Kurt Helin

PBT Extra: Harden vs. Westbrook, Clippers vs. Jazz highlight Western Conference playoffs

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Old friends are meeting in San Antonio. Damian Lillard is set to put on a futile but entertaining show against Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

However, it’s the other two series that should be interesting in the Western Conference playoffs in the NBA. First, it’s the Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden showdown when the Thunder face the Rockets — a series that will shape the narrative of the MVP race but has no actual impact on the voting.

Then there is Utah vs. the Los Angels Clippers in what should be a very competitive series. The Clippers are playing well but the Jazz have a fantastic defense led by Rudy Gobert, a star on the rise in Gordon Hayward, and if George Hill can give Chris Paul some trouble this series will go down to the wire.

I break it all down in this latest PBT Extra.

By the time MVP announced in June ceremony, playoffs will have changed the narrative


It’s the most anticipated matchup of the first round of the NBA playoffs: Oklahoma City vs. Houston.

Or, more accurately, Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden.

MVP candidate vs. MVP candidate.

Those two have gone back and forth all season, trading monster stat lines and putting up historic numbers, both pushing their teams. It all led to as intense and evenly split MVP debate we have seen in more than a decade, and these two are the frontrunners (although watch Kawhi Leonard is going to get a lot more votes than some people expect).

What happens in this playoff series starting Sunday in Houston will shape the narrative of the MVP debate. If Harden puts up big numbers and the Rockets wipe the Thunder out in five games, The Beard will look like he should run away with the award. If Westbrook puts up four or more triple-doubles in a series that goes seven games, he will look like the MVP when it is done.

And none of it will matter.

That’s because the media voters for the award must have their ballots in by midnight Eastern this Friday. Before this series even tips off.

Also, for the first time the NBA is putting on an awards show, to be broadcast on TNT, where all the league’s end-of-season awards will be handed out in one night. It’s a made for television event similar to what the NFL and NHL have done.

The NBA ceremony is June 26. Two months after the votes were taken.

After the NBA Finals.

After the draft.

When everyone’s minds have turned to free agency, the NBA is going to turn back the clock to the regular season one more time.

As a byproduct of that schedule, by the time the league announces the award winners, the playoffs will have changed how all of us perceive the race.

Fans — and the media members who vote — can’t help but have their perceptions of the season altered by what we all will witness in the playoffs. And not just the Harden vs. Westbrook matchup, it could include Leonard — if he can lead the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals and push (or beat) the Warriors, he will look more and more like the  rightful MVP.

Intellectually voters will be able to say “my vote is a valid one based on the regular season” and they would be right — a vote for Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, or LeBron James is completely justifiable. There is no wrong answer among those four. Today.

But it will feel different by the time we learn who won two months from now.

The league used to roll out its awards over the course of the first round of the playoffs and guys would get the chance to celebrate the awards with their fans. To use the examples of likely winners this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo could receive the Most Improved Player award in front of the Milwaukee fans. Houston fans could celebrate Mike D’Antoni winning Coach of the Year with him.

Not this time — it’s all being packaged for TV.

Which works for the NFL because their awards ceremony falls between the Conference Finals and the Super Bowl — the season just ended one month ago and the interest in the game is near it’s zenith.

But for the NBA, it will all come after the Finals, maybe a couple of weeks after someone hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy (depending on how long it goes). Fans will have turned their focus to if their team can land Blake Griffin or Gordon Hayward or whomever else in free agency for next season, not the long-past regular season anymore.

So remember who you picked for MVP today, because how you may feel in a few weeks may be different — and it will not matter.

James Harden drops triple-double, leads Rockets to win over Wolves (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) — Instead of resting players with their playoff spot already set, the Houston Rockets approached their regular-season finale as a final tuneup for the postseason.

The result was the 22nd triple-double for James Harden and a 123-118 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night.

Harden had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists to help Houston to its 55th victory.

All five of Houston’s regular starters started after coach Mike D’Antoni had given everyone but Harden time off in the last few games in preparation for the team’s first-round playoff series against Oklahoma City.

“I think we played well,” Harden said. “Our effort was there and we finally got everybody on the court tonight so that’s the good thing. And we’ll start Sunday.”

The MVP contender became the first player in NBA history to finish the regular season with at least 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659).

The Rockets had a 12-point lead after a 3-point play by Patrick Beverley with about nine minutes left. Minnesota cut into the lead with a 6-2 spurt before Houston got consecutive 3-pointers from Harden and Eric Gordon to extend the lead to 113-99 midway through the quarter.

Harden, who also had four steals and a block, found Clint Capela on an alley-oop dunk after that, before hitting another 3-pointer to make it 118-99 and spur Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau to call a timeout.

Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 28 points and 21 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who end the season with a six-game losing streak.

Thibodeau said ending the season the way they did is a good benchmark for what they need to do in the offseason.

“It tells us exactly where we are,” he said. “We don’t get fooled into thinking that it’s something that it’s not. It tells us exactly how hard we’re going to have to work to get where we want to go.”

Towns also made NBA history by becoming the only player to have at least 2,000 points (2,061), 1,000 rebounds (1,007) and 100 3-pointers (101) in a season.

Ryan Anderson made six 3-pointers for the Rockets and finished with 20 points and Capela had 22 points and 10 rebounds.

D’Antoni is happy with where Anderson is at in his fourth game back after missing six games with an ankle injury.

“I thought he looked really fresh and lively, and he really came out of the gate quick,” D’Antoni said. “He’s playing really well.”

Four straight points by the Timberwolves cut Houston’s lead to six points with about two minutes left in the third quarter. But Houston scored the lead eight points of the quarter, led by 3-pointers from Lou Williams and Harden, to extend the lead to 95-81 entering the fourth.

A 3-pointer by Towns got the Timberwolves within a point early in the third quarter before Houston used a 10-2 run to push the lead to 76-67 with about nine minutes left in the period. Ryan Anderson made consecutive 3-pointers to start that run and Capela capped it with back-to-back baskets.

The Rockets led by 13 early, but the Timberwolves had tied it at 60 by halftime.


Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins finished with 21 points. … Shabazz Muhammad had 22 points. … Kris Dunn had 10 points with 16 assists.

Rockets: Houston had at least 60 points at halftime for the 39th time this season. … Anderson scored 20 points or more for the 14th time. … Trevor Ariza added 15 points.


Thibodeau on Harden: “Obviously the individual part of it is unbelievable, but it is also what he has done for the team. To lift a team the way he has is an amazing feat. He not only brought out the best out of himself but he brought the best out of the team.”


Houston finished the season with 1,081 3s to break the NBA record for 3-pointers in a season set by Golden State last season. The Rockets made 19 3-pointers on Wednesday to improve to 36-5 this season when making at least 15.


Report: Michigan State’s likely lottery pick Miles Bridges “leaning heavily” toward staying in school

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If Miles Bridges came out in this draft, he would almost certainly go in the lottery. DraftExpress has the 6’6″ forward going 11th right now, and plenty of scouts think that may be too low.

However, it looks like he may be staying in school another year, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo sports.

Barring a late change of heart, Michigan State forward Miles Bridges, a projected lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft, plans to return for his sophomore season, sources told The Vertical.

Despite coach Tom Izzo, family and even Spartans NBA alumni and professional agents encouraging him to leave, Bridges is telling everyone that it’s his intention to bypass the draft, sources told The Vertical.

Nevertheless, Bridges could take through the weekend to finalize his decision, sources said.

This would be a blow to the touted depth of this draft.

It is not unheard of for 19-year-olds to suddenly change their minds. Frankly, it’s the norm. However, if Bridges isn’t comfortable coming to the NBA yet and wants to spend another year in school, he should. It’s his decision. Generally, coaches and NBA teams thing lottery-level picks like Bridges should come out — there is an injury risk that could hurt his draft stock next year, plus he’s taking a year off his window to get paid playing basketball. That said, it’s his life and Bridges should do what he wants with it.

Bridges is incredibly athletic and with a solid frame (230 pounds), he plays bigger than he is, he’s a good passer (he did a lot of shot creation for Michigan State this season) who also is developing a solid shot (38.7 percent from three as a freshman). He has the physical tools to stick around in the NBA for a long time.

Whenever he decides to come out.

Paul George fined $25,000 for criticizing referees, Gerald Henderson fined as well


“I mean, y’all know how I feel about the officials, and tonight I really have no faith in them…. So I really don’t have no respect, nothing is there for the officiating. S—– officiating job.”

Paul George knew he was going to get fined as those words were coming out of his mouth Monday night, following his ejection in a loss to the Sixers, and he decided if he was going to write the league a check he might as well get his money’s worth.

Wednesday the league announced a $25,000 fine for George for “public criticism of the officiating.” Gerald Henderson, the Sixers player who George thought the officials were not handling well, also was ejected from that game for a Flagrant 2 and he was also fined $25,000 by the league for that.

Here is the play where Henderson and George each got their first technicals.

Then this play got them ejected, Henderson got a flagrant 2 on the play but George got a technical for his reaction.