James Harden has 25 to lead Rockets over Magic 128-104

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HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Rockets weren’t thrilled that they let a huge lead dwindle to less than 10 points in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night.

They were, however, happy with how they responded once that happened.

James Harden had 25 points and 13 assists as the Rockets built a big lead early and held off a late rally to get a 128-104 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night.

The Rockets had led by as many as 23 before the Magic begin chipping away at the lead. Serge Ibaka made a turnaround jump shot midway through the fourth quarter to cut Houston’s lead to nine points. Harden grabbed a bad pass from Evan Fournier not long after that and dished to Eric Gordon, who finished with a 3-pointer. Trevor Ariza added a 3-pointer for Houston to extend the lead to 112-97 with about four minutes remaining to put the game away.

“Teams are going to make runs,” Ariza said. “It’s all about how you respond to the runs when you make them. Once they made their run we were able to come back and get stops most importantly.”

Patrick Beverley made seven points after that to help extend the lead to 120-99 with less than two minutes left and send Houston’s starters to the bench.

It is Houston’s second straight win and the 10th loss in 13 games for the Magic.

“We had a couple of opportunities, we had shots, and cut the deficit,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “But then a couple of turnovers at bad times and they were able to capitalize on it.”

Harden’s scoring slowed down a bit on Tuesday after he scored 41 and 42 points in his last two games. But his 13 assists ended a streak of four straight games where he had fewer than 10, which was a season-long drought.

Ibaka had 28 points for the Magic and Evan Fournier added 21.

“We know they’re a good team and we know they can shoot the ball, but we also know we have to play better defense,” Ibaka said.

Houston led by 12 early in the third quarter when Beverley and Ariza made consecutive 3-pointers to spark an 11-4 run that extended the lead to 81-62 with about seven minutes left in the quarter.

The Magic missed five shots in that span to help Houston pad its advantage.

The Rockets had pushed the lead to 20 points not long after that when the Magic finally got something going, and used a 16-5 spurt to get within 93-84 late in the third quarter. Gordon made one of two free throws after that to leave the Rockets up 94-84 entering the fourth quarter.

Fournier made six points to help Orlando cut the lead in that span, including four straight free throws late in that time.

The Rockets led 70-54 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Magic: Nikola Vucevic had 14 points and a season-high 19 rebounds. … The Magic made just six of 25 3-pointers. … D.J. Augustin added 11 points.

Rockets: Clint Capela had 17 points to extend his streak of games with at least 10 points to a career-high eight straight games. … Nene had 13 points for his fourth double-digit game in the last five. … Beverley had seven assists, to give him at least five in six of the last seven games.

CLOSING OUT THE FIRST HALF

The Rockets were energized after getting a short break with three days between their last game and Tuesday’s contest. Now they’re focused on building on what they did against the Magic in their last three games before the All-Star break.

“These next (three) games before the All-Star break are going to be extremely important for us, especially on the defensive end, to kind of build some momentum,” Harden said. “We have to come out with that intensity, and that mind set, and we’ll be all right.”

THE DREAM

Hakeem Olajuwon was honored on Tuesday night as part of the team’s 50th anniversary celebration. The Hall of Famer, who helped the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994-95, is Muslim and was born in Nigeria, but has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen. He addressed new President Donald Trump’s travel ban before the game.

“I was kind of surprised,” he said. “I was thinking maybe a lot of people say things just to get elected and wouldn’t actually do it … I think in the first quarter you would make a mistake and have to adjust. I think this was a mistake that the president made.”

He hopes Trump will change course.

“You can adjust in the second half to make it work by pull(ing) everybody together,” he said. “This is an opportunity to pull everybody together instead of separating.”

UP NEXT

Magic: Host Philadelphia on Thursday.

Rockets: Travel to Charlotte Thursday.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.

Bulls’ Paul Zipser has surgery to repair broken left foot

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CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Bulls forward Paul Zipser has had surgery to repair a broken left foot.

The team said Friday the operation was performed in his native Germany. The Bulls gave no timetable for his recovery.

Zipser averaged 4.0 points in 54 appearances before sitting out the final nine games last season.