Associated Press

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


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.

LeBron James’ triple-double lifts Cavaliers past Bucks

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 40 points as part of his third triple-double in four games and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 on Monday night as coach Tyronn Lue began his leave of absence to address health issues.

Lue said Monday in a statement he been dealing with chest pains and loss of sleep, and that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is. Associate head coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue’s absence.

James scored 17 points in the third quarter and finished with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his 16th triple-double this season and 71st of his career.

The four-time MVP took over in the third beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers. After not getting a foul called on a third attempt, he finished Cleveland’s next possession with a massive dunk. He was fouled attempting another dunk and made both free throws the following time down.

Milwaukee cut a 17-point lead to 117-109, but James drove the length of the floor for a dunk with just over a minute left.

Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love returned after missing six weeks because of a broken left hand and scored 18 points in 25 minutes. He sparked a 10-0 run in the second quarter with two 3-pointers

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and went 11 for 11 at the foul line for Milwaukee, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton had 30 points, making 11 of 16 from the field.

Milwaukee guard Jason Terry was given a Flagrant-1 foul for hitting Ante Zizic in the face with an open hand while the rookie center was putting up a shot in the lane. Zizic made both free throws, helping spark a run that built a double-figure lead.

Lue, 40, led Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season.

The Cavaliers (41-29) are third in the Eastern Conference and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.

No timetable has been given for when Lue will return. He missed the second half Saturday, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn’t feeling well. Lue also sat out a game against Chicago at home in December.


Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson has another surgery, will miss entire season now

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Pelicans say rookie guard Frank Jackson won’t make his NBA debut this season after having follow-up surgery to remove residual scar tissue from earlier right foot operations.

The Pelicans say Jackson also received an injection in his foot.

The club says a specialist in New York handled Jackson’s latest procedure.

The Pelicans acquired the 6-foot-4 Jackson through a draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected the former Duke player with the first pick of the second round last summer.

Following the draft, the Pelicans signed Jackson to a three-year contract at the NBA minimum with two years guaranteed, but Jackson needed a second foot surgery last summer to address a setback following his initial surgery last May.

Jackson spent one season at Duke, averaging 10.9 points.


Giannis Antetokounmpo turns bad pass into ridiculous alley-oop (VIDEO)

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That is just not fair.

Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe threw an alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that was off the mark — high and behind him — but it just doesn’t matter. The Greek Freak gets up and throws it down.

It’s early, but it’s going to be hard to beat that one for dunk of the night.

League’s Last Two Minute Report backs referees (mostly) in Raptors/Thunder game

Associated Press

Anyone who watched the Thunder’s win over the Raptors Sunday afternoon in Toronto — especially the final few minutes — thought it was not referee Marc Davis and crew’s finest hour. There were missed calls and three-straight ejections of Raptors players, which all seemed rather hair-trigger (especially coach Dwane Casey, who was tossed for something a fan behind him said).

The NBA’s Last Two Minute report doesn’t see it that way — it says the referees nailed it.

According to the report, there was only one missed call in the final two minutes: Carmelo Anthony held Pascal Siakam as a pass came to him with 11.7 seconds left, and that should have been called.

What about the play that set DeMar DeRozan off and ultimately got him ejected, the drive to the basket with 33 seconds left (and the Raptors down two) where DeRozan thought Corey Brewer fouled him? The report said that was a good no call:

DeRozan (TOR) starts his drive and Brewer (OKC) moves laterally in his path and there is contact. The contact is incidental as both players attempt to perform normal basketball moves….

RHH shows Brewer (OKC) make contact with the ball and the part of DeRozan’s (TOR) hand that is on the ball. The hand is considered “part of the ball” when it is in contact with the ball and therefore, contact on that part of the hand by a defender while it is in contact with the ball is not illegal.

(I didn’t see it that way, I think the contact was more than incidental, and to me looking at the replay Brewer catches some wrist and impedes the shot in a way that was not legal. Just my two cents.)

The report does not cover the ejections, which are reviewed by league operations but not part of this report.

Three thoughts out of all this:

1) Raptors fans/management/players have every right to feel the calls went against them in this game. As for calls always going against them — as DeRozan complained about after the game — 29 other teams and fan bases are convinced the officials have it out for them, too. I never bought that.

2) The Raptors didn’t lose this game solely because of the officiating. Russell Westbrook was clutch down the stretch, the Thunder were part of it, and the Raptors had other issues, too (Serge Ibaka had a rough game, for example).

3) This loss also does not say a thing about the Raptors in the postseason (even if they went a little too much isolation at the end) — this was their third game in four days, they looked tired and flat at the end. That will not be the case in the playoffs.