Kurt Helin

Associated Press

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.

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley: “I know that we wouldn’t be in this position if I was playing”

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Mike Conley, Memphis’ borderline All-Star point guard, has been sidelined since mid-November with a sore Achilles. Without him, Memphis has lost nine in a row, their losing streak reaching 11 total. On the season, Memphis is 0-10 when Conely sits.

During this latest streak, the Grizzlies fired coach David Fizdale in what GM Chris Wallace said was an effort to salvage the season. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal sat down for a Q&A with Conley and asked him about having to sit out and watch the franchise lose and make another coaching change.

It’s been stressful because it’s literally all out of my hands. I can’t control anything. I can’t be on the court to help. I can’t be there to console guys. It’s very hard to sit and watch because I know that we wouldn’t be in this position if I was playing. That’s why I feel some kind of accountability for this whole thing. It’s definitely hard on me. I know that we’re not the team we’ve been over the last couple of weeks. I know when I get back, we’ll be a completely different team.

Conley wasn’t fully healthy and not himself to start the season, averaging 17.1 points per game but on 38 percent shooting. Even with him slowed, the Grizzlies are four points per 100 possessions better when he plays, and that still sells short his ability as a floor general and defender to make the Grizzlies work. This is a team ideally built around two top 25 players in Conley and Marc Gasol, with solid role players around them (how accurate that perception is we can debate, but it’s apparently what GM Wallace believes). Take one of the stars away and this team is not the same.

So when will he return? Probably a couple of weeks.

After this last incident, they (the doctors) told me the Achilles can heal fully. I just have to give it time to heal. As we know, I rush things a lot and when I come back I won’t say anything about it but I might be feeling it. I might withhold that from the trainers to try and get on the court. I’ve done that over the years. Right now, I’m trying to do the smart thing, which is frustrating. But I knew I wasn’t helping the team with the way I was playing.

Maybe he wasn’t helping him the way he is used to, but this team needs him on the court to have any chance of salvaging the season.

Nuggets Jamal Murray taunts, dribbles around Lonzo Ball, sparks controversy

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Jamal Murray had a big night. He was attacking the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball‘s defense from the opening tip — the two had a couple of trash-talking exchanges — and Murray finished the game with 28 points including five threes, helping spark a late 15-0 run as the Nuggets beat the Lakers in Denver.

Then, with time running down and up 13, rather than do the traditional close out of the game and just dribble it out, Murray broke the unwritten rule, decided to taunt Ball one last time and dribbled around him.

Lonzo didn’t seem to care, but a couple of teammates did and quickly fouled Murray. After the game Murray admitted, “I may have taken it too far. It was a bad play by me,” but that wasn’t going to stop the hate from Lakers fans who don’t like to see the “savior of the franchise” (at least that’s how he was hyped) clowned.

Was what Murray did the mature, classy thing to do? No. Obviously.

But I have two other thoughts.

First, Ball had talked his share of smack during the game, and if you’re going to dish it…

Second, if you don’t want to get clowned, play better. This is not U6 AYSO soccer where everybody gets a trophy, this is the highest level of the sport. Ball had a triple-double the first time these teams played, Murray came out fired up this time around. That’s hoops. If you want to stop somebody from taunting/clowning you, then stop them. Otherwise, it’s fair game.

Joel Embiid’s strong start to season could mean extra $5 million a year

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Not long ago, Joel Embiid and the Sixers agreed to a max contract extension — five years, $146 million. The Sixers are betting on Embiid staying healthy because when he is there is no doubt he is a max player.

In fact, Embiid has been so good to start the season — 22.9 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, plus being one of the best defensive big men in the league — he stands a chance of making an additional $5 million a year by being named First Team All-NBA. It’s called the Derrick Rose rule. The fantastic Bobby Marks of ESPN explains (insider, behind the paywall).

Signed to a five-year $146 million extension, Embiid’s total compensation will increase to $178 million if he earns first-team All-NBA honors or is named Most Valuable Player this season. While the MVP is unlikely, Embiid could have an outside shot at first-team All-NBA based on his strong early-season play and the injury to Rudy Gobert. Unlike the All-Star selection process, in which the voting is split into backcourt and frontcourt, All-NBA is designated by position. Anthony Davis, named first-team All-NBA last season, should receive votes at power forward with DeMarcus Cousins now entrenched at center. Cousins — on pace for a career season statistically — is the biggest challenger to Embiid for the spot.

While a lot of people perceived Davis as a power forward last season, he played 64 percent of his minutes at center, so a lot of voters — myself included — treated him as a center for All-NBA. This season he has played center just 29 percent of the time, he will be a forward in voting. Rudy Gobert was on the second team, he’s been injured. DeAndre Jordan was on the third team, but his impact has been muted some this season (he misses Chris Paul feeding him the rock).

All that opens up three center spots on the All-NBA team, and it’s early but as of now there are four contenders: Embiid, Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins, and Andre Drummond. Maybe five if you want to squeeze LaMarcus Aldridge in as a center (he has almost evenly split time between power forward and center this season). About 20 games into the season is far too early to predict who gets what spot, Cousins probably would be in front, meaning Embiid is a bit of a longer shot, but it certainly could happen.

If Embiid does earn First Team and the raise, it eats into the salary cap space the Sixers have next summer and makes it harder to chase elite free agents, for example, LeBron James.

Reports hint Cleveland could announce Derrick Rose’s return to team Sunday

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For the past week, Derrick Rose has been away from the Cleveland Cavaliers taking stock of his basketball career and deciding if he wants to keep pushing through injuries. Even LeBron James‘ presence hasn’t been enough to boost Rose back to anywhere near his former self, and Rose reportedly weary of all the injury rehab he has had to go through (it’s a sprained ankle right now that has him out), but there are 80 million or so reasons most people expected him to return to the Cavaliers.

This much we know: There should be an update Sunday.

What kind of news? Probably that he is going to return to the team, according to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Cavaliers and estranged point guard Derrick Rose have engaged in “positive” communication and he could be nearing a return to the team.

Both coach Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman said Saturday that the team had spoken to Rose, who left the day before Thanksgiving to consider his basketball future.

But Lue directed all questions to Altman, who said there’d be more information Sunday. Altman declined to confirm Rose’s imminent return, but Lue has said since Rose left that he’d be back.

All this points to a Rose return, although nothing is certain. Rose is never easy to predict, but his return was always likely.