Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook’s sprained ankle could alter West race

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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) Russell Westbrook sprains ankle, potentially changing the complexion of the West. The poet laureate that is Steven Adams summed it up best: “It’s s—. Just real s—. Feels bad.”

In the third quarter of what was ultimately the Thunder’s fifth straight win Monday night, Russell Westbrook went up for a rebound next to Anthony Davis and when he came down rolled his left ankle. Badly. As in drop to the ground, screaming in pain, have to be helped back to the locker room badly.

What we know for sure is that it’s an inversion sprain, that the Thunder are calling it a “high ankle sprain,” and that X-rays were negative. As is the case with most sprains, it will take until the next day and an MRI to determine the actual severity.

If it’s a grade 1 sprain, Westbrook likely misses a week or two. If it’s a grade 2 sprain, he could be out a month or more. Westbrook has an incredibly high pain tolerance and will want to be back on the court tomorrow, but it becomes more questions of stability and mobility. Bottom line, the Thunder are wed to Westbrook with his new max contract for a long time and they are not risking the future (or this becoming chronic) for a few wins now.

The Thunder are 7.7 points per 100 possessions better when Westbrook is on the court and have won five straight. They are not the same team without Westbrook and will now have to ask a lot more of Dennis Schröeder. The good news is they move into a relatively soft part of the schedule for a couple of weeks (Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, the Knicks) so they should be able to hold their ground.

However, if this is a Grade 2 sprain, if the Thunder have to go a month or more without the former MVP, it could alter the shape of the West playoff chase. It’s watching and waiting now with Westbrook’s ankle.

2) Jamal Murray drops 48, Nuggets would like you to know they are for real in West. Unfortunately, the end of this game became the story — Jamal Murray had 48 points, the Nuggets were up by 12 and there were only a few seconds left on the clock, the classy thing to do would be to dribble it out and walk off winners. Murray jacked up a three trying to get to 50 points. It pissed off the Celtics, and even the veterans and coach on the Nuggets pulled Murray aside after the game and told him not to break the unwritten rule.

Whatever. That was so Jamal Murray it was almost funny. If the Celtics really want to be upset it should be about the fact Murray owned them and dropped 48 in the first place.

The Nuggets are no fluke — a 9-1 start that includes handing Golden State its only loss and now a win over Boston. Denver has a top-10 offense, as we expected (it will probably climb up from its current ninth), but it’s the team’s third-ranked defense that has both surprised and not fallen off the map as expected. Even Nikola Jokic is playing pretty good defense (at least he’s a big body in the right spot much of the time).

Boston’s level of execution stunned the Nuggets at the start of the game, a 10-2 run that had coach Mike Malone calling an early timeout. It was right then Murray got hot — he hit a couple of threes out of the timeout and it was on. Still, Boston led by 18 in the first quarter, it was in the second that a 19-8 Nuggets run got it close, and we had a game.

The difference was Murray had 19 in the fourth quarter, and once he got rolling nothing Brad Stevens and Boston could throw at him mattered. Murray did much of his damage in one-on-one situations off a pick-and-roll where he got a matchup he liked. Which by the end seemed to be any matchup. But Murray has become a strong one-on-one scorer, providing a balance Denver’s offense needs.

The Nuggets are not going to maintain this pace (Cleaning the Glass currently projects them at 66 wins, that’s not happening). But they are for real — a team that may well not only host the first playoff round but will be a tough out for anyone in the second round. It’s time to take Denver seriously, if you weren’t already.

3) Zach LaVine drops 41 in Madison Square Garden, including game-winning free throw in double overtime. Count me among the people who ripped the Bulls for giving Zach LaVine four-years, $78 million this summer. I thought it was a serious overpay.

Count me among the people eating my words.

LaVine is averaging an efficient 27.9 points per game, has an impressive true shooting percentage of 60.2, and looks like an All-Star. He still can’t defend but is offense has covered that up and then some. The season highlight came on Monday night when LaVine dropped 41 on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, including the game-winning free throw with 0.2 seconds left in double overtime.

Give the man his due, he’s been amazing so far.

Watch Stephen Curry drain shots from center-court logo during warmups like it’s nothing

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In case you need any kind of reminder that Stephen Curry is a flat-out ridiculous shooter — particularly during warm-ups, well, you’re in luck.

Check out this pregame video of Curry knocking down shots from the center-court logo at Oracle like it’s nothing.

The man changes the game. Even in warmups.

James Harden being out clouds latest Rockets-Warriors clash

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Houston Rockets have had the Golden State Warriors’ number this season. However, when the teams meet on Saturday, the Rockets will have to play without the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.

Houston guard James Harden is out due a cervical neck strain. Harden was bothered by soreness Thursday during the Rockets’ 111-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was seen receiving treatment to the neck and right shoulder during the contest.

The Rockets have used different means to beat the two-time defending champs in their first two head-to-heads since Golden State prevailed in a seven-game conference finals last May.

Houston held a Stephen Curry-less Warriors team to 86 points — Golden State’s lowest output of the season — and just 42 percent shooting in a 107-86 home win in November.

The Rockets then turned Harden loose in the January rematch at Golden State, watching him pour in 44 points — including a game-winning 3-pointer — in a 135-134 overtime thriller.

More than a month later, that game still weighs heavily on the mind of Curry, who countered Harden with 35 points of his own that night.

“They just made one more shot,” he noted to reporters after the Warriors Thursday win over the Sacramento Kings. “We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing. It’s going to be a dogfight … a defensive test for us.”

At the time of Curry’s statement, the extent of Harden’s injury had not been made public. The NBA’s leading scorer at 36.5 points per game, Harden was bothered by a left shoulder strain prior to the All-Star break but didn’t miss any contests. He has played in 55 of Houston’s 58 games as he missed three games early in the season due to a hamstring injury.

In the overtime win at Oakland, Harden complemented his 44 points with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for a triple-double.

While there was no triple-double against the Lakers, Harden did extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 32.

The Rockets lost their second in a row and fell to 33-25, a full 12 games below where they stood at this point last season. It’s gotten some analysts grumbling about the club’s style of play and reliance on Harden.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni labeled such talk “absurd” before the Thursday game.

“I don’t know if they watched last year,” he said of the naysayers. “Nobody else can do what he does. … If you’re a ball-stopper, usually you’re inefficient. He’s very efficient. So when the ball stops, it’s a good thing.”

The Rockets earned the home-court advantage over Golden State in last year’s playoffs by finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors during the regular season.

That almost surely won’t be the case should they meet again this postseason. The Warriors (42-16), with the best record in the West, have a nine-game advantage over Houston, currently in the No. 5 seed.

Golden State won for the 17th time in its past 19 games by surviving a late rally from the Kings on Thursday in a 125-123 home decision. Curry finished with 36 points, making 10 of his 16 3-point attempts.

Harden (276) and Curry (246) enter the game ranked first and second, respectively, in the NBA in 3-pointers made.

Harden also led the league last season with what was then a career-best 265.

Curry got the better of his rival in 3-pointers in last year’s playoff showdown, however, making 27 of 75 (36 percent) while Harden was harassed into 19 of 78 (24.4 percent).

Curry saved his best for last in the series, going 7 of 15 on 3-point tries in a 27-point effort in Golden State’s 101-92 win at Houston in Game 7. Harden went just 2-for-13 from long range on his 32-point night.

 

James Harden fined $25,000 for calling referee Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant’

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“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant. I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [Harden’s sixth foul, ending his night]. It’s just who he is on that floor.”

Houston’s James Harden knew the fine was coming before he even uttered those words following the Rockets loss to the Lakers Thursday night, in which Foster called two offensive fouls on Harden, one that limited his minutes early and another that set him up to eventually foul him out of the game.

Harden got what was expected on Saturday, the NBA fined him $25,000 for “public criticism of the officiating.”

Harden wasn’t alone in his frustration. Chris Paul fouled out and picked up a technical, and coach Mike D’Antoni picked up a technical as well.

For the game, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. This season in games Foster has officiated, the Rockets are 1-1.

The Rockets are not the only team to have frustrations with Foster, he has a reputation around the league for a short fuse that doesn’t let you question calls. LeBron James‘ Heat teams and others have felt how Harden does.

Lakers’ Lonzo Ball could be out longer due to bone bruise in ankle

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Lonzo Ball has missed the last 11 Laker games. In that time the team is 4-7 with a bottom 10 offense and defense, and they have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Granted, LeBron James was out for a number of those games as well, but even LeBron is talking about how much Ball is missed in the rotation.

The Lakers could be missing him a while longer.

While we are starting to approach the ballpark return date projected for Ball’s Grade 3 ankle sprain, he could miss more time due to a bone bruise in the ankle, reports Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

Ball moved quickly through the early stages of his rehab. He used crutches for about a week and wore a protective boot on his left ankle for less time than that.

Ball began running on an underwater treadmill two weeks ago and last week he began work on an antigravity treadmill, but was limited because of the bone bruise.

Ball injured his ankle back on January 19 and it looked bad when it happened.

The Lakers could use him as they make a push down the stretch to get into the playoffs — the Laker defense is 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Ball is on the court this season. The Lakers, 29-29, enter Saturday as the 10th seed in the West, three games back of the Clippers in the eighth seed and final playoff spot. The Sacramento Kings are also between the Lakers and the postseason — to get in the Lakers are going to need to go on a LeBron-led run. Ball would help with that, but it may be a little while longer before we see him on the court.