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

Charlotte awarded 2019 NBA All-Star Game

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This isn’t a surprise.

Disappointing by the NBA, but not a surprise.

A month after the NBA Board of Governors cleared the way for the NBA’s showcase All-Star Game to return to Charlotte — saying the steps the state took to reverse the controversial “bathroom bill” that cost the state the 2017 game were enough — the NBA has awarded the 2019 game to Charlotte.

“For three decades, the NBA has had a home in Charlotte. Generations of families have attended games there, and fans from many different walks of life have come together to share a passion for a team that is an anchor in the community,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “We have decided to award NBA All-Star 2019 to Charlotte based on this deep connection and the belief that we can honor our shared values of equality and inclusion, and we are excited to bring the All-Star Game back to Charlotte for the first time in 28 years.

“While we understand the concerns of those who say the repeal of HB2 did not go far enough, we believe the recent legislation eliminates the most egregious aspects of the prior law. Additionally, it allows us to work with the leadership of the Hornets organization to apply a set of equality principles to ensure that every All-Star event will proceed with open access and anti-discrimination policies. All venues, hotels and businesses we work with during All-Star will adhere to these policies as well.”

“We are thrilled the league has awarded NBA All-Star 2019 to the city of Charlotte,” Hornets primary owner Michael Jordan said. “All-Star Weekend is an international event that will provide a tremendous economic impact to our community while showcasing our city, our franchise and our passionate Hornets fan base to people around the world.”

The weekend of events will take place Friday through Sunday, Feb. 15-17, 2019, mostly at The Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. (The 2018 All-Star Game is in Los Angeles.)

All the controversy was due to the discriminatory bill HB2, commonly called “the bathroom law,” which was passed by the North Carolina legislature in 2016. The law restricted transgender bathroom use (you had to use the bathroom for the gender with which you were born) and preempted anti-discrimination ordinances put in by Charlotte and other North Carolina cities that tried to block discrimination against gays and lesbians. The NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from the city, one of a number of events that pulled, or businesses that reduced their footprint in the state due to the bill, ultimately costing North Carolina $3.76 billion in economic impact, according to an Associated Press report.

The repeal of the law was not complete, some LBGT restrictions remained in place, such as a ban on cities (such as Charlotte) passing any nondiscrimination ordinances covering sexual orientation until 2020. Gay-rights advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union, and mayors from multiple other cities (which did not lift their government business travel bans to the state) said the compromise repeal did not go far enough. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who was elected in part due to this issue, said this compromise repeal was the best that the legislature would approve.

This was not enough of a repeal. The NBA returning the All-Star Game to Charlotte is the moral and economic equivalent of liking a post on Facebook complaining about Chick-fil-A’s history of anti-LGBT donations and activism, then going and eating at the restaurant.

But the NBA is a business and it wants to make that fan base happy. No doubt Jordan and his ownership group have brought stability to the franchise and worked hard to rebuild an NBA market that the previous owner had completely destroyed (ending with George Shin moving his team to New Orleans, if it wasn’t for Donald Sterling Shin would be seen as maybe the worst NBA owner of the past couple decades).

So the 2019 game is headed to Buzz City.

Pau Gasol on Warriors: “In all my years in the league, they’re playing at the highest level right now”

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Pau Gasol has two rings from playing alongside Kobe Bryant on a Phil Jackson coached team in Los Angeles. He knows what elite basketball looks like.

And he’s very impressed with the Golden State Warriors.

Via Courtney Cronin of the San Jose Mercury News.

“They’re in a groove,” Gasol said. “They know what it takes to win and obviously they’ve been champions, they’ve established records that have never been set before and they’re on a path to get another championship. In all my years in the league, they’re playing at the highest level right now.”

This kind of praise was heaped on the Warriors last year, but Cleveland was able to come from 3-1 down in the Finals. Cleveland is an excellent team led by the best player on the planet.

Still, this year feels different. As Boston has shown in recent games, Cleveland’s help defense can be exposed with good ball and player movement. And even if the Cavaliers can again slow down Stephen Curry, this year there is Kevin Durant, too.

Danny Green was one who thinks the Cavaliers have a chance.

“They’re a great team, but Cleveland’s a great team, too,” Spurs forward Danny Green said. “Cleveland’s done it before. Do I think they can do it again? It’s possible. I wouldn’t say anything’s impossible. It’s a really good team and they have pretty good chances if they stay healthy and keep rolling like they are to win again.”

Kyrie Irving rubs salt in wound, gets 42nd point with behind-the-back ball fake (VIDEO)

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Kyrie Irving was awesome Tuesday night.

Unless you are a Boston Celtics fan, in which case it was hard to watch him carve up and embarrass your team for a career-best 42 points. He did a lot of that damage after rolling his ankle.

Particularly embarrassing was the final play of the game, when he drove past Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, then went with the behind-the-back ball fake that burned Jae Crowder and opened up a lane for an uncontested layup.

Check out Irving’s entire night here.

Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma reportedly rising up draft boards

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Kuzma wasn’t sure how things would play out when he announced plans in late March to test the NBA draft. The Utah Utes junior forward was well aware of the doubters and didn’t immediately hire an agent to keep open the option to return for his senior year.

A month later, Kuzma has hired an agent and is rising up the pre-draft rankings after a superb NBA combine and strong individual workouts. He’s considered an early to mid second round pick.

“I just got more confident, I’m not going to lie, throughout the whole process,” Kuzma said Tuesday. “Working out every day with the NBA ball and just imagining yourself down the road. Once I declared with an agent prior to the combine, people’s ears raised up. But I just knew it in my heart it was the right decision for me. Everything’s really falling in line right now. It’s looking good.”

The Flint, Michigan, native had a pre-draft workout with the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and continued to show evaluators an ability to shoot the ball from NBA 3-point range. Kuzma was named first-team All-Pac-12 after a 2016-17 season during which he averaged 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 223-pounder has a versatile game that allows him to handle the ball on the perimeter as a playmaker with good size, but he shot just 32.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Kuzma turned heads with 20 points and four-for-five shooting on 3-pointers in his lone 5-on-5 scrimmage at the combine.

“I changed my jump shot up a little bit,” Kuzma said. “Being more fluid and more comfortable shooting the ball from the NBA 3. I feel like I’m more comfortable shooting from that 3 than from college 3 right now. A lot of people were surprised, but I really wasn’t. I put a lot of work into my game every single day.”

Kuzma had another quality workout Tuesday, according to Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin, and continued to shoot the ball well. Perrin said Kuzma was by far the best player at the six-man workout and that he wished he could have brought Kuzma in to face a more talented group.

The versatility of Kuzma’s game is a positive even though he falls into a tweener category – a little slight to be a true power forward and not quite quick enough to be a pure small forward. That may not matter in today’s NBA.

“We’re going more and more toward positionless players,” Perrin said. “You look at Golden State … they don’t have guys that play certain positions. They have the best players on their team playing. … We’ve gone to nobody posting up, basically, to everybody being able to put the ball on the floor and create shots on the perimeter, penetrate and kick to guys wide open in the corner for threes.

“The guys on the floor have to be able to guard their so-called position. And I think we’re looking more and more at that in terms of he can have an advantage on offense, but where is his disadvantage or advantage defensively?”

The Utes were well represented at the workout with forward David Collette joining the group.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder hasn’t hired an agent and is expected to return to school. Perrin couldn’t discuss Collette because of that, and he couldn’t talk to the media, but Kuzma said the rising senior showed off a newly refined midrange jump shot. The Utes will rely heavily on Collette as the lone returning starter, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.

Utah will lose its best player to the NBA draft for a third consecutive season as Kuzma follows Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. The process has kept Kuzma smiling as he met childhood idol Magic Johnson, watched his stock rise and is on the verge of playing basketball for a living.

“I feel like you’ve got to be two feet in with everything you do,” Kuzma said. “I definitely looked at the pros and cons, but my heart was in getting to this level and trying to prove people wrong again like I’ve done my entire life.”