Three Things to Know: James Harden is breaking records, Warriors just look broken

Associated Press
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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) James Harden is breaking records, Warriors just look broken. At what point do we say “the Warriors have a problem?”

I’ve been at the forefront of the “whatever, they’ll get it together when it matters” campaign, that we’re measuring the Warriors against the impossibly high bar they set. However, the Warriors were crushed at home by the Lakers on Christmas (even with LeBron James having to leave the game), next they gave away a fourth-quarter lead to the Trail Blazers and lost in overtime, then Thursday night they repeated the pattern blowing a 17-point lead to the Rockets, going to OT and losing again.

At what point do we say “this is a problem?”

Thursday the Warriors’ problem was named James Harden.

He has vaulted himself back into the MVP conversation with a historic run in the last dozen games: 40.1 points per game average in those 12 on a ridiculous 64 true shooting percentage, plus 9 assists and 6.6 rebounds a night. Harden now owns the NBA record streak of games with at least 35+ points and 5+ assists at nine (and counting), and he has topped Stephen Curry’s record for consecutive games with five or more made threes at eight.

Against the Warriors, he had 44 points, made a career-high 10 threes, had 15 assists and 10 rebounds. Oh, and with the game on the line did this.

Which, frankly, was instant Karma after the Warriors took a two-point lead on a Curry shot that only happened because the referees somehow missed an obvious out-of-bounds call when Kevin Durant “saved” the ball to keep the play alive.

Harden’s run has carried the Rockets offense and propelled the team to an 11-1 run that has taken them from 14th in the West to fourth. The last six wins have come with Chris Paul out. That said, I’m not ready to say Houston is back to being title contenders — their defense is 13th in the NBA during the win streak, it’s not great, Harden is just covering it up right now.

The Warriors aren’t playing like contenders, either.

In those same last dozen games, the Warriors are 7-5 with a meager +1.1 net rating. Curry and Draymond Green are finally healthy, yet the Warriors are not playing with the consistency of execution or passion we expect of contenders. In the final 3:30 of regulation against Houston, Curry and Durant — mostly Durant — took all the shots and were 2-of-8.

This roster is thinner, Golden State could use a good DeMarcus Cousins in the paint (nobody knows exactly how good he will be whenever he returns), and the Warriors look older and a little slower.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe the Warriors’ “don’t worry, we got this” attitude when asked about their struggles it is right. They are back-to-back champions, maybe Golden State can just flip the switch.

But at what point do we say “the Warriors have a serious problem?”

2) Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio and DeMar DeRozan reminds everyone he was traded, too. Spurs fans got their cathartic moment. Despite the fact Gregg Popovich didn’t like it, when Kawhi Leonard returned to San Antonio Thursday Spurs fans lustily booed every chance they got and even changed “traitor” at points (but Danny Green got plenty of love).

Leonard and the “he will make Toronto different in the playoffs” narrative have dominated the storylines around the Raptors and in the run-up to this game. DeMar DeRozan — the guy that was the reason the Spurs went with the Toronto package, the guy pissed he was traded from a city and franchise he loved over the summer — dominated the game and reminded the world he was part of the trade, too.

DeRozan came out of the locker room hotter than a TexMex salsa with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in the first half. He finished the game with his first ever triple double. DeRozan finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, and the Spurs got the 125-107 win.

Overlooked in that was LaMarcus Aldridge bullying Serge Ibaka on his way to 21 points on 14 shots, or that Bryn Forbes had 20 points on 10 shots. The Spurs were the classic efficient Spurs. Which is why they currently are a playoff team (tied for the seven seed at 21-17) in the crowded West.

One final thought: Toronto misses Kyle Lowry. A lot. And they missed Jonas Valanciunas a lot in the paint, also.

3) The first round of fan All-Star voting is in and… what exactly are you all thinking? The first round of fan voting is in and if we went by that the All-Star captains would be LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo (remember the new All-Star format has the fans picking the 10 starters, who are thrown in a pool the captains choose teams playground style). That makes perfect sense, they are two of the best players in the NBA this season.

The other eight in the starter’s pool would be: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Derrick Rose, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, and Dwyane Wade.

Um… really fans? Wade, who comes off the bench on a struggling Heat Team and is playing replacement player level basketball, but you want him over Victor Oladipo or Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry? I love the Rose comeback story as much as the next guy, but you’re picking him over James Harden or Damian Lillard? And Doncic is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but if you’re picking him over Anthony Davis or Paul George you’re doing it wrong.

That said, it’s an exhibition and fans vote their heart. So if they have Vince Carter — who I think entered the NBA during the Taft administration — seven in the East frontcourt voting, so be it. Or if they vote DeMarcus Cousins, who has yet to touch the court for the Warriors, 10th in the West frontcourt, so be it.

I’d say “give the people what they want” except the NBA is not going to do that. Remember the fan vote counts for 50 percent of the total, with a player vote making up 25 percent and a media vote making up the other 25 percent. Plus, the fan vote will shift as more votes come in. Which is good. Also fans, you can stop voting for John Wall, he’s not going to be playing (but is 10th in fan voting in the East guards somehow, despite a down year before his injuries).

Nets reportedly trade Kyrie Irving to Mavericks for Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, picks

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets
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Dallas desperately needed a second star and shot creator to go next to Luka Dončić.

They got one — Mark Cuban has always been willing to take risks to win. The questions of fit and how long this can last come later.

The Nets are trading Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, their 2029 first-round pick multiple second-round picks, according to multiple reports.

Brooklyn had several suitors to choose from but wanted in return player it could slot in around Kevin Durant now (or, once he is healthy and returns) so they could still have a puncher’s chance to compete to win the East. Dinwiddie gives Brooklyn a point guard and shot creator who can play some off the ball — and he returns to Brooklyn, where he made a name for himself in the league. Finney-Smith is a coveted two-way wing who can step in right now. Plus, the Nets add some potentially valuable picks down the line.

That offer gave the Nets more win-now possibilities than they got out of the Lakers’ offer (two future first-rounders and Russell Westbrook) or what the Suns and Clippers put in the mix.

There are questions for Dallas, but ones they believe they can answer. It helps that both coach Jason Kidd and former Nike executive turned Mavericks GM Nico Harrison have strong relationships with Irving. That’s a strong foundation.

The pairing of Dončić and Irving should lead to games and stretches where they look brilliant, but the question is not the highs but the lows — how deep and how prolonged will those be. Irving works well off the ball (as he has done with Durant and LeBron James) and should be able to play off Dončić. However, can Dončić play well off the ball when Irving is hot? Do the Mavericks — with Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood, Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock and the rest — have enough around their two stars to be a serious threat in the West? Off the court, can the very different personalities of Irving and Dončić mesh, or at least work well enough not to be a distraction?

The biggest question: Do Cuban and the Mavericks really want to re-sign Irving for the four-years, $198.5 million he demands at the end of the season? There are reports that Dallas (like every other front office in the league, including Brooklyn) is hesitant to do a long-term deal with Irving that gives him that kind of guaranteed money.

But that is a concern for the future — Dallas got its second star. It has vaulted itself into the upper echelons of the Western Conference and positioned itself to contend.

Reports: Stephen Curry out ‘weeks’ with knee injury, Warriors hope for return after All-Star Break

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors
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This is bad news for the Warriors. How bad depends on how the word “weeks” is ultimately defined.

Stephen Curry will be out “weeks” with a knee injury suffered against the Mavericks, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“Weeks” is a vague word, and for the Warriors the difference in Curry being out three weeks (with one of those being the All-Star Break) versus him being out six to eight weeks could be the difference in how long a playoff run the Warriors have.

The Warriors are hoping for a Curry return just after the All-Star break, reports Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

Of short-term concern, this has Curry out for the All-Star Game where the fans voted him a starter. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will bump one of the reserves up to a starting spot — likely Ja Morant, who was third in fan voting — and name an injury replacement for the team. The top candidates are Devin Booker (if he returns from injury this week as expected), De'Aaron Fox or Anthony Edwards.

Longer term, the Warriors can’t afford to be without Curry for an extended period.

Curry is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game, and the Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. With the team one game above .500 and struggling to avoid the play-in, an extended absence for Curry is trouble for a Warriors team that has never found its footing this season.

 

Nets reportedly going to sit Kyrie Irving until he is traded

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This time it looks like it’s going to happen, the Brooklyn Nets will trade Kyrie Irving (unlike this summer).

Just don’t expect to see Irving on the court for Brooklyn until he’s moved, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

That is at one time a combination of smart, the only real call to make, the Nets wanting to look like they have control over the situation because Irving’s camp already leaked that he was going to sit out the rest of the season if not traded.

Irving did not play Saturday night when the Nets went down by 20 in the first quarter but rallied behind 44 points from Cam Thomas to get a much-needed win.

Four primary suitors have stepped up for Irving: The Lakers (considered Irving’s preferred destination), Suns, Mavericks and Clippers. The question is what do the Nets want back in a trade? If, as most around the league expect, the goal is to remain in the championship picture around Kevin Durant, Brooklyn will prize quality players and depth over draft picks. That’s bad news for the Lakers (the core of their offer is two future first-round picks plus Russell Westbrook) and good for the team down the hall, the Clippers can offer good players — John Wall, Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson, plus young players such as Terance Mann — plus a pick if they need it.

The question for teams: Irving wants a max contract after this summer, similar to the four-year, $198.5 million fully guaranteed extension the Nets would not offer after Irving had 10 weeks or so of not being disruptive and focusing on basketball. Around the league, front offices are very hesitant to get into the Irving business for that long (most thought he would never get more than a two-year offer). Are the four teams above desperate enough for a bold move that ownership would sign off on four years with Irving? Will any of them? Or, like this summer, will Irving find the market not to his liking?

It’s going to be interesting until the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Watch Shai Gilgeous-Alexander go off for 42, Thunder blow out Rockets

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder took what coach Mark Daigneault called a “bloodthirsty mentality” into Saturday’s rematch with the Houston Rockets.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 42 points to help the Thunder blow out Houston 153-121.

They were disappointed in losing at Houston on Wednesday and responded by setting an Oklahoma City record for points in a game, surpassing the 150 they scored in a win over the Boston Celtics last month.

“Just (wanted to) be the aggressors,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Play our style, our brand of basketball. I think we got away from that a little bit in Houston, and we just wanted to get back on track.”

Daigneault was most pleased that the approach was player-led.

“It wasn’t like I was giving motivational speeches,” he said. “But, you know, as a team, they kind of banded together and decided that they were going to come out and play the way they did. And they were impressive because of it.”

Gilgeous-Alexander set the tone by scoring 20 points in the first quarter.

“I thought tonight was, like, a pretty big leadership statement game for him,” Daigneault said. “I think when you need a response like we needed tonight coming out of the other night, you rely on your guys that are most experienced, who play the most minutes.”

Gilgeous-Alexander shot 7 for 23 from the field in the first matchup, but bounced back to make 14 of 23 field goals on Saturday, falling two points short of his career high. The first-time All-Star also made 14 of 15 free throws and had six assists for the Thunder, despite not playing in the fourth quarter because the Thunder led by 42 points at the end of the third.

Mike Muscala scored a season-high 19 points and Josh Giddey added 17 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds for Oklahoma City.

“We’re a team that’s growing in confidence, and I think our habits are growing,” Daigneault said. “And I think a lot of things are moving in the right direction.”

Josh Christopher and TyTy Washington each scored 20 points and Tari Eason added 18 for the Rockets.

The Rockets were playing without Eric Gordon (sore right knee) and Jae'Sean Tate (right ankle injury).

Rockets coach Stephen Silas didn’t want to hear it.

“You’ve got to step up in these situations, and we didn’t do it,” he said. “We succumbed to back-to-back, three-in-four, no Eric, no Tate, all that stuff. … We succumbed to it. That’s not – we’re talking about winning habits. That’s not one.”

Oklahoma City led 79-53 at the break after shooting 55% from the field. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 28 points in the first two quarters, a career high for him in a first half.

The Thunder continued to roll in the third quarter, making 16 of 26 field goals in the period to go up 123-81 heading into the fourth.

Oklahoma City set the Thunder single-game scoring record on a 3-pointer by Darius Bazley that banked in during the final minute.