just as good, too.”


The Rockets know a key to success will be limiting Oklahoma City’s rebounding. The Thunder led the league with 46.6 rebounds a game and tied for first by averaging 12.2 offensive boards.

D’Antoni has been drilling those numbers into his players’ heads for weeks, bringing it up repeatedly as soon as it looked like the Rockets would draw the Thunder in the first round.

“You’ve got to rebound,” D’Antoni said simply.


Eric Gordon is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists off the bench in his first season in Houston after five years with New Orleans. Gordon, who has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons, appeared in 75 games, which is the most since he played 78 as a rookie in 2008-09. Gordon ranked fourth in the NBA with a career-high 246 3-pointers, after he hadn’t made more than 141 in a year in the first eight seasons of his career.

He takes pride in being a spark off the bench.

“We’ve got some guys that can make an impact, so we just want to press the gas,” he said. “If our first unit gets the lead, we want to (extend) the lead even more.”

This will be just his second trip to the playoffs after he appeared in just one series with the Pelicans, in 2015.


Watch Tracy McGrady be enshrined into Orlando Magic Hall of Fame

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tracy McGrady is a Basketball Hall of Famer, meaning he’s already reached the absolute pinnacle of accolades celebrating his playing career.

That doesn’t mean he wasn’t deeply moved by the latest gesture.

McGrady was enshrined Tuesday into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame , a long-deserved hat tip to what the Central Florida native accomplished during his 295-game tenure with the team. The two-time NBA scoring champion went into the Basketball Hall this past September, and said getting recognized by the Magic still meant more than he could express.

“Yes, I got inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, but today is special to me,” McGrady said. “On a personal level, growing up in Auburndale, Florida, my mom used to drive over here every summer when I was playing basketball in Orlando … and I used to tell my mom, I would tell my friends that I was going to be wearing this uniform one day.”

Few wore it better.

Drafted in 1997 about a month after his 18th birthday – by Toronto, Orlando’s opponent on Tuesday night – McGrady went on to play 15 NBA seasons. He was an All-Star seven times, a run that started with each of his four seasons with the Magic, and he remains Orlando’s franchise leader with a scoring average of 28.1 points per game.

“To say you represented the Orlando Magic well would be a vast, vast understatement,” Magic CEO Alex Martins told McGrady during the ceremony.

McGrady’s 62 points against Washington in 2004 remains a Magic single-game record, and he has three of the team’s four highest scoring efforts. The only players to score more points during their tenures in an Orlando uniform are Dwight Howard and Nick Anderson, both of whom played more than twice as many games as McGrady did with the Magic.

He signed with Orlando as a free agent, and landing him couldn’t have been easier. McGrady said he once told former Magic coach Doc Rivers after an Orlando-Toronto game to hold a spot for him that summer.

“Nobody had to do any recruiting,” said McGrady, who wore jersey No. 1 in honor of his favorite player growing up – former Orlando star Penny Hardaway. “I knew I was coming home.”

He’s still with the Magic as well, juggling a job as special assistant to the CEO alongside his duties as an ESPN analyst.

McGrady was born in Bartow, Florida, about 60 miles from Orlando. Besides the Raptors and Magic, McGrady also played for Houston, New York, Detroit and Atlanta.

“There isn’t anybody more deserving than him to be in the Magic Hall of Fame,” Martins said.

Three Things to Know: Portland defends Houston well, James Harden goes off anyway

Associated Press

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Portland defends Houston well, it just doesn’t matter with James Harden, Chris Paul some nights. This game exemplifies why Houston is a legitimate threat to Golden State come the playoffs — the Portland Trail Blazers defended the Rockets well, and it just didn’t matter. Houston still put up 115 points on only 90 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass, estimated 92 possessions), and the Rockets won 115-111. The Rockets can score with anybody — including the Warriors — and that is going to win them playoff games.

Portland did a good job defending the rim Tuesday night — Houston was just 17-of-32 there, 53 percent. Houston took 36 threes (six below their season average), but again Portland did a decent job contesting — the Blazers didn’t let the Rockets get drive-and-kick threes where shooters always got to set their feet, 17 of those 36 threes (47.2 percent) were off-the-dribble with the ball handler shooting (Harden or Paul) but the Rockets hit 10 of those anyway.

At the heart of it all, James Harden was just unstoppable again, scoring 42 points, dishing out 7 assists, and looking every bit the MVP.

On offense, Portland tried to punish the small-ball game of Houston with 19 post ups, but it was undone by an off shooting night from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who were a combined 9-of-32 on the night. The Trail Blazers tried to attack mismatches created because the Rockets switch everything on defense (and have all season), but all that switching has Houston’s help defense working on a tight string and Houston got the stops they needed.

If there was any doubt lingering doubts (and there shouldn’t have been), the Rockets looked legit  — they went into a hostile road environment, made life difficult defensively on two stars, and got the W. Doing it against a (probably) healthy Golden State squad is a different challenge, but Houston is as ready as anyone.

As for Portland, San Antonio (currently) or anyone else who lands in the six seed and gets the Trail Blazers in the first round can watch the tape of this game and know they are in trouble — Portland is defending, and with that they can beat any team they face in the first round.

2) After a day of troubling news about Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris lifts Celtics’ spirit with game-winner. Who needs Kyrie Irving?

Okay, the Celtics do. And he may be out a while now, news came down on Tuesday that Irving’s sore knee is not progressing as hoped, so he going to get a second opinion on what is up with it. It’s not what Celtics fans want to hear — even though the reports say there is no structural issue and he will be back for the playoffs — in a season that has been dominated by injuries in Boston.

What made the Celtics feel better? Marcus Morris with the game-winner against the Thunder Tuesday night.

That’s a quality win for the Celtics, who remain locked in as the two seed in the East. Rookie Jayson Tatum had 23 and 11 for Boston. As for the Thunder, this snapped a six-game win streak, and while they remain the four seed, the Pelicans and Spurs are now just one game back. There is no chill in the Western Conference.

3) Where have these Timberwolves been? Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns play like the leaders Minnesota needs in win. Minnesota has stumbled about going 5-5 since Jimmy Butler went down injured (he said again Tuesday he expects to be back by the end of the regular season), and at points they have looked leaderless and lost.

Which is why Tuesday’s win against the Clippers was a quality step forward — playing a team right on their heels in the playoff chase, Minnesota started doing things right. They finally got Karl-Anthony Towns more touches and shots (he had 19 field-goal attempts, but through the first eight Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season).

Andrew Wiggins was an active and intense defender on the perimeter causing the Clippers problems (he has this in him but doesn’t bring it consistently). Wiggins had three blocks and on one second-half play basically stole the ball from Austin Rivers twice on one possession. On the other end of the floor, Wiggins had 27 points on 16 shots, and he hit 4-of-5 from three.

Finally, Jeff Teague took this game over in the third quarter — the Clippers had no answer for the Teague/Towns pick-and-roll so the Timberwolves ran it over and over and over until they pulled away with a comfortable lead. Teague got where he wanted, scored 20 points on the night, and just took over.

With the win, Minnesota seems on track to make the postseason for the first time since 2004 — that accomplishes a big goal for this team. Its ultimate aspirations are much higher, but making the postseason and getting a taste of it is the first step on that road.

Chris Paul’s game-winning miss helps Rockets end Blazers’ 13-game streak

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Tuesday night at Moda Center was electric. It was a game of switches, both between opposing big men on the pick-and-roll and as the lead batted between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

It was all we could have asked for between two of the best teams in the NBA.

The Blazers were aided by a hot start from Al-Farouq Aminu from beyond the arc. The defensive stalwart hit four threes in the first quarter alone for Portland as the Blazers took a four point lead into the second period. Houston, accustomed to playing in Rip City when their arena is at its loudest, wasn’t phased by the atmosphere.

James Harden went off — he finished with 42 points and seven assists — and looked unstoppable. At one point, after nailing a 3-pointer in the first half, Harden turned around and gave the Portland sideline a look. The leading MVP candidate was there to play, and the rain of boos that came down from the 300 level at the Moda only fueled his fire.

On the other side of the court, Portland’s star point guard seemed just off of center. Perhaps it was anticipating the soon-to-be birth of his child or just the stress that comes with upholding a 13-game winning streak, but Damian Lillard‘s aim was poor and he wasn’t as large a factor as he’s been all winter. In fact, both Lillard and C.J. McCollum were quiet on the night. McCollum, the other half of the second-highest scoring duo since the All-Star Break, had just eight points on a night where he shot 4-of-15 from the field.

But the story of these two teams, and why they remain top playoff contenders, is their defense. That showed all night, with the margin between the two staying razor thin until the final seconds. The Blazers’ strategy was to force switches, often getting Moe Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, or Evan Turner on smaller Rockets players while hoping to either attack the basket or swing the ball after the Rockets’ excellent help defense reacted.

Houston countered brilliantly, often guarding Nurkic with either Luc Mbah a Moute or PJ Tucker as they forced the issue of small ball on Portland. Much of the game rode on the offensive decision-making from Blazers in the post or the ability of the Rockets guards to burn past the likes of Nurkic and Ed Davis off the switch.

Chris Paul was the other factor for Houston — no shock as he loves going against Lillard — especially from beyond the 3-point line. Five of Paul’s six made field goals were from beyond the arc, and he dismantled slower Portland defenders as he snaked, shaked, and flailed his way around pick-and-rolls.

Despite the close play, Houston appeared to have struck a defiant blow when Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:55 to go, giving the Rockets a nine-point lead. But Portland rallied, with Lillard quickly drawing a three-shot foul to push the Blazers closer. Portland scored twice more in quick succession, and they were once again within striking distance for the win.

The game came down to a final Houston possession with five seconds left as Paul missed long on a floater in the middle of the lane. Miraculously, the ball hit off the back of the iron, out of reach of any Blazers rebounder (although a crafty hold by Paul on Aminu certainly helped).

Houston recovered the rebound, and closed against a heated rival.

Meanwhile the story for both teams at the end of the game was clear: both are for real.

The Rockets, leaders of the West even before the Golden State Warriors were bitten by the injury bug, showed they could come into a hostile environment against a team that badly wanted to win in Portland. Houston’s resolve was clear; while the Blazers never looked unfocused, the Rockets did feel like the senior team and the leadership from Harden and Paul was a preview for what we should expect come playoff time. That’s big, especially when you consider Paul’s playoff demons and the hovering expectation that the Warriors are somehow going to come charging back and blow everyone out come spring.

For the Blazers, the sadness of the 13-game streak will linger but for a moment. Portland, who was essentially a .500 team until Christmas, looked like they were ready for the big moment. Many of the Blazers’ players, including Nurkic, Aminu, and Harkless, have struggled with inconsistency all season long. But as they took on the Rockets, all three were the ones keeping Portland in it when Lillard and McCollum struggled. I had my doubts about the Blazers perhaps longer than most, but even in defeat Portland’s showing against Houston makes them look like a solid favorite in any first round playoff series they draw, and not just because of seeding.

Houston beat the Blazers, 115-111.

Let’s do this again sometime soon. Say, in mid-May?

It’ll make sense when you watch it: Steven Adams uses Al Horford to scratch his head

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Look, Steven Adams is a weird guy. He’s always answering questions with weird, unrelated scientific terms or calling former teammates “dicks” with a smirk on his face. Adams has a subtle and fun personality.

This? This isn’t so subtle.

As the Boston Celtics took on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, it was time for a regular old free throw. The kind that happens all the time during NBA games. But Adams, apparently bored with how they usually go, wanted to mix up his routine on the lane line for this one.

That’s when he apparently decided to use Al Horford‘s right forearm as a means to scratch his own head.

Just … just watch the video:


I don’t know either.

Meanwhile, Marcus Morris beat the Thunder with 1.8 seconds to go. Oof.