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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.

Geeking out on NBA prospects: R.J. Barrett almost dunks from free throw line, Zion Williamson does

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Duke is stacked this coming season. STACKED. They should have three lottery picks in next year’s draft. (Does that mean they are the team to beat in the NCAA? That’s not the way basketball works. But that’s another discussion.)

Duke is in Toronto for a series of preseason exhibition games, and at the end of the workout likely No. 1 pick next June, R.J. Barrett tried to show off by almost dunking from the free throw line.

Then freak of nature Zion Williamson showed him how it’s done.

That’s worth more looks.

Damn Zion is a freak of nature. Can we just put him in the next dunk contest now?

Nancy Lieberman says more women need to follow coaching footsteps in NBA

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Whenever we discuss women assistant coaches in the NBA, the topic is usually Becky Hammon getting job interviews or being moved to the front row of seats in San Antonio. Occasionally it’s a discussion of Nancy Lieberman’s job in Sacramento — or the fact she is now a head coach in Ice Cube’s Big3 — or Jenny Boucek in Dallas.

However, when Lieberman discussed women coaches on the CBS Sports Network, she was asking a bigger question:

Who steps up next?

She has discussed the NBA version of the “Rooney Rule” before. Currently, it’s not anywhere near becoming a reality, whatever you think of the idea.

However, there needs to be real opportunities for women to get a foot in the NBA door, and more of them. Including at the entry level. There are qualified women out there, but it can be tough to crack the “old boy’s network” of the NBA coaching carousel — head coach and assistant. It exists in part because head coaches (and GMs) usually hire people they trust and worked with before, and right now those are men. Give women a chance at those entry-level positions and the dynamic starts to change.

Lieberman has been a groundbreaker her entire career. She and others are doing in the NBA again, but she’s right, the big win is changing the dynamic for the next generation. And the one after that.

In no-brainer move, Nets reportedly guarantee Spencer Dinwiddie’s $1.65 million contract

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Spencer Dinwiddie has worked hard at his game — I remember seeing him struggle some at his first Summer League and someone I trust telling me “watch this guy, he’s got the drive, he will make it” — and he is now a solid rotation NBA point guard that Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson can trust. He averaged 12.6 points per game last season with an above-average PER of 15.9.

He’s also on a steal of a current contract, so it makes sense the Nets are picking that up (it technically didn’t have to be guaranteed until Halloween). Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN had the report.

https://mobile.twitter.com/wojespn/status/1029496077320257536

Next summer, Dinwiddie is a free agent. While he’s not going to break the bank, he’s a young, solid backup point guard that a lot of teams could use and he’s going to get a nice pay raise.

Carmelo Anthony on his role with Rockets: “Let’s just let it play out”

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From the moment it became clear Carmelo Anthony was going to join the Rockets — which was a long time before he actually signed the contract on Monday — the questions started:

Would he accept a reduced role with the Rockets? Maybe come off the bench? Be Olympic ‘Melo and blend in with the team?

Coach Mike D’Antoni said he spoke with Anthony and said the player is open to coming off the bench, but he’s not sure what ‘Melo’s role will be. When ambushed by TMZ trying to walk to his car, Anthony said basically the same thing.

“Let’s just let it play out, though. I don’t even know what’s going on. I just signed, let it start first.”

Anthony coming off the bench, being the fulcrum of the offense when James Harden and Chris Paul are on the bench makes some sense (CP3 and Harden are better and more efficient shot creators than Anthony at this point). It’s a chance for Anthony to get his touches and help the other two rest. However, the idea of Anthony starting the first and third quarters and getting heavy touches then but sitting more later is not out of the question.

At the end of close games, D’Antoni is more likely to lean on James Ennis — a long, switchable defender who can shoot threes in the Trevor Ariza mold — than Anthony. It will be just a better fit. Will Anthony roll with that? Will it cause problems in the locker room?

Let’s just let it play out.