Kurt Helin

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Three things we learned Monday: Portland’s defense against the Clipper offense is combustable

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Here’s what you would have picked up watching a night around the NBA rather than focusing on Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things…

1) Portland drops fourth in a row, this time to Clippers, due to poor defense, blown chances.
Portland had its chances Monday night. This loss is going to eat at them. But once again, poor defense that is at the core of their troubles, and costly mistakes with the game in the balance late, earned the Blazers a fourth consecutive loss, 121-120 to the Clippers. Which stings. The Blazers came into this season high off making the second round of the playoffs last year and spending a lot of money this past summer, but the team clearly has taken a step back (and at 12-14 are only a playoff team in the West because the Kings/Lakers/Nuggets/Pelicans are worse).

Of course, the problems start with Portland having the league’s worst defense, surrendering 109.9 points per 100 possessions. Their guards are undersized and not strong defenders, their healthy bigs aren’t very mobile, and combined that gets a team in trouble in today’s NBA. Monday night in Los Angeles — against an efficient Clippers’ offense — they surrendered 119.4 per 100. Portland has struggled to defend the pick-and-roll all season, which is bad news against the “point god” Chris Paul, and it explains why 46 percent of the Clipper possessions ended up with a shot directly off that play (stat via Synergy Sports). The thing is, this was one of Portland’s better defensive efforts, the hustle was there, they just did it against an elite offense that is going to hit a lot of shots even if if they were contested (L.A. shot 43.3 percent on contested shots, 53 percent on uncontested, according to NBA.com). CP3 ended up with 21 points and 14 assists in the game as he found room to work, and the Portland guards are not going to slow him. Also, Blake Griffin had 26.

At the end of the game, Portland still had its chances but made costly mental errors. That starts with coach Terry Stotts, who was angry at a foul call on C.J. McCollum on a J.J. Redick three, and earned himself a technical for it — Portland was up 2 at the time and there was 4:14 left, but with the technical and then three free throws it was a four-point play. Portland was down two. It was a turning point — and obviously that point mattered in a one-point loss.

Another point that mattered: Portland was down one with 7.9 seconds to go, when McCollum fouled Redick before the ball was inbounded — meaning the Clippers got a free throw and retained possession of the ball. Redick hit the free throw, then when the ball was inbounded McCollum rightly fouled Redick again, and he again hit the free throws, making it a four-point game. Damian Lillard would hit a three at the other end, but that one point was the difference.

Portland went 1-4 on this now-completed road trip. They had this painful late loss, another close loss to Memphis, they blew a 20-point lead to Indiana, and fell apart in the third quarter in Milwaukee. It’s a tough trip, but it speaks to where this team is at right now. It’s a lot of things, such as the defense, or Evan Turner and Mason Plumlee needing to be better. But what this trip shows more than anything is how far the Blazers have to go before April to not only make sure they are a playoff team, but to be any kind of threat once they get there.

2) Raptors get win thanks to secret weapon lineup. Toronto got out early on Milwaukee Monday night and eventually cruised to a 122-100 win. Toronto’s starting lineup — DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Siakam Pascal, and Jonas Valanciunas — played a strong 14 minutes, shot 59.1 percent when on the court together, and were +6 as a unit.

But that’s not the lineup doing the most damage for the Raptors this season, nor in this game. Lowry plus the bench players of Cory Joseph, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross were +22 in 13 minutes, shooting 65 percent when on the court together. That group dominated the Bucks — and that’s not a fluke. As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Raptors’ Lowry-plus-the-bench lineup is outscoring opponents by 32.2 points per 100 possessions this season — the best five-man lineup rating in the league (of any that has played at least 100 minutes). Yes, better than the Warriors’ death lineup. Or the Clippers’ starters. Or the Cavaliers’ starters. Or any other power lineup you can think of. If you want to know why the Raptors are 17-7 and a clear second best team in the East, that five-man unit has a lot to do with it — and coach Dwane Casey is leaning on it more and more.

3) James Harden was amazing. Again. Houston wins. Again. The Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA, having won seven in a row, and there is no secret weapon lineup here — it’s all about James Harden. He is a perfect mesh in the Mike D’Antoni offense. Harden had 36 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds in the Houston win over Brooklyn Monday, 122-118.

Just watch the man go to work.

Jay-Z takes dig at Phil Jackson while presenting LeBron James Sports Illustrated award

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LeBron James is Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

That means more than just ending up on the cover of the magazine, there is an awards ceremony. It took place Tuesday night in New York, and Jay Z was there to present LeBron with the award. In the process, Jay Z decided to take a shot at Phil Jackson over the “posse” comments demeaning LeBron’s business partners.

“He’s a dedicated family man who married his high school sweetheart Savannah. Has three lovely children. He’s the son who honors and worships his mother Gloria. The friend who put his “posse” in position. We do understand where we come from. The only difference between us and someone who has their MBA from Wharton or Sloan or Berkley or Stanford is opportunity. LeBron James has provides his friends with that opportunity and as we’ve witness their development. And if you look up at the scoreboard, very few businessmen are better than Maverick Carter, Rich Paul, Randy Mims and all the rest of the posse behind the scenes that make it look like they’re just sticking out.”

“LeBron James has made all of those around him better on and off the court. We acknowledge and recognize all he has done for the game. But, tonight we say thank you. Not just for your commitment to basketball, but for all you’ve done for the community. And thank you for how you’ve enriched the lives of all those around you. We messed around and got a triple-double in real life.”

LeBron nodded and laughed throughout those comments.

Consider this the latest sign — along with Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and others coming to LeBron’s defense on this issue — about how seriously the community took Phil’s comments dismissing the men who helped build LeBron’s impressive business empire.

Jackson never apologized for the comment, which he either didn’t see as insensitive and insulting, or he didn’t care. Either way, comments like that — and the pointless dig at Anthony holding the ball too long recently — show Jackson as old and out of touch with today’s player. Which is going to be an issue if part of your job is to recruit today’s superstars to come play for your team.

James Harden leads Rockets past Nets for seventh straight win

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HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Rockets overcame their inability to make defensive stops by running over the Brooklyn Nets on the offensive end.

James Harden had 36 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds to lead the Rockets to their seventh straight win, 122-118 over the Nets on Monday night.

“There’s 82 games – every game isn’t going to be perfect,” Harden said. “You’ve got to figure out ways to win, and that’s what we did tonight.”

Eric Gordon scored 24 points on 6-for-10 shooting on 3-pointers, and Ryan Anderson added 19.for the Rockets. Houston shot 17 for 43 on 3s, making at least 10 for an NBA-record 24th straight game.

Brook Lopez scored 26 points and Sean Kilpatrick added 17 for the Nets.

“They made some plays and we didn’t,” Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said. “It could’ve gone either way.”

Jeremy Lin returned to action for Brooklyn for the first time since Nov. 2 when he suffered a strained left hamstring. Although Lin did not start, he played 20 minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points.

Atkinson said Lin’s presence on the court helped Brooklyn’s offense by keeping the team organized and said he was glad Lin didn’t try to do too much following a five-week absence.

“I felt a lot better than I thought I would with my wind, but I struggled with the rhythm,” Lin said. “The shots, the feel and getting back out there – you practice all these shots, but I got in there and it felt like I was shooting a football.”

Brooklyn trailed for much of the game until Joe Harris tied it at 118 with a layup with less than 40 seconds remaining.

Gordon gave Houston a two-point lead with a free throw with 11.9 seconds left, and the Rockets came up with a key steal on the ensuing inbound pass. Gordon then made two more from the line and the Rockets held on for the win.

“We were just lackadaisical,” Gordon said. “Luckily, we made some plays in the end that helped us win. We definitely need a wake-up call, but we know what we need to do. It’s good that we get a win, but there’s all the little things that we need to do to be a better team.”

The Rockets improved to 7-0 in December while knocking Brooklyn down to 1-5 in the month. The Nets haven’t won on the road since Nov. 12.

Houston outscored Brooklyn by five in each of the first two quarters to take a 53-43 lead at the half. Brooklyn cut the lead to five to start the fourth quarter.

“I think we can look at ourselves in the mirror and say individually we could have done a better job, and as a team, we could have done a better job, too,” Anderson said.

TIP-INS

Nets: C Justin Hamilton missed his second straight game with migraines. Atkinson said he will be reevaluated in a few days. … The Nets scored 42 points in the third quarter, the team’s most points in a quarter this season.

Rockets: Houston allowed 68 points in the paint, a season high for their opponents. … Harden passed Eric “Sleepy” Floyd (2,363 assists) for seventh on the franchise’s all-time assists list. … Trevor Ariza had three steals and two blocks for Houston.

COVERING LOPEZ

The Rockets struggled to contain Brook Lopez for the entire game. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni switched gears and let veteran center Nene play 24 minutes off the bench and starting center Clint Capela less than 19 minutes.

When asked if Nene was a better matchup for Lopez than Capela, D’Antoni didn’t hesitate.

“Much better, much better,” D’Antoni said. “Nene’s more experienced, more bulk. Clint will learn through this stuff, and Brook is a very good offensive player, really good offensive player. They all had their hands full with him.”

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME

Until he came up with his only rebound of the game with less than 16.9 seconds remaining, Lopez was nearly held without a rebound for the first time since March 26, 2011, when he went without a rebound in 31 minutes against Atlanta.

“I need to be more aggressive getting to the glass,” Lopez said. “I’m not trying to make any excuses – I need to do better in that category.”

HONORING SCOLA

Nets forward Luis Scola, who played with Houston from 2007-12, was honored by the Rockets after the first quarter as part of the team’s celebration of its 50th season. A video tribute featuring interviews from Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Shane Battier was played and Scola was given an ovation when shown on the videoboard.

 

Luke Walton snaps, earns first ejection as Lakers’ coach (VIDEO)

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Luke Walton is frustrated.

His Lakers were in Sacramento and on their way to a seventh straight loss. He was frustrated with the officiating all game, and when he thought DeMarcus Cousins pulled Julius Randle to the ground without a call he lost it. Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram held him back.

The Lakers lost their cool and picked up five technicals in the game, including one for Brian Shaw, who had taken over as coach after Walton was ejected. Cousins also got one, because what else did you expect.

This was the first game of a six-game road trip for the Lakers, who could see a lot more frustration before it is over.

Dallas’ Salah Mejri with the crushing rejection of Will Barton (VIDEO)

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Denver’s Will Barton thought he had a lane to the rim — he pushed the ball up, and the Dallas defense was not set. The seas parted.

Then Dallas’ Salah Mejri closed it up and sent Barton’s shot flying with a powerful rejection.

This was Dallas’ night, they got 25 from Wesley Matthews, and 18 from Harrison Barnes on 11 shots, and the Mavs picked up the 112-92 win at home.