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Watch James Harden drop 44 in final preseason game

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MIAMI (AP) — James Harden sure seems in midseason form.

Russell Westbrook isn’t there yet.

Harden, the reigning NBA scoring champion, scored 44 points in 35 minutes – 18 of those points coming in the third quarter – and the Houston Rockets ended the preseason with a 144-133 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night.

]”James was ridiculous,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden was 12 for 26 from the field, 8 for 16 from 3-point range and 12 for 13 from the foul line. He also had seven assists and five rebounds, and finished the preseason averaging 31.5 points.

“That’s the way he’s wired,” D’Antoni said. “He loves to play. I couldn’t take him out in the fourth quarter if I wanted to. He’d play 48 if he could. He’s wired that way. He gets better every time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. But he’s, to me, the most improved player every year. He’s just ridiculous.”

The Rockets didn’t get out of the game unscathed, however. Austin Rivers could play only seven minutes before being downgraded to out with neck soreness, and Westbrook – who has been dealing with some dislocated fingers on his right hand – left the game in the fourth quarter in obvious discomfort.

Westbrook lost the ball, immediately grabbed at his right hand, then ran off the court and straight into the tunnel leading to the Rockets’ locker room without stopping. He finished with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists on 6-for-13 shooting in 26 minutes.

“Both of them told me they were OK, so we’ll take that,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni said Westbrook aggravated the finger issue, and will be fine. A top task for the Rockets in this preseason was figuring out all the ways to best utilize their new point guard, with D’Antoni acknowledged is still a bit of a work in progress.

“I was with him for eight summers in USA Basketball,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a great guy. Works hard. Unbelievable athletically. Just the speed and power that he can play with … he’s relentless.”

Some of D’Antoni’s favorite moments during Westbrook’s brief Houston tenure so far have been ones that few people have seen – since they’ve come in practice, in moments where the competitive juices have perhaps overflowed.

“He gets ticked off in practice sometimes and the next 3 minutes, he’s killing people,” D’Antoni said. “He needs that competitiveness to juice him up. He’s not like the old guy at the Y who will knock you down and shoot it. No, no, he’s coming at you with all the athleticism that he has.”

Westbrook will have a few extra days to get through the issue with his fingers. He and the Rockets don’t open the regular season until playing host to Milwaukee on Thursday.

Eric Gordon scored 23 points for Houston and Clint Capela finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

Kendrick Nunn scored 40 points in 40 minutes for Miami, making 15 of 27 shots. Tyler Herro scored 14 points and Bam Adebayo made all six of his shots on the way to a 13-point, 11-rebound night.

Jimmy Butler didn’t play for the Heat, held out to rest.

LeBron James rips AAU workload: ‘AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid’

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Last week, during the pointless debate about Kawhi Leonard missing a game for load management, the most salient point came from former Suns coach Earl Watson.

He echoed a must-read story (from Baxter Holmes at ESPN) that reverberated around the NBA this summer (but for many fans got lost in the shuffle of player movement): How NBA team medical staffs — as well as just doctors working on young athletes — were noticing the extreme wear and tear on the body of AAU basketball players. The volume of games, often without enough training and conditioning to properly strengthen their young bodies or let them recover, sets young players up for injuries later in their playing career. NBA teams and doctors, with their load management techniques, are trying to make up for damage that started long before.

LeBron James, with two sons playing AAU ball right now, is in full agreement.

LeBron ripped the volume of games played in the youth basketball culture, speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f***,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through…

“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- – -ing out of control. That’s just too much… So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.

“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”

It is an issue. A big issue. The NBA can talk about reducing the number of games — they are, and they should, the season is too long, but cutting the number of games becomes a complex financial issue — but it goes beyond just the NBA level.

There needs to be fundamental changes in youth basketball in the NBA, down to the AAU level. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about this.

“So, where historically it’s been an area, particularly AAU basketball, that the league has stayed out of, I think these most recent revelations (from the NCAA scandal) are just a reminder that we’re part of this larger basketball community. I think ultimately, whether we like it or not, need to be more directly involved with elite youth basketball,” Silver said a couple of years ago. Since then, the league has taken steps in that direction.

However, like shortening the NBA season, there are a lot of competing interests in a complicated situation. A lot of people are making money the way things are now and don’t want them to change.

For the health of players, it needs to.

 

Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton to miss 3-4 weeks with thigh contusion

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Khris Middleton, coming off a summer with Team USA, has quietly continued his All-Star level play this season — an efficient 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

However, he’s not going to be on the court for a few weeks due to a deep thigh bruise, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In the third quarter of the Bucks win over the Thunder Sunday, Middleton suffered the thigh bruise, which sent him to the locker room. While he returned to the bench, he did not return to the game. Afterward, in the locker room, Middleton didn’t seem to think it was that serious.

It turned out to be a little more than that, it has to be a deep bruise to have him out for up to a month.

Kyle Korver would be next in line to get those minutes, but he sat out Sunday with a “head contusion.” Behind him look for smaller lineups with Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Wesley Matthews to get more minutes, plus maybe a little Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

After 0-6 start, Raptors coach Nick Nurse celebrates successful challenge like he won a championship (video)

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After the Raptors won the 2019 NBA title, Toronto coach Nick Nurse hugged Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri.

Some of the hug recipients changed, but Nurse’s celebration didn’t look that different last night.

Nurse missed his first six coach’s challenges then finally got one right during the Raptors’ win over the Lakers. He responded by hugging everyone – including a Los Angeles fan – around him.

This was a long time coming. Even after a couple early failed challenges, Nurse sounded exasperated.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

Maybe Clippers coach Doc Rivers, a noted challenge critic, will eventually experience this euphoria.

Report: Gordon Hayward to have surgery on left hand

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How good would Gordon Hayward be if he could just stay healthy?

Hopefully we will find out someday, but probably not for the next couple of months after his agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Hayward will have surgery on his non-shooting hand to repair a broken bone.

There will be no official timeline for recovery until after the surgery, but after going under the knife Hayward is likely out at least six weeks. Stephen Curry is out three months after surgery on his non-shooting hand (that is a different injury, but it shows how long the timeline can be).

The play where the injury happened was innocuous.

Even so, it has left Boston with some big questions to answer through New Year’s Eve, or whenever Hayward returns. Hayward was having a bounce-back year, averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. He’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics.

For Boston, this likely means a lot more Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, and maybe Javonte Green.