Associated Press

Three things we learned Thursday: Tim Hardaway Jr. upstaged Dwight Howard’s homecoming

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All of the eyes of the sports world are starting to focus on Houston because there’s some football game this weekend, and if you turned your attention there rather than listen to Charles Barkley being Charles Barkley Thursday, we can’t blame you. Here are the big takeaways from the day in the NBA.

1) Dwight Howard came back to Houston, but the night (and game) belonged to Tim Hardaway Jr. Let’s get the sideshow out of the way first: Dwight Howard returned to Houston, and he was greeted there like he was greeted when he first returned to Orlando and Los Angeles — he got booed. Although to be fair, it was a mix of cheers and boos this time around (not like Orlando or LA). Howard’s answer to Rockets’ fans was to score 24 points and grab 23 rebounds. He played like the borderline All-Star he has been this season.

But that wasn’t the story of this game.

Houston led by 20 points at home with eight minutes to go — this one should have been in the bag, despite their off night shooting — and then Tim Hardaway Jr. happened. The Hawks guard had 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth to spark a comeback that ended with a 113-108 Atlanta win.

Houston giving up that lead to a team on the second night of a back-to-back is not the move of a contender. Which is where the Rockets want to see themselves. It’s a big win for a Hawks team trying to climb back ahead of Washington for the four seed in the East and home court in the first round. It was just one game, but it was an entertaining one if nothing else.

2) Breaking down the trade: Bucks send Miles Plumlee to Hornets for Roy Hibbert/Spencer Hawes. Just like nearly any negotiation, the only way to make a trade in the NBA is to structure it so both sides think it’s a win and out of this process with something they want or need. Thursday’s swap of big men between the Bucks and Hornets did just that, at least on the day of the trade.

For the Hornets, this is about some help and a reliable backup for Cody Zeller. He’s missed Charlotte’s last five games with injury, and the numbers are really simple: Charlotte outscores its opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and gets outscored by 4.4 per 100 when he is off the court. Or, Charlotte is 22-16 when Zeller plays and 1-10 when he doesn’t — including being on a four-game losing streak. Plumlee brings a poor man’s version of what Zeller does — he can set a good screen and roll hard to the rim, and when he does you have to account for him because he can finish. That opens things up for Kemba Walker. Plumlee crashes the boards and works hard on defense. He’s not a perfect answer to their problems of late, but he’s going to help them, and this is a team at 23-27 that is the current eight seed and is fighting to make the playoffs.

The Bucks mostly get rid of what they see as a mistake signing and get some financial flexibility. Plumlee is in the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract and he was struggling. The Bucks saw that contract as an anchor, and they ditch it for Roy Hibbert (on an expiring contract) and Hawes ($6 million player option for next season that he likely opts out of). The Bucks are the 10 seed in the East right now, a game back of Charlotte, but they don’t lose much on the court here, if anything. Greg Monroe’s having his best season as a Buck at center, and they have John Henson as his reserve. Hibbert and Hawes provide some veteran depth for Jason Kidd to play around with, but they aren’t going to get a lot of run (I can see Hawes and his ability to stretch the floor helping in certain matchups).

3) Magic Johnson will advice Jeanie Buss and Lakers ownership. That’s bad for Jim Buss. The Lakers have set a path to return to the top of the NBA — be bad and draft high, find their next franchise player (or at least a good core) that way. They’ve lived up to that two years in a row (drafting second both times, getting D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram) while selling the Kobe farewell tour. How well they are doing on that path depends on who you ask, certainly they have a few quality young players, but how good those guys really are and how far they can take this team down the line are up for debate.

The key is the potential of a good Lakers team is years down the line at best, and Jim Buss promised the Lakers would be back to contending (or at least the second round) by this season. Buss is the favored son of the legendary Jerry Buss who the father left in charge of basketball operations, and the younger Buss promised a quick turnaround that was unrealistic in today’s NBA. He lived in the past, back when the Lakers could get elite free agents because they were the Lakers. Now they can’t even get meetings (Kevin Durant).

Now lead owner Jeanie Buss — the one person who can remove Jim from power, if she has the support of her other siblings — has brought in Lakers legend Magic Johnson as an advisor. Jeanie and Magic met last month and, according to ESPN, Jeanie was reaching out to people she trusted about the future direction of the Lakers. Magic has been a huge critic of Jim Buss, and the buzz is the other siblings in the Buss trust (there are six total, including Jim and Jeanie) are none-to-thrilled with Jim’s job performance and work ethic. They want to win, and the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA.

Which is to say, Jim Buss is in a world of trouble.

Here would be my concern if I were a Laker fan: That the Lakers completely abandon their slow build plan and trade quality assets for good-but-not-great veterans who can get them more wins now. Essentially, they become the Knicks. It’s not a path to the top. And based on Magic’s incipit Twitter account he lives in the past like Jim Buss — he’s tweeted the Lakers should get Durant or DeMar DeRozan or other guys they would loved to have chased but will not meet with them right now. If the Lakers go down that path they will be no better off. They need to build up a good young core that stars want to play with, then you can try to land one (see the Celtics, who got to 48 wins before Al Horford came on board).

No one can say what Jerry Buss would do in this situation, but based on his history here is my guess: Hire a talented young GM (who he could get at below market value) and let that man go to work. Let him pick up the pace of winning without sacrificing too much of the young core. That seems a wise plan, but who knows what direction the Lakers will go.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.