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Three Things to Know: Who’s your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers

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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) LeBron is your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers. It’s early in the season, but the narratives for the race for MVP are taking shape, and right now LeBron James — having a season similar in many ways to the ones he had recently in Cleveland, just now doing it in a much brighter spotlight — is near the top of a lot of lists, with a compelling narrative around him that he has turned around the worst run of Lakers’ basketball in franchise history. (If the vote were taken today Giannis Antetokounmpo would win, but LeBron would be in the mix… just my sense talking to other voters and what one straw poll found.)

James Harden, who is the reigning MVP, has put up very similar offensive numbers to last season — 30.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage and a 27.3 PER — yet his name is not mentioned in the race.

Thursday night on TNT he threw his hat back in the ring with a 50-point triple-double (10 rebounds, and 11 assists) pushing the Rockets to a 126-111 win over the Lakers, the kind of win that makes you think maybe the Rockets can turn it around.

That was Harden’s fourth 50-point triple-double, an NBA regular season record (moving him past former teammate Russell Westbrook).

It was a vintage Harden performance — he only had 26 shot attempts to get to 50 points, and he got to the free throw line for 18 shots. Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the long list of coaches who picked up a technical foul yelling at the referees that Harden was getting all the calls while his team didn’t get those same whistles (Harden is the master and drawing contact, then when he feels it throwing back his head, flailing his arms, and essentially flopping for the call… it works). LeBron and Lonzo Ball actually tried defending with their hands behind their backs for a stretch, trying to make a point to the officials. But what Harden does is just smart and practiced — he’s the master at it, and if you don’t foul he’s good enough to still put up ridiculous numbers.

Harden’s offensive skills have never been in question. However, he’s not mentioned in the MVP race because of the other end of the court — Houston is 13-14 with the second worst defense in the NBA, and Harden is part of the problem on that end. Last season the Rockets were a top-10 defense and they switched everything with the hope that the other team would then try to exploit the mismatch of Harden (or Chris Paul) guarding a big man, post up said big up and let him go to work. Except, Harden is very strong, especially in the lower body, and it’s difficult to back him down in the post and go to work. Harden is a good post defender.

This season, teams have largely abandoned that approach, they are working to exploit Harden in space or his help defense, both of which are terrible. Again. Harden is playing defense this season like the meme-worthy guy of 2014-15. Harden is not the only problem on the Rockets’ defense (Clint Capela looks a step slower, as does Chris Paul, and they miss the switchable wings they let walk last season in free agency, the communication is lacking, and much more) but he is a part of the problem. And it’s obvious.

That said, if the Rockets start to turn it around, string together some wins, get into a playoff position in the West, and Harden keeps putting up these numbers, he’s going to get some MVP votes. For now, the Rockets need more games like this from Harden to get them back into the West playoffs.

2) Dirk Nowitzki is back on the court, but the Mavericks suffer an ugly loss to Phoenix. For the 21st season in a row, Dirk Nowitzki — the future Hall of Famer, the best European player in NBA history, the talisman of the franchise — was back on the court in a Mavericks uniform. He was limited, playing just 6 minutes and scoring only one bucket, but it was good to see (just ask Mark Cuban).

Nowitzki is not why this game was a national TNT broadcast on one of the league’s showcase nights: they wanted Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic. A 2018 NBA Draft showdown.

This was not vintage Doncic (the current clear leader in the Rookie of the Year race), who had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists but added 4 turnovers. A couple of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is something the league tries to avoid on Thursday night showcases: it was Dallas’s third game in four nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and Doncic looked dead-legged (as did all the Mavericks). Also, Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. seemed to take turns, trading off who would attack, rather than letting the more skilled Doncic just take over.

Ayton was not himself either, scoring 7 points on 3-of-13 shooting, matched up with the athletic veteran DeAndre Jordan. Ayton usually puts up good counting stats — he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds a game — but his offense is limited, half his shots come right at the rim and 75 percent of his shots are set up by someone else, and his defense is dreadful. He’s got potential as an NBA big man, but he also has a lot of work to do to live up to being a No. 1 pick.

Phoenix snapped it’s 10-game losing streak with a 99-88 win.

3) The NBA tries to win over Mexico by sending them… Orlando and Chicago? If you’re an NBA fan living Mexico City fan and you get to see a couple of games in person a year, you can’t be faulted for thinking Nikola Vucevic is a legend.

The NBA put its best foot forward in Mexico City Thursday night… okay, it put a foot forward, giving them a regular season game between the Magic and Bulls. Vucevic, who is playing at an All-Star level for the Magic this season, was the best player on the court, dropping 20 points and 10 boards, leading the Magic to a 97-91 win.

The most interesting news out of Chicago is that Bulls new coach Jim Boylen will be allowed to so something Fred Hoiberg was not — bench Jabari Parker. Despite Chandler Hutchison being out, Parker got four first-half minutes and that’s it. He’s not going to be part of the regular rotation going forward. This was one of the front office’s big moves this summer, spending $20 million to bring in Parker (when no other team was offering near that much), but with Lauri Markkanen back there just shouldn’t be minutes for Parker. (Hoiberg didn’t really get to coach Markkanen this season due to injury, so he had to play Parker, even starting him a lot at the four.)

Bulls management has made some smart moves the past 18 months, but there have been a few head-scratchers, too. Parker is at the top of that list.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers look like playoff threat

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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) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers get the win and look like playoff force. Here’s the one big takeaway from Philadelphia going into Milwaukee and getting a 130-125 victory:

Good lord the East playoffs are going to be fun.

Sunday, against a long and athletic defensive team that put Joel Embiid on him for much of the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP. He was too overpowering and too athletic to stop on his way to 52 points and shooting 12-of-18 in the paint (and 3-of-8 from three). The Greek Freak looked every bit the MVP (but after the game did praise Embiid’s defense).

That wasn’t enough to get the win. In part because Bucks who don’t have 13 letters in their last name didn’t step up in the ways needed and shot just 31 percent from three (while the Sixers were 15-of-32 from deep). In part because the Sixers powerful starting five could hang with the Antetokounmpo-led Bucks starters despite the 52 because they moved the ball, sacrificed, and played a team game.

Also in part because Joel Embiid impressed with 40 points and 15 boards himself.

But mostly it was how Brett Brown found rotations where a couple starters with some bench players could work. The fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic were +12 in just under 11 minutes. Finding bench lineups and rotations that work will be critical for Philly over the remaining dozen games, but if it comes together like it did Sunday the Sixers could be making a deep playoff run. Like into June.

2) We live in a universe where Mario Hezonja blocks a LeBron James game-winning attempt. It was set up to be another moment where a non-Knicks superstar steps up in the clutch and puts on a show in Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks were up by one with 22.3 seconds left, the Lakers inbounded the ball to LeBron James, who already had 33 points on the night. The King isolated on Mario Hezonja, drove the lane and… denied.

Hezonja’s defense for the win. (There’s a sentence I never expected to type.)

The Knicks — the worst team in the NBA this season (by record) — finished the game on a 13-1 run to beat the Lakers. What does that say about Los Angeles at this point of the season?

3) Lou Williams just gets buckets, hits game-winner for Clippers over Nets. In the battle of two League Pass favorites, two of the league’s most scrappy teams in the Nets and Clippers, Lou Williams stepped up and made the “this is why I’m Sixth Man of the Year” play.

Tied 116-116 with 5.3 seconds left, Doc Rivers kept it simple: inbound to Danilo Gallinari, have him pass then set a screen for Williams. It didn’t create much space, but it created enough.

The Clippers and Nets most likely will not make it out of the first round of the playoffs in their respective conferences, but whoever gets these teams is going to have a first-round battle on their hands. These teams will make it tough.

BONUS THING TO KNOW:C.J. McCollum out with strained muscle but it could have been much worse. If the Trail Blazers do not have C.J. McCollum for the playoffs their stay in the postseason is guaranteed to be short.

After what looked to be a scary injury, McCollum just has a strained the popliteus, a muscle in the back of his left knee. “Just” may be the wrong word as back in 2009 Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and basically the playoffs because of this injury — Portland has 13 games left in the season.

McCollum will miss most if not all of the remaining regular season games and Portland could slide down the standings in the tight West because of it. But he may be back for the playoffs, and with him Portland will have a chance. His recovery will be something to watch.

Dwyane Wade switches up jersey swap with NFL’s Ryan Shazier (PHOTO)

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Dwyane Wade has been on a goodbye tour all season long, and part of that has been him swapping jerseys with various players around the league. One of the most memorable exchanges came with longtime playoff foe Dirk Nowitzki, who could be playing in the final season of his own career.

But during the Miami Heat’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, Wade decided to switch things up.

In attendance was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spine injury in 2017 that left him unable to play ever since. Shazier has been an inspiration to those trying to battle back from catastrophic spinal trauma, and as recently as late 2018 started walking unassisted again.

Wade decided to give Shazier his jersey after the Bucks game, and even called him a hero on his Instagram.

Via IG:

Wade’s game hasn’t aged all that gracefully, but his final season has been a feel-good story from a star in a year where it feels like all the news from superstars is negative. If this really is his last year in the NBA, he’s making the most of it and doing it right, securing his legacy and setting the stage for his legend to grow through the lens of nostalgia as he rides off into the sunset.

Good for Wade for sharing this moment with Shazier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 52 but Joel Embiid gets last laugh (VIDEO)

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 52 points, but Joel Embiid had 40 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers over the Milwaukee Bucks 130-125 on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo was 15 of 26 from the field, including 3 of 8 from 3-point range, and made 19 of 21 free throws to better his previous career best by eight points.

Embiid and the Sixers weathered a late charge by Milwaukee to beat the team with the best overall record in the NBA (52-18) and the top home record (27-6). It was the fifth time this season Embiid scored 40 or more points and came in his fourth game back after missing nine straight with left knee soreness.

Jimmy Butler added 27 points, JJ Redick 19 and Tobias Harris 12 for the Sixers, near the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 45-15.

Milwaukee had a brief scare when Antetokounmpo was fouled on a driving layup and landed awkwardly late in the third. He got up favoring his right leg, but then sank one of two free throws.

Embiid scored 18 points and Butler had 14 in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo’s three-point play pulled the Bucks to 118-114 with 1:18 to go, but Ben Simmons then tipped in Embiid’s miss.

The Bucks got to 3 points twice in the closing seconds, but Embiid and Harris each made two free throws to seal the win.

Khris Middleton scored 13 points and Brooks Lopez added 11 for the Bucks.

Mike Scott hit a wide-open 3 to give the Sixers a 98-86 lead early in the fourth and force the Bucks to burn a timeout.

Scott also provided a fun highlight – late in the first quarter, he made a dive into the stands trying to save a loose ball. He landed in the second row, surprised a fan by taking a quick sip of her drink, and ran back on defense as play continued.

TIP-INS

76ers: Philadelphia moved to a season-high 20 games over .500

Bucks: Nikola Mirotic started for Malcolm Brogdon, who is out with a minor plantar fascia tear in his right foot. Brogdon had started 64 of 69 games and is out indefinitely. . Recalled F Christian Wood from the Wisconsin Herd.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

There was a pregame moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the New Zealand mosque attacks.

UP NEXT

76ers: Play at Charlotte on Tuesday.

Bucks: Host the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

LeBron James gets blocked on game-winning shot attempt vs. Knicks (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is not having a great first year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s now on a minutes restriction, and the team has been mired in controversy surrounding potential trades for Anthony Davis on the way to missing the playoffs.

It’s called James’ public persona into question for many, and Sunday night’s failure at Madison Square Garden felt like the perfect encapsulation of what it’s been like for LeBron.

The play of the game came with just 2.3 seconds left. New York Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay had previously sunk two free throws to give his squad the lead, 124-123.

On the ensuring possession, James had the ball on the left mid-post with New York’s Mario Hezonja  guarding him. James went up for the shot, which Hezonja promptly blocked.

Via Twitter:

Space Jam 2 can’t get here fast enough for ol’ LeBron.