James Harden sits but John Wall stars as Rockets beat Kings 102-94

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HOUSTON — John Wall scored 28 points and the Houston Rockets beat the Sacramento Kings 102-94 on Saturday despite playing without an injured James Harden.

Harden, who sat out with a sprained right ankle, was not listed on the injury report and coach Stephen Silas did not mention his injury in his pregame availability. The team announced that he wouldn’t play about 38 minutes before the game was scheduled to begin.

Wall, who sat out Houston’s first two games because of COVID-19 contact tracing, missed all of last season and played just 32 games two years ago because of injuries. He scored 22 points in his Rockets’ debut on Thursday after a trade from Washington to make him the first player to score 50 points in his first two games after an absence of at least two years since Michael Jordan did it in 2001, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“I just put in a lot of hard work and dedication to get to this point,” Wall said. “I couldn’t ask for a better start to be 2-0 in my first two games.”

Silas wasn’t sure what to expect from Wall after being out for so long. But he has definitely been impressed.

“Whatever expectations I had, he’s obviously exceeded them,” he said.

The Rockets scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter to extend their lead to 92-81 with about 8 1/2 minutes left. Eric Gordon led the team in that stretch, making a 3-pointer and three free throws.

Sacramento ended a scoring drought of more than 3 1/2 minutes soon after that on an alley-oop dunk by Richaun Holmes.

Both teams struggled to score after that as they combined to miss 10 shots in a row. Gordon finally made a shot for Houston with just less than five minutes to go, and Wall added a bucket a few seconds later to extend the lead to 96-83.

Silas raved about his team’s defense on Saturday and said without Harden’s scoring prowess it was even more important to concentrate on that part of the game.

“We really buckled down and played some defense,” Silas said. “In order for us to be good we have to be good on defense. We can’t just outscore people.”

The Kings used an 8-2 run, capped by four points from Harrison Barnes, to get within 98-91 with less than a minute to go. But Christian Wood responded with a dunk to put the game out of reach.

Harden had started Houston’s first three games this season and is averaging a league-leading 37 points with 11 assists.

De'Aaron Fox had 23 points for the Kings, who lost to the Rockets for the second straight game after winning three of their first four games.

“The guys should feel bad about the loss just like I do, losing is painful,” coach Luke Walton said. “But they should also feel very good about how they are playing as a group.”

He said they got stagnant offensively in the second half and was particularly disappointed in their lack of assists.

“We only had 11 assists tonight as a team, which is awful,” he said. “That’s not who we are as a group.”

Wood had 20 points and 16 rebounds and Gordon added 21 points for Houston.

The Kings cut the lead to two points on a 3-pointer by Buddy Hield with about 7 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. Wall made four quick points after that to stretch the lead to 79-73.

The Rockets were up by seven late in the third before Fox scored the last five points of the quarter to cut the deficit to 83-81 entering the fourth.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.