Jazz back in playoff picture, Lakers out with nine games left in the regular season

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The Jazz came from 14 points down in the second half to get a big win in Portland on Friday, and by doing so, temporarily reclaimed the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.

The victory was significant, for multiple reasons.

It brought Utah’s record on the season to 37-36, which is identical to that of the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the Jazz hold the tie-breaker by virtue of winning the head-to-head season series over the Lakers, they now control their own destiny with just nine regular season games remaining.

No scoreboard watching is required in Utah the rest of the way — keep winning, and that final playoff spot is theirs.

In addition to reclaiming playoff position, the Jazz win was big for the team’s psyche. The Blazers aren’t great this season, obviously, but are 22-13 at home because Portland has always been one of the tougher places for visiting teams to play.

The Jazz have now won three straight, and the excitement is beginning to build.

Momentum can disappear as quickly as it is gained, but Utah’s remaining schedule is much more favorable down the stretch than that of a Lakers team which will be chasing the Jazz as much as it can.

Utah will play its next four games at home against Brooklyn, Portland, Denver, and New Orleans — all winnable games, even if the ones against the Nets and the Nuggets may be much tougher to get than the others.

The next two will both be big challenges for the Jazz, playing at Golden State and then at Oklahoma City. They wrap up the season with a home and home set with the Timberwolves, followed by a finale at Memphis.

Even if the Jazz do no better than 5-4 against their remaining slate of opponents, it still might be enough to hold off the Lakers.

L.A. plays at Sacramento on Saturday, where the Kings always seem to find a way to have a little something extra ready for those home games against the Lakers.

Next up is a home contest against a surging Mavericks team, followed by games against Memphis, at the Clippers, and against the Hornets. After a trip to Portland, the Lakers will finish the season at home for the final three games, but the opponents are all playoff teams — Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston.

It’s tough to predict which of those games the Lakers might be able to get, but remember, with the Jazz holding that tie-breaker, L.A. needs to win one more than Utah the rest of the way to get into the postseason.

If Utah manages to go 5-4 to finish the season, the Lakers would need to finish 6-3 (or better) to knock the Jazz from that playoff spot. With the quality of teams L.A. has to face over the final nine games of the season, it’s difficult to envision.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.