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Three Things to Know: Rockets extend win streak to 10, Thunder… not so much

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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. Here’s a roundup of Monday night’s action you might have missed while paying for a $14,000 Uber ride.

1) Rockets fall behind in a shootout, but come back from 13 down late in the third to extend win streak to 10. This was as good a game as the Pelicans could play without Anthony Davis — they put up 103 points on 58.7 percent shooting and hitting 17 threes. DeMarcus Cousins was a beast in the paint, while Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore couldn’t seem to miss from beyond the arc. Late in the third the Pelicans were up 13, and they were up 10 at the start of the fourth.

It was not enough.

James Harden had 12 points in the fourth (and finished the game with a career-high 17 assists).

Chris Paul added 11 in the fourth, and the Rockets stormed back winning the fourth 37-20 and the game 130-123, extending their win streak to 10 games.

The Rockets are 21-4 and are outscoring teams by 11.4 points per 100 possessions this season — they are the best team in the NBA right now. CP3 and Harden mesh on offense — the Rockets are +7.8 points per 100 when they are on the court together — and Houston surprisingly has the fifth best defense in the NBA this season. None of this is a fluke. This team is playing hard right now, establishing an identity, and establishing themselves as a contender.

Can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a seven-game series? I am not going that far, I think there are things that can be exploited in a series, but we are five months away from the Rockets needing to answer that question. What Houston has shown is it is the team best suited to challenge Golden State — the Rockets can play at pace and thrive, they have multiple elite scoring playmakers (and coach Mike D’Antoni staggers them so one is almost always on the court), they have a switchable defense that can attack the Warriors wings, and they have the right mindset. GM Daryl Morey put together a team to go after the Warriors, and he did it better than anyone. They are a legit threat to the title holders, and the Rockets should only get better as the season moves along.

2) Celtics lose with Kyrie Irving out. Thunder lose because… you tell me? There were a couple of upsets Monday night in the NBA, but only one was easy to excuse.

The lowly Chicago Bulls have not been quite so lowly the past week, winning three straight games, the latest one handily against the Boston Celtics 108-85. Credit best friends Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis (*cough*) who combined for 47 points, plus the improved play of Kris Dunn lately continued as he had a dozen points. We would normally call this a terrible loss for the Celtics, and you can be sure Brad Stevens didn’t like it, but with Kyrie Irving sitting out with a left quad contusion, there is at least a good reason for the off night.

There is no good reason for the Thunder — fully healthy — to lose at home to the Charlotte Hornets 116-103. The Hornets hit 13-of-25 from three, and Dwight Howard outplayed Steven Adams all night on his way to 23 points, Kemba Walker had 19 points and 9 assists, but this is the kind of game the Thunder should win. After a Russell Westbrook highlight slam over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the game was tied 66-66, but then the Hornets went on a 22-2 run. Of late, the Thunder looked like they were turning a corner with three straight wins, but then followed it up losing 2-of-3 now and needing to go to overtime against a shorthanded Grizzlies team to get that one win. Royce Young re-tweeted himself and hit the nail on the head.

There is no one thing wrong with the Thunder, but more and more focus is turning to Carmelo Anthony. Not just his lack of defense or his shooting slump — he had 11 points Monday and is shooting 33 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three his last five games — but the roster depth OKC gave up to get him. Paul George and Russell Westbrook have a grove together (the Thunder are +4.8 per 100 when they are paired) but things slow when Anthony is added to the mix and another star sits while Anthony plays. In ‘Melo’s last five games OKC is -1.8 per 100 with Anthony on the court.

The Thunder still have time, but each day the inconsistent play and losing get more concerning. As George said after the game, “We can say we’re going to figure it out, we can say all that, but at some point it’s got to stop.”

3) Matt Barnes retires. Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

For a lot of fans, mention Barnes and they think of the guy who tried to get in a fight with Derek Fisher. Or the New York nightclub incident with Cousins. Or the guy who was a pest on the court and seemed a magnet for technical fouls and fines from the league office. But Barnes was the kind of guy you wanted coming off the bench on your team and hated to play against — he went hard, he could shoot threes, he defended, and he brought a spark to the game. He was the kind of opponent you hate to go against.

Barnes was a second-round pick out of UCLA who played for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well after Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes was thrust into a larger role (the Warriors went on a 14-game win streak in that time).

While he had a rough exterior, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off for him. He’ll be missed by some of us, but he’s a guy ready for life after basketball.

Report: NBA’s minor league won’t allow potentially eligible college players

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USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy haven’t played this season due to the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky before his freshmen season started to train for the NBA draft.

But they’re all potentially eligible to play college basketball again someday.

So, they can’t play in the NBA’s minor league.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

That ineligibility stems from a rule that prevents players who were enrolled in college during an academic calendar year from being offered a contract in the same season, unless they have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA with no opportunity of being reinstated (as was the case with P.J. Hairston in 2013).

“We’re not looking to compete with college basketball for their players,” a G League source said. “The NBA, specifically NBA lawyers, are concerned about the optics of NCAA players being disgruntled with minutes or coaching decisions and leaving college with the hopes of joining the G League. This is a blanket rule unfortunately that applies to all players. Like all of our rules, we are open to revisiting them if needed, but at the moment any player that was enrolled in a college this season is ineligible to play in our League.”

NBA executives and scouts are griping because they can’t evaluate these prospects in games. I don’t care about that.

This is an affront to capitalism. The basis of our economy should be competition, and the NBA is handing the NCAA – a cartel – a monopoly in this level of basketball. And it’s the workers (players) who lose.

So what if a freshman is disgruntled with his minutes and wants to turn pro during the season? He can’t join the NBA due to the age minimum. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to at least enter the NBA’s minor league, for which he’s old enough? We should trust him to manage his future, not protect the almighty college coach from facing consequences to his rotation.

I don’t know whether or not the NBA and NCAA colluded, but the NBA’s stance is the exact one it would take if it colluded. The NBA has worked to improve the quality of play in its minor league by increasing salary to compete against foreign leagues for players. It’s strange to just willingly take a backseat to college basketball when there’s a great opportunity to compete for top talent.

The players could legally challenge the policy, but they’ll be eligible for the NBA draft in June, and there’s risk in upsetting a potential future employer. And would anything be decided quickly enough in court to matter for the challenging player?

Players like Melton, Bowen, Wiley, Purifoy and Robinson aren’t allowed to let the market set their compensation as college basketball players, because NCAA schools have colluded to cap wages. Those players aren’t allowed to seek employment in the comparable American professional league, because that league doesn’t want to compete with the NBA.

It’s a travesty for capitalism and these workers.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safety

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.