Three Stars of the Night: Welcome Back, Z-Bo.

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What a night. Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George scored nearly half of his team’s points (34 points on 14-for-25 shooting) in a victory over the Bulls, and he didn’t make the list. Deron Williams had 33 points and 7 assists, nearly carrying the Nets to a victory over the Thunder, and you won’t find him here. Jordan Crawford dropped 22 and 6 in a Wizards win (!) over the Miami Heat (!!!) and, yup, he didn’t make the cut either. Who were Tuesday’s Three Stars of the Night? We’ve got ’em right here:

Third Star: Greg Smith – (21 points and 9 rebounds in 24 minutes)

Everyone made fun of the Rockets for having a roster that consisted of roughly 14 power forwards, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey is probably the one laughing now. With all the viable frontcourt options the Rockets possess, who would have thought that an undrafted free agent would actually outplay Dwight Howard and lock up a come from behind victory over the Los Angeles Lakers? While Howard squirmed uncomfortably on the free throw line (8-for-16) again during Hack-A-Howard, little known reserve big man Greg Smith actually made his clutch free throws and attacked hard for the Rockets, taking little dump off passes strong to the tin with a fearlessness not commonly used around the league’s biggest defensive presence. Smith’s 11 fourth quarter points were a testament to his tough play, but his four offensive rebounds illustrated an even bigger problem among the Lakers frontline (21 offensive rebounds allowed total). With Jeremy Lin, James Harden and Chandler Parsons combining to go a dreadful 10-for-44 from the field, the Rockets needed everything they could get from Smith (and Toney Douglas) to make up for a double digit deficit and take the win.

Second Star: Kevin Durant (32 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds)

Durant has you dead in the water the second he gets the ball, which is why you’ll see teams fight through those pindown screens so hard to try and prevent him from catching the ball. Durant’s ability to turn the corner and reach those comically long arms out towards the rim was just too much for Brooklyn to stop — especially without Brook Lopez in the lineup to protect the basket. The Thunder didn’t run anything particularly pretty down the stretch, but Durant was a foul magnet and converted all his chances (12-for-12) on the evening. Pairing a True Shooting Percentage of about 65 percent with such a high usage rate is just absurd and largely unprecedented, but that’s Durant for ya.

First Star:  Zach Randolph (38 points, 22 rebounds, 3 blocks, 15-for-22 shooting)

What a bully. Z-Bo had only scored more than 20 points in a game once this season, but he definitely made his rounds on the block and beat up anyone who got in his way. Randolph got ridiculously low post position all night, and in a sign that he’s healthy and ready to go again, even threw down a one-handed jam off an overpowering post move. Randolph grabbed 7 offensive rebounds (or Z-bounds, for the Grizz fans out there), and really just lived right next to the rim all day. After scoring all 13 of his field goals in the paint during regulation, Randolph showed off his outside touch in overtime, knocking in two mid-range jumpers to effectively put the game away.

Markell Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Kyle Neubeck of The Philly Voice:

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.

Dwyane Wade: Making Carmelo Anthony ‘fall guy’ doesn’t address the ‘real problem’

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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul – the banana-boat buddies – comprise the NBA’s most famous friendship group.

With Anthony nearing his end with the Rockets, that puts Houston teammate Paul in an awkward place. But Wade and LeBron are speaking up. So are the Trail Blazers’ Evan Turner and Damian Lillard.

Wade:

LeBron:

Evan Turner:

Damian Lillard:

It’s unclear whether Wade is scolding the Rockets or fans/media. That comment is far more loaded if he’s referring directly to the organization. I wonder what he sees at the “real problem” in Houston.

A struggling team waiving a minimum-salary player is rarely viewed as making that player the scapegoat. But Anthony has an outsized reputation due to his long, star-level career. With that in mind, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tried to defend Anthony.

But Anthony is a part of Houston’s problems. He’s awful defensively and shooting poorly. There is mounting evidence he’s washed up. Downgrading his role, whether or not that includes waiving him, is a step in the right direction for the Rockets.

It won’t solve everything, and Anthony – after all that he has done in the NBA – should be treated with respect. But there’s no way around his substandard current level of play.

Report: Jimmy Butler planned to hold out from Timberwolves unless traded, informing team during Friday’s game

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According to one narrative, the Timberwolves decided after Friday’s loss to the Kings to trade Jimmy Butler.

But he might have forced their hand, resulting in his trade to the 76ers.

Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Butler decided he would play on Friday night, but he viewed it as the fork in the road. If the Timberwolves didn’t find a deal to fulfill his long-simmering trade request after that, he would begin to sit indefinitely, league sources told The Athletic.

The Kings defeated Minnesota 121-110 to push the Timberwolves to 4-9 and a winless road trip; Butler had 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 41 minutes. He had played almost 124 minutes in the last three games, all losses, and at halftime of the final one, the Wolves were informed that this was it for Butler, sources said.

Butler reportedly held out for a game a couple weeks ago, though he and Minnesota both denied it. It’s quite believable he would’ve held out again if not traded. Still, informing the team during a game he’s playing would have been quite bold.

I’m not sure who actually blinked first. This could be an I-quit, no-you’re-fired (or vice versa) scenario. Both Butler and Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau are stubborn.

But the most important thing is Butler is gone and both sides can move on – whatever ugliness preceded the trade.