Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: Jazz, Pistons move into playoff positions

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What you missed around the league Wednesday while shedding a tear over the lost beer (and chips)….

1) Utah comes from behind to beat Houston, take over final playoff spot in West. You can make an argument that Houston is a dangerous first-round playoff opponent — they still have James Harden, Dwight Howard, a decent supporting cast, and they have put together stretches of excellent basketball this season. The problem is, first you have to make the playoffs, and right now Houston is on the outside looking in.

Utah came from 18 down to beat the Rockets in Houston Wednesday night, 89-87. Gordon Hayward had 22 points, Derrick Favors 17 including the game winning dunk — yes, he was standing on the baseline and should have been called out of bounds right before that dunk, but that’s not why the Rockets lost. James Harden wasn’t the reason the Rockets lost either, he had 26 points, 10 assists, eight steals and seven rebounds. But the Rockets played a terrible third quarter shooting 32 percent, and that has been the problem all season — they can’t string together four good quarters, or four good games, in a row. Inconsistency. The Rockets are just half a game back of both Utah and Dallas, they can get in the postseason, but their playoffs start now — and they need four quarters of solid play a game to make it. Because Utah is healthy (well, except at the guard spots), defending, and making enough plays to win nightly.

2) Pistons move into eight seed in The East on night Bulls, Wizards fall. Detroit is putting it together at the right time with Tobias Harris — despite a triple-double from Elfrid Payton, the Pistons beat the Magic 118-112. That’s four straight wins for Stan Van Gundy’s crew, who are so hot Reggie Jackson is bouncing in threes (this didn’t count, but damn):

While that was happening, the Bulls were losing to the Knicks at home. How does a team fighting for a playoff spot fall to New York at home? How does a team fighting for a playoff spot lose to a team that starts a Jose Calderon/Sasha Vujacic backcourt? Because Jimmy Butler is clearly still not healthy but is trying to play through a bum knee. Because the Knicks frontline owned Pau Gasol and the Bulls the glass. Because the Bulls did not defend the three-point line. Because the Bulls just are not a very good team and not one their new coach seems to inspire quite like the old coach did. Chicago is now one game behind Detroit and Indiana for the final playoff spot in the East (with the second game of a home-and-home against the Knicks tonight).

3) Warriors thump Clippers 114-98, move closer to 73 wins.
Golden State wants 73 wins — even Steve Kerr finally admitted it after the Warriors swept the season series from the Clippers 114-98 Wednesday. Now they just need to go 9-2 the rest of the way to make that happen. This was vintage Warriors — Stephen Curry dropped 33, but it was Klay Thompson‘s sharpshooting in the third quarter that helped the Warriors pull away (Thompson was 7-of-10 from three on the night). Clippers starters not named DeAndre Jordan struggled against the Warriors defense — Jordan had 19 points (and 20 boards), the rest of the Clippers starters had 27. It was an off game for Chris Paul, and that’s not going be enough against Golden State. (The Clippers miss Blake Griffin, but it’s difficult to see them beating the Warriors in a likely second round matchup.)

4) Emmanuel Mudiay hits ridiculous game winner for Denver. When you’re the Sixers nothing goes your way. Also, Emmanuel Mudiay had 27 points and 11 boards on the night, and he’s starting to develop into the point guard Nuggets fans hoped he would be.



5) Delaware guard Russ Smith sets D-League record with 65 point game.
Russ Smith played well when it mattered in March for Louisville — maybe March is his month. Smith is playing for the Delaware 87ers in the D-League and on Wednesday Smith dropped 65 points on 24-of-42 shooting — and his team still lost 140-129 to the Canton Charge.

Smith was attacking the rim — he had 32 points on layups and was 16-of-20 at the free throw line.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.