Three Stars of the Night: Front court players in spotlight

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There’s a simple old coach’s axiom in basketball: Tall and good beats small and good. So tonight we look at the tall guys and give them their due with the three stars.

There were other candidates big and small who were worthy but just missed the cut: Carmelo Anthony (27 points 7 rebounds), Brandon Jennings (19 points, 19 assists), Amir Johnson (22 points, 14 rebounds), Stephen Curry (29 points, 7 assists) and Deron Williams (22 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds).

Third Star: LaMarcus Aldtridge (33 points, 11 rebounds)

This was the kind of performance that made you say, “maybe this guy should be an All-Star again this year.” On a night when Oklahoma City showed they can play great defense and smothered most Blazers players (Damian Lillard was 3-of-14 with Russell Westbrook hounding him) but Aldridge kept Portland in the contest. When he got the ball on the left side mid-post (or out farther but backed his man down) the Thunder had no answer. His 33 points came on 15-of-26 shooting.

Second Star: Dwight Howard (22 points, 14 rebounds)

Dwight Howard’s back has clearly been an issue this season, he has not been the same explosive player that dominated for Orlando. It felt like he may have come back too early following off-season back surgery.

That idea may have gotten a boost Sunday — after missing three games because of a torn labrum (shoulder), he returned with an extra bounce in his step. He had 10 points in the first quarter and set the tone for the game. Defensively he patrolled the paint and had the Cavs players adjusting shots or settling for jumpers. On offense he drew double teams (even when just rolling to the rim) that opened up the rest of the offense. That is the Howard the Lakers need.

First Star: Kevin Durant (33 points, 6 assists)

This was a “Kevin Durant is the MVP” kind of game. Oklahoma City does not beat Portland Sunday night without Durant. He pretty much carried them. You can kind of say a lot of nights, but Sunday it was ridiculously evident. On the night he scored 38 percent of his teams total points, and in the second half that jumped to 49 percent (he had 22 of his points after halftime). He has improved as a playmaker, as a ball handler and as a defender this season. It all showed Sunday.

Terry Rozier on Celtics’ challenge: “Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

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Too many mouths to feed.

Among the many “what is wrong with the Celtics?” theories the idea that there are too many players who want touches and shots had a lot of traction around the league. Last playoffs, then rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and “scary” Terry Rozier had increased roles — and thrived. They were the alphas (along with Al Horford), the guys with the ball in their hands leading a team to the conference finals, and they liked it — these are young players trying to carve out a role (or, in Rozier’s case, prove to other team’s he’s a starting point guard) and they didn’t want to take a step back. But that’s what had to happen with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the rotation. The result was a lack of a pecking order on offense, uncomfortable sacrifices, and precious little of the fluid play that got them within a game of the Finals a year ago.

Rozier seems to agree with that theory, speaking to Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports in a story about Kyrie Irving’s adjustment to being a leader.

“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Rozier told Yahoo. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”

When asked if the roster was too talented, Rozier didn’t back down.

“Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

If everyone buys in, if everyone sacrifices (including Irving), if guys are willing to accept a role, all that talent can make the Celtics versatile and the team everyone expected. The team to beat in the East.

To get there will require Irving to be a leader — in words and actions. That’s more than just calling out the young core, it’s getting them involved and feeling like contributors so they are willing to make sacrifices. It’s doing the little things yourself. Can Irving do all that and turn Boston into the conference favorite we expected.

Or were Nets fans right, he is going to get frustrated and leave this summer?

The second half of this season in Boston is going to be fascinating.

Philadelphia signs Corey Brewer to 10-day contract in effort to add depth

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The Philadelphia 76ers remain a step behind Toronto and Milwaukee — and maybe Boston — in the Eastern Conference, despite adding Jimmy Butler to form a “big three” with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. One issue is getting those three to make sacrifices to their games and meld together. The second big issue is depth: J.J. Redick is their fourth best player, then things drop off a cliff.

Enter veteran Corey Brewer.

For at least 10 days, anyway.

The 76ers signed Brewer to a 10-day contract, the team announced Tuesday.

“For me, I love playing basketball. I just wanted another opportunity,” Brewer told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I feel like I did enough last year that I should be on a team. But sometimes things don’t work out the right way … you can’t look it like that. An opportunity is an opportunity. I get to come here, and I gotta prove myself…

“I’m like a glue guy,” he said. “I do all the little stuff. I play hard, I’m going to run hard, and I feel like the way Ben [Simmons] pushes it, that’s right up my alley.”

Brewer is the king of the leak out and may benefit from some Simmons passes that way.

Brewer split time last season between the Lakers and Thunder, and in OKC he showed he could play a role on the right team and shot 34.3 percent from three. That fit was not evident on the young Lakers, Brewer looked out of place and struggled with his shot, which is likely why he was not able to land a guaranteed contract this past offseason.

This is a 10-day contract, the Sixers can sign him to two of those before having to either let him go or commit to him for the rest of the season. This is likely the first in a series of roster moves over the next few weeks as Elton Brand looks to find the right pieces to go around his big three stars so the team can make a push this offseason.

Warriors, Nuggets battle for first in West

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Playing in big games has become the norm for the Golden State Warriors.

Not so much for the Denver Nuggets.

Tuesday’s matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference is new territory for Denver. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets have been rebuilding and retooling, not competing for titles, but they have arrived this year and are challenging to be the best team in the Western Conference.

The winner of Tuesday’s game in Denver will sit atop the conference standings. Denver (29-13) has been up there for a while now, but the Warriors (29-14) might yet find another gear in the second half of the season as they pursue a third consecutive NBA championship.

They are about to get a new, big piece when DeMarcus Cousins returns this week.

The center, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, tore his Achilles almost a year ago. His season debut is projected to come on Friday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State is expecting it will take time for Cousins to get fully immersed and integrated into the offense.

“We’re excited, but it’s a little daunting, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s not going to be simple just to plug him in. There’s going to be an adjustment period. He knows that, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Nuggets have a big enough task stopping Golden State’s other stars. Guard Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, hit 11 3-pointers in a 48-point effort to beat Dallas on Sunday, and then there’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to worry about.

And the Warriors have a revenge factor to use. The Nuggets beat them 100-98 in Denver on Oct. 21 when Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones‘ layup at the buzzer.

The Nuggets have been playing at a high level lately, especially at home, where they are 18-3 and have won their last 12. The latest was a grind-it-out 116-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, which might have been a perfect tune-up for the Warriors.

Denver has its own star power in center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic, averaging team-highs with 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had consecutive triple-doubles last week and then clocked in with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Portland.

With or without Cousins, Golden State will have a tough time handling the Serbian. But the Warriors are best when they force teams to adjust to them, and they come at teams from different angles. One night it could be Curry, the next Durant. When tuned in, Golden State is hard to beat.

The Nuggets are ready for the challenge after getting everyone’s best this season.

“As teams give us their best shot because we’re No. 1 in the West right now, everybody gives the Warriors their best shot,” said Murray, who is averaging 18.5 points. “We just know we have the home court, and we beat them last time here.”

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the MVP race, other NBA mid-season awards

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Patience is not the NBA community’s strong suit — we were talking MVP race the first week of the season.

Now, however, it’s time. Teams are more than halfway through the season and we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start discussing who is the frontrunners for all of the league’s end-of-season awards.

Is it James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?

Can anyone challenge Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year?

It’s a deep field for Coach of the Year, but is Mike Budenholzer the front-runner and can Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger or someone else catch him?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports talk about their picks at this point of the season and who is in the running long term.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.