Don’t look now but Celtics have won four in a row, lead Atlantic Division

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The Boston Celtics have won four in a row, improved to .500 (4-4), and right now that is good enough to lead the Atlantic Division (tied with Philadelphia).

After a 0-4 start I didn’t think I’d be writing that sentence. It certainly beats even Celtics’ fans expectations.

There are things we can pick apart with this streak, we certainly can question its sustainability, but the fact is the Celtics are hustling, getting some easy buckets in transition and winning games. Combine that with the slow starts for the Knicks and Nets, and you have an Atlantic Division upside-down cake.

During this mini-streak the Celtics’ defense has been almost flat with the start of the season, maybe marginally better but not significantly — it is the Boston offense that is fueling the run.

During the last four games the Celtics have scored 6.4 more points per 100 possessions than their season average, in part because they running a little more (three more possessions per game — they really got out and ran against Orlando Monday night). Along with that they also have cut their team turnovers down from 18 percent of their possessions for the season down to 13.9 percent. They are assisting a little more (they love the handoff from a big to a guard using him as a pick), shooting a little higher percentage, and hitting the boards a little harder. Their offensive numbers are up across the board.

Gerald Wallace, for all his talk, has been a hustle and glue guy during the streak. Avery Bradley is averaging 15.3 points a game on 52 percent shooting the last four games. Jordan Crawford is putting up 12.8 a night. And the combination of Brandon Bass (13 points), Jared Sullinger (12.3 points and 6 rebounds) and rookie Kelly Olynyk is averaging (11.3 points and 7.3 rebounds) has given Boston solid front line play.

Yes, it’s four early season games so it’s a tad early to plan playoff watching parties. Yes, three of the four wins came against teams looking hard at next year’s draft in Utah and Orlando (twice). But remember, they did beat the Heat in Miami as well.

And they are doing it all without Rajon Rondo.

Celtics fans should savor this. Things are going to get tougher as you look at the teams coming up on the schedule; stop and enjoy these things while you can. As coach Brad Stevens said after the game, things can turn on a dime in this league.

But today, Tuesday Nov. 12, the Boston Celtics are atop the Atlantic division.

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.