Associated Press

James Harden’s 26 points lead Rockets over Heat 115-102

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden has long been known as a great scorer.

Lately. Houston’s star has been shining as a facilitator, too.

Harden scored 26 points and tied a career-high with 14 assists as the Rockets snapped a three-game skid with a 115-102 win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday night.

It was the second time in eight games that Harden has had 14 assists and he’s had 10 or more in two other games in that stretch.

“He plays the game beautifully,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “His skillset I think is underappreciated by a lot of people. People see the scoring, scoring, scoring, but they don’t see that he makes plays for his teammates. They don’t see the passes he makes time and time again.”

Harden knows that it makes the Rockets much better when he’s able to get other people involved on offense.

“It means the defense has pressure on them,” Harden said. “Guys are making shot, guys are getting into a rhythm, getting comfortable and it’s easier for me.”

Houston had a double-digit lead for most of the second half and was up by 10 when Josh Smith scored all of the team’s points in a 7-2 run that pushed the advantage to 104-89 with about five minutes remaining.

The Rockets started Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward, at center with Dwight Howard serving a one-game suspension for making contact with an official this weekend and Clint Capela out with a thigh injury.

Smith scored a season-high 19 points in his second start this season and first since returning to Houston in a trade from the Clippers on Jan. 22.

He thinks the key to Tuesday’s win was the team’s defense.

“The defense has to be the cornerstone of what we do each and every night,” he said. “I think if we (assert) ourselves on the defensive end it will spark our offense.”

Luol Deng had 17 points for the Heat whose season-high four game winning streak ended.

“Houston clearly deserved to win this game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They brought the necessary disposition. They imposed their will on the game and forced us into so many turnovers in the first half.”

The Rockets were up by seven entering the fourth quarter and scored the first six points of the period to make it 93-80 with about 10 1/2 minutes remaining.

A 3-pointer by Harden with just over three minutes remaining made it 110-93 and sent all Houston’s starters to the bench.

Houston led by 14 early in the third quarter before Miami used a 15-3 run to cut the lead to 74-72 with about five minutes left in the period. Dwyane Wade made four points in the span and the Heat made three consecutive 3-pointers to cap that run with two from Deng and one from Justise Winslow.

The Rockets got back on track after that, using a 9-2 spurt to extend the lead to 83-74 with 2 1/2 minutes left in the quarter.

Patrick Beverley and Marcus Thornton made 3s to get that run going and Terrence Jones finished it with a dunk after a no-look bounce pass from Harden.

The Rockets scored the final five points of the first half and the first eight points of the second half to turn a tie game into a 68-55 lead with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

Trevor Ariza started the third-quarter run with a 3-pointer and Smith scored the next five points.

Deng made a basket for the Heat before Smith sunk another 3-pointer to push Houston’s advantage to 71-57.

Harden made the last five points of the second quarter to give Houston a 60-55 lead at halftime.

QUOTABLE

Wade on Miami’s 17 turnovers: “I think early on we just weren’t mentally sharp. We came out and were losing the ball … and with a team like this who feeds off that you have to be very sharp and tight with the ball.”

TIP-INS

Heat: G Tyler Johnson missed his third straight game with a strained left shoulder. … Wade scored 16 points. … Amare Stoudemire had 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Rockets: Bickerstaff was fined $10,000 Tuesday for public criticism of the officiating after Saturday’s game against Washington. … Rookie F Montrezl Harrell sat out with an illness. …Thornton scored 18 points.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: If Bucks underperform whether to re-sign ‘becomes a lot more difficult’

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Around the league, the consensus among team executives is Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a lock to sign a super-max contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks next summer.

Almost.

Which is why other teams are keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.

The Bucks are a contending team and the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States — the only place he has ever been able to live comfortably and happily with his family — but he keeps leaving the door just a little open. He did that at the end of last season. He did it again over the summer speaking a Harvard University professor who was researching the Bucks turnaround and the challenges of a small market team in the NBA. Via the Journal Sentinel.

“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture,” Antetokounmpo is quoted as saying. “So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”

Define “underperforming.” Do the Bucks need to make the NBA Finals? What if they lose in a close seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia? Anything short of the conference finals — barring a major injury, of course — would be a disappointment. Is this Antetokounmpo just keeping pressure on the organization to spend and put together a winner?

Leaving Milwaukee would mean leaving a lot of money on the table — only the Bucks can re-sign Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $247 million supermax contract next summer. Bucks GM Jon Horst said Milwaukee will offer it (then got fined for saying they would offer it, even though it’s obvious). If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign it, the Bucks will be forced to consider trading him (or lose him for nothing), or find a way to win him over before his contract ends in 2021.

Because of money, comfort level, and playing for a contender, most teams don’t think Antetokounmpo is going anywhere as a free agent next summer.

But they are watching. Just in case.

Jamal Crawford makes not-so-subtle pitch on Twitter for spot on Lakers roster

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The Lakers have made LeBron James their point guard this season, the shot creator with the ball in his hands.

That worked with limited success in a season-opening loss to the Clippers. LeBron tried to force-feed the ball to Anthony Davis much of the night (leading to five turnovers). The Clippers adjusted to defend LeBron/Davis actions as the game wore on — switching but having the big man stay back and daring LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender, neither of which he did well. When Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee was on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing, so the Clippers clogged the paint. In the end, LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.

Laker coach Frank Vogel was stuck because he didn’t have another good playmaking option (his next best guys for that, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, are both out injured).

Free agent Jamal Crawford has an idea and voiced it on Twitter.

Crawford is one of the best veteran free agents available

And no, this is not going to happen.

The Lakers have 14 guaranteed contracts already and the one non-guaranteed they are carrying is Howard (teams can only carry 15 players). If the Lakers waived Howard they would need to replace him with another center. The Lakers could eat the contract of Troy Daniels or Jared Dudley to create a roster spot for a free agent, but they are nowhere near making that kind of move yet. Even if they were, Crawford might not be the guy, he creates shots more for himself than others.

Crawford could help the right team, the man can still get buckets off the bench. He averaged 7.9 points per game last season and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last year. There are downsides — Crawford is 39, has slowed in recent years, and his defense is not good — but in the right role he can help.

Just not the Lakers.

Good try, though.

Draymond Green opens up about, takes blame for last season’s rift with Kevin Durant

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At the time last November, some wondered if Draymond Green‘s on-court, over-the-top argument with Kevin Durant — which extended into the locker room, where Green reportedly called Durant a “b****” and questioned his commitment to the Warriors because of KD’s pending free agency — would doom the Warriors down the line in the playoffs.

Green was more worried about what it would do to his friendship with Durant.

That’s what Green said on The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, a  joint interview with Green and Warriors GM Bob Myers. Green also said the team suspending him for a game ultimately forced him to step back and think about the incident.

“I started to tell myself in my mind, ‘Wow, [Myers is] flipping on me,’ and it just felt like, ‘Wow, OK, is this not the guy I’ve known for all these years? Is he turning on me?’ And I started to tell myself all of these things, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Warriors sided with Kevin Durant.’…

“I just had to accept the fact that I was wrong. And once I was able to get over my stubbornness and accept the fact that I was wrong, I was able to move on. I lost [Durant’s] trust. How do I get that back? Not so we can win a championship or we can win some games … but I actually loved this guy, like that’s really my brother. And so not knowing what’s next in our relationship bothered me more.”

Green said he eventually apologized to Durant and he thought the relationship was repaired. However, Green added that Durant’s comments to the Wall Street Journal this summer that he never felt he fit in with the guys in Golden State really bothered him.

The Green and Durant incident ultimately did not cost the Warriors a title, worn-down ligaments and tendons that snapped did that (as well as an outstanding Raptors team).

Did what Green said push Durant out the door, ultimately to Brooklyn? Only Durant knows the answer to that, but it felt like KD was eyeing the door before Green got in his face.

As for their relationship, if Shaq and Kobe can get along now there’s no reason to worry about Durant and Green.

 

Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet each go off for 34 points against Pelicans (VIDEO)

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Apparently lifting those insanely-large championship rings didn’t wear out Pascal Siakam‘s and Fred Van Vleet’s shooting arms.

Siakam looked like a guy ready to earn that new $130 million contract, and Van Vleet looked like the guy from the NBA Finals who just kept hitting shots and making plays. Each of them scored 34 points — Van Vleet did it on 12-of-18 shooting — helping left the Raptors to a 130-122 overtime win.

Check out the video of Siakam and Van Vleets buckets above.

We’ll see what the Raptors roster looks like after the trade deadline, but as assembled this is a pretty good team that’s going to win a lot of games in the East. Especially is Siakam can continue this level of play and take another step forward off of last season’s Most Improved Player campaign.