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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.

Portland survives against Nets 134-133, advances to play-in; Suns out

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Damian Lillard looked every bit the seeding games MVP — he carried Portland for critical stretches against a scrappy Nets team and was a leader on the biggest night of the Trail Blazers season.

Portland is going on the West play-in games as the eighth seed — win one of two games against Memphis on Saturday or Sunday and the Trail Blazers will face the LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round.

All because Portland held on for a 134-133 win against Brooklyn.

The Portland win means the Phoenix Suns — the darlings of the bubble at 8-0 behind Devin Booker‘s play — are going home. As impressive as the Suns were in the bubble, they could not climb out of the hole they dug the first part of the season, before the coronavirus shut the league down.

Monty Williams — very likely the winner of the “Coach of the Seeding Games” award — deserves credit for getting his team to take advantage of the extra games and practices to get better in a way that Sacramento, New Orleans, and other teams did not.

Thursday night, however, belonged to Lillard.

Lillard finished with 42 points on the night, bringing him up to a 37.5 points per game average in the bubble.

Brooklyn tried, they threw two guys and Lillard and blitzed trying to force the ball out of his hands and anyone else to beat them. Enter CJ McCollum, who did not play like someone with a back injury on his way to 25 points.

Both Lillard and McCollum played every minute of the second half — and Portland might not have won if they didn’t.

Brooklyn’s effort and scrappy style of play has caught teams off-guard all restart long, and it pushed Portland. Caris LeVert added to his “sure we have Kyrie and KD, but I should get some touches too next season” case with 37 points.

Portland came into the restart with the goal of making the playoffs, and it is now just one win away. The first game between Portland and Memphis is on Saturday at 2:30 Eastern. If the Grizzlies win, it forces a second game, Sunday at 4:30 Eastern.

Memphis is an impressive young team, but it’s tough to beat Lillard when he is playing like an MVP.

 

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.