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Three things we learned Wednesday: MVP level Stephen Curry is back

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The Miami Heat made it nine wins in a row. Kyrie Irving was dropping dimes, with 14 assists (the most ever by a LeBron teammate). The Knicks won (against the Nets, but it still counts). Even Dell Curry was draining threes. It was such a busy night in the NBA that none o that even made our list of takeaways from Wednesday night around the league.

1) MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Because the Warriors weren’t dangerous enough already. Stephen Curry is not going to win a third straight MVP award this year, it’s either going to be James Harden (I think he’s the frontrunner now by a small margin) or Russell Westbrook.

However, after a rough couple of months to start the season, MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Just ask the Hornets, who watched him drop 11 threes and 39 points on them Wednesday (a Warriors 126-111 win).

Those 11 threes left Curry one short of the record for most in a game (12, by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall) but Steve Kerr didn’t play Curry in the fourth to chase the record (Curry played just 30 minutes). That’s not a game the Warriors are playing this season, chasing records.

Things changed for Curry after the Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers. He knew he needed to be more aggressive (and not defer as much to Kevin Durant), and Steve Kerr knew he needed to put Curry in better situations to take advantage of his skill set. Curry was given a chance to run more pick-and-rolls (as he requested), and now it was Durant setting the pick more often. Curry’s shots went up by three per game, and while not all of those were “good” shots part of what makes Curry tick is taking some shots that nobody else should take — he hits a few, and it gets him going.

As noted by ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, with the ball in his hands Curry’s three-point percentage jumped from 39.7 percent before Christmas to 46.2 percent after it. The numbers bear out he’s playing like his MVP self again. His swagger is back. The Warriors are his team again.

Curry looks like the best player in the league again (LeBron James doesn’t dial it up like this for the regular season anymore).

And woe is the rest of the league when Curry plays like this.

2) Or maybe Isaiah Thomas is the best player in the game — he drops 42 on Raptors to get Celtics win. This was a big game: It was for the lead in the Atlantic Division (if anyone actually cares about NBA divisions anymore), more importantly, it was for second place in the Eastern Conference. Guys stepped up for this game — Kyle Lowry was stunningly good on his way to 32 points. It was the Jared Sullinger revenge game, and he had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Those two helped Toronto to an 11-point halftime lead, and the Raptors seemed to control the game.

Then Isaiah Thomas happened.

Maybe the hottest player in the game, he had 19 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and he led the Celtics to win the fourth 32-19 and the game 109-104.

Like Curry above, Thomas isn’t going to win the MVP award, but he’s going to get some votes down ballot (third, fourth, fifth) and deservedly so. He has the Celtics offense humming and the Celtics in second place in the East. Toronto fans would like to point out they did not have DeMar DeRozan for this game, and that’s duly noted. But this win matters because second place in the East matters — it means home court in the second round. Also, a hot Wizards team is just one game back of the Raptors now, just two-and-a-half back of the Celtics, the Wiz are in this conversation (at 22-9 they have the best record in the East since Dec. 1). What that really means is teams want to avoid being the four seed — nobody wants Cleveland in the second round. Which is why wins like this one by Boston matter. A lot.

3) Maybe the Bulls thrive in tensions and chaos, they pick up a quality win over Thunder on the road. Rumor still swirls around Chicago like paparazzi around Beyoncé. The team’s young players love Rajon Rondo more than the “leaders” of the squad. The Bulls don’t plan to trade Rondo, apparently, but the team the focus of trade rumors.  Rival executives believe Jimmy Butler will be available again via trade, in part because of tension with the front office dating back to Butler betting on himself and not taking the rookie deal extension management offered (and management threatened to play Tony Snell in front of him at the time, which didn’t go over well with Thibodeau). And all that is since the Butler/Wade bashing of the team’s young players and Rondo coming to their defense.

With all that noise and chaos around them, the Bulls have picked up two quality wins in a row. First, it was a hot Sixers team, then Wednesday the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a victory over Westbrook and the Thunder. Butler had 28 points on 17 shots, Wade had 18 points and seven assists, and Cristiano Felicio Doug McDermott each had 11 points off the bench. Rondo had another strong game leading the second unit. The Bulls looked comfortable in the win.

The question isn’t “are the Bulls on track or in turmoil?” Rather, it’s “do the Bulls thrive in turmoil?” We’ll find out over the next couple weeks, because the turmoil isn’t going away during this six-game road trip, which is followed immediately by Boston and Toronto at home.

As an aside, the highlight of the Bulls/Thunder game unsurprisingly went to Westbrook, with his rejection of Butler.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.