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Three Things to Know: Sorry James Harden, it wasn’t referees that blew 26-point lead

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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.

1) Boston comes from 26 back to beat Houston on Al Horford game-winner — that’s not on the officials. The dynamics of a nationally televised showdown between two of the NBA’s top four teams changed before the game even tipped off — referee Mark Lindsay hurt his back, leaving just two officials — Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis — to work the game. Both teams were frustrated with the officiating all night because of this (Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens picked up a rare technical arguing a call).

Houston thrived in the first half, getting the lead up to more than 20 behind James Harden, who had 17 points on 10 shots before the break. Houston was in command — but the Celtics adapted to the situation. First, they stopped switching the pick-and-roll with Harden and left one of the game’s best and most physical on-ball defenders in Marcus Smart on Harden. It worked, Harden had 17 points in the second half but on 3-of-17 shooting. In the face of better defense, the motion in the Rockets’ offense came to a halt, which led to turnovers and 4-of-17 shooting from three.

Then came the controversial final seconds, when Harden got two offensive foul calls off the ball on Smart, and in between Al Horford hit the game winner.

Harden vented after the game.

Harden was frustrated and has a valid point about two officials in an NBA game.

However, blow a 26-point lead and that’s not on the officiating. Houston got outplayed badly over the final quarter and a half in particular, and the team’s struggles in the face of physical defense is what cost them this game.

As for those two final offensive foul calls, referee Tony Brothers is less than 10 feet away — that had nothing to do with there being two officials, Brothers saw both plays cleanly. Smart was physical, he was denying the ball and grabbing some jersey, but in both cases Harden extended his arm — that is going to get the foul called almost every time. We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says (not that it changes anything).

The Rockets have lost four straight. The team is still on pace to win 64-65 games, the problem is in a West with the Warriors that’s likely the two seed.

2) Bucks dominate Timberwolves in fourth quarter 27-12, get comeback win. This is the story of another Thursday night comeback — Minnesota had a 20-point third quarter lead on Milwaukee,. But that was trimmed to 9 by the start of the fourth, and then the Bucks owned the final frame, 27-12 to get the win.

Erik Bledsoe had 16 second-half points and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a dozen of his 22 after the break, to lead the Bucks to the win.

With point guard Jeff Teague out a few weeks with a sprained knee, Tyus Jones moved into the starting lineup for Minnesota, and in Tom Thibodeau’s traditional fashion he leaned on that starting five for nearly 21 minutes in this game (and it was +15).

On the second night of a back-to-back, no Timberwolves’ starter played fewer than 33 minutes in this one, with Jimmy Butler at 43 minutes. On the season, Andrew Wiggins currently leads the NBA in minutes played, with Karl-Anthony Towns third, Jimmy Butler fourth, and Taj Gibson 13th. I’m not saying all those minutes cost the Timberwolves this particular game, but at some point there are going to be tired legs and weak fourth-quarter performances as guys wear down. Minnesota is on pace to break the longest playoff draught in the NBA, this is an improving young team, but all those miles — especially on young legs — leads to questions about what happens as the season wears on, and as their careers go on. It’s something Minnesota ownership needs to consider.

3) John Wall says against lesser teams Wizards play for stats, not as a unit. Yes, it matters. So far this season, the Washington Wizards are 10-6 when they play teams over .500. However, go against teams under .500 — teams a good Washington squad should beat — and they are 9-10. I’ve seen the Wizards twice this season in person, and both times they were flat and disinterested. Wall explained why talking to Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“We talk about it. We say when we play these teams that are not above .500 or not one of the great teams, we go out there playing for stats,” John Wall said. “It’s simple as that. We can see it. I think we all can see it when we play.”

Washington is good, but not good enough to coast to wins consistently against bad teams. It’s easy to look at this and say “well, when they get to the playoffs the Wizards will take the teams seriously and be just fine.” On paper, Washington should be no worse than the fourth best team in the East.

However, if the playoffs started today, the Wizard would be the six seed — and get the Cavaliers in the first round. Got news for you Washington fans, Cleveland isn’t ducking you, and they are the better team. The Wizards are far from the only team to chase stats, again the Wizards just can’t do that and win while others can.

Washington’s poor play and stat chasing is making their playoff road harder. Maybe the Wizards get it together and climb up to be the four seed in the East, then they still get the No. 1 seed in the second round, and that’s after a tough first round against whoever is the five seed (the athletic and long Bucks, maybe). The Wizards are not building good habits or putting themselves in a position to make it easier to go deeper into the postseason, and that’s why these games matter.

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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