James Harden’s great season for Rockets ends in embarrassing loss

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden went up for a 3-pointer, changed his mind and tossed the ball between two teammates.

He drove for a layup before inexplicably throwing the ball into a sea of San Antonio Spurs.

After putting together an MVP-caliber year, the indelible images of Harden and the Houston Rockets will be the lowlights from a 39-point loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals to a San Antonio team playing without Kawhi Leonard and starting point guard Tony Parker.

And those images will linger for some time.

Harden, who didn’t even attempt a shot until midway through the second quarter, was 2 of 11 and finished with 10 points to tie a season low as the Rockets were embarrassed on their home court on Thursday night to end their season with a thud.

“I feel so sorry for him because he’s had an unbelievable – he’s had an historic year,” coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Most people outside the organization aren’t feeling sorry for the point guard, and were left scratching their heads at how such an elite player could perform so poorly in a game that mattered so much.

Harden wasn’t available on Friday, but took blame for the loss after the game. However, he had no answers as to what went so terribly wrong on Thursday night.

“It’s frustrating definitely,” he said. “Especially the way we were resilient all year long, fought through adversity. We’ve been really good at bouncing back … it hurts. It stings. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get better and we will.”

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 and the third best record in the NBA a year after the Rockets squeaked into the playoffs an eighth seed. He had 22 triple-doubles in the regular season 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.

He displayed flashes of brilliance in the playoffs to be sure, but couldn’t deliver when the Rockets needed it most. Houston had a chance to tie Game 5 as overtime expired, but Harden’s shot was blocked from behind by Manu Ginobili.

The Spurs carried that momentum into Game 6 in Houston, and Harden didn’t respond. He was out of sorts from the start and the Rockets were all but out of the game by halftime.

Despite the uninspiring performance, general manager Daryl Morey said that Harden’s struggles on Thursday night shouldn’t negate what he accomplished this season.

“Obviously he had a tough game, but to me it’s a joke to get on him because we’re not where we are … without James,” Morey said. “The guy that’s hardest on James is James. Everyone’s disappointed, but he’s No. 1.”

A day after the game D’Antoni still didn’t have a clear explanation for the collapse. He still seemed stunned by what transpired and used the word “shell-shocked” three separate times on Friday. D’Antoni, who helped Houston to a 14-game improvement in his first season, believes the Rockets might have been worn down by dealing with a team that lacks a clear weakness to exploit.

“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s almost like mentally it just zapped us,” he said. “I think over the long haul when we didn’t win Game 5 we came back and we were just mentally at zero.”

For D’Antoni, being ousted by coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs is nothing new. D’Antoni is 0-5 in playoff series against the Spurs, with Popovich eliminating his Suns teams in 2005, 2007, 2008 and the Lakers in 2013 before this season’s loss.

“That’s the mountain we’ve got to climb,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think I’m the only team that’s lost to them. They’ve beaten everybody … but yeah, it hurts.”

The Rockets obviously need to improve in order to compete with the elite teams in the West, and D’Antoni had a few ideas about what needs to happen.

“We need to get better as a group,” he said. “We need to get better defensively. We need to add layers to the offense where it takes some of the load off of James.”

Harden is a leading MVP candidate, and could walk away with the award next month. But even bringing it to Houston for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon won it in 1994 is unlikely remove that terrible taste of how the season ended.

“We’ve got a whole summer … to put it behind us,” Harden said.

After the crushing ending, that might not even be enough time.

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis: “My prediction is John Wall will sign his extension”

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John Wall is one of the handful of NBA players who qualifies for the new designated veteran “super max” contract extension — and the Wizards want to give it to him. A four-year, $170 million extension of his current deal is on the table (it would kick in after the two years, $37 million on his current contract).

Wall has yet to sign it. He said at the time it was offered he wanted to talk about it with his family and see what the Wizards did this offseason. He’s not unhappy, he just wants to be sure before he locks himself in with Washington through his prime.

Washington owner Ted Leonsis told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post he thinks Wall will sign.

Maybe, but there’s not a lot of motivation for Wall to sign right now. Wall can bet on himself that he will make the All-NBA team again next year — there’s a deep class of guards but if he stays healthy he stands a good chance — at which time he’s still eligible for a designated veteran “super max” contract extension that would be five-years, roughly $200 million (and would kick in after the one year on his current deal).

That delay would also keep pressure on the Wizards to find ways to improve the roster. Washington is largely capped out and didn’t make any major moves this summer other than re-signing Otto Porter to a max extension (they matched a Brooklyn offer sheet). Washington is good, likely the third or fourth best team in the East, but a notch below Cleveland and Boston right now. Wall wants to push them to get another star and help Washington move up into contender status — he pushed for the Wizards to chase Paul George and have him replace Porter (a deal that was never going to happen, but you can see what Wall is thinking about being one star player short).

Ultimately, I think Leonsis is right, Wall will sign. It’s just a matter of when. Does he take this deal now, or wait until next summer and do it?

Chicago billboard calls for Bulls to fire Gar Forman, John Paxson

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Gar Forman split Executive of the Year with Pat Riley the same year Riley lured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to the Heat.

Forman’s stock has fallen quite a bit since.

The Bulls general manager – who works with executive vice President of basketball operations John Paxson in a duo (once affectionately) called GarPax – is facing increased scrutiny. The latest: A Chicago billboard organized by Bulls fans and paid for by GoFundMe donators.

GarPax’s recent missteps have been troubling. The breakup with Tom Thibodeau was messy and felt personal, especially with Fred Hoiberg succeeding him. First-round picks – Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott and Marquis Teague – have yielded little dividend. The Jimmy Butler trade was almost unbelievably lousy, even after the Three Alphas plan with Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo fell flat.

But it’s also worth taking a step back. The Bulls have won 59% of their games, made the playoffs seven of eight years and never had a losing season under Forman. This somewhat feels like Chicago fans having unrealistic expectations.

The most important question owners should ask when weighing whether to retain management: Who will best guide the team forward? Prior results should matter only to inform that question.

Based on overall body of work GarPax has a case for staying on the job. The tandem built a 62-win conference finalist around Derrick Rose then saw his injuries sabotage the run. But GarPax has also trended the wrong direction, failing too often (and too often predictably) since Rose declined.

Would the Bulls hire someone who will do better than Forman and Paxson if they fired those two? Maybe, and it’s a discussion worth having. But the answer isn’t as simple as I suspect the people behind this billboard would believe.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks on Otto Porter: ‘He’s a max person in my mind’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Otto Porter is a quiet, complementary piece to the Wizards’ talented young core. He is also now Washington’s highest-paid player.

At least temporarily.

Guards John Wall and Bradley Beal garner most of the attention as Washington has made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs three of the last four seasons. But for now, Porter makes the most money after the Wizards matched a four-year, $106.5 million max-contract offer sheet the forward signed with the Brooklyn Nets.

There might be questions if the 24-year-old Porter is worth that money. But the Wizards believe he is a good fit alongside Wall, 26, a four-time All-Star, and Beal, 24, one of the league’s top shooting guards.

“You just use that as motivation just like John and Brad did,” Porter said at a news conference Wednesday. “They set the bar high. I’m going to set my bar, high, too.”

Porter entered this offseason as a restricted free agent, and when agent David Falk couldn’t agree to terms with Washington on July 1, he chose to shop his client’s services. The Sacramento Kings showed interest, but the Nets were the most serious and made a run at Porter.

“They felt like they wanted to test the market to see if there was something more out there, and they did,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. “But it wasn’t a big decision because all along we said we wanted to keep our young core together.”

It probably won’t be long before Wall surpasses Porter as the Wizards highest-paid player. Wall was named third-team All-NBA this past season, and the point guard is eligible to sign a $160 million, four-year super max contract any time before the 2017-18 season begins. Wall will not become an unrestricted free agent until 2019.

Re-signing Porter was a top priority for Washington this summer. The No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft out of Georgetown, Porter had a breakthrough season. He ranked fourth in field goal percentage among small forwards (51.6 percent) and fifth among all NBA players in 3-point percentage (43.4 percent).

Porter’s ability to fit seamlessly with Wall and Beal without needing the ball in his hands is a huge plus, too, according to Grunfeld. At 6-foot-8, Porter’s length also plays a significant role in the Wizards’ defensive concepts. His skillset was so valuable to Washington the Wizards surpassed the NBA’s luxury-tax threshold by matching the offer sheet.

“I never look at Otto and judge him by the stat sheet,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “He does so many little things that the stats don’t show. He dives on the floor for a loose ball, he sets screens. He makes the extra pass to the corner, offensive rebounds.

“You can never have enough high-character guys that are committed to each and that’s what he is,” Brooks said. “He’s a max person in my mind.”

Utah Jazz sign forward Royce O’Neale, first season reportedly guaranteed

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The Utah Jazz signed forward Royce O’Neale on Wednesday.

Sportando:

Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune:

O’Neale gives Utah 16 players on non-two-way contracts, one more than the regular-season limit. Raul Neto is on unguaranteed contract, but he’s a potential rotation player.

A 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing, O’Neale played for Gran Canaria in Spain last season and averaged 8.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists. O’Neale was a member of the New Orleans Pelicans’ Las Vegas Summer League team last week and averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists.

The 24-year-old was undrafted out of Baylor in 2015. He adds wing depth to a Jazz team adjusting to life without Gordon Hayward after he signed with the Boston Celtics in free agency.

The Jazz won 51 games last season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They were swept by the Golden State Warriors after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.