Three Things to Know: Sorry James Harden, it wasn’t referees that blew 26-point lead

Associated Press
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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) Boston comes from 26 back to beat Houston on Al Horford game-winner — that’s not on the officials. The dynamics of a nationally televised showdown between two of the NBA’s top four teams changed before the game even tipped off — referee Mark Lindsay hurt his back, leaving just two officials — Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis — to work the game. Both teams were frustrated with the officiating all night because of this (Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens picked up a rare technical arguing a call).

Houston thrived in the first half, getting the lead up to more than 20 behind James Harden, who had 17 points on 10 shots before the break. Houston was in command — but the Celtics adapted to the situation. First, they stopped switching the pick-and-roll with Harden and left one of the game’s best and most physical on-ball defenders in Marcus Smart on Harden. It worked, Harden had 17 points in the second half but on 3-of-17 shooting. In the face of better defense, the motion in the Rockets’ offense came to a halt, which led to turnovers and 4-of-17 shooting from three.

Then came the controversial final seconds, when Harden got two offensive foul calls off the ball on Smart, and in between Al Horford hit the game winner.

Harden vented after the game.

Harden was frustrated and has a valid point about two officials in an NBA game.

However, blow a 26-point lead and that’s not on the officiating. Houston got outplayed badly over the final quarter and a half in particular, and the team’s struggles in the face of physical defense is what cost them this game.

As for those two final offensive foul calls, referee Tony Brothers is less than 10 feet away — that had nothing to do with there being two officials, Brothers saw both plays cleanly. Smart was physical, he was denying the ball and grabbing some jersey, but in both cases Harden extended his arm — that is going to get the foul called almost every time. We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says (not that it changes anything).

The Rockets have lost four straight. The team is still on pace to win 64-65 games, the problem is in a West with the Warriors that’s likely the two seed.

2) Bucks dominate Timberwolves in fourth quarter 27-12, get comeback win. This is the story of another Thursday night comeback — Minnesota had a 20-point third quarter lead on Milwaukee,. But that was trimmed to 9 by the start of the fourth, and then the Bucks owned the final frame, 27-12 to get the win.

Erik Bledsoe had 16 second-half points and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a dozen of his 22 after the break, to lead the Bucks to the win.

With point guard Jeff Teague out a few weeks with a sprained knee, Tyus Jones moved into the starting lineup for Minnesota, and in Tom Thibodeau’s traditional fashion he leaned on that starting five for nearly 21 minutes in this game (and it was +15).

On the second night of a back-to-back, no Timberwolves’ starter played fewer than 33 minutes in this one, with Jimmy Butler at 43 minutes. On the season, Andrew Wiggins currently leads the NBA in minutes played, with Karl-Anthony Towns third, Jimmy Butler fourth, and Taj Gibson 13th. I’m not saying all those minutes cost the Timberwolves this particular game, but at some point there are going to be tired legs and weak fourth-quarter performances as guys wear down. Minnesota is on pace to break the longest playoff draught in the NBA, this is an improving young team, but all those miles — especially on young legs — leads to questions about what happens as the season wears on, and as their careers go on. It’s something Minnesota ownership needs to consider.

3) John Wall says against lesser teams Wizards play for stats, not as a unit. Yes, it matters. So far this season, the Washington Wizards are 10-6 when they play teams over .500. However, go against teams under .500 — teams a good Washington squad should beat — and they are 9-10. I’ve seen the Wizards twice this season in person, and both times they were flat and disinterested. Wall explained why talking to Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“We talk about it. We say when we play these teams that are not above .500 or not one of the great teams, we go out there playing for stats,” John Wall said. “It’s simple as that. We can see it. I think we all can see it when we play.”

Washington is good, but not good enough to coast to wins consistently against bad teams. It’s easy to look at this and say “well, when they get to the playoffs the Wizards will take the teams seriously and be just fine.” On paper, Washington should be no worse than the fourth best team in the East.

However, if the playoffs started today, the Wizard would be the six seed — and get the Cavaliers in the first round. Got news for you Washington fans, Cleveland isn’t ducking you, and they are the better team. The Wizards are far from the only team to chase stats, again the Wizards just can’t do that and win while others can.

Washington’s poor play and stat chasing is making their playoff road harder. Maybe the Wizards get it together and climb up to be the four seed in the East, then they still get the No. 1 seed in the second round, and that’s after a tough first round against whoever is the five seed (the athletic and long Bucks, maybe). The Wizards are not building good habits or putting themselves in a position to make it easier to go deeper into the postseason, and that’s why these games matter.

Report: Celtics reach out to former assistant Larranaga about joining Mazzulla’s staff

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The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to put on the bench next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man thrust into the head coach’s chair for a title contender in the wake of Ime Udoka’s suspension.

Who better than a guy who spent nine years on the Celtics’ bench? Boston reached out to Jay Larranaga, currently on the Clippers bench, about returning to the East Coast, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Clippers had no turnover on Tyronn Lue’s staff heading into this season. Mazzulla has become a trusted member of the Clippers staff, working a lot with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back up the Brink’s Truck, the Clippers will not stand in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a question of comfort level, lifestyle, and of course money for Larranaga.

The Celtics made Mazzulla their interim head coach after an investigation found a “volume of violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an improper relationship with a team staff member. So far the Celtics and Udoka have been able to keep the details of what happened under wraps, but league sources described the situation to NBC Sports as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details do find their way to the public.

For Celtics players, just getting back on the court, practicing Tuesday and focusing on basketball — not the turmoil around the franchise — was a good thing.

“Once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back out the court and review our defense and to talk about offense and doing what we do,” Al Horford told the Associated Press. “It’s a good thing to just play basketball. That’s what we’re here for. It’s important to just start this thing back up again.”

Getting another coach on the bench will be important for the Celtics as well.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.