Associated Press

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

3 Comments

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.

Bulls reportedly apply for cap relief from Omer Asik contract

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Omer Asik didn’t play a minute for the Bulls this season (they got him in the Nikola Mirotic trade). Back in training camp he ruled out indefinitely with inflammatory arthritis, which had flared up last summer. Asik had played in just 49 games combined the two seasons before that.

Prior to this season, the Bulls waived Asik. He was paid his full $11.3 million for this season but had only $3 million guaranteed for next season. The Bulls have now applied for cap relief — meaning taking that $3 million off the books for next season — because of Asik’s injury, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

One year after a player last appeared in a game, teams can apply for cap relief if a player’s injury or condition is determined to be career-ending. An independent doctor needs to verify that Asik could not play again to get the extra cap relief. Asik gets paid, it is still a guaranteed contract. Miami took this step with Chris Bosh, for example.

The Bulls have talked about being aggressive in free agency — finding guys to pair with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter — and while that $3 million is not a lot, it helps. The Bulls will have between $20 million and $23 million in cap space if/when the league approves Asik coming off the books (depending on what they do with a couple of players), according to our Dan Feldman. That’s not max contract money, but it can help bring in some depth and shooting to go around the young core in Chicago.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry top NBA jersey sales again

Getty Images
1 Comment

There are new names on and climbing the list: Joel Embiid is up to No. 5, Luka Doncic came in 13th as a rookie.

However, for the most part, the names on the list of the most sold jerseys in the NBA look very familiar.

With LeBron James jumping teams to the Los Angeles Lakers, it should be no surprise he tops the list of most-sold jerseys (based on NBAStore.com sales since the start of the season). Stephen Curry is second, and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo climbed up to third.

Here are the top 15 in jersey sales this season.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
9. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers
11. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
12. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
13. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
14. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
15. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Three Sixers made the list (Embiid, Simmons, Butler), the most of any team. Also, Wade went out in the top 15 after his Last Dance farewell tour.

Here are the top 10 franchises in team merchandise sales:

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Chicago Bulls
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Houston Rockets
9. Toronto Raptors
10. New York Knicks

Malcom Brogdon out for Bucks-Celtics Games 1 and 2

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Malcolm Brogdon suffered a foot injury that’d sideline him for the start of the playoffs.

The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) won their first-round series too quickly.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals and first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007. So, the Bucks-Celtics series will begin Sunday, the second-earliest of four possible dates.

Which means no Brogdon to begin the series.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Game 1 is Sunday, and Game 2 is Tuesday. That leaves open the possibility of Brogdon returning for Game 3 Friday, May 3.

Brogdon is a good shooting guard, but the Bucks were just fine without him in the first round. Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton played well against Detroit, and Tony Snell could enter the rotation as he gets healthy.

But the Celtics are a far bigger challenge. Milwaukee won’t necessarily need Brogdon against Boston, but the Bucks’ chances are much higher if he returns to full strength.

Russell Westbrook to critics: ‘I don’t really care what people say’

Getty Images
4 Comments

Russell Westbrook has faced a lot of criticism this season, a chorus that grew louder in the first round of the playoffs.

While he averaged a triple-double for the third straight season, his shooting degenerated and his efficiency dropped. This is Westbrook’s shot chart for the regular season.

Which was better than his playoff shot chart.

The results of his shooting woes were obvious in the playoffs. Portland big man Enes Kanter can be exposed as a pick-and-roll defender if pulled out on the perimeter to deal with a ball handler, but the Trail Blazers didn’t have to do that. Kanter would sag back, clog the paint, and dare Westbrook to take jumpers or drive past him. Even when Westbrook drove there were not clear lanes and he struggled to finish.

That swelled the volume of criticism of Westbrook. Not that he cares. Did anyone actually expect him to be bothered? Westbrook brushed off his critics speaking with the media after his exit interview on Thursday. Via Royce Young of ESPN.

“There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that’s getting squashed out,” he said. “So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I’m going to become a better shooter. After that it’ll be probably, f—, my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows.

“So that’s why, back to your point, I don’t really care what people say, what they think about me, because it doesn’t really matter. I know what I’m able to do and know what I’m able to do at a high level every night, and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis, and I truly believe that. If they could, I’m pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”

Westbrook still impacts the game with his drives and athleticism, he is still an All-NBA level guard in this league, if not MVP level anymore. He is still one of the game’s elite players. However, as he was getting outplayed by Damian Lillard in the first round the questions came up again, “just how far can the Thunder go with Westbrook as their primary option?” After four surgeries in six years, can he still carry a team deep into the playoffs?

When Westbrook was on the floor without Paul George this season, the Thunder struggled. When it was George without Westbrook, they still played well. It’s become clear that not only must Westbrook improve his shooting — not to Curry levels, but closer to his MVP self that shot better from the midrange — but also Sam Presti and Thunder management need to find a way to get more shooting around Westbrook. A stretch-five, in particular, would help (Stephen Adams is good at a lot of things, but spacing the floor is not one of them). OKC needs shooters around Westbrook.

How the Thunder pull that off with a capped-out team — they have the second-highest payroll in the league this season and Westbrook and George are maxed out for years — is going to require some real creativity. But if the Thunder are going to be more than a first-round-exit team in the West, they need to find a way.