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Three Things to Know: Rockets drain record 26 threes, have turned season around… kinda

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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) Houston knocks down NBA record 26 three-pointers in fifth straight win. They have turned things around… kinda. Wednesday night’s win against Washington in a lot of ways looked like the last four games for Houston: James Harden went off (35 points), the Rockets defense was good enough, and that meant a win.

What was different: Houston set an NBA single-game record hitting 26 threes (on 55 shot attempts).

Washington’s defense was atrocious. The Rockets took 85 total shots in the game, 60 of them were uncontested (using the NBA’s Second Spectrum data, which is imperfect but validates the point about the Wizards’ defensive effort). That doesn’t invalidate what the Rockets did, just pointing out that Washington made it all possible.

Not every fan will love that Houston took 64.7 percent of their shots from three, but that’s what the Rockets should do if Washington isn’t going to run them off the line. Which the Wizards did not.

That’s five straight wins for the Rockets, who are now 16-14 and would be the seven seed if the playoffs started today.

Have the Rockets turned their season around? Well, kinda. They have fought their way back into playoff positioning and the combination we’ve seen in this win streak — MVP-level play from James Harden sparking an elite offense, with the defense being average and that’s good enough — can keep them in the playoffs in the West. But that was not the goal in Houston — the Rockets want to be contenders. This is a team that was up on the Warriors at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season, they want to be a team that can take that next step. They want to be a threat to win it all, and even this improved Rockets team is not that yet. The defense is better but not good enough. They lack the depth needed on the wing (GM Daryl Morey is trying to fix that heading into the trade deadline).

So yes, the Rockets are better. But they are not where they wanted to be this season, not even close.

2) Foreshadowing? Shorthanded Raptors show mettle in comeback win against Pacers, while Celtics lose to Suns. The conventional wisdom around the league about the East right now is that it will come down to Toronto and Boston. Maybe the Bucks can crack into that group (they are right there, but there are defensive questions in a playoff matchup), and after those three it’s half a step back to the Sixers (as currently constructed without enough depth) and the Pacers.

Boston has work to do to live up to that faith in them.

The Celtics had racked up eight wins in a row against a softer part of the schedule but now has dropped two straight, one to the Pistons and one Wednesday night at home to the lowly Suns. A game where the hated-in-Boston Kelly Oubre returned, was booed, then stuck a dagger in the Celtics and blew kisses to the crowd.

Was that Celtics’ win streak a mirage? We’ll get a good measuring stick in the next week: Friday they host the Bucks, Christmas Day they host the Sixers, then the Celtics hit the road to take on the Rockets and Grizzlies. The schedule is getting tougher, is Boston up to it?

Toronto, on the other hand, is doing what elite teams do — finding ways to win, even key players out.

No Kyle Lowry. No Serge Ibaka. And the Pacers were in control, up 17 (77-60) with five minutes to go in the third. Then Kawhi Leonard led the way (scoring 11 of his 28 on the night in this stretch) and the Raptors closed out the game on a 39-19 run over the final 17 minutes to get the win. Fred VanVleet knocked down the shot that gave Toronto the lead for good.

I hear you Pacers fans: That was a bad call at the end of the game. The Pacers needed a three to tie, got the ball to Bojan Bogdanovic beyond the arc and OG Anunoby reached in and fouled him as Bogdanovic started to go up. Unquestionably. But that’s not why the Pacers lost the game — blow a 17 point lead in the final 17 minutes and you don’t get to put the blame on the officials for one call. The Pacers deserved to lose that game the way they played down the stretch.

3) Derrick Rose is back and fun to watch. Savor this. I’ll admit it: I thought he was washed. So many seasons of watching Derrick Rose struggle after his knee injuries, watching his struggle with the craft of his game once he was robbed of his explosiveness, had me thinking he was done.

Rose is back — averaging 19 points a game, knocking down threes better than he ever has (46.9 percent on 3.3 attempts per game), getting to the rim, managing games, being efficient (his 58 true shooting percentage would be a career high), and he’s just flat-out fun to watch right now.

Monday night he dropped 33 for the Timberwolves in an eventual loss to the Pistons.

Rose is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this season and he is all the way back. At age 30, he’s not the same player he was in his early 20s in Chicago, he’s something else entirely. Rose has reinvented himself, and it’s beautiful to watch.

Savor this while we can. Rose is having a redemptive season, showing how hard work and belief in yourself can pay off, and it is one of the best stories in the NBA this season.

Ben Simmons reverses course, withdraws from Australia’s Word Cup squad

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ben Simmons‘ new contract extension with the Philadelphia 76ers came with bad news for Australian basketball fans: The Melbourne-born NBA All-star won’t play for the Boomers at the World Cup.

Hours after Simmons and the 76ers agreed to a $170 million, five-year contract extension on Tuesday, Simmons said he preferred to spend time with his new teammates in September instead of travelling to China for the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup.

“I wanted to let everyone know that after consulting with my representation, I’ve made the difficult decision to forego playing in the World Cup in China,” Simmons said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we decided it was best that I use the time in September to return to Philadelphia to acquaint myself with my new teammates and prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Simmons had been selected for Australia’s World Cup squad and had earlier indicated he planned to play the tournament in China.

He now plans to play only for the Boomers in two exhibition games against the United States in Melbourne on Aug. 22 and 24 at a stadium that is expected to be sold out – 50,000 fans – for each game. He also said the Olympics next year in Tokyo remain on his schedule.

“I will still be heading back home to Australia to host my camps as well as train and play with the Boomers in the upcoming exhibition games,” Simmons said. “I’m really excited about the talent we have on the Boomers squad, especially moving closer to 2020 where I will be honored and humbled to represent my country on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

Simmons was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was the Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season. He has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in his two seasons.

Australia’s World Cup lineup is set to feature San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Joe Ingles of Utah Jazz, Phoenix center Aron Baynes, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Bogut, Detroit center-forward Thon Maker and Simmons’ 76ers teammate Jonah Bolden.

 

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

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When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.

Cameron Payne reportedly agrees to partially-guaranteed contract with Toronto

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Cameron Payne was the starting point guard at one point early in the season in Chicago (until Kris Dunn returned), it didn’t last long, and by the middle of the season he was waived. The Cavaliers picked him up in a limited role at the end of the season.

Payne played for Dallas at Summer League and needed to impress there to have a shot a roster spot for next season. He did, averaging 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting, and he had one 32-point game.

The Toronto Raptors will bring Payne and let him compete to be the third point guard, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Raptors have Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the point, there are not a lot of minutes to be had there. However, both men are in the final year of their contracts. Plus, he brings some pregame dancing that every team needs.

The Raptors now have 16 potential NBA contracts coming into training camp, which means there will be cuts. The fact Payne has a decent guarantee his first year means he’s going to get a real look.

Payne, the No. 14 pick of the Thunder back in 2015, has struggled to find a fit in the NBA. While his skill set should fit the modern game, he doesn’t quite shoot or distribute well enough to earn a coach’s trust. He will try to change that with Nick Nurse.

Enes Kanter trolls (jokingly) Kyrie Irving on why Kanter will wear No. 11 with Boston

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Kyrie Irving is off to Brooklyn, which opened up the No. 11 jersey in Boston.

New Celtics center Enes Kanter will wear it, and his answer as to why is an awesome joke and troll of Irving.

You have to love the smile before he makes the joke, he has planned this out.

If you don’t get the “I want to be the reason no one else will” wear No. 11, you have to remember this Irving/Nike ad from Boston.

Well played Kanter, well played.