Wednesday night NBA grades: Dwight Howard looks like guy Rockets thought they signed

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Our quick look around the NBA, or what you missed while wondering why anyone would live in a dumpster for a year, voluntarily

source:   Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. The NBA game is in large part about exploiting mismatches. With all due respect to the solid season Miles Plumlee is having, him trying to cover Dwight Howard is a mismatch. One the Rockets went to again and again. Howard finished the night with 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting (plus he was 12-of-18 from the free throw line) and he had 14 rebounds. The Rockets struggled with the Suns this season in previous meetings, but they just pounded the Suns with the big guy Wednesday and he delivered.

source:   Jeff Green, Boston Celtics. Aggressive, attacking Jeff Green poked his head up Wednesday, which I think means six more weeks of winter. But when you get a sighting of Green when he is on you see one of the better scorers in the game. Sure, a night like this likely means he goes into hibernation for another week, but the Celtics don’t get the win over the Sixers without him. Green had 36 points on 11-of-18 shooting, plus he had eight rebounds. Nice of him to put on a little showcase game like this before the trade deadline.

source:   The Cleveland Cavaliers. What. A Tire. Fire. If you lose to a team that has dropped seven games in a row, is on the second night of a back-to-back and by the end of the game had only four eligible players left on the court, you have SERIOUS issues. It isn’t just one thing, it’s everything — management, coach, star players, role players, locker room attitudes, offense, defense, pretty much everyone and everything.

source:  Steve Blake, Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, if you get a triple double on the Cavaliers “defense” it still counts. In his second game back from injury Blake had 11 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds. Plus, he had a key three late when the game was still in doubt. He may be the best point guard the Lakers have on the roster now.

source:   Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker didn’t play after halftime for San Antonio due to a sore back. With the game close in the fourth quarter and first overtime, the Spurs were looking someone to step up with big plays, and Mills was that guy — he had 17 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtimes of the Spurs win. He was the guy knocking down the big snots like it was no big deal. He had a quiet first half but was there when needed.

source:  Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers. When you talk about the best power forwards in the game — LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki (not a traditional four but still) — Griffin wants to be mentioned in that group. And nights like this with a gaudy stat line — 43 points 17 rebounds and 6 assists against the Miami Heat help that cause. He has played fantastic ball with Chris Paul out. But he gets a “B” here because even with all the highlights dunks and good plays he was still just 16-of-34 shooting overall and 14-of-25 inside eight feet. Good, but not quite great.

Three Things to Know: Playoff Lakers activated, come from 19 down to upset Rockets

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers activated, come from 19 down to beat Rockets — now can they sustain it. Led by “playoff mode activated” LeBon James, Thursday night was exactly the kind of win the Lakers need if they are going to climb back into the postseason in the West.

But only if can they build on it. Remember that the Lakers’ biggest win of the season, on Christmas Day over the Warriors? That was followed up by losing 5-of-6. LeBon lifted up his teammates and his team on Thursday night — now he needs to do it again. And again. One good win is not enough at this point.

However, make no mistake: Thursday night was a good win for Los Angeles. Trailing by 19 midway through the third quarter, LeBron James (16 points in the game’s final 18 minutes, 29 for the game) and Kyle Kuzma (18 points on the night) sparked the comeback.

Los Angeles won 111-106, moved back to .500 (29-29), are just 2.5 games back of the Clippers, and it helps that the Kings lost, too (now just one game up on the Lakers).

James Harden kept his streak of 30-point games alive with a floater late in the fourth (32 in a row now at 30+), but he shot just 2-of-7 overall and 0-of-4 from three in the fourth quarter and fouled out late in the game. Harden was frustrated with the calls — and had a right to be. Harden picked up three offensive fouls late, one on a nothing contact at midcourt with Rajon Rondo that Rondo sold, and one on a charge call where Kuzma slid under Harden while he was in the air. The Rockets are convinced referee Scott Foster is out to get them (Chris Paul fouled out, too) and the game film from this one will fuel their paranoia for a while.

Of course, the referees didn’t force the Rockets to miss wide open shots down the stretch, either. The Rockets finally had their full team back — Clint Caplela and Chris Paul played — but looked like a team rusty after a week off.

LeBron and the Lakers got an aggressive, attacking game from Brandon Ingram — something else that has come and gone this season — on his way to 27 points. Reggie Bullock knocked down a key three and — in something incredibly rare for the Lakers — hit his free throws when it mattered on his way to 14 points. Josh Hart looked healthy and moved well, he had his best game in a while.

The Lakers’ next two games are winnable — at New Orleans and at Memphis — and if they are serious about making the postseason, those are games they have to pick up. For a night playoff mode was activated, but the real test for LeBron and company remains ahead of them.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks every bit the MVP — especially on defense — and the Bucks remind everyone they are for real. In an often-sloppy one-point game every play matters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo not giving up on this one and getting the chase down block on Jayson Tatum was one that mattered a lot.

That was an MVP-level play. Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 13 boards on the night and was just rock steady on a night little else was.

With the 98-97 win in a sloppy game, the Bucks improved to 8-3 this season against the other elite teams in the East (Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Boston). Milwaukee has won 15-of-17.

It’s fair to wonder what happens in the playoffs when the defensive pressure is cranked up on Eric Bledsoe (he’s struggled before), and will the Bucks’ shooters keep hitting through the smaller windows afforded them in the postseason. But don’t doubt this — they are capable of hitting those shots and playing under pressure. They are more than capable of winning. The Bucks are real contenders and want to show that on the biggest of stages.

Boston was frustrated not getting some calls, including thinking the Greek Freak fouled Tatum on that breakaway dunk above. Then on the final play, with Boston down one, Brad Stevens drew up something where Kyrie Irving set a backscreen and Marcus Morris cut to the rim and he was coming open — until Khris Middleton fouled him. The Bucks ended up just getting the ball to Irving, who drove and put up a wild shot that missed, but Morris was hot after the game about the no-call. He was right. However: 1) The Bucks had a foul to give so it still would have been ball out of bounds; 2) That one play was not why they lost the game — Irving was 9-of-27 shooting and the Celtics as a team shot just 38.2 percent on the night. The Celtics had their chances but just missed.

3) Stephen Curry dunks! Oh, and hit 10 threes in Warriors win. Stephen Curry had zero dunks this season (according to Basketball-Reference), but he ended the All-Star Game in Charlotte with a reverse throwdown, then on Thursday night he did this.

The bench’s reaction is the best.

Curry also did Curry things — 10-of-16 from three on his way to 36 points.

The Warriors won 125-123 and swept the season series from the Kings — but every game was close, every game hard-fought and the Kings made the Warriors work. It would make a fun first-round playoff series. Sacramento had a chance to steal this game but Buddy Hield passed up a three from a spot he’d hit one 12 seconds before to drive the lane and miss the floater to tie. If the Kings are going to get into the playoffs and face the Warriors in the first round they can’t hesitate — Hield has to take that shot.

The Kings are now 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the final playoff slot in the West, and LeBron and the Lakers are one game behind the Kings. It’s going to be a wild ride the rest of the way at the bottom of the West.

DeMar DeRozan expected to receive warm welcome in Toronto return

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TORONTO (AP) — From fellow athletes to star entertainers, DeMar DeRozan has seen plenty of celebrities soaking up an extended round of appreciative applause from fans.

“When they get that long standing ovation, I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” DeRozan said Thursday. “I’ve never received one.”

Friday night, it could be his turn.

DeRozan is back north of the border for the first time since the Toronto Raptors traded him last summer. His new team, the San Antonio Spurs, face the Raptors on Friday. A four-time All-Star in Toronto who helped the Raptors to five straight playoff appearances, DeRozan is likely to receive a warm welcome when he is introduced.

“If it’s one of those long standing ovations, it’s definitely going to be overwhelming,” DeRozan said in a news conference at the Spurs’ team hotel. “It’s crazy when you get a whole arena on their feet just showing appreciation. I’m looking forward to it, to feeling the love.”

Friday’s game will be the first following the All-Star break for both teams. Toronto (43-16) has won six straight, and is is one game behind Milwaukee for top spot in the Eastern Conference. San Antonio (33-26) beat Memphis in its final game before the break to stop a four-game slide. The Spurs are seventh in the West, nine games behind leaders Golden State.

There wasn’t much love on offer when the Raptors visited the Spurs in January. Toronto forward Kawhi Leonard endured chants of “Traitor! Traitor!” and “Quitter! Quitter!” from the capacity crowd that adored him during his seven seasons in San Antonio.

“It just felt like a road game, but more boos when I have the ball,” Leonard said after the Raptors practiced Thursday. “Environments like that can only get us better, being able to have the fans up in their seats excited, wanting the team to lose, it just prepares us for the playoffs.”

Leaving Toronto last summer was difficult for DeRozan. Still a teenager when he was drafted by Toronto in 2009, he turned into an All-Star by 2014, building his game year after year. He left town as the franchise leader in points (13,296), field goals (4,716), free throws (3,539), and games (675).

DeRozan compared the emotional wounds left by the end of his Raptors career to a breakup, albeit one with a happy ending.

“She moved on and I moved on,” he joked. “Now we’re both happy.”

Toronto coach Nick Nurse worked with DeRozan for five years in his role as a Raptors assistant, and called him “the best dude ever.”

“He was easy to coach,” Nurse said. “He was easy to talk to. And he was a great performer.”

DeRozan certainly performed when the Spurs routed the Raptors in January, recording 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double. It was the first home triple-double by a Spurs player since Tim Duncan in 2003.

The visit to Toronto also gives DeRozan the opportunity to compete against former teammate and friend Kyle Lowry, who missed the game in Texas because of a sore back.

“I’m looking forward to playing against him,” DeRozan said. “Kyle gave me a sense of a different side of understanding basketball. I learned so much from him being my point guard, being my best friend, just everything hat came with that.”

DeRozan said he misses plenty of things about Toronto, but not its winter weather. He conducted his news conference while wearing a furry aviator hat and said he planned to stay in for the night, joking that he hoped Lowry would bring him some food.

Friday’s game will also feature a matchup of the Gasol brothers, Pau, 38, with San Antonio and Marc, 34, with Toronto.

Watch Chris Paul put LeBron James in an armbar (VIDEO)

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Chris Paul and LeBron James are friends. Supposedly. But after this? I’m not so sure.

As the two battled for a rebound on Thursday night at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets stars got tangled up. LeBron’s arm ended up between Paul’s, and the Houston point guard seemingly knowingly jerked down on James’ arm.

It was not a good look, and Twitter was noticeably upset about the apparent dirty play by Paul.

Via Twitter:

James was able to keep playing, scoring 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and six assists.

The Lakers beat the Rockets, 111-106, but before things were said and done both Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni earned themselves technical fouls.

Things were testy during this game between these two teams. It made some sense for LA, who are trying to claw their way into the playoff picture, but not for the Rockets, who are a postseason guarantee at this point.

Who knows if this play will be discussed on the Banana Boat this summer?

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 30 points as Bucks beat Celtics 98-97

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 12 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, Khris Middleton hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks held off the Boston Celtics 98-97 on Thursday night.

On the second-to-last position, Marcus Smart forced a jump ball with Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo tipped the jump to Brook Lopez, who deflected it toward the basket, but missed as the shot clock expired.

The referees huddled during the timeout and put 3.5 seconds on the clock for the Celtics.

Smart inbounded the ball over the towering Lopez and dropped a pass into Kyrie Irving‘s hands at the top of the key. With Eric Bledsoe draped all over him, Irving drove the lane, seemed to stumble and missed an awkward shot as time expired. The Bucks won the season series 2-1, their first over the Celtics since 2014-15.

For Antetokounmpo and Irving, who had 10 of his 22 points in the fourth, it was a rematch since squaring off Sunday at the All-Star Game. Antetokounmpo captained Team Giannis, while Irving started for Team LeBron.

Irving, who has battled a variety of injuries this season, used the All-Star Game to get ready for his return to action. He had missed the two previous games with a strained right knee and 11 overall.

Antetokounmpo added 13 rebounds, Middleton had 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds, and Malcolm Brogdon had 15 points for the Bucks. They have won 15 of the last 17 games, including nine of the last 10, to improve to 44-14.

Horford added 21 points and a season-high 17 rebounds for Boston, and Jayson Tatum had 17 points and 10 rebounds.

TIP-INS

Celtics: F Gordon Hayward did not play after spraining his right ankle during a workout on Tuesday. … F/C Aron Baynes (left foot contusion) is sitting out the three-game trip.

Bucks: Mirotic made his Bucks’ debut at forward with three minutes left in the first quarter. He missed his first four games with a calf injury. … G Donte DiVincenzo (bilateral heel bursitis) did not play.

UP NEXT:

Celtics: At Chicago on Saturday night.

Bucks: Host Minnesota on Saturday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports