Harden scores 46, Rockets hang on to beat Clippers 109-105

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Seven games into the season, the Houston Rockets have already experienced more ups and downs than most teams. They lost their first three games and have turned things around to win four in a row.

Much of it is due to James Harden, who scored a season-high 46 points in his second straight game over 40 to help the Rockets beat the Los Angeles Clippers 109-105 Saturday night.

Harden made 13 of 14 free throws and was 5 of 10 from 3-point range a night after he scored 43 in a 116-110 win at Sacramento.

“We got some open shots and I was just being aggressive,” Harden said. “These last couple games when we have been playing well, our defense has led to easy buckets in transition for our offense, so that’s what we have to hang our hat on.”

Blake Griffin had 35 points and 11 rebounds for the Clippers, who played without Chris Paul. The star point guard sat out with a sore right groin as Los Angeles lost at home for the first time in four games.

“We needed to make things tougher for James,” Griffin said. “We needed to make him drive, but he’s good at that just like he’s a good shooter. He had it going and we need to do a better job by committee.”

Marcus Thornton added 16 points, and Dwight Howard had 20 points and 20 rebounds for the Rockets.

With Thornton and Harden hitting 3-pointers, Houston led by 11 midway through the fourth.

The Clippers responded by outscoring the Rockets 17-6, tying it at 105 on a 3-pointer from the left corner by Paul Pierce with 41 seconds to go.

J.J. Redick fouled Harden, who made both to put Houston ahead 107-105.

After a timeout, Griffin put the ball up and it hit the rim and bounced away, with the Clippers arguing Howard should have been called for goaltending. Paul, dressed in street clothes, came on the court during a timeout to make a case with one of the referees.

“That’s textbook goaltending,” Griffin said. “The review really didn’t help us.”

After a video review, the ball was awarded to Houston with 17 seconds to go. Ty Lawson made two free throws for a four-point lead before Jamal Crawford‘s 3-pointer missed at the buzzer.

“I thought our entire team played like they had cement boots on the first three games,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “We were just slow. When you watch the film we just looked sickly. We were able to turn the corner and get downhill.”

Redick added 19 points and DeAndre Jordan had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Clippers.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Harden just missed his career best of 51 points set against Sacramento on April 1. … The Rockets outscored the Clippers 22-10 in fast-break points. … They improved to 2-0 in the second game of back-to-backs. … They have won four straight for the first time since March 23-29 of last season. … Houston has won three straight against the Clippers for the first time since March 28-Dec. 22, 2009.

Clippers: Austin Rivers started his first game of the season in place of Paul, who is averaging 17 points and 8.2 assists. The coach’s son had 10 points in 31 minutes. … Without Paul, the Clippers still had a season-high 29 assists.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Host Brooklyn on Wednesday night.

Clippers: Host Memphis on Monday night.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.