Game of the night: Welcome back to big-time basketball, New York

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Paul Pierce was taking bows after a December regular-season game. Spike Lee was out on the court yelling at the referees and the Celtics. The biggest stars were spectacular on a court lit like a stage. There was an impressive game-winner and almost a stunner that topped it — the best ending to a game this season. There was Madison Square Garden as loud as anyone could remember.

All that is why it is good to have the New York Knicks back. And Wednesday night was their welcome back party. Even though it was a 118-116 loss.

As Pierce said in his postgame television interview, the Knicks have arrived. No, they are not elite, not contenders, but interesting and worth watching. And certainly not an easy out. Which is more than you could say about the Knicks for a very long time.

The NBA is better when its biggest franchises are good. Like Boston. Like the Lakers. And like the Knicks. Like the city where it plays, this Knicks team comes with an aggressive attitude and a little edge. These Knicks have swagger and you could see it in the way Amar’e Stoudemire and the rest of the team went hard to the rim (or drove and kicked out to shooters).

Root for them or against them. Having them back is just better.

And two good teams on a big stage leads to some special endings. The last couple minutes of this one was just basketball at its best — dramatic and filled with big plays.

The Knicks led most of the game, by as much as 12 points, but were up just four with two minutes left, and it was hard not to imagine how many times this Celtics team had been in this very spot over the last three years and found a way to win. Boston got a dunk then a couple of free throws on the next possession from Kevin Garnett and the game was tied. Then, with a minute to go, Ray Allen drained a go-ahead 3-pointer and it felt like a dagger.

But these Knicks have swagger. Danilo Gallinari reminded us all he is not just a spot-up shooter by putting the ball on the floor and driving, drawing the foul and hitting the 5-foot floater for the one-and-one. He hit the free throw and it was tied — and the Garden faithful were fit to be tied.

The Knicks’ second-to-last possession was their real chance. After a couple of pretty ugly high pick-and-rolls the Celtics defended well, Raymond Felton and Stoudemire tried one more time and went with something that had worked earlier in the game — Stoudemire slipped the screen, got open and got the ball back in the paint. Glen Davis had rotated over, but Stoudemire got a clean-look 5-footer that rimmed out. Boston got the rebound and its last chance.

With the game on the line, the Celtics went back to an old tried-and-true play for them — Pierce in isolation on the wing. It has had mixed results over the years, but they went to it again. After a pick that the Knicks switched through, Pierce had Stoudemire on him and he tried to drive right but Stoudemire got his body in there. Pierce used that, drove into his defender then did the quick stepback 14-footer. Nylon.

Pierce did a victory lap. Nate Robinson tried to jump on his back and slid right off — no Shrek and Donkey routine here — and you could tell this was no ordinary game for the Celtics. They celebrated like it was a playoff win.

But it wasn’t a win yet. The Knicks had four-tenths of a second left and no Derek Fisher on their roster. But oh, so close. Heartbreakingly so, like a Broadway tragedy. They ran a half-court inbound play where Gallinari peeled off a couple picks, but the Celtics were focused on him. Stoudemire popped straight out and was wide open and got the ball, then turned his body and shot from 25 feet. Nylon. The Knicks piled on each other and the noise almost knocked down the roof in the Garden (again).

But Stoudemire only had time for a catch-and-shoot. No turning his body, too. The shot clearly did not leave his hands in time. Boston won after a review and the correct call.

You had Pierce taking his bows to the crowd.

But it really should have been Stoudemire — 39 points, the ninth-straight game he has reached 30 or more — and his Knicks. They are his Knicks.

They earned it. They are back and putting on a great show on our nation’s biggest stage. And that is good for every true basketball fan. Because more nights like this are good for all of us.

Reports: Stephen Curry out ‘weeks’ with knee injury, Warriors hope for return after All-Star Break

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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This is bad news for the Warriors. How bad depends on how the word “weeks” is ultimately defined.

Stephen Curry will be out “weeks” with a knee injury suffered against the Mavericks, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“Weeks” is a vague word, and for the Warriors the difference in Curry being out three weeks (with one of those being the All-Star Break) versus him being out six to eight weeks could be the difference in how long a playoff run the Warriors have.

The Warriors are hoping for a Curry return just after the All-Star break, reports Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

Of short-term concern, this has Curry out for the All-Star Game where the fans voted him a starter. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will bump one of the reserves up to a starting spot — likely Ja Morant, who was third in fan voting — and name an injury replacement for the team. The top candidates are Devin Booker (if he returns from injury this week as expected), De'Aaron Fox or Anthony Edwards.

Longer term, the Warriors can’t afford to be without Curry for an extended period.

Curry is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game, and the Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. With the team one game above .500 and struggling to avoid the play-in, an extended absence for Curry is trouble for a Warriors team that has never found its footing this season.

 

Nets reportedly going to sit Kyrie Irving until he is traded

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This time it looks like it’s going to happen, the Brooklyn Nets will trade Kyrie Irving (unlike this summer).

Just don’t expect to see Irving on the court for Brooklyn until he’s moved, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

That is at one time a combination of smart, the only real call to make, the Nets wanting to look like they have control over the situation because Irving’s camp already leaked that he was going to sit out the rest of the season if not traded.

Irving did not play Saturday night when the Nets went down by 20 in the first quarter but rallied behind 44 points from Cam Thomas to get a much-needed win.

Four primary suitors have stepped up for Irving: The Lakers (considered Irving’s preferred destination), Suns, Mavericks and Clippers. The question is what do the Nets want back in a trade? If, as most around the league expect, the goal is to remain in the championship picture around Kevin Durant, Brooklyn will prize quality players and depth over draft picks. That’s bad news for the Lakers (the core of their offer is two future first-round picks plus Russell Westbrook) and good for the team down the hall, the Clippers can offer good players — John Wall, Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson, plus young players such as Terance Mann — plus a pick if they need it.

The question for teams: Irving wants a max contract after this summer, similar to the four-year, $198.5 million fully guaranteed extension the Nets would not offer after Irving had 10 weeks or so of not being disruptive and focusing on basketball. Around the league, front offices are very hesitant to get into the Irving business for that long (most thought he would never get more than a two-year offer). Are the four teams above desperate enough for a bold move that ownership would sign off on four years with Irving? Will any of them? Or, like this summer, will Irving find the market not to his liking?

It’s going to be interesting until the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Watch Shai Gilgeous-Alexander go off for 42, Thunder blow out Rockets

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder took what coach Mark Daigneault called a “bloodthirsty mentality” into Saturday’s rematch with the Houston Rockets.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 42 points to help the Thunder blow out Houston 153-121.

They were disappointed in losing at Houston on Wednesday and responded by setting an Oklahoma City record for points in a game, surpassing the 150 they scored in a win over the Boston Celtics last month.

“Just (wanted to) be the aggressors,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Play our style, our brand of basketball. I think we got away from that a little bit in Houston, and we just wanted to get back on track.”

Daigneault was most pleased that the approach was player-led.

“It wasn’t like I was giving motivational speeches,” he said. “But, you know, as a team, they kind of banded together and decided that they were going to come out and play the way they did. And they were impressive because of it.”

Gilgeous-Alexander set the tone by scoring 20 points in the first quarter.

“I thought tonight was, like, a pretty big leadership statement game for him,” Daigneault said. “I think when you need a response like we needed tonight coming out of the other night, you rely on your guys that are most experienced, who play the most minutes.”

Gilgeous-Alexander shot 7 for 23 from the field in the first matchup, but bounced back to make 14 of 23 field goals on Saturday, falling two points short of his career high. The first-time All-Star also made 14 of 15 free throws and had six assists for the Thunder, despite not playing in the fourth quarter because the Thunder led by 42 points at the end of the third.

Mike Muscala scored a season-high 19 points and Josh Giddey added 17 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds for Oklahoma City.

“We’re a team that’s growing in confidence, and I think our habits are growing,” Daigneault said. “And I think a lot of things are moving in the right direction.”

Josh Christopher and TyTy Washington each scored 20 points and Tari Eason added 18 for the Rockets.

The Rockets were playing without Eric Gordon (sore right knee) and Jae'Sean Tate (right ankle injury).

Rockets coach Stephen Silas didn’t want to hear it.

“You’ve got to step up in these situations, and we didn’t do it,” he said. “We succumbed to back-to-back, three-in-four, no Eric, no Tate, all that stuff. … We succumbed to it. That’s not – we’re talking about winning habits. That’s not one.”

Oklahoma City led 79-53 at the break after shooting 55% from the field. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 28 points in the first two quarters, a career high for him in a first half.

The Thunder continued to roll in the third quarter, making 16 of 26 field goals in the period to go up 123-81 heading into the fourth.

Oklahoma City set the Thunder single-game scoring record on a 3-pointer by Darius Bazley that banked in during the final minute.

Stephen Curry leaves game with knee injury, MRI Sunday

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Warriors fans everywhere — not to mention coaching staff and players — are holding their breath.

Stephen Curry left the game against the Mavericks in the third quarter when he was defending Danny Green and the two collided, knocking knees. On the replay, Curry’s knee seems to bend slightly at an awkward angle.

Curry went to the Warriors’ bench, was looked at by the team medical staff, and soon went back to the locker room and did not return. X-rays taken of his knee were negative, but the MRI expected Sunday will be more telling.

Of extra concern is that this is the second injury to that leg in as many games, Curry was able to play through the first one.

Curry is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game. Of larger concern, the Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. At 27-26 the Warriors sit seventh in the West.

The defending champs have not lived up to that billing this season, never putting together a consistent run of high-level basketball to show us what we believe they are capable of. If Curry misses significant time (and potentially the All-Star Game) it will be longer before we get to see if these Warriors can pull it together.