Bulls finally make long-overdue statement with win over Cavaliers

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CHICAGO—After over a month of searching for it, the Bulls finally have their statement win, and right before the All-Star break. They’ve had more impressive individual games, but given the stakes here—coming off a rough month, with Jimmy Butler out against a Kevin Love-less Cleveland Cavaliers team—Thursday night’s 113-98 victory over the Cavs was their most important win of the season.

Derrick Rose was the headliner, and he was spectacular: 30 points and seven assists with just two turnovers. But it was more than Rose. Tony Snell continued a career week, tying his career high with 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting and playing LeBron James tough defensively. Pau Gasol was excellent again, with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Joakim Noah is starting to round into shape, looking more like his healthy self.

Going into the All-Star break, the Bulls are 34-20. They’ve won four in a row and after a month that’s seen everything from an extended Mike Dunleavy injury to Tom Thibodeau hot-seat chatter, this stretch has been a welcome change of pace. The Cavs had won 14 of their last 15 games, and the Bulls flat-out outplayed them for 48 minutes.

“We played from behind a lot,” said James. “We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds. We turned the ball over, most of which was my fault. And they played a good game.”

Most encouraging for the Bulls was their defensive effort. The Cavs have the sixth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions, and the Bulls held them to 98, forcing eight turnovers from James and 16 overall from the Cavs.

“We can be really good. Everybody knows that. It just takes everybody being on the same page as far as defense goes.”

The Bulls and the Cavs are both still chasing the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But for the first time on Thursday, it started to feel like a rivalry. The Cavs won their first two meetings convincingly, and after some December and January drama, had generally been playing like a serious contender while the Bulls were still up and down. But Chicago finally got the response they had been looking for, and looked impressive doing it.

Before the season, the Bulls and Cavs were seen as the prohibitive favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, they’re both starting to look the part. Even after the loss, Cavs coach David Blatt is feeling good about where his team is.

“The front office has been great and put together a good group,” Blatt said after the game. “They put together a competitive team and I’m just happy with this group. We will be good with what we have if we can stay healthy. We won 14 of our last 16. We got a really good floor rhythm and approach going. We should feel good going into the break.”

The Bulls have had a never-ending parade of injuries. They finally got Dunleavy back on Tuesday, but were without Butler on Thursday. They’ve only played 16 games with their full starting lineup intact, but they’re 13-3 in those games, and after the All-Star break, Thibodeau hopes that everybody will finally be healthy at the same time.

“We want to keep going, that is the important thing,” said the coach. “Our reality has been guys out all the time. Whoever is in there is getting the job done.”

 

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.