Knicks continue recent strong play with win over Heat

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NEW YORK — The Knicks got their third straight victory and fourth in five games by taking care of the Heat 102-92 on Thursday, and while everyone on both sides pointed to New York’s defense as the reason behind their success on this night, offensively it was as simple as the team finally knocking down some shots.

“We’re starting to figure it out defensively a little bit,” Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said. “I felt our traps and rotations were pretty good. And then when we had to switch, guys set down and really took it upon themselves to try to keep the ball in front and not give up plays at the rim. I thought that was the difference tonight.”

“A lot of late rotations, loose balls and offensive rebounds kind of broke the momentum,” Erik Spoelstra said outside the visitors’ locker room afterward. “Offensively, we were not really up to our game in terms of moving the ball, trusting the pass. We were more stagnant than normal and that hurts.”

It’s tough to trust the pass when there were so many errant ones being fired all over the place. Miami appeared to be out of sync all night long, but it’s unclear just how much of that had to do with what the Knicks were doing. It’s true New York limited switching and kept players in front of them for the most part, but the Heat were out of sorts, and had far more than their usual share of sloppy and disjointed possessions.

The Heat were far from shut down by the Knicks defense in the second half; they shot 54.5 percent from the field and committed just seven turnovers over the final two periods. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined for 52 points on 23-of-32 shooting, often getting into the paint seemingly at will.

But they simply couldn’t stop the Knicks.

Carmelo Anthony was matched up with James most of the night, and overcame a slow 6-of-16 start to finish the game by hitting six of his last eight shots. The Knicks as a team shot 63.2 percent from the field over the final 24 minutes, and hit eight of their 14 second-half attempts from three-point distance.

“They did a good job of junking it up,” Chris Bosh said. “A lot of switches. It took us a while to figure out, I don’t think we ever really got into a good rhythm offensively. There weren’t many plays that we could go back to. It was tough, and I mean, we’re not going to play well offensively every night, but that’s when our defense really has to keep us in the game.”

And it didn’t.

The Knicks were without several of their normal rotation players, but the team is beginning to hit its stride nonetheless. Tyson Chandler was unavailable due to an upper respiratory infection, Beno Udrih missed the game due to a knee injury, and then there was J.R. Smith, who was benched by Woodson after his consecutive games with shoe-untying antics got him fined $50,000 by the league office.

Woodson refused to address the Smith situation at all before the game, and stuck to those non-responses afterward even after Smith’s DNP-CD that came as a surprise.

“Not gonna comment on that, on J.R.,” Woodson said. “Just talk about the game.”

“It was a joke, but a joke gone wrong,” Smith said afterward, and also mentioned that he came to the arena fully expecting to play, and hadn’t had a conversation with Woodson at any point about his status.

The players who did produce, however, did so at a higher level than usual, especially offensively. Still, the way the Miami offense appeared to be so extraordinarily out of control had the Heat searching for answers, which kept coming back to crediting the New York defense.

“They did a good job of switching everything and keeping bodies in front of us,” James said. “For the most part, it worked.”

Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 13 rebounds and the Milwaukee Bucks surged to a 24-point lead in the second quarter in a 133-86 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The 47-point loss was the Thunder’s worst of the season.

Chris Paul scored 18 points for Oklahoma City.

Both teams were without their second-leading scorers. Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton was a late scratch with a sore neck. An ankle injury kept Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari out.

The Bucks had won four in a row and the Thunder had won five straight.

The Bucks built their second-quarter lead behind 14 second-quarter points from Antetokounmpo, seven from Donte DiVincenzo, who started in place of Middleton, and back-to-back 3-pointers from Wesley Matthews.

A key moment occurred late in the second period.

With Milwaukee leading, 54-43, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer got a technical foul after approaching a referee during a timeout with 3:43 left in the quarter. That was moments after Eric Bledsoe was called for a charging foul that irked Budenholzer. After that, the Bucks went on a 17-4 run and led 71-47 at halftime.

Milwaukee outrebounded Oklahoma City, 67-36.

The Bucks made a season-high 21 3-pointers. The Thunder were 6 for 35 on 3-pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shrugs off James Harden dig: ‘I’m just trying to do my job’

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There is some meat to the James Harden/Giannis Antetokounmpo beef.

Harden was pissed Antetokounmpo won Most Valuable Player over him last year and vented about it. When it came to this year’s All-Star Game, captian Antetokounmpo drafted Kemba Walker over Harden while joking he wanted someone who’d pass. After his team lost the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo said his team’s strategy was to get the ball to whomever Harden was guarding and attack.

Harden ramped up the skirmish of words Friday when speaking to Rachel Nichols of ESPN, saying:

“I wish I could just run, run and was 7-feet and run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.”

Antetokounmpo decided to let it die when ESPN asked pregame about what Harden said.

“I’m not the type of guy to take stabs at somebody. … I’m just trying to do my job which is win games and go back home to my family. At the end of the day, if that’s what he believes that’s what he believes. I can’t say anything about it. I’ve just got to keep being focused.”

If you’re circling dates on your calendar, March 25 is what you’re looking for, the day the Bucks host the Rockets.

Harden should believe he is the best player in the game — you don’t get to be where he is without that level of confidence. Antetokounmpo should believe the same thing about himself. We could say the same things about LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and a host of others. It’s part of what makes them great, and not a surprise.

If the MVP thing is eating at Harden he might not like this season’s outcome any better. While I haven’t done a poll, most voters I’ve spoken to have The Beard third behind Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. There’s still more than six weeks of basketball before votes are cast — and the Rockets as a team are surging — but right now, the Greek Freak looks like a repeat winner from what I am hearing.

Rockets protested game despite Tilman Fertitta’s dissent

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta talks big about his devotion to winning.

But when Houston had a chance to turn a loss into a victory by protesting due to an uncounted James Harden dunk, Fertitta balked.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“That’s my basketball people who got mad at ’em. Honestly, I don’t think we should have filed the protest because honestly we blew the 22-point lead. But if something is important to my players and basketball ops people, I give them a lot of leeway.”

I wonder whether Fertitta would have publicly shared his stance if the protest succeeded. I also wonder whether how supported Fertitta’s basketball employees feel considering he’s publicly revealing that he wasn’t on their side.

But this is actually one of the more encouraging stories of Fertitta’s ownership. He allowed room for debate. He listened to the other side. He posted the $10,000 protest fee.

It didn’t pay off this time, but that’s how good owners operate.

As expected, Rockets sign veteran Jeff Green for remainder of season

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Before they committed fully, Houston signed free agent Jeff Green to a 10-day contract. They just wanted to make sure the veteran forward was a fit in their small-ball system.

It turns out, he was a perfect fit.

Through four games, playing a little more than 19 minutes a game, Green averaged 9.8 points a game on a ridiculous 89.6 true shooting percentage. That’s not sustainable (he’s shooting 61.5 percent from three), but it was enough for the Rockets to sign Green for the remainder of the season, something the team announced Friday.

Green, at 6’8″, played on the wing most of his career. However, with the Rockets he backs up P.J. Tucker at center.

Green started the season a member of the Utah Jazz, but the fit there was not as clean. While he averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances, the Jazz ultimately waived him to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker.

This contract only runs through the end of this season, but the Rockets could re-sign Green for next season, if the sides agree this summer. For now, the focus is on the Rockets’ hot streak and building on that as the league moves toward the postseason.