Five Takeaways from an NBA Monday: What struggles? Harden leads Rockets past Thunder

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The NBA had a full slate of games Monday — highlighted by the undefeated Thunder at the winless Rockets — but if you were too busy Monday night noticing that http://www.fox.com/gothamGotham has gotten much better this season, here are five things you need to know out of the night around the NBA.

1) How James Harden and the Rockets got their groove back. Maybe it took James Harden going against his former team for him to find his step back jumper. Maybe it took Patrick Beverley going against Russell Westbrook to light a fire under the Rockets’ defense. Maybe it just took three embarrassing losses by the Rockets to shake them out of their malaise. Whatever motivated them, the Rockets played Monday night with an urgency we had not seen in the first three games, the kind we saw from them last season. Houston went small in this game, playing Trevor Ariza at the four for extended periods, and that seemed to both energize them and throw off Oklahoma City (which stayed big most of the game).

Harden finished with 36 points on 26 shots; he wasn’t particularly hot shooting, but he knocked down 4-of-12 threes and got to the line 11 times — he was attacking and drawing fouls again. The entire Rockets team was not settling for jumpers, and that got Westbrook in foul trouble, he sat most of the third quarter and was out when Houston went on a 14-2 run to make this a game by the time it got to the fourth. Ty Lawson had his best game as a Rocket by far and added seven points in that tight fourth quarter. Dwight Howard wasn’t moving terribly well but he finished a few alley-oops, played defense at the rim, and he ended the night with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Oklahoma City still has Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and with those two they will be contenders, but their defense remains a work in progress under Billy Donovan. They allowed 103 points per 100 possessions against Houston and through four games are surrendering 101.7 per 100, which is 20th in the NBA. Part of it is the Thunder are forcing turnovers on just 12 percent of opponent possessions, and then opposing teams are shooting 48.8 percent against them. The Thunder defense needs to improve if they are going to challenge the Warriors, Clippers, and Spurs come the playoffs.

2) LeBron James becomes the youngest player ever to reach 25,000 career points. LeBron became the 24th player in NBA history to score 25,000 points in a career — and nobody got there at a younger age 30 years, 307 days). Classy move by the Sixers fans to give LeBron a warm round of applause for reaching that milestone. And those fan got a little show because when LeBron crossed that threshold he did it with some flare.

3) How do the Trail Blazers win games? A whole lot of Damian Lillard. Portland is going to win most of its games this season by simply overwhelming the other team with offense — on Monday night it was Daminan Lillard’s turn to do that against the Timberwolves. Lillard put up 34 points (15 in the third), the Trail Blazers got the breaks down the stretch, and they handed the young Timberwolves their first loss of the season.

4) Warriors off to hottest four-game start in NBA history. This stat is mind blowing: Through four games, the Golden State Warriors have beaten their opponents by a total of 100 points — the largest margin of victory through the first four games of the season ever. Monday night Golden State absolutely throttled a good Memphis team 119-69, holding Memphis to 27 points on 18 percent shooting in the second and third quarters combined. Stephen Curry had 30 points on the night, 21 points in the second alone. However, the bigger stars may have been Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, as the Warriors front line owned the Memphis front line that is their cornerstone.

It’s very early, but the Warriors again have the best offense and the second best defense in the NBA so far, outscoring teams by 26.6 points per 100 possessions. They are on a tear. And the showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday will be must-watch.

5) Minnesota had a touching tribute to Flip Saunders. Monday was Minnesota’s first home game of the season, and the night opened with a tribute to the team’s late coach and GM Flip Saunders. That included this moving video with comments from people around the league, including former and current players, about how he touched their lives.

LeBon James takes over, leads Lakers to NBA Finals with win

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The Denver Nuggets had come back from 3-1 down twice in these playoffs.

The Denver Nuggets had never run into LeBron James.

LeBron dominated this close-out game. He scored 16 points in the fourth quarter. He put up a triple-double of 38 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists. Defensively he shut down Jamal Murray (who was slowed due to a bruise on his foot) and made smart plays.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed a guy take over a game the way he did in the fourth quarter tonight, in person,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said of LeBron.

LeBron did what the Jazz and Clippers had failed to do — he and the Los Angeles Lakers closed out the Nuggets in five games with a 117-107 win.

“He’s had a chip on his shoulder all year long,” Vogel said about LeBron. “Everybody has doubters. To be in the Eastern Conference and get there as much as he had and to come over to the Western Conference, it’s an enormous accomplishment to [reach the Finals] with a third team.”

The Lakers advance to the NBA Finals, which will begin Wednesday (if Miami closes the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday) or Friday (if there is a Game 7 in the East).

LeBron James made history with the win, becoming the third player in NBA history to make it to 10 NBA Finals, joining Sam Jones (11) and Bill Russell (12) of the 1950s-60s Boston Celtics.

The Lakers pulled ahead in the first half of Game 5 because of Nikola Jokic‘s foul trouble — he played just eight minutes in the first half because of it. The Nuggets were +3 in those eight minutes and -13 in the other minutes of the first half, which had Dever down 10 at the break.

The Nuggets fought back in the third quarter, in part thanks to a monster game from Jeremi Grant who had 20 points on the night (tied with Jokic for a team high). Despite a hobbling Murray, the Nuggets did what they had done all playoffs long and refused to fold.

“What more could you ask from a group?” Denver coach Michael Malone said after the loss. “What more commitment, sacrifice, just everything in the last 82 days that our team has gone through. The history that we’ve made. The adversity that we faced and never ran from, embraced it… I couldn’t be more proud.”

Anthony Davis had 27 points for L.A. The Lakers also had role players stepping up. Alex Caruso had 11 points and was 5-of-7 from the floor. Danny Green also scored 11.

However, in the end, it was LeBron James looking like the best player on the planet.

Now he is headed to the Finals with the chance to make history and win a title with three different teams.

 

Lakers’ Anthony Davis ‘good to go’ for Game 5 despite sprained ankle

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This was expected, but when the Lakers officially listed Anthony Davis as questionable for Game 5 with a sprained ankle, it raised a few eyebrows.

Davis will play in Game 5 Saturday night, coach Frank Vogel said pregame.

Anthony Davis sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and while he stayed in the game there were questions about how it would respond the next day.

The Lakers are up 3-1 on a Denver team they know will not be easy to close out.

To do that, Los Angeles needs Davis: When AD has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

The Lakers want to close out in five games to get some added rest. The NBA Finals are expected to start next Wednesday, Sept. 30 (unless one conference finals series goes seven games, then it is likely Friday, Oct. 2). If the Lakers lose Saturday but win Game 6 Monday it would be a short turnaround (as it would be after a Game 7).

Denver, however, has played its best basketball whenever it has faced the prospect of packing its bags and going home.

New York congressman insults Knicks, James Dolan funds opponent

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Things are changing with the Knicks. Leon Rose is in the front office, Tom Thibodeau is the coach, and together they are talking about developing players and having a plan moving forward. It’s a reason for hope…

Then there’s James Dolan.

Max Rose, a Democratic congressman from Staten Island, echoed the voice for a lot of Knicks fans when he said: “I’m a Knicks fan to the day I die, but Dolan’s gotta sell. Right now, this is an absolute disgrace.”

We have seen how Dolan reacts to fans saying he should sell the team. In the case of Rose, he is fundraising for the Republican running against him. It would be easy to say “Dolan is a big President Donald Trump supporter and donates to GOP causes all the time” and this isn’t personal, except Dolan sent out an email to help raise funds for Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis and the New York Post got a hold of it.

“Max Rose thinks he can make our team and my ownership his political platform,” Dolan wrote in a personal email to friends last week that was obtained by The Post. “I need to let him know that we will not stand for this. The best way to do this is to help his opponent. He is in a tight race for the US Congress in Staten Island. … Please join me in helping Nicole defeat Max Rose for Congress.

“It will help send a strong message to all NY politicians that the Knicks will not be their political ticket to reelection.

That’s personal. Dolan isn’t just asking other people to donate.

A $50,000 check from MSG Sports was cut Tuesday to “The Governing Majority Fund,” a PAC run by former Reps. John Faso and Jeff Denham, Dolan confirmed. The PAC’s mission is to help Republicans take back the House.

Rose represents New York’s 11th District, a solid Republican district until the 2018 midterms when it became one of 30 districts nationally that flipped blue. The GOP is trying to turn a number of those back, including Rose’s district.

Whatever you think of Rose’s politics (he’s a former Army Ranger, which helped him in a more conservative district), what he said about wanting Dolan to sell the franchise is what many Knicks fans are thinking. Dolan just doesn’t like to hear it. Maybe Rose and Thibodeau can turn the Knicks around — they certainly deserve a chance — but the team has struggled since Dolan became the owner and that’s not a coincidence.

Whatever Rose and Knicks fans want, it’s also highly unlikely Dolan sells the team, there are no rumblings about that around the league (and he certainly has had chances).

Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps shifts to become Jazz assistant coach

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While teams have moved away from anyone in a dual coach/GM role, some people bounce between coach and the front office around the NBA: Steve Kerr was once the Suns’ GM before being the Warriors coach; Sean Marks was on the bench in San Antonio before moving to their front office and eventually the head guy in Brooklyn.

Now Dell Demps is making that move. The former general manager for the New Orleans Pelicans, who was let go a year ago, will be an assistant coach on Quin Synder’s staff in Utah. Demps was the GM of the Spurs G-League team years back and hired Snyder to coach it.

“I was fortunate to work with Dell to begin my career as a head coach in professional basketball and I know he will delve into his role on the bench,” Snyder said in a statement. “He has an incredible work ethic and commitment to his craft. His vast experience both as a player and in front office roles brings a unique perspective that will be invaluable to our team. We’re excited to welcome him to the Jazz.”

“I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with Coach Snyder again,” Demps said. “I have always had tremendous respect for Quin and the Jazz organization. I look forward to joining this talented coaching staff and working with our players. My wife Anita and I couldn’t be more excited to make the move to Utah and become a part of a tremendous community.”

Demps was not the only hire by Snyder, who is also bringing former NBA player Keyon Dooling. He played for 13 years in the league and then has worked with the National Basketball Players Association in various roles — most recently as a wellness counselor and mental health advocate — in recent years. Dooling played for two years at Missouri in college, a team coached by Snyder.

“Keyon is a fantastic addition for us on multiple levels and someone I’ve always had tremendous respect for since our time at Missouri where we formed a close bond that has continued throughout the years,” said Snyder. “He’s a natural leader who was a captain on multiple teams in the league and I have no doubt that the way he approached the game as a player will translate to the work he puts in with our roster on the court.”