Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Nikola Jokic’s leaner at buzzer tops Luka Doncic dunk

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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) Nikola Jokic’s leaner at buzzer beats Luka Doncic dunk in Denver win. Dallas may have lost six in a row and 11-of-12 coming into Thursday night, but do not question how badly Luka Doncic wants to win these meaningless games (or Dallas) down the stretch. Doncic doesn’t do tanking. He may be slumping (shooting 21.6 percent from three in his last five games) but it’s not because he’s mailing it in.

Just ask Denver, who watched him put up 24 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Thursday — and he threw down a dunk over two Nuggets with 5.8 seconds left that looked like a game winner.

Then Nikola Jokic topped it.

Denver came from 10 down in the fourth quarter, tied it on a Paul Millsap bucket that gave him 33 on the night, got lucky Doncic missed a free throw after being fouled on his clutch dunk (that and-1 point would have had Dallas up two), then gave the ball to their star with everything on the line and he hit a well-defended leaner for the win.

That shot crushed Doncic.

Denver’s win keeps them just one game back of Golden State for the top seed in the West, maintaining pressure on the Warriors not to mail in the rest of the season.

2) Pacers will not go quietly, beat Thunder to hang on to three seed in East. Indiana is not folding. First, Victor Oladipo went down and people expected the Pacers to crash and burn, but they just kept on finding ways to win. Then the Pacers hit (and are still in the middle of) a brutal patch of the schedule, but they refuse to roll over. If Philadelphia is going to be the three seed, it will have to pry it from the Pacers’ cold, dead hands. Indiana is not going away.

Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Pacers held on to the three seed for another night, coming from 19 down in the second half for a clutch home win. They can thank Wesley Matthews, the guy they picked up to fill some of Oladipo’s minutes. Matthews was the closer. First, he played good defense on Paul George.

Then he had the putback game winner (Russell Westbrook watched the ball, slid into the middle of the lane and didn’t put a body on him).

As always with the Pacers it was a team effort — Domantas Sabonis scored 26 and keeps making his Sixth Man of the Year case. Coach Nate McMillan may have found something with a lineup of Matthews, Sabonis, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Darren Collison. That group outscored the Thunder 23-10 down the stretch. The group played so well Thaddeus Young told coach Nate McMillan not to sub him in and break up what was working.

It was too much for OKC despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double and Paul George dropping 36 points.

Indiana is half-a-game up on Philly for the three seed, with Boston 1.5 back. Indy still has work to do — six of their next seven are on the road, all against playoff-bound teams — but don’t expect them to fold.

3) Kyrie Irving triple-double leads Boston to a gritty win. Pretty or ugly, the wins all count the same. And the Celtics need those wins.

The first-half Thursday was ugly for the Celtics. Boston’s shaky transition defense was getting abused by a Kings’ team that always plays in fifth gear. Plus, the Celtics shot 1-of-12 from three. Sacramento led by as many as 17 and seemed in control.

Then the second half saw toughness from Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown getting buckets on his way to 22. Then when Boston needed it, Kyrie Irving stepped up, finishing with a 31 point, 12 assists, 10 rebound triple-double.

Boston remains the five seed in the East, but the Celtics may be playing the best ball of any East contender entering the playoffs. In the postseason, grit goes a long way, and Boston has shown it has plenty when needed.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.