MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert sets single-season record for most dunks at 270

Associated Press
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Mention Rudy Gobert and the first thing that comes to mind is his defense. The Jazz center is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and may well win the award again this season, Utah has a defensive net rating of just 92.2 when Gobert is on the court after the All-Star break, 14.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits.

However, Gobert can provide offense, too — he rolls to the rim, has soft hands, and knows how to finish at the rim.

Meaning he dunks. A lot.

In the second quarter of Utah’s win against Phoenix on Monday, Gobert finished off an alley-oop from Donovan Mitchell and it was Gobert’s 270th dunk of the season, setting an NBA single-season record (Dwight Howard held the record t 269 from his 2007-08 season; this stat has only been tracked since the 1997-98 season). Gobert averaged 3.7 dunks per game, just finishing plays around the rim as defenses focus on Mitchell, Joe Ingles, or can’t anticipate the passing of Ricky Rubio.

Gobert finished with five more dunks in the game as the Jazz almost had their own private dunk contest against the Suns’ interior defense. Gobert finished with 27 points and got the Gatorade shower for it.

Gobert isn’t going to be the only person passing Howard’s old record this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has 262 dunks on the season. The race for most dunks this season is not over.

We just know it’s going at a record pace.

NBA family sends its love for Jusuf Nurkic after ugly leg injury

Associated Press
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It’s the kind of injury that turns your stomach.

Portland’s center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a devastating leg injury during the second overtime of Portland’s eventual win over Brooklyn Monday night. A win that clinched a playoff spot for the Trail Blazers, yet their locker room was silent after the game because a guy who is at the heart of why they are headed to the postseason, a guy having a career year, has an injury that is threatening that career.

After it happened, the love poured out from other NBA players.

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic taken off court on stretcher after gruesome leg injury

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This looked bad. It was worse — for Jusuf Nurkic, and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Midway through the second overtime against Brooklyn Monday night, Nurkic went down with what can only be described as a gruesome injury. The Trail Blazers later announced it was compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula, which will require surgery and not only end this season but also will bleed into next season as well (there is no timeline for something like this).

Nurkic had gone up for an offensive rebound and came down awkwardly, his leg bending in ways that no leg should bend. He laid on the floor in pain, was carted off in a stretcher — with the crowd sending positive vibes — and taken directly to the hospital.

Here is a video of the incident, but be warned this is brutal and may be a video you want to avoid if these kinds of injuries make you feel ill. Or, even if they don’t.

Around the league, sympathy poured out for Nurkic.

This is a Portland team also without C.J. McCollum, who has a left knee injury and is out officially for the upcoming four-game road trip and may miss the rest of the regular season.

Nurkic got paid last summer, a four-year, $48 million deal — but unlike others who take their foot off the gas once they get their money, Nurkic came back better and more motivated. He has averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting, his PER of 23.1 and other advanced stats are at career bests, and on the defensive end he moved better and was more of a presence. On offense, he sets the picks for Damian Lillard (second most used pick-and-roll tandem in the NBA) and when teams inevitably trap and blitz Lillard he has gotten the ball to the rolling Nurkic, whose skills as a passer and playmaker have grown tremendously in the last year. He has been Portland’s second best player for stretches of the season.

Portland had looked like a more dangerous playoff threat this season and Nurkic was a big reason for the Blazers’ optimism heading into the postseason. Now, that edge is gone.

Magic shut down 76ers in second half, win 119-98, stay close to playoff berth

Associated Press
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A little desperation went a long way for the Orlando Magic.

The Magic shut down the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half of a 119-98 victory on Monday night that moved them within a half-game of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

“They were desperate. They played like it and we did not,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown, whose team was held without a field goal for a second-half stretch of nearly 12 minutes. “Nik Vucevic is a really difficult matchup and (Evan) Fournier really had a fantastic night. Their desperation was evident.”

Vucevic had 28 points and 11 rebounds, and Fournier scored 24 points for the Magic, who outscored the 76ers 30-5 while Philadelphia missed 15 straight shots.

“It’s impressive, especially when you look at all the firepower they have, even without Ben Simmons,” Vucevic said. “We needed this win with a tough road trip coming up, starting tomorrow night in Miami.”

The Magic completed their first 5-0 homestand in franchise history and moved a half-game behind Miami in chasing the final playoff spot in the East. They visit the Heat on Tuesday.

Joel Embiid led the 76ers with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Playing without point guard Simmons, the 76ers led 60-57 after shooting 61.5 percent in the first half. The second half was a different story.

“I thought we went away from what was working to get those field goals (in the first half),” said Tobias Harris, who had 12 of his 15 points in the first half. “But that game wasn’t won or lost on the offensive end for us. That game would have been won on the defensive end. We didn’t do a great job against them.”

Shake Milton‘s jump shot cut the Magic’s lead to 78-77 with 4:32 left in the third quarter, but Philadelphia did not score in the remainder of the period, falling behind by 14 points.

When Zhaire Smith hit a 3-pointer with 4:50 remaining in the game, it ended a stretch of 11 minutes, 42 seconds without a field goal for the 76ers, who then trailed 108-85.

“I think the urgency has not been with us,” Brown said. “It happens. As I candidly said, we’re trying to hold on to our third-place position, and land the plane and keep people healthy.”

J.J. Redick, who scored 79 points and made 18 of 29 3-pointers in the 76ers’ first three games against Orlando this season, made only 1 of 7 Monday night and finished with eight points.

“He’s not going to miss those very often, but we’ll take it,” said Magic coach Steve Clifford.