Associated Press

Rockets clinch playoff berth with 116-81 win over Kings

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HOUSTON (AP) — After it looked as if they’d be heading home early just a week ago, the Houston Rockets are in the playoffs after securing the final Western Conference playoff spot on the last day of the regular season.

“A lot of people wrote us off, thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs and here we are,” James Harden said.

Harden scored 38 points to lead the Rockets to an easy 116-81 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night for the playoff spot.

The Rockets never trailed and had a 64-44 lead at halftime behind 16 points from Harden and 10 each from Dwight Howard and Michael Beasley.

They won their last three games to sneak into the playoffs after losing three of the previous four to fall behind Utah and into ninth place in the West. Houston will meet top-seed Golden State in the first round of the playoffs this weekend.

“We … sat here at the beginning of the year thinking the playoffs wouldn’t have been this big of a struggle, so we had expectations of making the playoffs,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “So, now we have to get busy.”

Ben McLemore had 24 points for the Kings, in what was likely coach George Karl’s final game with the team amid reports that he could be fired as soon as Thursday. Karl went 44-68 since taking the job in February 2015, and this season is the 10th straight season in which the Kings did not make the playoffs.

Karl didn’t address his job status directly, but did reflect on his time with the Kings and said he thinks they built a good foundation for the future.

“There were many, many more good days than bad days, but there’s no question this season had a lot of negative to it,” he said. “But I think I’m proud of how we’ve persevered and fought through it and actually became a stronger team as we finished the year.”

The Rockets are in the postseason for the fourth straight year, but they certainly didn’t have the regular season they had hoped for after reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1997 last season. They returned most of the pieces from that team that won 56 games, but weren’t able to build on last year’s success.

Things went wrong early this season and coach Kevin McHale was fired after the team won just four of its first 11 games. He was replaced by Bickerstaff, but it didn’t lead to more consistent play and the Rockets were never able to keep pace with the elite teams in the West.

After a loss to the Suns on Thursday, it seemed likely that Houston would miss out on the playoffs. Instead, Utah dropped two of its next three games and the Rockets got back on track to win the remainder of their games and lock up the last postseason spot.

“We needed some big wins and guys got those,” Harden said. “Tonight we played really well. Even though the Sacramento Kings were short-handed, we went out there and just took care of business. It’s about us from here on out.”

Sacramento was overmatched in this one from the start with Houston racing out to a 10-2 lead by the first media timeout. It wasn’t surprising considering the Kings dressed just eight players, with DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Darren Collison, Rudy Gay and Caron Butler sitting out for rest, and Omri Casspi (strained right hamstring) and Marco Belinelli (sore right foot) missing the game with injuries.

Houston led by 21 in the third quarter when Harden scored the next 10 points, with two 3-pointers, to push it to 88-57.

That spurt gave Harden his fourth straight 30-point game, which ties a career high, and it was his 38th game this season with at least 30 points. He played less than a minute in the fourth quarter, and he and the rest of Houston’s starters went to the bench for good after his 3-point play with about seven minutes remaining made it 103-71.

Harden set career marks in points (29), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1) to join LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a season.

TIP-INS

Kings: Eric Moreland did not play in the second half because of a sore left foot. … James Anderson added 13 points. … Willie Cauley-Stein had six points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.

Rockets: Howard finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. … Patrick Beverley had nine points and his six steals and 12 assists were both career highs. … K.J. McDaniels added 11 points with four rebounds. … Clint Capela had a career-high 17 rebounds.

HOWARD HELPS OUT

Howard hosted a blood drive on Wednesday to honor Turner sideline reporter Craig Sager, who is fighting acute myeloid leukemia. Howard visited donors at the drive after shootaround, and those who gave blood received a T-shirt featuring illustrations of Howard and Sager. Sager, who is receiving treatment in Houston, attended the game and received a loud ovation when he was introduced in the first quarter.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
PJ Tucker
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, if Tucker is a big or a wing, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.

Report: Tobias Harris won’t play for Team USA in World Cup, either

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The theoretical lineup of players who’ve withdrawn from consideration for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup roster just gained frontcourt depth.

So far, we had:

Add Tobias Harris.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Harris is a real loss. He’s a good player whose ability to blend with other good players – as he showed with the 76ers last season – would’ve made him particularly helpful on Team USA.

The Americans still have other forwards available – Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker. But none match Harris’ combination of talent and frontcourt versatility.

USA Basketball is down to just 14 players for its training camp next month:

The U.S. almost must add more players to the pool.