Kurt Helin

Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: Kobe, Durant put on a show (for a half)

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LOS ANGELES — Tonight’s Five Takeaways comes live from Staples Center, where the Thunder got in a tune up for their Christmas Day showdown with the Bulls. There were a lot better games — and things got interesting on the Phoenix bench — but you’d be hard-pressed to find two players who had more fun Wednesday than Kobe and Durant. Here’s what you need to know from a Wednesday around the Association.

1) Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant put on a show. For a half.
At one point in the second quarter, Kevin Durant crossed Kobe Bryant up badly. After that, he took two long strides through the lane and hit a leaning layup. Then as they ran back down the court, the two shared a laugh about it.

Earlier in the game, when Durant blocked a Kobe shot, Bryant said he told KD, “You long son-of-a-•••••.”

“Competition is a beautiful thing,” Bryant said with a smile on his face after a game where Kobe and Durant dueled in the first half and put on a show for the Lakers fans at Staples Center desperate for just a few minutes of vintage Kobe. They got it. Kobe got Durant a few times over the course of a night, and Durant returned the favor a few more times. The two stars were matched up against each other for most of the night and you could tell both savored it.

“It was fun, I take on those challenges,” Durant said after the game. “Me and him are great friends, but he’s the same way I am between those lines — you’re going to go at each other. No matter what. We can laugh and joke throughout the game, and talk to each other, but when the whistle sounds we’re gonna go at each other…

“He got it going a little in the second quarter, but I think for the most part I made him shoot tough shots all night, and he was able to hit some.”

It only lasted for most of a half. Starting at the 4:05 mark in the second quarter OKC went on a 40-4 run — that blew the game open by the early stages of the third quarter. Most of the second half was garbage time. Kobe and Durant sat out the fourth. In the understatement of the year, the Lakers are not on the Thunder’s level right now.

This is what we can reasonably hope for from Kobe and the Lakers this season — glimpses of his vintage self, fun duels, stretches of games (or a series of games) where he can take us back to a time gone by and let us savor the memories. It’s not going to last, not at 37 and with this team around him, but the halves like Wednesday are a lot of fun for everyone.

2) Suns’ Markeiff Morris throws a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek, who throws it back then benched Morris. The Suns are 6-14 in their last 20 games, and things seem to be devolving. On Wednesday night coach Hornacek benched Morris, unhappy with his play (he was -13 on the night), and Morris responded by throwing his towel at his coach and barking at him. Hornacek answered by throwing the towel back and using some choice words of his own. Needless to say, Morris was done for the night and likely will be suspended by the team for a while. The Suns have been looking to move Morris, but this isn’t going to help his cause. Meanwhile, Hornacek’s seat seems to be getting warmer by the day. And the Suns are a mess.

3) Dirk Nowitzki passes Shaq, moves into sixth on the All-Time NBA scoring list. It seems appropriate. Shaquille O’Neal is decidedly from the old-school, back-to-the-basket world of big men. Dirk Nowitzki revolutionized what we expect out of a big — he’s a seven-footer with three-point range, and an impossible-to-block signature fade away. Dirk was a stretch four before anyone knew what a stretch four was, and he’s the best shooting big man the game has ever seen. Wednesday night he moved past Shaq and is now sixth all-time on the NBA scoring list.

4) LeBron James does in Knicks with a dunk. Shorthanded New York was feisty — without Carmelo Anthony the Knicks had an 82-80 lead on the Cavaliers. But then LeBron happened. With the game tied 82-82 he hit a layup off a Knicks turnover, next trip down hit a couple of free throws, then stuck the dagger in the Knicks with a dunk that had the Cavaliers up 88-82. From there Cleveland hung on for a 91-84 win.

5) Dallas hangs on to beat Brooklyn because… too much J.J. Barea? Yup. Barea has not been good this season, shooting 38.6 percent with a PER of 11.9, he has taken a step back. He is overdribbling and stalling out the Maverick offense. But not Wednesday night. Barea was decisive and had his jumper working — he hit 13-of-20 overall, 5-of-7 from three — on his way to 32 points. The Mavericks needed all of them — including the three in overtime — to get past a stubborn Nets team.

The Mavericks thought they were going to get this win in regulation, but then Thaddeus Young happened. First with the shot.

Then with the block of none other than Barea.

Dallas won in OT 119-118.

Report: Markieff Morris throws towel at coach Hornacek after benching

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Ways not to boost your trade value 101, lesson courtesy the Suns’ Markieff Morris:

Morris has been an unhappy camper in Phoenix since this summer when he felt blindsided by the trade of his twin brother Marcus to clear out cap space for the franchise’s run at LaMarcus Aldridge (which came up short). There has been bubbling tension with coach Jeff Hornacek all season, but that spilled over on Wednesday night.

Morris threw a towel at Hornacek after being pulled, Hornacek threw it back, words were exchanged and Morris spent the rest of the game on the bench. He may stay there longer, reports Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic.

With 9:47 to play and Denver leading 84-75, Morris was taken out of the game and he threw the towel while barking at Hornacek. Hornacek picked up the towel and threw it back Morris’ way with his own upset words for him.

“He’s mad about not playing,” Hornacek said. “I look at the stat sheet. He’s a minus-13 in 12 minutes. So there, I took him out. … He thinks he’s better than that. Show me.”

“That’s between me and ‘H’ (Hornaceck),” said Markieff, who made 2 of 8 shots and had one rebound Wednesday. “It’s not for media. It’s something between me and him that happened. We’ll talk about it.”

The Suns are considering additional punishments for Morris, Hornacek reportedly said. I’d expect he will miss a couple of games.

The Suns are known to be considering trading Morris in the right deal, with both Houston and the Pelicans (for Ryan Anderson) interested, but nothing is imminent. This little tantrum doesn’t help Morris’ trade value. For example, if you’re the Pelicans GM, is the guy with this attitude the one you want to pair with Anthony Davis for years (and Davis would have to play more center)?

This incident — combined with the Suns are 6-14 in their last 20 games — means Hornacek’s seat is getting hotter. The expectations were higher for this team. Of course, a lot of the blame should be directed toward GM Ryan McDonough. He was the guy who went out and got Tyson Chandler this summer thinking he was a game changer, he wanted to pair Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and he signed Morris to an extension. This is the team he made. But GMs don’t fire themselves, they can’t fire the players, so the coach becomes the target.

If the Suns’ downward spiral continues, something is going to get shaken up in the Valley of the Sun.

Vucevic scores 21 to help Magic hold off Rockets 104-101

Houston Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff on the sidelines during action against the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Evan Fournier hit a short bank shot with 14.2 seconds left and Tobias Harris made two free throws with 1.1 seconds remaining to help the Orlando Magic hold off the Houston Rockets 104-101 on Wednesday night.

Nik Vucevic’s 21 points led six players in double figures for the Magic, who have won five of six.

Marcus Thornton‘s 3-pointer missed at the final horn, ending Houston’s three-game winning streak.

James Harden scored 10 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Rockets, who rallied from a 14-point deficit to lead by one point on two occasions late in the game.

Former Magic center Dwight Howard finished with 12 points and seven rebounds for Houston.

Harris had 19 points and six rebounds for Orlando, which shot 52.4 percent but turned the ball over six times in the final quarter.

The Rockets were down by eight when Harden and Terrence Jones sparked a 19-3 run late in the first quarter shortly after Howard went to the bench with two fouls.

Aaron Gordon came off the Orlando bench with 14 points in the second quarter, scoring six of the Magic’s eight baskets as they regained a 59-53 lead following a first half in which the Rockets shot 52 percent.

Houston missed its first five shots of the second half and fell behind 65-53, but Trevor Ariza hit two straight jumpers and then Harden scored four consecutive baskets to keep the Rockets in it.

Harris and Payton combined for 12 points to help the Magic finish the quarter on an 18-9 spurt to lead 87-74. Harden hit two straight shots and fed Howard for a dunk during a 13-0 Houston run, and neither team led by more than three points thereafter.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Ty Lawson returned from a two-game suspension, playing almost 27 minutes and and scoring 11 points. … Harden, who shoots an NBA-leading 11.1 free throws per game, shot only six, four in the first quarter. … All six of Howard’s field goals came on dunks.

Magic: Orlando is 27-27 against Houston, not including the Rockets’ sweep in the 1995 NBA Finals. … Victor Oladipo shot 0 for 9 with seven rebounds and six assists.

 

Report: With Marreese Speights struggling, Warriors may seek stretch four

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 2:  Marreese Speights #5 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on December 2, 2015 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Last season, Marreese Speights had a big season for the Warriors as a stretch five. He was facing up, spacing the floor, and scoring 10.4 points a game on 49.2 percent shooting. He was one of the reasons Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and everyone else has a ring in the Bay Area.

This season has been different. Speights is struggling — 34.7 percent shooting — and combined with the emergence of Festus Ezeli, Speights has seen his minutes and role diminish. Ezeli certainly provides more defense in the paint, which has helped the Warriors. Speights has been asked to play more of a stretch four next to him at times, and that hasn’t worked.

The Warriors miss Speights’ scoring punch off the bench, and if he can’t find a groove the Warriors may look to make a move, reports Monte Poole at CSNBayArea.com.

The Warriors hope Speights finds his shot, because they’re lacking that bench scorer who can light up defenses. Ezeli can score but does not typically wreck a defense. Speights at his best scores in bunches, and his range makes him the harder matchup.

Warriors general manager Bob Myers, like most executives, doesn’t talk trade-possibility specifics. But he surely realizes that when Curry, Thompson and Green are off the floor, scoring comes with considerable toil and strife. The front office is studying the trade market, because if Speights can’t find his form, and soon, the Warriors will seek out another stretch four, somebody Walton or Kerr can call when they need a scoring punch.

The entire league is looking for stretch fours who can help in the way the Warriors want, and there are a limited number out there. Ryan Anderson is reportedly available out of New Orleans, but he’s as good a stretch four as the league has and the price likely is too steep for the Warriors (and Anderson is a rental, in the final year of his contract).

This is just something to keep an eye on. The Warriors may have the best record in the NBA, but they are not going to sit around and wait for everyone to catch up.

Kevin Durant says with him, Westbrook, Thunder should run isolation sets

at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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The success of the Golden State Warriors — and the Spurs the season before that — has even casual fans calling for more system offense and less isolation.

Moving away from isolation sets to something less predictable on offense was part of the reason Scott Brooks was let go and Billy Donovan was brought in as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s working. Last season 14 percent of the Thunder’s plays were categorized as isolation sets, this season it is down to 8.4 percent, and the Thunder are scoring about three more points per 100 possessions.

But the Thunder lean on isolation sets late in games, and Kevin Durant defended that speaking to Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN after OKC knocked off the Clippers this week.

“When you have iso players and guys who can score as many points as Russ and me, you’ve got to live playing some iso ball,” Durant said on Monday night following the Thunder’s 100-99 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. “What do you want? Just pass the ball around and around and not be aggressive? If they’re looking at me and Russ is open, he gets the ball. But if I’ve got it, I’m going to work. Iso. It’s pick your poison.”

Durant is right. He scores 1.14 points per possession on isolation sets, he remains one of the best scorers the game has ever seen and in an isolation set he is nearly impossible to stop. If you throw a few players at him he can swing the ball to Russell Westbrook or find Serge Ibaka for an open midrange jumper, or maybe even find Steven Adams rolling to the rim.

The Thunder have options, but for them isolation is a good one.