Three Things to Know: Rockets smack down Thunder for 16th straight win

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) Oozing confidence, Rockets comfortably roll past Thunder for 16th straight win. Going into the season, the question was who would be the second elite team in the West, Houston or Oklahoma City? Both had loaded up on stars, both were led by MVP-level talents, and both had questions to answer.

Houston has emphatically answered their questions all season and Tuesday emphatically put the rest the question of which of these teams would step up (although we already knew). The Rockets defensively controlled the Thunder — Oklahoma City didn’t have a shot at the rim until midway through the second quarter — plus they rained threes (17-of-33, 51.5 percent from deep) and went right at every mismatch (over and over). Houston took control of the game in the second quarter and ultimately coasted to a 122-112 win.

That’s 16 straight wins for the Rockets, who remain half a game up on Warriors for the best record in the West. Houston has left no doubt they are elite, and they are the one team that is a legitimate threat to a healthy Golden State squad. That starts because of their defense, which could not stop Russell Westbrook (32 points) but made him work for it, as they did everyone in blue.

Oklahoma City’s defense, which has not been the same since the loss of Andre Roberson (ruptured left patellar tendon, they are now 8-9 without him) had no answer for the Rockets.

Chris Paul had 25 points, James Harden 23 and 11 assists (but 10 turnovers, Paul George did not make his life that easy), as they exploited the Thunder defensive holes all night long, to the tune of a 120.8 offensive rating.

Paul George had 17 points on 16 shots, his offense hampered by the fact he was assigned to guard Harden most of the night and expelled a lot of energy on that end. This team’s play of late, and its potential fate in the playoffs the way they are playing right now, is going to make this an interesting July for George.

2) Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis — and with them the Trail Blazers and Pelicans — keep on rolling. Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard have been clear and away the two hottest players in the NBA of late, leading their teams on win streaks that have them looking like solid playoff teams (as much as that can be said about any team below third in the competitive West). That continued on Tuesday.

Davis suffered a blow to the ribs during the second quarter trying to box out DeAndre Jordan and had to go to the locker room for X-rays. DeMarcus Cousins told AD to get back out there — or give Boogie his Achilles — and Davis did that, and then took over: he had 31 second-half points, on his way to 41 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Pelicans to a 121-116 victory. That’s nine straight wins for New Orleans, who sits as the four seed in the West now three games clear of the nine-seed Clippers.

Lillard had  37 points — hitting 8-of- 11 from three — as the Trail Blazers cruised to their eighth straight win, 111-87 over the hapless New York Knicks. Portland is currently the three seed in the West, four games clear of the nine seed.

3) Kevin Love did the most important thing in the NBA Tuesday, opening up about mental health issues. We tend to focus on the games, the highlights, and the on-the-court action around here, but it was Kevin Love who did by far the biggest, most important thing in the NBA Tuesday:

He opened up about his battle with panic attacks in a Player’s Tribune article.

Inspired by DeMar DeRozan opening up about his battle with depression, Love talked openly about his mental health challenge.

It was November 5th, two months and three days after I turned 29. We were at home against the Hawks — 10th game of the season. A perfect storm of things was about to collide. I was stressed about issues I’d been having with my family. I wasn’t sleeping well. On the court, I think the expectations for the season, combined with our 4–5 start, were weighing on me.

I knew something was wrong almost right after tip-off….

After halftime, it all hit the fan. Coach Lue called a timeout in the third quarter. When I got to the bench, I felt my heart racing faster than usual. Then I was having trouble catching my breath. It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning, like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk. I remember our assistant coach yelling something about a defensive set. I nodded, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. By that point, I was freaking out. When I got up to walk out of the huddle, I knew I couldn’t reenter the game — like, literally couldn’t do it physically.

Love talks about overcoming the stigma, about not being afraid to tell people this is what he was dealing with, about figuring out with help how to better cope with panic attacks — that’s what happened when he left the blowout loss to the Thunder that became so controversial — and doing that in the macho world of sports is important. There are a lot of people dealing with panic attacks — or depression, or a host of other mental illnesses — that don’t seek help because there is still a stigma attached to them. But that is changing. Love found support from all over the league.

Love’s move helps change that stigma and can help other people step forward. From the outside it would be easy to say “look at him with his NBA championship ring, his All-Star appearances, his nine-figure salary plus endorsements, his supermodel girlfriend, he has no problems” when in reality he is dealing with many of the same issues and pressure all of us are. That a star of Love’s stature steps forward is a step in the right direction for society.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.