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Three Things to Know: Rockets extend win streak to 10, Thunder… not so much

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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. Here’s a roundup of Monday night’s action you might have missed while paying for a $14,000 Uber ride.

1) Rockets fall behind in a shootout, but come back from 13 down late in the third to extend win streak to 10. This was as good a game as the Pelicans could play without Anthony Davis — they put up 103 points on 58.7 percent shooting and hitting 17 threes. DeMarcus Cousins was a beast in the paint, while Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore couldn’t seem to miss from beyond the arc. Late in the third the Pelicans were up 13, and they were up 10 at the start of the fourth.

It was not enough.

James Harden had 12 points in the fourth (and finished the game with a career-high 17 assists).

Chris Paul added 11 in the fourth, and the Rockets stormed back winning the fourth 37-20 and the game 130-123, extending their win streak to 10 games.

The Rockets are 21-4 and are outscoring teams by 11.4 points per 100 possessions this season — they are the best team in the NBA right now. CP3 and Harden mesh on offense — the Rockets are +7.8 points per 100 when they are on the court together — and Houston surprisingly has the fifth best defense in the NBA this season. None of this is a fluke. This team is playing hard right now, establishing an identity, and establishing themselves as a contender.

Can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a seven-game series? I am not going that far, I think there are things that can be exploited in a series, but we are five months away from the Rockets needing to answer that question. What Houston has shown is it is the team best suited to challenge Golden State — the Rockets can play at pace and thrive, they have multiple elite scoring playmakers (and coach Mike D’Antoni staggers them so one is almost always on the court), they have a switchable defense that can attack the Warriors wings, and they have the right mindset. GM Daryl Morey put together a team to go after the Warriors, and he did it better than anyone. They are a legit threat to the title holders, and the Rockets should only get better as the season moves along.

2) Celtics lose with Kyrie Irving out. Thunder lose because… you tell me? There were a couple of upsets Monday night in the NBA, but only one was easy to excuse.

The lowly Chicago Bulls have not been quite so lowly the past week, winning three straight games, the latest one handily against the Boston Celtics 108-85. Credit best friends Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis (*cough*) who combined for 47 points, plus the improved play of Kris Dunn lately continued as he had a dozen points. We would normally call this a terrible loss for the Celtics, and you can be sure Brad Stevens didn’t like it, but with Kyrie Irving sitting out with a left quad contusion, there is at least a good reason for the off night.

There is no good reason for the Thunder — fully healthy — to lose at home to the Charlotte Hornets 116-103. The Hornets hit 13-of-25 from three, and Dwight Howard outplayed Steven Adams all night on his way to 23 points, Kemba Walker had 19 points and 9 assists, but this is the kind of game the Thunder should win. After a Russell Westbrook highlight slam over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the game was tied 66-66, but then the Hornets went on a 22-2 run. Of late, the Thunder looked like they were turning a corner with three straight wins, but then followed it up losing 2-of-3 now and needing to go to overtime against a shorthanded Grizzlies team to get that one win. Royce Young re-tweeted himself and hit the nail on the head.

There is no one thing wrong with the Thunder, but more and more focus is turning to Carmelo Anthony. Not just his lack of defense or his shooting slump — he had 11 points Monday and is shooting 33 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three his last five games — but the roster depth OKC gave up to get him. Paul George and Russell Westbrook have a grove together (the Thunder are +4.8 per 100 when they are paired) but things slow when Anthony is added to the mix and another star sits while Anthony plays. In ‘Melo’s last five games OKC is -1.8 per 100 with Anthony on the court.

The Thunder still have time, but each day the inconsistent play and losing get more concerning. As George said after the game, “We can say we’re going to figure it out, we can say all that, but at some point it’s got to stop.”

3) Matt Barnes retires. Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

For a lot of fans, mention Barnes and they think of the guy who tried to get in a fight with Derek Fisher. Or the New York nightclub incident with Cousins. Or the guy who was a pest on the court and seemed a magnet for technical fouls and fines from the league office. But Barnes was the kind of guy you wanted coming off the bench on your team and hated to play against — he went hard, he could shoot threes, he defended, and he brought a spark to the game. He was the kind of opponent you hate to go against.

Barnes was a second-round pick out of UCLA who played for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well after Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes was thrust into a larger role (the Warriors went on a 14-game win streak in that time).

While he had a rough exterior, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off for him. He’ll be missed by some of us, but he’s a guy ready for life after basketball.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.