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Three Things to Know: Red-hot James Harden off to Jordan/Wilt level start to season

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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) Red-hot James Harden off to Jordan/Wilt level start to the season. Remember this quaint concern before the season tipped off: There’s only one basketball, how exactly are Russell Westbrook and James Harden going to share it and share the court?

It’s Harden’s basketball, Harden’s team, and when it matters Westbrook is going to stay out of the way. That’s how.

Harden — whose 36.1 points per game last season was the highest per-game average in the league since Michael Jordan in 1987 (37.1) — is off to a hotter start and scoring more this season.

We saw that on Monday night: Harden had a personal 13-0 run in the fourth quarter and dropped 19 in the final frame to help the Rockets put away the Pelicans, 122-116. Harden finished with 39 points, his fourth-straight 35+ point game — and not so coincidentally the Rockets are on a four-game win streak.

If you want to talk old-school per-game averages, Harden is averaging 37.3 through 10 games, the most in the last 50 years — Jordan averaged 36.9 in 1987 and 1989.

By the way, when Westbrook and Harden share the court the Rockets are +2.8 points per 100 possessions, and the team plays pretty good (league average range) defense when they are paired.

Nothing has changed for Harden. The man with the beard, motivated by losing the MVP race to Giannis Antetokounmpo last season, has not been slowed in the least by the arrival of another ball-dominant guard.

The Rockets are 7-3 to start the season, and while we can debate where they belong in the rankings of contenders in the West, we know that if you leave them off the list you’re doing it wrong. This is a good team, a dangerous one.

And good luck slowing Harden down.

2) The Day the injuries piled up: Gordon Hayward, Khris Middleton, De’Aaron Fox all out weeks. This was a depressing way to start the week, injuries to three star players that will keep them out weeks.

We knew Sunday night that Celtics’ star Gordon Hayward, off to a fast start this season, had fractured his hand. Monday we learned that he had surgery to repair the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand (the bone that connects the wrist to the ring finger), and he will be out six weeks. That’s relatively good news, Stephen Curry is out three months with the fracture in his non-shooting hand, but Hayward will be missed. He was 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. More than just that, he’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics.

Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton left Sunday’s game in the third quarter with a thigh bruise but after the game said it was not that serious. Actually, it was serious. He’s going to be out 3-4 weeks with the injury. Middleton was playing at his All-Star level of a year ago averaging 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.

Sacramento’s rising star De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice on Monday and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense.

To add to all this, the Clippers’ young sharpshooter Landry Shamet had to leave the game against the Raptors on Monday night and an MRI on Tuesday will tell us how long he will be out.

3) San Antonio Spurs retire the jersey of Tony Parker, putting all of their big three in the rafters. Tony Parker was the No. 28 pick the 2001 NBA Draft. At the time there was a push from members of the Boston Celtics front office to take him at No. 21, but 84-year-old team president Red Auerbach didn’t trust that European point guards could thrive in the NBA. The Celtics took Joe Forte.

Parker fell to the Spurs seven picks later, and the rest is history. Parker went on to help the Spurs to four titles, he was named Finals MVP with one of those, plus was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. Parker used his quickness and high IQ to break down defenses as well as anyone who played the game — the 6’2” Parker led the league in points in the paint one season.

Parker was part of the core that turned the Spurs into a dynasty. He deserved to have his number hung in the rafters with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (and they were all there for the occasion).

Parker handled the night with the class we have come to expect from the French star.

Merci, Toni.

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.