Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: Turns out Houston players can try

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The big news in the NBA on Wednesday afternoon was the Rockets’ firing coach Kevin McHale 11 games into the season, hoping to shake up the team and finally get a strong effort. The big question Wednesday night would be would the move pay off? In case you were challenging your friends to fights with Klingon weapons, here are five things to know from a Wednesday night around the NBA:

1) Would you look at that: Rockets players’ can play all out after all. If you just looked at the box score, you’d see James Harden went off for 45 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists the day after his coach was fired and teammates called out his effort. From there you could draw the conclusion, “Harden finally played like his old self.” Not really, his jumper was a mess most of the night, but to his credit he started to attack the rim and made some critical plays down the stretch. In that sense, he was more his old self. More importantly, he was trying. Harden said after the game something needed to change, apparently McHale losing his job qualifies. Harden was giving a legitimate effort — and so was the entire team. They played harder on defense, and they got back in transition, they did not give up.

All that said, the reality is the Rockets were more lucky that good to get an overtime win against Portland — Houston was down 15 in the fourth quarter, and nine points with three minutes left. They needed this miracle from Corey Brewer to even get to OT.

In his first game, J.B. Bickerstaff did some smart things — such as making Ty Lawson come off the bench, then when he was an ice-cold 1-of-8 shooting, keeping Lawson out the entire fourth quarter. Bickerstaff got the win and you should expect to see more of that, even though that’s more about timing than coaching. Bickerstaff was given the keys to the team right now for a reason — the Rockets’ schedule gets soft, in addition to Portland they face Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and plenty of other teams still under .500 the next few weeks. Even if they had kept McHale, the Rockets would have won a bunch of those games. But the Rockets made the change, and it worked for a night. And it lit a fire under Harden (which was part of the goal).

2) Sixers become first franchise ever to start 0-12 in consecutive years. The Indiana Pacers took charge of the contest in the second quarter with a 16-4 run and never looked back, picking up the 112-85 win. Philadelphia had zero answers for Paul George, save for trying to play six guys at a time at one point (which remains against the rules and led to a technical.) Then there were the 31 Sixer turnovers on the night (watch them all here):

Trust the process. This loss dropped the Sixers to 0-12 on the season — Philly is now the only franchise in NBA history to start back-to-back seasons with o-12 records or worse (they were 0-14 last season). Trust the process. There are some fans and some minority owners frustrated with the volume of losing, but the only voices that matter are still on board with the process. The thing is right now they have to trust the process — the Sixers very possibly could have two top-five picks next June (their own plus the Lakers’ pick if it is outside the top three), not to mention a couple of others in the first round come June (depending on where teams finish and the protections on the picks). Right now the Sixers need to remain committed to making their picks high ones. But the frustration with losing — 22 in a row if you go back to last season — is mounting in some quarters.

3) Orlando’s Evan Fournier drains game winner to beat Minnesota. Scott Skiles was hired in Orlando to start winning games — and if that means benching young players Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja, and Aaron Gordon for the entire second half, so be it. This isn’t about player development, it’s about wins. And Fournier — who has had an impressive start to the season — gave the Magic a dramatic victory with this shot.

4) Dunking on Rudy Gobert? That’s impressive DeMar DeRozanThis is not fair to Gobert — he had five blocks in this game and was key to Utah getting the win, plus he got the best of DeRozan on most of their encounters in this game. Gobert was the better player. But this still is the highlight everyone will see, and maybe the dunk of the year so far.

5) Russell Westbrook is a beast. I feel like that headline could be a permanent part of the five takeaways every night the Thunder play. Wednesday Westbrook had 43 points on just 25 shots, nine rebounds and eight assists to spark a Thunder victory over a struggling Pelicans squad. Enjoy the highlights, because he is a beast.

Donovan Mitchell scores 25, Rudy Gobert has 22 and key late block, Jazz rally past Mavs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert had 22 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to propel the surging Utah Jazz to a 112-107 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 23 for the Jazz, who have won 14 of their last 15 games.

Luka Doncic scored 25 points for the Mavericks, who have dropped two of three after winning four straight. Doncic managed only two points in the final quarter.

Seth Curry added 19 points for Dallas.

Gobert’s three-point play — a dunk and a free throw — gave the Jazz their first lead since the first half at 96-95. The Mavericks responded with a 3 by Curry and two free throws from Delon Wright.

Gobert broke a 104-all tie with a tip-in, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. and Royce O’Neale exchanged 3-pointers, Gobert blocked what looked like an easy layup for Wright.

Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and then Gobert rebounded Doncic’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made one of two free throws for the final margin.

The Mavericks raced to a 32-19 lead behind Doncic’s playmaking and shooting. The Jazz later scored 12 consecutive points and took a brief 37-36 lead on Georges Niang’s 3-pointer.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 15 points and Hardaway and Wright each chipped in 11 for Dallas.

Portland’s struggles do not have Damian Lillard pushing for trade, “I can weather the storm”

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Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere.

The Trail Blazers are 19-27, sitting as the unexpected 11 seed in the West, and there calls from some quarters of the Pacific Northwest for Portland to do something drastic to try and salvage the season. Too often, those calls are followed by “what if Lillard decides this isn’t working and pushes for a trade?”

It’s not going down that way. Not according to Lillard.

In a league where it’s become commonplace for superstars to use their leverage — either to get traded or to force the team to make bold moves they want — Lillard remains loyal and trusts the front office in Portland. He realizes what this season has become for the Trail Blazers and he wants the franchise to think about next season, not desperation moves to save this one. Here is what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic.

“That don’t have nothing to do with my commitment to the team,” Lillard said. “I mean, it’s not like we are going to do something that is going to take us to the championship at this point. I think it’s more important for us to protect the assets we have, the guys who are going to be here and who are going to help us going forward. I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice that just to make a desperate play.

“It’s been a tough season, but the season is not over. We can make something of this season as we are, but it’s not worth, you know, saying ‘OK, let’s force something and go do something that at the end of the day doesn’t make sense.’ But that has nothing to do with my commitment. I said it after last game (Golden State): I feel like I can find a way. I can weather the storm. I can go through hard times.”

He also has made clear he isn’t going to push GM Neil Olshay to make specific trades.

Lillard is averaging 28.3 points and 7.6 assists per game, he scored 108 points in his last two games, and he’s playing at an All-NBA level again. He remains one of the game’s top guards and a player the Trail Blazers can build a contender around. His five-year max contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

Portland’s challenge is this: Lillard is 29 and in his prime. If they are going to win a title with him that has to happen sooner rather than later. Portland should not make desperation moves to salvage this season — getting Jusuf Nurkic back in the next few weeks could turn things around without a trade — but even looking ahead: If they are fully healthy next season are they on the level of the Lakers or Clippers? To my eyes, no. Then the question becomes what needs to be done to get there? If it’s time for something bold, should they test the trade market for CJ McCollum?

The Trail Blazers have some big questions to answer after this season.

The thing they don’t need to worry about is Lillard.

 

 

Dion Waiters debuts, nearly keys Heat comeback vs. Clippers (video)

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Dion Waiters‘ season entering Friday:

  • Suspensions: Three
  • Instagram posts offensive to the Heat: Two
  • Games played: Zero

However, due to a rash of injuries on the Heat, Waiters finally escaped the doghouse and actually played against the Clippers last night.

He played a little in the first half then started the fourth quarter with Miami down 16. In the final minute, Waiters even twice blocked Lou Williams on the same possession then made a 3-pointer on the other end to cut L.A.’s lead to three.

But the Clippers held on for a 122-117 victory.

Waiters finished with 14 points, including 4-of-9 3-point shooting, in 18 minutes.

Kings demote Buddy Hield, start Bogdan Bogdanovic

Buddy Hield
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Even for a franchise accustomed to misery, the Kings hit this season’s rock bottom Wednesday. Sacramento lost by 22 to the Pistons, who were missing Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown. It was the Kings’ sixth straight loss.

So, Sacramento made a big change last night – starting Bogdan Bogdanovic over Buddy Hield at shooting guard.

The adjustment worked beautifully. The Kings beat the Bulls, 98-81. The starting lineup outscored Chicago by seven points. Hield scored 21 points, shooting 2-for-3 on 2-pointers and 5-for-9 on 3-pointers, and grabbed eight rebounds.

Not every game will be against the lowly Bulls. But it’s not as if Sacramento had been beating anyone.

Kings coach Luke Walton, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“There’s nothing permanent with it, it’s not a punishment to Buddy at all,” Walton added. “Buddy’s been great and we expect him to be great for us tonight. But we’ve got to keep looking for something that works for us.”

“He’ll be fine,” Walton said. “Buddy’s a professional and he knows how we feel about him. Again, this is not a punishment towards him, we’re just looking at trying to mix some things up, try to give ourselves a little juice and find a way to win a game in this stretch that we’re in right now.”

Hield, via Ham:

“You’ve got to come in, be ready and when coach call your number, go out there and hoop,” Hield told Grant Napear on the NBC Sports California telecast following the Kings’ 98-81 win.

“Today I was just locked in and more confident,” Hield said. “I’m just trying to be myself and do what I do best, which is score the basketball.”

Hield has underperformed this season, sometimes leading to tension. Good for him playing hard last night, and Walton was probably wise to downplay the move.

But a team benching a highly paid cornerstone is a big deal.

In order to balance lineups, teams don’t always start their five best players. But the best players usually start, because teams want to play their best players more. It’s generally better to spread that greater playing time over the full 48 minutes than a compressed period that begins several minutes into the game.

Last night, Sacramento treated Hield like a true reserve. He played just 23 minutes, down from 34 per game as a starter.

Maybe Hield will regain his confidence off the bench, return to the starting lineup and continue his momentum. That’d be great for the Kings, though it’d also maintain complications with Bogdanovic headed into restricted free agency this summer.

Sacramento has two talented shooting guards. That’s fine with Bogdanovic still on his first (though relatively high-paying) contract. It becomes more complicated when Bogdanovic receives his raise. The Kings might eventually have to choose between the two.

If nothing else, this lineup change shows not to take Hield’s once-exalted status in Sacramento for granted.