James Harden block saves Rockets, himself from embarrassment in Game 7 vs. Thunder

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After the Houston Rockets lost in last year’s second round, James Harden spoke calmly.

“I know what we need to do,” Harden said. “I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”

Wednesday, Harden yelled with all his might.

Maybe it was playing with frenetic Russell Westbrook. Maybe it was the prospect of losing to Chris Paul. Maybe it was the prospect of losing to Luguentz Dort.

Whatever the reason, Harden summoned one of the biggest plays of his career – on defense, no less – to lift Houston to a 104-102 Game 7 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets advance to face the Lakers in the second round with Game 1 Friday.

Harden blocked Dort’s game-winning 3-point attempt with five seconds left, preventing a rash of embarrassing storylines about Harden and Houston.

Harden’s comment last year might have reflected his general feeling toward Paul, and the Rockets traded Paul for Westbrook last summer. It was a classic win-now move. Houston surrendered two first-round picks and two first-round swaps for the “upgrade.”

But Paul outplayed Westbrook this season, mentored Oklahoma City’s younger players and helped the Thunder take the Rockets to the brink in this first-round series.

Harden has more than his share of playoff disappointments. This was not a loss he wanted on his record.

Getting outplayed by Dort, an undrafted rookie, would’ve only added to the humiliation.

Harden shot just 4-for-15, including 1-for-9 on 3-pointers, with four turnovers. Dort scored 30 points.

The previous 106 players to score 30 in a Game 7 averaged more than 24 points per game in the regular season. The lowest regular-season scoring average in that group belong to Joe Dumars, who averaged just 11.8 points per game in 1986-87.

Dort averaged just 6.7 (!) points per game in the regular season.

Houston strategically ignored Dort, and obviously Harden attracted plenty of defensive attention (especially from Dort). But this wouldn’t have been about fair analysis. Harden is an MVP. Dort began this season on a two-way contract. The standards aren’t equal.

So, plenty was brewing when Harden made his great closeout, block and emotional reaction.

Bigger goals are still in reach for the Rockets, who exhibited their low floor and high ceiling throughout this series. At the end of regulation in its three losses, Houston trailed by zero, three and four. Finally succeeding in the clutch, the Rockets showed signs they could challenge the Lakers.

Robert Covington (21 points on 6-of-11 shooting with three blocks and three steals) is an awesome complementary player in Houston’s micro-ball scheme. Westbrook (20 points) and Eric Gordon (21 points) added offensive punch with Harden struggling. This is a team that can win without it looking pretty, though sometimes it does look pretty.

The Lakers should be favored in the second-round series. But the Rockets’ unconventional style adds variability. Harden is incredibly talented, and Westbrook – in addition to his own talent – adds a contagious edge.

The steady Thunder were a good first test. For all he did well, Paul (19 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, six turnovers) just wasn’t quite sharp enough in the end. At least Oklahoma City still has all those long-term assets. This wasn’t wasn’t supposed to be the Thunder’s year.

All the pressure was on the Rockets, and that came through with Harden’s passionate scream.

NBA returning to Seattle for exhibition game, when will it be more?

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SEATTLE (AP) — An NBA preseason game may not seem like a benchmark moment, even in a basketball-hungry city like Seattle, but Jamal Crawford believes there’s value even in an exhibition.

“It reignites a whole new generation of kids who need to see this,” said Crawford, a Seattle native who has been a basketball ambassador for the city through a 20-year NBA career and now with a pro-am that brings in NBA players every summer. “They need to be able to dream and know that it’s real.”

The NBA is making its latest brief return to the Emerald City. The Los Angeles Clippers will play the Portland Trail Blazers there on Monday night, the first time two NBA teams will meet in Seattle since 2018, when the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings played a preseason game. That was the last sporting event inside KeyArena before it was gutted and rebuilt into the gleaming Climate Pledge Arena.

There was a warm-up act of sorts Friday when the Clippers played Israeli team Maccabi Ra’anana in an exhibition, one where the most of the Clippers’ big names – Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, John Wall and Reggie Jackson – weren’t participating.

A sell-out crowd turned out for that Warriors-Kings game four years ago, the first one in Seattle since the beloved SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 after 41 years in the Pacific Northwest. Another big crowd is expected Monday.

“The Sonics haven’t been a team since I’ve been in the NBA. So just to go play in Seattle is cool,” Blazers star Damian Lillard said. “We played in Vancouver a few years back. I think like two or three years ago, we had a preseason game at the (Memorial) Coliseum. So every time we get to do something like that, I always enjoy it because I wondered what was it like when it was a real thing, when the games were played in these different arenas. So I am excited to play in Seattle.”

Someday, possibly soon, the expectations are that Seattle will reclaim its place as an NBA town.

“It’s always been a great city to me,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Friday. “It’s unfortunate that they lost their team and the team went to OKC. This city definitely deserves a team.”

Speculation is nonstop about when the NBA will choose to expand. Thanks to the resolution of its arena situation, Seattle seems likely to be at the forefront of those expansion talks, with Las Vegas likely right behind it.

But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been noncommittal about a possible expansion timeline, and it seems likely those talks won’t pick up steam until the league deals with the new collective bargaining agreement and television deals that are on the horizon.

The community’s commitment has never been in question. The appetite of Seattle fans hasn’t waned in the years since the Sonics left and as the region became a hotbed for NBA talent, whether it was Crawford continuing to carry the banner for the city, to Zach LaVine of Renton, Washington, to this year’s No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero, another Seattle native.

As if any reinforcement was needed, the summer provided a perfect example as fans camped overnight outside Crawford’s summer league venue for the chance to get inside and watch LeBron James make his first basketball visit to the city in more than a decade.

“Anyone that knows Seattle knows what a great basketball city we are,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said this summer when the preseason game was announced.

The idea for having the Blazers and Clippers meet in Seattle was the result of a brainstorm between Lue and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. The two close friends wanted their teams to meet in the preseason and Lue noted the owners for both teams are Seattle based: Steve Ballmer of the Clippers and Jody Allen for the Blazers.

“I haven’t been back since I played there in 2008, I think it was. So just to be able to go back there and you know, Mr. Ballmer and kind of see his offices and how he lives, and (Chauncey) to get a chance to see his owner, and then to be with my best friend, I thought it would be a great common ground,” Lue said.

Steven Adams inks two-year, $25.2 million extension with Grizzlies

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Steven Adams signed a two-year, $25.2 million contract extension with Memphis, which will keep him tied to the team through the 2024-25 season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojanrowski broke the news on Saturday.

Adams has been crucial to the Grizzlies’ recent success. He’s coming off his first season with the team, where he averaged career-highs in rebounds (10.0) and assists (3.4). He also helped them lock up the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference and make it to the Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the eventual-champion Warriors 4-2. Despite the improved numbers, a lot of his value is from intangibles that don’t show up in the box score.

Adams spent the first seven years of his career with the Thunder before being traded to New Orleans in the four-team deal that sent Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee. Adams was moved again to Memphis in a package for Jonas Valanciunas.

Adams has found a new home with a young Grizzlies team that is looking to win a championship. The team is built around Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, but Jackson Jr. is expected to miss time after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. Memphis will rely on Adams more than ever to begin the season.

Watch Curry, Klay in 3-point shooting contest in Japan. Yeah, they’re good at this.

NBA Japan Games Saturday Night
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The NBA went to Japan to promote the brand, play a few games in a huge market — Japan specifically but Asia as a whole — and put on a show.

Is there a better show than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson draining 3s? Here they are in a 3-point contest during a basketball exhibition (there were some pro dunkers) in Tokyo on Saturday.

Stephen Curry, was there any other possible outcome?

It’s preseason and they are the defending champs — they should be having fun, playing with some joy.

Thompson took part in the shooting contest but is not playing in either of the exhibition games in Japan as the Warriors ease him back into play this season. It’s a marathon of a season and the Warriors need the best version of Klay starting in April, not October.

Report: Pelicans, Nance agree to two-year, $21.6 million extension

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Larry Nance has been a stabilizing influence in New Orleans since coming over mid-season as part of the trade for CJ McCollum. Nance is a versatile player who can play the four or the five, knocks down his threes, is very strong on the glass, can be a disruptive defender in passing lanes, and fits in — and he has the veteran attitude of work this team needs.

So the Pelicans have reached an extension to keep the 29-year-old around for two years past this coming season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a signing that should make Pelicans fans happy. Importantly, it makes CJ McCollum happy — they are tight and this is something McCollum wanted to see. The money on this deal seems fair, about the league average for a solid rotation player.

Nance is the kind of veteran this team needs considering its young core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram (just turned 25), Herb Jones, and guys like Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, and others. Nance compared it to the young Lakers teams he was on, but noted that team lacked the same level of veteran leadership this Pelicans team has.

We may see more Nance at the five lineups — small ball with Zion at the four — to close games this season in New Orleans, that could be their best lineup because Nance can defend but also spaces the floor for Zion on offense. Coach Willie Green has a lot of different players and matchups to experiment with.

And now he has the stability of Nance for a few more years.