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5 Up, 5 Down: Jahlil Okafor finally gets to play some basketball

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA as it stands on alternating Monday mornings.

It feels like we should be more upset about the fact that we keep getting updates on major stars and their injuries. Stephen Curry has his walking boot off. Kawhi Leonard is close to getting on an NBA floor. Gordon Hayward is on Twitch and is now wearing a teensy little ankle brace instead of a walking boot.

This somehow feels good because it’s progress, even though what it really means is stars aren’t on the floor. Maybe that doesn’t matter, especially if you’ve watched the two teams topping the conferences play.

The Boston Celtics have an MVP candidate (yet again) in Kyrie Irving, and the Houston Rockets seem unbeatable. Anyway, I’m excited for another Warriors-Cavaliers Finals.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

5 Up

Jahlil Okafor is finally a Brooklyn Net

We talked last time about how we needed to see Jahlil Okafor play a little basketball (or at least play on offense) by getting out of Philadelphia. My choice was for him to go to the Brooklyn Nets, which is exactly where he went 10 days later. Some are calling the Nets “interesting” although I think for that to be the case Jeremy Lin and his hair would still need to be bouncing down an NBA floor. I’m just hoping Brooklyn isn’t unwatchable from here on out. Let’s start with that and see where they end up.

The New York Knicks letting this dude warm up with them

Kevin Thompson is a New York Knicks superfan who got to warm up with the team and get introduced during lineups. The whole thing was part of the team’s Garden of Dreams night, which according to the Knicks is part of an experiential foundation that helps kids facing obstacles. Pretty sweet stuff.

10 minutes, six fouls

Michael Beasley once said that he basically felt he was Carmelo Anthony, that their games were similar, because they operate from the same side of the floor. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it was a great Beasley quote. This past weekend provided us with a Beasley moment, when the Knicks forward fouled out in just 10 minutes of play. The final blow was a sequence in the fourth quarter in which Beasley racked up three fouls in just 1:45 of game clock. When he had to leave due to disqualification, the crowd at Madison Square Garden gave him a standing ovation. I love the Knicks.

LeBron James is going to play for the Lakers … and the Rockets?

It’s not even 2018 and we’re already starting to talk about where LeBron James will land. It doesn’t feel likely he’ll stay in Cleveland, unless he buys the team of course. That’s probably not slated for the next year, so perhaps he will team up with Nerlens Noel and go to the Los Angeles Lakers? Or perhaps James is interested in the Houston Rockets, the team currently dismantling every other team in the West? This past summer was so crazy in the NBA, it just had to seep into the regular season. I’m all for it.

This Thunder team is a train wreck in slow motion

Real life is not NBA 2k18. That’s why you can’t just sim to the end of every Chicago Bulls game (can you imagine?) or force any trade you want. It’s also why three ball-dominant scorers playing iso ball don’t work, much to the chagrin of Oklahoma City Thunder fans. If you’re not an OKC diehard, this is probably the only thing you wanted to see outside of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony wrecking the rest of the Western Conference. It was never going to be interesting if this team got the 5 seed. Missing the playoffs is the next most interesting thing that could have happened, and frankly, perhaps the most understandable given the talent out West.

5 Down

Everyone is getting kicked out of games

Kevin Durant — long lauded as a silent assassin in the NBA — has been ejected from multiple games over the past month. He even had to be separated from DeMarcus Cousins after a recent one, which is crazy. Shaun Livingston‘s AARP card couldn’t get him immunity from an ejection. Hell, even a referee got suspended in that one. Tensions are rising in the NBA, and it feels like we all missed some memo from the league about a point of emphasis for this season saying everyone’s going to get rung on one technical foul. Are players flailing or is the league being unreasonable? I’m not sure, but tossing stars has to stop so you would think the league office will be looking into this.

Markelle Fultz is STILL out … for some reason

Markelle Fultz is fine, nothing to see here. I mean quite literally, because despite Fultz’s shoulder being A-OK, he’s still not scheduled to find an NBA floor for another three weeks. This feels like a decision the team would make under Sam Hinkie while winning single-digit games, but Hinkie is long gone and the Sixers are — gasp! — a .500 team sitting just outside the 8 seed. This still feels like some major piece of information is missing and I don’t know that we’ll hear about it save for in Fultz’s inevitable book in 20 years detailing Philly’s 8-peat championship run starting in 2020.

We’re not getting basketball in Seattle any time soon

A new memorandum of understanding was signed in the Emerald City this last week, meaning they are going to keep the ugly roof on top of Key Arena, knock down the walls, and dig a hole to the center of the earth as a means to expand the seating. Seriously, they have to dig down just to fit enough people in the arena. What this doesn’t mean is an NBA team. Los Angeles-based Oak View Group has said they will pursue both an NHL team and an NBA team, although locally in Seattle it’s known this plan puts events and NHL first. This is a bummer for NBA fans in Seattle, and for anyone trying to drive through Lower Queen Anne at any time of the day.

Everything happening with the Clippers

There’s almost too much to list here, but it’s topped by just how bad this team is. They were a .500 team when Patrick Beverley got hurt, and then Blake Griffin naturally followed. Danilo Gallinari has been on and off the court, and it’s been a quick degradation for LA after the flight of Chris Paul to Houston. DeAndre Jordan‘s contract now looms over the salary cap like a raincloud, and where he goes nobody will know. Can you tank and still keep Doc Rivers as your coach in 2017?

Marc Gasol is still a Grizzly

The Grizzlies are another mess, and disappointingly so. They were a perennial Good Team™ and both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol should have been favorites of yours to watch in the playoffs (mostly losing to the Spurs). Now, the team is in turnaround. Owner Robert Pera has been given an ultimatum from his minority owners, David Fizdale is gone, and Gasol is still starting games. It seems like there’s less heat on the team to move Gasol, but that’s how it always works in these situations when it’s not a garbage fire like Paul George last year. I expect to see Gasol moved before the trade deadline precisely because it feels like it would be super strange to see Marc Gasol not in a Grizzlies jersey. Hey, maybe to the Spurs?

Watch James Harden score 48 points, 15 in fourth, Rockets win ninth in a row

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The NBA’s hottest team has found a home on the road.

Houston won its ninth consecutive game after James Harden scored 48 points and the Rockets rallied from 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Portland Trail Blazers 124-117 on Saturday night.

The Rockets, who trailed for most of the game, won their eighth consecutive road game, running their season road record to 12-1. It is Houston’s best road start since the 1996-97 season.

Harden hit 16 of 29 shots and grabbed eight rebounds, while Chris Paul scored 24 points and Trevor Ariza had 13 for Houston. The Rockets’ 20-4 record is the best by percentage in the NBA this season.

“We’re riding high right now. That’s great. We know we’ll have some bumps. We have a lot of things to figure out, but we just keep getting better and grinding it out,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Houston took a good punch from Portland, which was trying to end a three-game home court losing streak. Damian Lillard tied a franchise record with nine 3-pointers and scored 35 points, while C.J. McCollum had 28 for the Blazers (13-12).

“It was disappointing to lose. . We had a lot of good efforts from a lot of different players. It was good to be in a game at the end against a really good team,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

Houston hasn’t had a close game in a while, particularly with Paul returning to action from an early season knee injury. That changed Saturday as Portland built a 98-84 lead after three quarters, though Lillard started the fourth quarter with an ice bag on his right foot after limping to the bench.

Houston went to a small lineup, and punished Portland’s defense with 1-on-1 offense. The Rockets hit 15 of 18 shots, and Harden and Paul combined to score 25 of the team’s 40 fourth-quarter points.

“Me and James were talking about how cool it was. I went a few times and then he got to go a few times. It was fun that we got to play off of each other like that,” Paul said.

Harden went 6 of 7 during the fourth quarter, including five layups.

“We went small and they had to adjust to us . once they did that, we had shooters on the court and the lane was wide open. So it was layup, layup, layup, 3-ball,” Harden said.

With Lillard’s foot on ice, Houston launched a rally, pulling to 103-98 when Lillard returned with 7 minutes remaining. But the Rockets had momentum, and took a 110-109 lead on Ariza’s 3-pointer.

The Rockets never trailed again, outscoring Portland 14-6 during the final 3 minutes.

“It took everything we had to beat them,” D’Antoni said.

The Blazers, eager not to finish a home stand 0-4, were aggressive early, as Lillard hit two 3-pointers but also drew two fouls during the first 3 minutes. Midway through the first quarter, Lillard stepped in front of Paul and earned a charging foul, touching off a battle of words that resulted in technicals to Portland’s Meyers Leonard and Paul.

Lillard’s 3-pointer gave Portland its largest lead of the first half at 57-46, but Houston outscored the Blazers 16-5 during the final 5:37 to pull even at 62 at halftime.

 

Lou Williams’ game-winning three caps wild Clippers victory vs. Wizards

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Matinee NBA games can be sloppy games, but the Wizards and Clippers put on an entertaining show at Staples Center Saturday.

With one wild ending.

It started with an Austin Rivers three to put the Clippers up 110-109 with 12 seconds left. DeAndre Jordan got the assist on this one off a critical offensive rebound.

Bradley Beal answered with a driving and-1 layup. Beal faked going for a dribble handoff and cut to the rim and Rivers lost him, opening the door for the Wizards to go up 112-110.

The Lou Williams closed the game with a pull-up three from 29 feet that Beal defended very well, but unless you are guarding Stephen Curry you let the guy take that shot. Williams drained it.

The Wizards had one more chance in a strange ending. The scorekeeper started the clock early on what might have been a Beal game-winner, which was nullified for going in after the buzzer. After review, the referees gave the Wizards another attempt, but all they got off was a contested Marcin Gortat three that had no chance.

The 113-112 Clippers win was their first without Blake Griffin this season.

Report: Clippers won’t fire Doc Rivers during season

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Clippers coach Doc Rivers is working for an owner (Steve Ballmer) who demoted him last summer and a team president (Lawrence Frank) who didn’t hire him (though Rivers hired Frank). The Clippers are on their way to their worst record since before Chris Paul arrived.

Rivers said he’s not worried about being on the hot seat, but is that just his attitude, or does he have no reason to fear for his job?

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Three people with knowledge of the situation say Rivers is likely safe for this season, with his championship resume still held in high regard and the injuries to four of five opening-night starters having made it unfair – in Ballmer’s eyes – to accurately judge his coaching performance this season.

Danilo Gallinari just returned, and Milos Teodosic should soon. But Blake Griffin will be out a while, and Patrick Beverley is done for the season.

Rivers will be coaching around injuries the rest of the year.

Does that mean he’s safe for next season?

That the question even must be asked speaks volumes. The Clippers are clearly deemphasizing Rivers. There will always be reasons to keep him. He has won a championship and is still widely respected. But at some point, the reasons to oust him might add up for Ballmer and Frank.

There were rumors last year about Rivers preemptively leaving L.A. for another job. I wouldn’t be surprised if those pop up again.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain on top, Raptors climb into top five

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the rankings as teams keep on winning. The big mover this week was the Utah Jazz, who leaped from No. 19 up to 8 thanks to their six-game win streak — and they got Rudy Gobert back.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (18-4, Last Week No. 1). The Rockets have won seven games in a row since Chris Paul’s return, doing so by an average of 21.6 points per contest. Talk to the veteran Rockets and they are a focused group: “If you’re slacking, we let you know,” Trevor Ariza told NBC Sports. “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.”

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (21-4, LW 2). Rookie Jayson Tatum leads the NBA in three point percentage, hitting 51.3% while taking about three shots from beyond the arc a game. He is in the mix for Rookie of the Year for a reason. Marcus Smart has shown a real chemistry with Al Horford already, and that combined with Smart’s defense is why Brad Stevens is choosing to close games with him on the floor. Interesting matchup with the Spurs Friday night.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (19-6 LW 3). They have started 4-0 on a six-game road trip, but will have to play the rest of it — and a couple weeks after it — without Stephen Curry who sprained his ankle against New Orleans Monday. With Kevin Durant getting more touches, the Warriors have the talent to not miss a beat even with a former MVP in street clothes, but to do so the team needs to be more focused than it has been most of the season. The Warriors are coasting. It gets them in trouble (like down 20 to the Pelicans at the half, so Curry is in at the end of the game and that’s when the injury hits).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (17-7 LW 4). Winners of 12 in a row, in part thanks to LeBron James playing at an MVP level (he and James Harden are the clear frontrunners in my book, although it’s very early), but also a defense that is back to being Top 10 during this run. At the heart of that defensive surge, the Cavaliers are defending the arc much better, running teams off it and not giving up those clean looks. The win streak may continue with 5-of-6 at home before a road heavy end of the month.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-7, LW 6). Kyle Lowry has been one of the hottest players in the NBA the past couple of weeks — in his last 5 games he has averaged 21.2 points per game on 53 percent shooting, he’s knocked down five threes a game, and dished out 7.6 assists. It’s been impressive. Starting Friday in Memphis the Raptors get out of the cold a lot with 8-of-11 games on the road, but there are some real measuring stick games in there.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (16-8, LW 5). Kawhi Leonard could return this week, but before he does we need to give one more shout out to LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been second-tier MVP discussion good through the first quarter of the season. Aldridge is averaging 22.8 points on 50.6% shooting, he’s hitting his threes (38.5%), and he is grabbing 8.2 points per game. Still, the offense needs better shot creation, and Leonard may provide that.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (13-10, LW 8). That the Sixers are 13-10 having played the NBA’s toughest schedule so far this season is a testament to how improved this team has been. The losses to Cleveland and Boston in the past week are understandable, and beating Washington and Detroit is a sign of where this team stands (the loss to Phoenix was just ugly). Starting Saturday the Sixers have 9-of-12 on the road. #FreeJah

Pistons small icon 8. Pistons (14-9, LW 7). More than a quarter of the way into the season, and despite some recent stumbles, it’s time to stop asking if the Pistons are for real — they are. The stats at Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass project them finishing with 44-45 wins, which would be the five seed (and very close to the four and home court in the first round). Stan Van Gundy deserves some consideration for Coach of the Year for his work this season.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). A lot has been made of Indiana shooting an impressive 39.8% from three as a team (it jumps over 40% when you take out garbage time), but when you’re 24th in the league in attempts from beyond the arc it limits the impact of that shooting. The Pacers lost to the Rockets and Raptors in the last week (they did beat the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks), and the schedule doesn’t get easier with the Cavs, Nuggets and Thunder coming up.

 
10. Timberwolves (14-11, LW 12). The fact Minnesota’s name came up in the list of teams pushing hardest for DeAndre Jordan is interesting — has Tom Thibodeau decided Karl-Anthony Towns is never going to be a great defender and needs one next to him to do the dirty work? The Timberwolves are 27th in the league in defensive rating (when you take out garbage time) and that’s not good enough for the kind of team they want to be. All that said, I don’t see how Minnesota has the players that would interest the Clippers in a trade. What is interesting is the reasoning to go after Jordan.

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (12-10 LW 15). The Bucks are 8-4 since the Eric Bledsoe trade, however Monday’s loss at Boston felt like a reminder that even when Giannis Antetokounmpo is brilliant — 40 points — they have a ways to go to compete with the NBA’s elite. The Bucks need to do better on the defensive glass and stop fouling as much to take the next defensive step forward.

 
Jazz small icon 12. Jazz (13-12, LW 19). They had won six in a row until running into Oklahoma City on Tuesday, and that streak pushed them up the board thanks to an offense that found it’s groove. Part of that is Derrick Favors, who is a dangerous scorer inside and out at the five, and he has dominated second half through this stretch. Rudy Gobert is back now (he played the end of the game against the Thunder, not Favors), but what’s impressive is Utah’s 7-4 record without him. Rodney Hood has been out the last three and Alec Burks has stepped up.

 
Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (13-11, LW 11). Bradley Beal’s 51 points on Tuesday in Portland is just part of what has been Beal’s best NBA season — 23.3 points per game, and a strong true shooting percentage of 56.7% despite having to take on more of the offense this season. He’s playing at an All-Star level. Washington also has gotten a lot more out of its bench lately, led by Kelly Oubre.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 9). Despite their inability to stop Beal on Tuesday, the Blazers are still are a surprisingly good defensive team, fourth in the league overall with the lowest opponent field goal percentage around the rim in the league (55.3%, from Cleaning the Glass). Opponents are still getting a lot of shots there, however, which is concerning. The Blazers have lost three in a row to start a four-game homestand and now things get tough: Houston on Saturday, followed by five in a row on the road, opening against Golden State. Then when the road trip ends they come home to the Spurs.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (11-12 LW 18).. Oklahoma City has won three in a row beating teams above them in the standings — Minnesota, San Antonio, and Utah — using a combination of good defense and Russell Westbrook. More importantly, the Thunder won close games and played well down the stretch — if they can build on that they can become the team people expected before the season. The Thunder travel to Mexico this Thursday to take on the Nets in Mexico City.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (13-10, LW 13). They are 4-3 since Paul Millsap went down. Nikola Jokic has missed a couple games with with a sprained ankle suffered against the Bulls, which is not ideal because they are on a six game road trip. The Nuggets hope to have him back near the end of it (in a week), but they are 3-8 on the road this season and need to find a way to get some wins on this trip.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (12-12, LW 14). The Pelicans have lost 4-of-5, and while part of that is playing the Warriors twice, part of it is they are not the same without Anthony Davis — they are 14.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season, he is playing at a level that would get him bottom of the ballot MVP votes, and now he is missing time due to his hip injury. The Pelicans are -9.2 per 100 when DeMarcus Cousins is on the court without Davis. New Orleans got one win without Davis in Portland when DeMarcus Cousins went off, with four of five at home they need more of that from their big man.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (9-13, LW 20). Our thoughts are with coach Steve Clifford as he takes an indefinite leave of absence from Charlotte to deal with a personal health issue. Stephen Silas takes over as acting coach, but I don’t know that he, nor any coach, can simply solve the bench issues for this team — the starters are fine (even with Kemba Walker missing a couple of games) but the Hornets bench digs a hole the starters can’t get the team out of.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (11-12, LW 16). Hassan Whiteside will be out a couple of weeks, although rookie Bam Adebayo has proven to be a solid replacement and NBA starter for Miami. The travel to Mexico City for a Saturday game against Brooklyn but they will be without Hassan Whiteside who is skipping the entire three-game road trip to recover a bone bruise on his left knee. The Heat defense is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (11-12, LW 17). The combination of a sprained ankle and an illness sat Kristaps Porzingis for a couple games, plus Tim Hardaway Jr. missed those same games against Orlando and Indiana, and the Knicks struggled without them. Porzingis is expected back Wednesday, but Hardaway is out a couple of weeks. New York has five straight games against what look like non-playoff teams — Grizzlies, Bulls, Hawks, Lakers, Nets — and they need to pad the win column before the schedule turns difficult.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (9-14, LW 24). They have two games this week in Mexico City, Thursday against the Thunder then Saturday against the Heat. When you watch those games, see how the OKC and Miami do from the midrange — the Nets do what teams should do on paper and force opponents to shoot from the midrange, but opponents are hitting 42.4% from there, second highest percentage in the NBA (Cleaning the Glass).

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (10-15, LW 25). With Terrence Ross out for a while, more will fall on Jonathon Simmons — who has looked pretty good for the Magic but now has a lot more responsibility. The Magic snapped their nine-game losing streak and have won 2-of-4, which is the start to a turnaround, and now they have 4-0f-5 at home.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (8-15, LW 26). Since J.B. Bierstaff took over, the Grizzlies have gone back to their old ways and have played at the slowest pace in the league, and they are taking fewer threes. The new coach is 1-3 on the job, but Memphis did snap its 11-game losing streak to the play-down-to-the-competition Timberwolves. Things don’t get easier for the Grizzlies, still without Mike Conley, as the Raptors and Thunder are among the teams on the schedule this week.

 
Clippers small icon 24. Clippers (8-14 LW 21). How will DeAndre Jordan personally, and the Clippers as a team, handle the swirling trade rumors around him (ones that are not going away before he is moved or the trade deadline in February, whichever comes first)? The Clippers should get both Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari back in the next week, which will help, because with Blake Griffin out for at least a month Austin Rivers has become the team’s primary playmaker, and that’s not working.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (7-17 LW 27). The good news is Dallas is playing hard and getting themselves into close games, but they still struggle to close those out as seen in losses to the Spurs and Nets. However, the Mavericks have won two in a row now and head out with 5-of-6 on the road. As for a Nerlens Noel update:

 
Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (8-15 LW 22). The Lakers have dropped five in a row and now have 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being Golden State) in their toughest stretch of the schedule this season. On the bright side, Kyle Kuzma continues to impress as a rookie and put up numbers. Also, having seen him twice in the last week in person, Brandon Ingram seems to be turning a corner into a more aggressive player whose shot is coming along.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (9-17, LW 23). The Devin Booker groin injury is scary (as of this writing we do not know how long he will be out). He’s averaging 24.3 points per game, is shooting 38.3% from three, is the Suns biggest scoring threat, and the team’s offense has scored less than a point per possession when he is off the court. The Suns went 2-4 on their recent road trip, but it doesn’t get easier coming home to the Wizards and Spurs for a couple games.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (7-16, LW 28). There has been little consistency with this team, Skal Labissiere was starting a few games ago, then last week he got assigned to the D-League. The Kings are playing big again with Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos starting. De’Aaron Fox is showing flashes, but mostly looks like a rookie thrown to the wolves. George Hill summed up the mood of Kings fans about this season well.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (5-18, LW 29). The best barometer of the Hawks is point guard Dennis Schroeder — in games he doesn’t play or scores fewer than 20 points, the Hawks are 0-11 (they are 5-7 when he does hit that mark). Tough to see John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out injured, their play was one of the few reasons to watch the Hawks this season. Atlanta has a home-and-home with Orlando that starts Wednesday.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-19 LW 30).. A couple of harsh 1-point losses (to Denver and Sacramento) last week, which I guess could be seen as moral victories for the Bulls, who have dropped 9 straight. The Bulls could get Nikola Mitotic back this week. The guy they really need suited up is Zach LaVine, but that still seems weeks away.