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Three Things to Know: Rockets destroying everybody, Lakers latest victims

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LOS ANGELES — 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. This edition comes live from Staples Center, which is where we will start.

1) Houston is destroying everything in its path right now. Sunday that was the Lakers. The Houston Rockets are the best team in the NBA as you read this. They have won seven games in a row by an average of 21.6 points per game. They are not just beating teams, they are crushing them with good defense —best in the NBA the last seven, allowing less than a point per possession — and an offense that overwhelms.

“We’ve just got too many great offensive players and sooner or later we’ll get a big lead because they will hit three or four in a row,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said after the latest Rocket win, 116-95 over the Lakers.

The Rockets came out cold in Staples Center Sunday night, shooting 3-of-11 to open the game and 3-of-11 from three in the first quarter. Then Eric Gordon came in — he started going at the mismatches created by the Lakers switching defense and ended up with 20 first half points on 12 shots. The Laker guards could not stay in front of him. Soon James Harden followed suit and he had 20 first half points on 10 shots.

“Just try to get the best shot available, if there’s a mismatch try to exploit the mismatch,” Harden said. “Take the shot and get a really good shot.”

The Rockets got a lot of good shots on the way to a comfortable, if not always pretty, win. Harden finished the night with 36 points and nine assists. Chris Paul had 21 points, Eric Gordon 22 off the bench (he will be the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year if CP3 stays healthy and Gordon keeps coming off the bench, he started 13 games with Paul out).

While the starters with the Rockets are good, where they pulled away from the Lakers — and they do it to many teams — is when the bench comes in. D’Antoni staggers Paul and Harden so one of them is always on the court, and with defenses focused on those playmakers things are a little easier for Gordon to find space — he attacked mismatches and got to the rim all night against Los Angeles. Also in that second unit is P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, who bring some defensive heft to the rotation few teams can match.

This is a veteran Rockets’ team that says all the right things (Harden was asked about being the early leader to win MVP and he said his goal this season is a ring), and a veteran coach that doesn’t overwork the guys in practice but expects them to bring it come game time. That’s how they keep this streak going.

“Main thing I told them is we have to fight not having energy, there were a couple of guys tonight I thought were low on the energy scale. We have to fight that,” D’Antoni said. He added that they have to not let the little things — a referee’s call they don’t like, a few missed shots — drag them down and stay focused on the bigger picture.

The veteran Rockets are policing themselves on this front.

“If you’re slacking, we let you know,” Trevor Ariza said. “That’s how it is, when we see somebody is not giving the effort they normally give, I’ll yell ‘let’s go’ and it usually works, because everybody knows it’s coming from a good place.”

Everything with the Rockets is coming from a good place right now. I don’t know anyone sane ready to pick them over the Warriors in a seven game series in late May, however, right now the Warriors are coasting through the season and the Rockets are playing harder to forge their identity. Right now, the Rockets are the best team in the NBA.

2) Thunder beat the Spurs. Sure, no Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge or Tony Parker, but OKC will take it. Russell Westbrook had a triple-double and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat a top five team in San Antonio. This is just what they expected before the season, right?

Not exactly. This was a very shorthanded Spurs team — Kawhi Leonard is still rehabbing, and Gregg Popovich rested LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker. The Thunder didn’t score in the final 3:34. (The Spurs didn’t score in the final 1:59 — this wasn’t the prettiest game ever.) Carmelo Anthony had nine points on 10 shots, and Paul George was 2-of-17 from the floor. OKC as a team were missing open looks all night long.

Doesn’t matter, OKC will take the win and not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Russell Westbrook had 22 points,10 rebounds, and 10 assists for his seventh triple-double of the season.

The Thunder needed that and the win, they will take it however it comes.

3) Jimmy Butler takes over late, scores 20 in the fourth quarter to secure Timberwolves win. Once again Minnesota played down to the level of its competition. Once again Minnesota’s defense was unimpressive (they are 23rd in the league and not improving).

But more and more this is becoming Jimmy Butler’s team and when they needed him he took over in the fourth quarter Sunday, scoring 20 points in the final 7:08 to get the Timberwolves the win. Butler was doing it with hustle plays and attacking the rim. It worked.

Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis still not talking off court

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The Bulls are 5-0 since Nikola Mirotic returned from an injury suffered when Bobby Portis punched him in the face during a preseason practice. Mirotic and Portis are both excelling individually, and Chicago has outscored opponents by a whopping 34.3 points per 100 possessions when those two share the court.

Jack Maloney of CBSSports.com:

When asked if the two former combatants have spoken yet, Mirotic said, “We did on the floor. We’ve always spoken because we need to have good communication.” As for whether they’ve talked off the floor, however, Mirotic was succinct in his response: “No.”

I guess Mirotic hasn’t completely moved on, though he said he did. But that’s fine. How could someone get past a teammate punching him in the face?

Importantly, this is becoming just a regular NBA problem. The extent of that practice punch was practically unprecedented. But plenty of players have loathed teammates while making it work on the court. That happens more than people realize.

Mirotic and Portis can make this their status quo – at least the on-court cooperation. I’m not convinced Chicago will keep winning like this.

Watch Kobe Bryant’s ‘Dear Basketball’ short film (video)

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Kobe Bryant announced his retirement in a letter called “Dear Basketball,” which was made into a short film.

Now, on the day the Lakers retire his Nos. 8 and 24, you can watch it. It’s quite beautiful:

Double number retirement fitting for Kobe Bryant

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Kobe Bryant’s career truly occurred in two acts.

He was Shaquille O’Neal’s super sidekick for three championships. Then, Kobe led the Lakers to another two titles himself after Shaq departed.

He was an athletic, high-flying slam-dunk-contest champion. Then, he became known for his cerebral play and footwork.

He faced trial for rape in Colorado (the case was ultimately dismissed, and he settled civilly), blame for Shaq getting traded and criticism for being too selfish when the Lakers struggled in the aftermath of Shaq’s departure. Then, Kobe – still beloved by his fans – again became a socially acceptable marketing force.

His 2007 trade request serves as the more accurate intermission point, but his 2006 jersey change from No. 8 to No. 24 works well enough. He had a Hall of Fame career in No. 8 then a borderline Hall of Fame career in No. 24. Think Tracy Mcgrady’s career followed by Bernard King’s – but it was just Kobe followed by Kobe and with far more postseason success.

Here are the win-share leaders with a single franchise during Kobe’s career:

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So much about Kobe is excessive – his accolades, his shot selection, his reputation as clutch. He had an all-time great career, but the myth outpaces reality.

Yet, Kobe becoming the first player with two numbers retired by the same team – which the Lakers will do at halftime tonight – feels incredibly appropriate. In his 20-year career with the Lakers, Kobe had time to succeed then succeed again in an extravagant way only he could manage.

He was dedicated and disciplined, flashy and fastidious, No. 8 and No. 24

Warriors will watch Kobe Bryant’s numbers get retired, Lakers might not

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The Lakers will retire Kobe Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 at halftime of their game against Warriors tonight.

The road team won’t miss it. The home team might.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr, via Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“I want our guys to see it,” Kerr said Saturday. “It’ll be a pretty cool moment.

“Just to experience of one of the greatest players in the history of the game getting his jersey retired and we happen to be there? I’m not going to keep them in the locker room watching tape from the first half. The players would look at me like I was nuts.”

Lakers coach Luke Walton, via Harrison Faigen of Lakers Nation:

“I hadn’t thought much about [watching the ceremony],” Walton said Sunday. “We’re still deciding how we’ll approach halftime.

“Our first priority is still the job that we have. I’m sure there’s going to be some halftime adjustments we need to make against the Warriors. We’re toying with a couple different ideas to let guys at least see part of it.”

Kerr seems like a pretty cool guy, someone who understands what truly matters. This will be a historic moment, and that can take priority over watching video for one night in a long season.

But he also has the luxury of coaching an all-time great team. Even with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia and Shaun Livingston injured, the Warriors are favored.

Walton has a young team that needs every break it can get. But he too should embrace the significance of the ceremony. His franchise is.

After reportedly initially being scheduled for pregame, the ceremony will occur at halftime. The NBA implemented a hard 15-minute limit on halftimes this season. Any team not ready will be assessed a delay-of-game penalty. So, lengthy speeches tonight could hinder the current team on the court. And that’s well worth the cost of doing business.

In the same regard, current Lakers watching Kobe’s ceremony would gain pride in being a Laker. There’s real value in that, probably more than in going over adjustments for a December game during a season very likely to end outside the playoffs regardless.