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Three Things We Learned Sunday: James Harden is good, but so is Rockets’ defense in win

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If you haven’t seen the best video of the year — a professor’s BBC interview crashed by his two children, and his wife’s desperate attempts to get them out of the room — go do it now. Then come back and check out our takeaways from the night around the NBA. But go watch the video first. It’s classic.

1) James Harden’s triple-double and (shhh, don’t tell anyone) Rockets good defense best Cavaliers.
This is what you expected out of Sunday when the Rockets beat the Cavaliers 117-112 (in a very entertaining regular season game): James Harden helped make his MVP case with 38 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. That’s 16 triple-doubles this season for Harden and 31 games where he scored 30 or more.

Here’s what you didn’t expect: Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets are playing good defense, and that was the other big key to this win.

The Cavaliers shot 63.4 percent in the first half, but when the Rockets cranked up the defense that fell to 41 percent in the second half. And this is not an anomaly: since Jan. 1 the Rockets are 11th in the NBA in defense (based on points allowed per possession). Even Harden is getting in on the act.

If the Rockets can carry an above average defense into the playoffs, they are a much bigger threat.

For the Cavaliers, they had 30 points from LeBron James and 28 from Kyrie Irving, but they blew a 14-point third quarter lead on their way to their fourth loss in five games. They are now just two games up on Boston (who won Sunday, keep on reading below) and Washington, and basked on ease of schedule fivethirtyeight.com has the Celtics with a 43 percent chance of getting the No. 1 seed in the West and Cleveland at 42 percent (Washington has the other 15 percent).

It still feels like Cleveland will win enough games, LeBron won’t let his team lose home court, but this team is not defending and playing like a contender of late. Maybe they can get healthy and flip the switch come the playoffs, but only a handful of teams have really been able to do that (the 2001 Lakers come to mind, also a defending champ who battled injuries).

2) Celtics get home after West Coast road swing and thrash struggling Bulls. Boston needed a confidence booster. Some team they could just crush and pick up an easy win after a tough five-game road trip out west where they went 2-3.

Enter the Chicago Bulls.

Boston played one of its best defensive games of the season and held the Bulls’ stars in check: Jimmy Butler shot 2-of-11 for five points, Dwyane Wade was 4-of-11 for eight. Chicago shot 38.7 percent as a team and started the game shooting 0-of-12.

Meanwhile Isaiah Thomas led the way with 22 points and Avery Bradley added 17 for Boston. However, it was Jaylen Brown with the shot of the game.

With the win the Celtics moved within two games of the Cavaliers for the best record in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com says it’s basically a coin flip between the teams for the No. 1 seed (the struggling Cavaliers have a much tougher schedule down the stretch.

As for Chicago, after the game Wade was throwing shade about the lack of direction for the team, which says its wants to make a playoff push but traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott away.

3) Sixers Dario Saric scores 29, extends streak of 19+ point games to 11… is he the Rookie of the Year? If the vote for Rookie of the Year happened today, smart money is on Joel Embiid winning it despite the fact he only played in 31 games. No player had close to Embiid’s level of impact on the game when he did play.

But the fact it’s just 31 games has voters open to alternatives. Enter Embiid’s teammate Dario Saric, who dropped a career-high 29 Sunday night. Sure, it was against the Lakers’ “defense,” but it still counts and he was the Sixer who often had the ball in his hands down the stretch.

This makes 11 straight games Saric has had at least 19 points. Does that put him in the ROY running? None other than Embiid himself crashed Saric’s postgame interview to call him the Rookie of the Year.

Check out some Saric highlights from this run.

James Harden on double-stepback uncalled travel: ‘What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?’ (video)

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James Harden is difficult enough to defend when officiated correctly.

When he can get away with this? There’s nearly no stopping him. That was a big uncalled travel in the Rockets’ win over the Jazz last night.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?” Harden said.

Fair.

Unlike that call.

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn shoves Russell Westbrook, scuffle breaks out (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.

Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.

While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.

There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.

• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).

Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…

Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.

• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.

• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.

Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.

• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.

A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.