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Three Things to Know: James Harden drops Jamal Murray, Rockets drop Nuggets

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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, the stuff you missed while watching Clemson throttle Alabama.

1) James Harden drops Jamal Murray, Rockets drop Nuggets. Another night, another string of highlights from James Harden, another storm of threes from Houston (22-of-47), and another win for the Rockets.

Houston is on a roll and best-record-in-the-West Denver was not going to stop them, just the way Jamal Murray was not going to stop James Harden.

Harden scored 32 but this game was a little different because the Nuggets tried to take the ball out of his hands — from the opening tip, they trapped him off the pick-and-roll, hard doubled him, and just threw multiple defenders at him every possession. The result was Harden racking up 14 assists, Clint Capela getting the ball on the roll to the rim on his way to a career-high 31, and P.J. Tucker getting the ball on the kick-out, as he had five threes in the first half alone. Denver dared someone other than The Beard to beat them, and they did.

Nikola Jokic did have 24 points and 13 boards for Denver.

The Rockets run should continue. There’s an interesting test against the Bucks on Wednesday night, then the Rockets hit the soft part of the schedule for a couple of weeks.

2) Anthony Davis keeps making his MVP case, scoring 36 with 13 rebounds in Pelicans win over Memphis. If the MVP voting took place today, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden would finish first and second in some order (it would be close).

Third would likely be Anthony Davis, despite the fact his Pelicans are below .500. The man is having a monster season on both ends of the floor. Just ask the Grizzlies, he dropped 36 points and had 13 boards against them Tuesday night.

Memphis has lost six in a row and 11-of-13 now to fall all the way back to 13th in the West, out of the playoffs, their hot start freezing up in winter. In those 13 games, the team’s defense has been fine, or at least middle-of-the-NBA pack, but the offense is second-worst in the league, scoring fewer points per possessions than the Cavaliers or Knicks in that stretch. The team needs help so the front office traded Wayne Selden Jr., MarShon Brooks, and two second-round picks to Chicago for Justin Holiday, a rotation-level two guard who can give Memphis a little depth but isn’t the answer. Chandler Parsons isn’t the answer, either.

Memphis needs to figure out an answer fast before this season is lost to them completely.

3) Did Cleveland game the system to help out Patrick McCaw? For the first couple of months of the season, Patrick McCaw was sitting in limbo. The restricted free agent who had shown promise as a rookie, regressed, but was in line for a role off the bench, refused to sign a contract and show up to play in Golden State — the team that had his rights — because the swingman wanted more touches and a bigger role. Golden State is pretty set on the wing, and McCaw had regressed last season and couldn’t get the ball in his hands like he wanted. The sides were at a stalemate, with the Warriors having all the power.

Then a week ago along comes Cleveland with an offer sheet — two years, $6 million, not guaranteed. The Warriors, already over the tax and not really having a need for McCaw, let him walk. Then a week later, on Sunday, the Cavaliers waived McCaw, letting him go to become an unrestricted free agent.

One of two things happened here.

First, struggling Cleveland decided they wanted to take a flier on McCaw, they made the offer, then got him in with the team, watched him play — 53 minutes over three games, shooting 2-of-9 — and decided he was not a fit and waived him.

Nobody around the league thinks that’s what happened.

The other option is the Cavaliers did McCaw and his agent a solid. McCaw wanted to be a free agent and the Cavaliers helped him get there, making an offer that was big enough the Warriors would not match, but always with the intention of letting him go. (Cleveland is reportedly in the mix to re-sign McCaw at a lower price.)

Is that allowed? Yes. It didn’t violate any league rules. But it raised some eyebrows around the league as violating the spirit of the team-friendly restricted free agent system. The Warriors are not going to ask the league to investigate, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times, and it’s not the kind of situation that will come up often, but the Cavaliers gamed the system to get McCaw out of Golden State and to free agency.

Now McCaw needs to prove he made the right move, he needs to land somewhere he can get some run and touches. He refused to play a role on the best team in the NBA, the team where he won two rings, that also should raise some eyebrows around the league.

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

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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

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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

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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.