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Three Things to Know: James Harden out weeks, Rockets’ Chris Paul’s now

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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) James Harden out for a few weeks with a hamstring strain, Rocket now become Chris Paul’s team.
When reports started to come out of the Rockets’ locker room New Year’s Eve that James Harden was limping around with his hamstring injury, you knew it was bad. Houston announced Harden has a Grade 2 hamstring strain (which means a partial tear of the muscle), and while he will be re-evaluated in two weeks the reality is he is likely out a month or so (based on history with this injury). Hamstring injuries are not ones where it’s just matter of playing through the pain, the muscle needs to be allowed to heal completely or it is very easy to re-injure.

It’s a blow because Harden has been playing at an MVP level this season — 32.3 points per game, 9.1 assists, and shooting 39 percent from three (Harden’s injury appears to put LeBron James in the MVP lead at the halfway point of the season). The Rockets have been the second-best team in the NBA this season, and it’s because of Harden (and an improved defense).

Houston is Chris Paul’s team now — and the Rocket offense has been 7.9 points per 100 possessions better with CP3 on the court this season. However, most of Paul’s minutes are with Harden on the court too, no lineup has played more than 22 minutes with Paul but without Harden (via NBA.com). Houston’s defense, which has slipped of late (26th in the NBA over the last 10 games allowing 110.9 points per 100 possessions) needs to be rejuvenated fast. The Houston offense should be fine when CP3 is on the court running the show, but Mike D’Antoni does not like to go deep into his bench and now needs to. He’s going to have to stagger Paul and Eric Gordon to keep more playmaking on the floor at all times, and guys such as Bobby Brown or just acquired Gerald Green are going to need to get run then step up.

Elite teams survive injuries, and the Rockets are an elite team, but they are going to take a step back without Harden, no doubt. Also, this Thursday’s showdown with Golden State lost a little luster.

2) DeMar DeRozan is a beast, drops Raptors-record 52 on Bucks. DeMar DeRozan still takes a lot of midrange jumpers — 61 percent of his shot attempts this season — but that number is down (from 71 percent last season) and he has replaced those with more threes and more shots at the rim.

We saw that in action Monday night when DeRozan dropped 52 on the Bucks — he was 5-of-9 from three, plus he attacked the rim more and shot 6-of-7 inside the restricted area (plus got to the line six times).

This game also showed why Toronto can be a threat to Boston and Cleveland in the playoffs because of the shifts in their offense. DeRozan had 21 points in the first quarter, so the Bucks adjusted their defense to focus on him, and that’s when he switched into a playmaker mode and set up teammates. He was moving the ball, and the Raptors kept on scoring. Combine that with an improved defense this season and this may be the best Raptors team we have seen in this recent run. They are a real threat to make the conference finals.

3) C.J. McCollum takes over the second half, leads Trail Blazers past the Bulls with 32 points. With Damian Lillard out injured (he is expected to return Tuesday in Cleveland) it has been the McCollum show for the Blazers.

Monday night he had 25 of his points after halftime, and he scored Portland’s final six points in overtime, to help his team steal a win from a hot Bulls team. He got some help, Al-Farouq Aminu had a couple of key threes late in regulation, but it was a big night from McCollum that got Portland a quality road win.

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.

Reports: Jazz might trade Rodney Hood before deadline

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Rodney Hood has been a solid shooter for the Jazz this season, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from three. Of course, you remember him better for this.

Hood is in the final year of his rookie contract, and with the rise of Donovan Mitchell it’s not exactly clear what Hood’s role would be for the Jazz going forward.

Which means Utah might trade Hood, according to multiple reports.

Hood isn’t going to net much in return because he’s in the final year of a contract and because he misses time with nagging injuries (he was out the end of Friday’s game against the Knicks with a lower leg contusion), but considering the number of teams who could use another shooter in the mix there will be interest. More than the big name deals — Kemba Walker, DeAndre Jordan — this is the kind of trade likely to get done at the deadline.