Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Desperate Rockets, James Harden get win over Thunder

Associated Press

If you took Sunday to watch the first pitch of the MLB season — and see Long Beach State’s own Troy Tulowitzki hit the first home run of the season — we understand. Here’s what you need to know from the NBA Sunday.

1) James Harden drops 41, Rockets out-execute Thunder down the stretch to get a key win in playoff quest. There are a couple of ways to look at this game. There is the Rockets’ perspective, where a team a game out of the playoffs could not afford to fall further behind and played with real desperation. Their biggest star James Harden stepped up with 41 points, guys like Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley made plays down the stretch, and the Rockets got that needed win 108-100.

From the Thunder’s perspective, well, remember when everyone complained about the simplistic sets and poor execution of the Thunder in the clutch under Scott Brooks? Well, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Oklahoma City’s season-long problem holding leads reared it’s ugly head again Saturday: The Thunder were up midway through the fourth quarter when the Rockets went on a 16-2 run to take a lead they would never surrender. Harden was impressive, but what decided this game was execution with everything on the line. Houston was flat-out better at that Sunday. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were not making plays, Harden was.

2) The bad news for Houston: Dallas and Utah keep pace with wins; will Memphis fall out of postseason instead? If you believe prediction sites like, the Houston Rockets and their favorable schedule have a 69 percent chance of making the postseason. That provides a little comfort, but the reality is Houston remains one game out of a playoff spot despite their impressive win because Dallas and Utah also won. Both had winnable games, and both took care of business: Dallas beat Minnesota 88-78 thanks to another big night from J.J. Barea with 21 points and six assists; while Utah handled struggling Phoenix 101-86, with Gordon Hayward scoring 22.

Here’s one increasingly interesting playoff scenario: Maybe all three of Houston, Dallas, and Utah make the playoffs because Memphis falls out. The incredibly banged up Grizzlies — no Mike Conley, no Marc Gasol, and on down the line — have lost six in a row after Orlando beat them Sunday. The Griz have lost 10-of-12, and while currently the five seed in the West they are just three games up on nine-seed Houston. It is possible the Grizzlies lose all five remaining games (two against record chasing Golden State), and if that happens they could fall out of the postseason altogether.

3) Golden State bounces back with a comfortable win. Seven previous times this season the Warriors lost, and each time they bounced back with a win. Usually an easy win. Make that eight — the Warriors got 39 points from Stephen Curry and pulled away in the second half to beat the Trail Blazers 136-111. Those eight bounce back wins by the Warriors have been by an average of 15 points. Damian Lillard tried to make it interesting scoring 38 of his own, but Curry has a much deeper and better team around him than Lillard, and it showed.

4) Blake Griffin is back, and Clippers win again. His hand is healed, his suspension is over, and while is quad is still an issue Griffin was back on the court Sunday. Which is good news for the Clippers. Griffin played 24 minutes, looked rusty as expected (2-of-7 shooting overall) but showed a few flashes in the Clippers win over the Wizards.Oh yeah, he also threw down an alley-oop from Chris Paul.

With the win Clippers clinched fourth at least in the West (to be honest they are locked in to the four seed, they are not catching OKC) and home court in the first round, likely against Portland unless Memphis starts winning suddenly.

5) Throwback Kobe Bryant drops 34 in throwback game against rival Celtcs (but Boston wins anyway).
“Two things crossed our staff’s minds,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “Number one is, as much as we enjoy watching him on TV, I’m glad that we never will (see him in person) again. Number two is, I can’t imagine what he was like 10 years ago because he looked like he was 29 out there.”

Kobe Bryant dropped 34 points on the Celtics for old times sake, hitting threes and contested jumpers all night long. You could tell he still has a little extra fire when it comes to playing Boston. The problem for Kobe’s Lakers is they still defend like the Lakers have all season, so when the Celtics executed well down the stretch that was too much (Boston won 107-100). But Kobe gave the fans at Staples what they came to see, a little trip down memory lane.

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.