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Three Things to Know: Portland defends Houston well, James Harden goes off anyway

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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) Portland defends Houston well, it just doesn’t matter with James Harden, Chris Paul some nights. This game exemplifies why Houston is a legitimate threat to Golden State come the playoffs — the Portland Trail Blazers defended the Rockets well, and it just didn’t matter. Houston still put up 115 points on only 90 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass, NBA.com estimated 92 possessions), and the Rockets won 115-111. The Rockets can score with anybody — including the Warriors — and that is going to win them playoff games.

Portland did a good job defending the rim Tuesday night — Houston was just 17-of-32 there, 53 percent. Houston took 36 threes (six below their season average), but again Portland did a decent job contesting — the Blazers didn’t let the Rockets get drive-and-kick threes where shooters always got to set their feet, 17 of those 36 threes (47.2 percent) were off-the-dribble with the ball handler shooting (Harden or Paul) but the Rockets hit 10 of those anyway.

At the heart of it all, James Harden was just unstoppable again, scoring 42 points, dishing out 7 assists, and looking every bit the MVP.

On offense, Portland tried to punish the small-ball game of Houston with 19 post ups, but it was undone by an off shooting night from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who were a combined 9-of-32 on the night. The Trail Blazers tried to attack mismatches created because the Rockets switch everything on defense (and have all season), but all that switching has Houston’s help defense working on a tight string and Houston got the stops they needed.

If there was any doubt lingering doubts (and there shouldn’t have been), the Rockets looked legit  — they went into a hostile road environment, made life difficult defensively on two stars, and got the W. Doing it against a (probably) healthy Golden State squad is a different challenge, but Houston is as ready as anyone.

As for Portland, San Antonio (currently) or anyone else who lands in the six seed and gets the Trail Blazers in the first round can watch the tape of this game and know they are in trouble — Portland is defending, and with that they can beat any team they face in the first round.

2) After a day of troubling news about Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris lifts Celtics’ spirit with game-winner. Who needs Kyrie Irving?

Okay, the Celtics do. And he may be out a while now, news came down on Tuesday that Irving’s sore knee is not progressing as hoped, so he going to get a second opinion on what is up with it. It’s not what Celtics fans want to hear — even though the reports say there is no structural issue and he will be back for the playoffs — in a season that has been dominated by injuries in Boston.

What made the Celtics feel better? Marcus Morris with the game-winner against the Thunder Tuesday night.

That’s a quality win for the Celtics, who remain locked in as the two seed in the East. Rookie Jayson Tatum had 23 and 11 for Boston. As for the Thunder, this snapped a six-game win streak, and while they remain the four seed, the Pelicans and Spurs are now just one game back. There is no chill in the Western Conference.

3) Where have these Timberwolves been? Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns play like the leaders Minnesota needs in win. Minnesota has stumbled about going 5-5 since Jimmy Butler went down injured (he said again Tuesday he expects to be back by the end of the regular season), and at points they have looked leaderless and lost.

Which is why Tuesday’s win against the Clippers was a quality step forward — playing a team right on their heels in the playoff chase, Minnesota started doing things right. They finally got Karl-Anthony Towns more touches and shots (he had 19 field-goal attempts, but through the first eight Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season).

Andrew Wiggins was an active and intense defender on the perimeter causing the Clippers problems (he has this in him but doesn’t bring it consistently). Wiggins had three blocks and on one second-half play basically stole the ball from Austin Rivers twice on one possession. On the other end of the floor, Wiggins had 27 points on 16 shots, and he hit 4-of-5 from three.

Finally, Jeff Teague took this game over in the third quarter — the Clippers had no answer for the Teague/Towns pick-and-roll so the Timberwolves ran it over and over and over until they pulled away with a comfortable lead. Teague got where he wanted, scored 20 points on the night, and just took over.

With the win, Minnesota seems on track to make the postseason for the first time since 2004 — that accomplishes a big goal for this team. Its ultimate aspirations are much higher, but making the postseason and getting a taste of it is the first step on that road.

Report: After backing out of agreement with Sixers, Nemanja Bjelica talking to Kings

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Nemanja Bjelica had found a comfort level in Minnesota, but when Tom Thibodeau pulled his qualifying offer — to sign Anthony Tolliver — it left the Serbian forward without a deal. Philadelphia raced in with a one-year, $4.4 million offer, and he took it.

Then on Tuesday, he backed out, saying he wanted to return to Europe with his family. What he said he wanted was stability, he told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

“It’s not about coach or the Philly organization,” Bjelica told The Athletic in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “Brett Brown, he’s a great guy and a great coach. The most important thing for me is family and some kind of stability…

“I’m thankful for Philly for the opportunity, but I will always do what is the best for my family,” Bjelica said. “At that point, I was considering European life.”

Or, Sacramento. Which I am fairly confident is not in Europe. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Bjelica wanted stability, something that doesn’t always come easily in the NBA life. Clearly, Vlade Divac is pitching a longer-term deal of some kind to provide that stability for Bjelica and his family.

I get why he’s doing it — this is still a bad look for Bjelica and his agent. He gave his word, then backed out of the deal saying he wanted to play in another league. Now he’s talking to another NBA team, a competitor. I get it, teams are not loyal to players either, they lie to them too — just ask DeMar DeRozan — but it doesn’t make this move right. It’s not a great look for the Kings, either.

On the court, Bjelica is a fit with the Kings in that he can be part of the rotation with Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and the rest of a crowded Kings’ frontcourt. Bjelica provides needed floor spacing and shooting — I really like him as a player. I liked him in Minnesota and wish Thibodeau trusted him more, I liked the idea of how he fit in Philly, and I would like him in Sacramento.

But this is just awkward.

DeMarcus Cousins on Warriors: “This was my nuclear bomb. My last resort.”

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A year before, DeMarcus Cousins was a lock max player, a guy the New Orleans Pelicans could not let get away. A guy with options. A guy about to make not just life-changing money but family generational changing money. DeMarcus Cousins was at his peak.

But on Jan. 30, everything changed. Cousins tore his Achilles tendon.

Come July 1, 2018, the phone was not ringing, team executives were not lined up at 12:01 to meet with Cousins and his agent. Crickets. There was nothing. The teams Cousins called were not making offers and were not interested — including the Pelicans.

So Cousins got in touch with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. The rest is history.

All through free agency and his recovery, SHOWTIME Sports has been making a documentary — titled “THE RESURGENCE: DeMarcus Cousins” — that will air on the cable network at a date and time yet to be announced. They just released the video above (WARNING: NSFW language) and if the access and honesty they got in this clip is any indication, it is going to be must watch.

Check out the fantastic video above, courtesy Showtime. And be ready for when this hits the airwaves (or streaming, for most of us).

Five big takeaways from Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto

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Everyone woke up Wednesday morning to an NBA bombshell — Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Toronto Raptors in a deal centered around DeMar DeRozan. That’s a lot to absorb before the first cup of coffee.

This was far from perfect but as good a deal as San Antonio was going to get. It’s not equal value, the Spurs wing defense just got a lot worse, but with other teams keeping their best assets out of trades the Spurs got a player who was an All-Star and All-NBA (second team) last season, one who keeps them relevant for a few years (until Gregg Popovich likely retires). This delays the impending rebuild a couple of years. And, they sent Leonard out of the West.

Here are my five big takeaways from the blockbuster trade:

1) The Toronto Raptors won this trade. This was a bold and smart move by the Raptors on multiple levels. While the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics and everyone else slow-played this trade — or only offered picks and young players for a rebuild the Spurs did not want to start yet — Raptors GM Masai Ujiri jumped in with both feet and gave the Spurs something they wanted in DeRozan, an All-Star player who keeps them in the playoffs and dangerous right now. That was enough.

There are two key reasons this trade works for the Raptors (it’s a solid double, if not a home run). First, they didn’t give up much outside DeRozan — just Jakob Poeltl (who did show promise in his two years in Toronto) and a top-20 protected pick in the down 2019 draft. Toronto got to keep OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam, the young group of players they are high on. If Leonard is healthy — something we do not know for sure, he could be slowed slightly and be merely good rather than transcendent — Leonard is an upgrade over DeRozan and the4 Raptors are a threat to the Celtics at the top of the East.

Second, now the Raptors have a season to try to both win a ring and win Leonard over. The ring may be a lot to ask, but if Leonard is playing like an MVP again a trip to the Finals is certainly not out of the question. And once there, anything can happen.

The attempts to win Leonard over long-term probably will fail, but the Raptors get to take their shot. Toronto is a city a lot of players love to visit, the Raptors have a large and passionate fan base (all across Canada, they are a national team), and the Raptors are going to win a lot of games. Toronto also has more money: The Raptors can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million. ($140 million is a lot less than the $221 million the Spurs could have guaranteed.) The model is Paul George in Oklahoma City, but the difference is George was open to the idea of staying from the moment he stepped off the plane (where Thunder GM Sam Presti made sure there were a lot of Thunder fans to cheer and greet him). Leonard likely is not so open minded.

If Leonard bolts next summer, then the Raptors took their big swing and start a rebuild (that they have discussed internally in the past year). It’s not a massive setback.

2) Kawhi Leonard — and his uncle/management — did not get what they expected or wanted. Around the league, there is a lot of talk about Leonard’s Uncle Dennis/advisors wanting to build a marketing empire around the 27-year-old entering his prime. To get an idea of their plans, think about what LeBron James or Russell Westbrook have with their brands. The sense was Leonard’s team felt the small market of San Antonio and the team-first style of the Spurs were holding them back. (Leonard’s stoic personality is a bigger part of that problem, but we’ll table that discussion for now.) Plenty around the league think those close to Leonard fanned the flames of discontent surrounding the injury and treatment until it was a full-blown fire and Leonard decided he wanted out of town.

Leonard (and his camp) reportedly are not happy campers right now.

The Spurs will have no response but a sly smile (they took the best deal on the table for them). Offers were not going to improve, and the Spurs did now want the zoo of bringing Leonard into training camp.

Leonard is a free agent next summer and can go to the Lakers or Clippers (or Knicks or Sixers or any other team he wants). However, to get the max contract he wants Leonard will have to prove he’s healthy and back to his MVP-level ways — and that means suiting up and playing for the Raptors. Sit out another year — via hold out or with the quad injury — and no team is going to jump in with a max.

3) DeMar DeRozan may be pissed now, but he will come around. Leonard wasn’t the only player unhappy with the trade — DeRozan had been loyal to Toronto, didn’t even meet with other teams in 2016, was active in the community, and was told at Summer League he would not be traded. Then, wham.

DeRozan has every right to be angry. Then he will get over it — the Spurs are maybe the most welcoming organization in the league. The city of San Antonio will embrace him. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich will understand DeRozan and put him in spots he likes on the court, places he can do damage. DeRozan will get to the line, make passes (he’s become a quality playmaker) and — at least during the regular season — make the Spurs a challenge every night.

San Antonio — with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — will be the kings of the midrange jumper, although both are pretty efficient at it. The Spurs wing defense will be unimpressive, something a little disturbing in a conference with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and now LeBron James. San Antonio will be no threat to Golden State or Houston, but they will be relevant. DeRozan will come to enjoy it.

4) The Lakers will just wait this out… and be a little nervous. Clippers, too. On the one hand, we saw this movie last summer: The Lakers choose not to put their best young players into a trade to secure an elite player because they believed said star will come to them in free agency. Only he didn’t, the next summer decides to stay put in the Midwest — without even meeting with the Lakers — and the Los Angeles misses out.

On the other hand, Leonard to the Raptors feels different from Paul George to the Thunder — George was open to the idea of playing with Russell Westbrook and seeing what the experience was like. As noted above Leonard is not happy being sent north of the border. It’s early, but good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he stays long term. Next summer Leonard likely will bolt, and while the list of options could expand beyond the two teams in Los Angeles, that pair remains at the forefront. (As noted before, while the Lakers are the consensus favorites to land him, I heard from sources around the league that is no lock. The Clippers are in play.)

For the Lakers, even if they miss out on Leonard next summer, things still line up well: They have cap space, LeBron, and the market most players be in. They will land someone.

Still, the Lakers have to be a little nervous that things change with Leonard over the course of next season. Maybe it’s the Raptors, or maybe he likes the East and the idea of playing with Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe a million things. It should make them a little nervous, because in the NBA crazy things happen.

5) Just a reminder, loyalty in the NBA is dead. Next time you want to complain about how players are not loyal to teams/cities anymore, remember this move. Just a week ago in Las Vegas, Raptors officials told DeRozan to ignore the rumors, he was not getting traded. This is a player who — where Vince Carter and others tanked/pushed their way out of the city — embraced all things Toronto. He was active in the community. He spoke openly of wanting to be a Raptor for life and the greatest Raptor of all time. He was the willing face of their franchise.

They traded him anyway.

It’s a cold, cold business. Teams treat players like assets, and more and more players are treating teams the same way. Loyalty is nearly forgotten, and rarely rewarded,

It’s just fans that pay.

Report: Boston nearing agreement to retain Marcus Smart

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When free agency began, a lot of us said that the restricted free agent market was going to be tough — not a lot of teams had cap space to start with, and those that did were not targeting players where the offer could be matched. Zach LaVine got a deal, but other name RFA were waiting, Clint Capela and Marcus Smart being the biggest names on the board.

We may be able to cross Smart off that list soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

That is in the range of what the Celtics had wanted to pay him from the start, around $12 million a season.

Smart expected more — north of $17 million a season — and was frustrated that no offers sheets came in that would force the Celtics to match. He reportedly was “hurt and disgusted” that the Celtics didn’t come in and recruit him or make a larger offer. Welcome to a tight market, the Celtics had leverage.

Smart is one of the top defensive two guards in the league, a switchable defender who can guard any perimeter position, all of which fits with Brad Stevens’ defensive system. He also brings a high motor — he generates steals and gets to loose balls. Offensively he’s a liability — teams can help off him, daring him to shoot — but when healthy the Celtics have the players to cover that up.

This looks like it will get done and be a fair deal for both sides.