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.