Kurt Helin

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Three things we learned Wednesday: Boston’s defense cost it another game

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As the nation tried to get through its election hangover Wednesday, the NBA had a full slate of games. If you were trying to sleep it off, here are three things we learned.

1) Boston now has the worst defense in the NBA, it cost it another game Wednesday. The Celtic defense is not just bad — it is measurably the worst defense in the NBA this season, allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions (according to NBA.com). Worse than the Knicks. Worse than the Rockets. Worse than the Magic, Blazers and everyone else coasting on that end. That defense is costing the Celtics games.

The latest example: the Washington Wizards. They had scored just 97.7 points per 100 possessions (24th in the NBA) coming into Wednesday night’s game against Boston. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and the rest had been struggling — then against Boston they put up 118 points, a 125.8 per 100 offensive rating, and Porter drops a career-high 34, making plays all over the court.

It was ugly early for Boston — 34-8 Wizards at the end of the first quarter — and the Celtics were not digging out of that hole. The Celtics have now trailed by at least 20 points during each of their last three games (that happened just eight times all last season).

The Celtics were top five in defense last season and brought back the same core in the same system — so what has happened? Injuries play a part, with Al Horford (a good defender) and Jae Crowder out, plus Marcus Smart missed the first few games of the season. But this is more than that. Boston is struggling to defend the pick-and-roll, particularly defending the roll man (who is scoring 1.11 points per possession on that play against the Celtics) — their rotations are not sharp. Beyond that, it just seems to be an effort thing. One scout pointed to how poorly they are closing out on jump shooters — that’s not skill or size, that’s just effort.

I expect Boston will turn this around defensively, but until they do there will be ugly losses like the one Wednesday against Washington.

2) Atlanta makes a statement with back-to-back wins over Cavaliers and Bulls. The Atlanta Hawks would like you to know they are for real this year. Or at least as real as we’re going to declare any team eight games into the season. Do you want evidence?

• Atlanta just dropped both the NBA champ Cavaliers then the surprisingly hot Bulls on a back-to-back.

• Atlanta is outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions (second only to the Clippers this season).

• They have the third-best defense in the NBA and a Top 10 offense so far.

• Each night a different guy seems to step up, against the Bulls Wednesday it was Thabo Sefolosha.

We could go on, but you get the idea — the Hawks are 6-2 with the Sixers next up. Dennis Schroder is growing more comfortable and is attacking as the starting point guard, Paul Millsap is still playing like an All-Star. Dwight Howard has fit in well — he’s been a beast on the boards, defended well, and Mike Budenholzer is using him brilliantly, putting him in situations where he’s asked to do more than just score (and Howard is fully buying in). The bottom line is we knew Cleveland would be elite in the East this season, we knew Toronto would be good, but after that we had questions about which other teams would step up. Atlanta is stepping up.

3) DeMar DeRozan continues to tear up NBA (as do Raptors), he and Russell Westbrook put on a show. DeMar DeRozan leads the NBA, averaging 34.1 points per game. Russell Westbrook is second at 31.1.

So when those two get together, you know there will be a show — DeRozan had 37 points, Westbrook 36 in the Raptors 112-102 win in Oklahoma City Wednesday.

DeRozan has scored at lest 30 points in six of the Raptors first seven games. The last two players to do that (according to ESPN): Bernard King and Michael Jordan. When you’re scoring at their rate, good things happen.

The Raptors are 5-2 on the young season and look like a team that can match last year’s historic run, at least so far.

James Harden’s triple-double leads Rockets past Spurs, 101-99

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — James Harden had 24 points, 15 assists and 12 rebounds as the Houston Rockets held off San Antonio 101-99 on Wednesday night to hand the Spurs their third straight home loss.

Ryan Anderson was 4 for 6 on 3-pointers in scoring 20 points, and Houston snapped a four-game skid in San Antonio. Eric Gordon had 15 points and fellow reserve Sam Dekker added 12.

Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points for the Spurs but missed his final jump shot, which could have tied the game. LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 14 points, also missed a tip-in attempt at the buzzer.

Danny Green made his season debut for San Antonio, scoring eight points in his return from a strained left quadriceps. He missed his first 3-point try but drained his second from the right corner and finished 2 for 8 on 3s.

The Spurs used a rotation spearheaded by Leonard and Green to defend Harden, but found little success.

Harden set an aggressive tone early with nine points, six assists and three rebounds in the first quarter.

When he wasn’t draining jumpers and tossing in runners, he kicked the ball out to open teammates after drawing multiple defenders on his drives.

The Rockets were 10 for 30 on 3-pointers and shot 47 percent overall.

The Spurs sat Pau Gasol the entire second quarter in favor of a quicker lineup and it helped them erase a 13-point deficit to take a 51-50 lead.

San Antonio employed the same strategy late in the third quarter to pull within a point twice, but could not overcome Harden.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Harden had his streak of four straight games with at least 30 points and 12 assists snapped. . Houston played seven of its first eight games on the road. The last team to open with such an arduous schedule was Cleveland in 1970-71. . Corey Brewer started his second straight game. Gordon started the team’s first six games.

Spurs: Tony Parker missed his third consecutive game with a sore right knee. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich expects Parker to play Friday at home against Detroit or Saturday in Houston. . Manu Ginobili joined Rashard Lewis as the only second-round draft picks in NBA history with 13,000 career points and at least 1,300 3-pointers. Ginobili is the 15th second-rounder to reach 13,000 points. . Green became the sixth player with at least one 3-pointer in 300 career games for the Spurs. Parker, Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Matt Bonner and Sean Elliott are the others.

 

Watch Karl-Anthony Towns set NBA store record at Pop-A-Shot

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Is there anything Karl-Anthony Towns can’t do?

The Timberwolves’ second-year big man is already the guy most GMs say they would want to build a team around, he’s a fast rising star on the team everyone has pegged to be very good in a few years.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter what kind of hoop you put him in front of, the man gets buckets.

Kelly Olynyk to make season debut for Celtics Wednesday

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Boston could use some re-enforcements along the front line, with Al Horford (concussion) and Jae Crowder (ankle) still out.

How about Kelly Olynyk?

He will be back Wednesday against the Wizards, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com.

Asked prior to tonight’s game by CSN’s Abby Chin whether he would play, Olynyk responded, “that’s the plan.”

When asked what could change that, Olynyk quipped, “if Coach Stevens doesn’t put me in the game.”

A writer for the Celtics’ official website confirmed this is the night Olynyk returns.

Olynyk is a stretch four that the Celtics can use in a variety of ways to space the floor. He works hard on the defensive end — the end the Celtics need to shore up — and while more traditional fours give him trouble he puts in the effort.

Olynyk had shoulder surgery — it was an issue at the end of last season, but he tried to play through it in the postseason, then over the summer went under the knife. Both team and the player wanted to make sure he was 100 percent before he returned. That time is now.

Mike D’Antoni convinced Rockets can be better on defense

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The Houston Rockets have the fourth best offense in the NBA so far this young season, with James Harden leading the way as a devastating pick-and-roll man.

The Rockets have the fourth worst defense. Which is why they are a middle of the pack team (4-3 so far), albeit one that can score it’s way into the playoffs. Just don’t expect good things once the Rockets get there — unless the defense improves.

Coach Mike D’Antoni is convinced it can — he’s banking on effort covering the flaws of the players they have on the floor (Harden takes plays off, as does Ryan Anderson, and guys like Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon can be put in tough situations). Here are some quotes from a fantastic breakdown of what the Rockets are doing on both ends from Zach Lowe of ESPN.

“The biggest thing with defense is that our chemistry will be good,” Mike D’Antoni, the team’s new head coach, told ESPN.com — adding that he wants Houston to finish in the top 10 in points allowed per possession.

“This year, we have guys that trust each other,” Harden told ESPN.com. “We are not going to take possessions off.”

Except, they are. However, as Lowe explains in some detail, the problems are more systemic. The Rockets are getting killed from the arc so far — that could regress over time — and while teams aren’t getting to the rim a lot when they do they shoot a much higher than average percentage. Clint Capella is a nice young player, but he can’t clean everything up, and he’s still learning.

It’s very simple with Houston: They will go as far as their defense takes them. That may well be to the playoffs, but once there the games get a little slower and a little grittier, and that will be an issue for the Rockets. Unless things change.