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Three Things to Know: Who’s your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers

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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) LeBron is your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers. It’s early in the season, but the narratives for the race for MVP are taking shape, and right now LeBron James — having a season similar in many ways to the ones he had recently in Cleveland, just now doing it in a much brighter spotlight — is near the top of a lot of lists, with a compelling narrative around him that he has turned around the worst run of Lakers’ basketball in franchise history. (If the vote were taken today Giannis Antetokounmpo would win, but LeBron would be in the mix… just my sense talking to other voters and what one straw poll found.)

James Harden, who is the reigning MVP, has put up very similar offensive numbers to last season — 30.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage and a 27.3 PER — yet his name is not mentioned in the race.

Thursday night on TNT he threw his hat back in the ring with a 50-point triple-double (10 rebounds, and 11 assists) pushing the Rockets to a 126-111 win over the Lakers, the kind of win that makes you think maybe the Rockets can turn it around.

That was Harden’s fourth 50-point triple-double, an NBA regular season record (moving him past former teammate Russell Westbrook).

It was a vintage Harden performance — he only had 26 shot attempts to get to 50 points, and he got to the free throw line for 18 shots. Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the long list of coaches who picked up a technical foul yelling at the referees that Harden was getting all the calls while his team didn’t get those same whistles (Harden is the master and drawing contact, then when he feels it throwing back his head, flailing his arms, and essentially flopping for the call… it works). LeBron and Lonzo Ball actually tried defending with their hands behind their backs for a stretch, trying to make a point to the officials. But what Harden does is just smart and practiced — he’s the master at it, and if you don’t foul he’s good enough to still put up ridiculous numbers.

Harden’s offensive skills have never been in question. However, he’s not mentioned in the MVP race because of the other end of the court — Houston is 13-14 with the second worst defense in the NBA, and Harden is part of the problem on that end. Last season the Rockets were a top-10 defense and they switched everything with the hope that the other team would then try to exploit the mismatch of Harden (or Chris Paul) guarding a big man, post up said big up and let him go to work. Except, Harden is very strong, especially in the lower body, and it’s difficult to back him down in the post and go to work. Harden is a good post defender.

This season, teams have largely abandoned that approach, they are working to exploit Harden in space or his help defense, both of which are terrible. Again. Harden is playing defense this season like the meme-worthy guy of 2014-15. Harden is not the only problem on the Rockets’ defense (Clint Capela looks a step slower, as does Chris Paul, and they miss the switchable wings they let walk last season in free agency, the communication is lacking, and much more) but he is a part of the problem. And it’s obvious.

That said, if the Rockets start to turn it around, string together some wins, get into a playoff position in the West, and Harden keeps putting up these numbers, he’s going to get some MVP votes. For now, the Rockets need more games like this from Harden to get them back into the West playoffs.

2) Dirk Nowitzki is back on the court, but the Mavericks suffer an ugly loss to Phoenix. For the 21st season in a row, Dirk Nowitzki — the future Hall of Famer, the best European player in NBA history, the talisman of the franchise — was back on the court in a Mavericks uniform. He was limited, playing just 6 minutes and scoring only one bucket, but it was good to see (just ask Mark Cuban).

Nowitzki is not why this game was a national TNT broadcast on one of the league’s showcase nights: they wanted Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic. A 2018 NBA Draft showdown.

This was not vintage Doncic (the current clear leader in the Rookie of the Year race), who had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists but added 4 turnovers. A couple of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is something the league tries to avoid on Thursday night showcases: it was Dallas’s third game in four nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and Doncic looked dead-legged (as did all the Mavericks). Also, Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. seemed to take turns, trading off who would attack, rather than letting the more skilled Doncic just take over.

Ayton was not himself either, scoring 7 points on 3-of-13 shooting, matched up with the athletic veteran DeAndre Jordan. Ayton usually puts up good counting stats — he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds a game — but his offense is limited, half his shots come right at the rim and 75 percent of his shots are set up by someone else, and his defense is dreadful. He’s got potential as an NBA big man, but he also has a lot of work to do to live up to being a No. 1 pick.

Phoenix snapped it’s 10-game losing streak with a 99-88 win.

3) The NBA tries to win over Mexico by sending them… Orlando and Chicago? If you’re an NBA fan living Mexico City fan and you get to see a couple of games in person a year, you can’t be faulted for thinking Nikola Vucevic is a legend.

The NBA put its best foot forward in Mexico City Thursday night… okay, it put a foot forward, giving them a regular season game between the Magic and Bulls. Vucevic, who is playing at an All-Star level for the Magic this season, was the best player on the court, dropping 20 points and 10 boards, leading the Magic to a 97-91 win.

The most interesting news out of Chicago is that Bulls new coach Jim Boylen will be allowed to so something Fred Hoiberg was not — bench Jabari Parker. Despite Chandler Hutchison being out, Parker got four first-half minutes and that’s it. He’s not going to be part of the regular rotation going forward. This was one of the front office’s big moves this summer, spending $20 million to bring in Parker (when no other team was offering near that much), but with Lauri Markkanen back there just shouldn’t be minutes for Parker. (Hoiberg didn’t really get to coach Markkanen this season due to injury, so he had to play Parker, even starting him a lot at the four.)

Bulls management has made some smart moves the past 18 months, but there have been a few head-scratchers, too. Parker is at the top of that list.

Three Things to Know: Fred Hoiberg wasn’t problem in Chicago, wasn’t answer either

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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) Fred Hoiberg wasn’t the biggest problem in Chicago, wasn’t the answer either. You can spin the firing of Fred Hoiberg as the coach of the Chicago Bulls a couple of ways — and both are true.

Hoiberg wasn’t the reason for the Bulls’ slow start, but he wasn’t showing himself to be the answer to turning it around, either.

Blaming Hoiberg for the 5-19 start for this team is wrong. Team president John Paxson explained the firing by saying the Bulls lacked “energy” and “spirit” but what they really lacked was talent — and that’s on him. And much of the talent they did have on the roster has been injured: Lauri Markkanen just played his first game Saturday, Kris Dunn has played in one game, Bobby Portis four, Robin Lopez has missed time, and on down the line. This was a team that was never going to win many games anyway, and if the front office went into the season truly believing this roster could hang around and compete for a playoff spot — even at the bottom of the East — then those were not your standard gummy bears they were eating.

This year’s Bulls’ roster followed a pattern — Fred Hoiberg was brought in to run a modern pace-and-space offense then was never given a roster that fit well with his principles. Not with Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and Pau Gasol. Not with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. And not with this young team, which had potential but was never fully healthy.

However, Hoiberg also never commanded this team and was not the coach to lead them into the future either — which makes this firing the right move.

What exactly was the Bulls’ identity this season? That’s on the coach.

Hoiberg is simply not a strong personality and not the master psychologist who could get players with big egos to all pull on the rope in the same direction. From the day just 25 games into his rookie season as a coach when Jimmy Butler basically stepped over him after a dunk — saying the team needed to be “coached harder” — Hoiberg never had the locker room. At one point Wade and Butler complained about the effort of the young players to the media, Rondo stood up for them on social media, and the only thing that was clear was Hoiberg had lost the locker room. That trend continued.

Can Hoiberg be a quality NBA coach? Who knows. I’d love to see what he could do with a roster that actually fit his style of play.

Jim Boylen gets the head coaching job — and not on an interim basis, he’s the man (and no, this is not the Jim Boylan that took over for Scott Skiles when the Bulls fired him years ago, different spelling). Chicago wants the veteran to coach the rest of this season, plus he’s under contract for next season, they hope he earns sticking around. Maybe he can, the roster is finally getting healthy and, while it is not going to be good, it should be better than the six-game losing streak they are on. Can Boylen get some traction on the spinning wheels of the Bulls’ franchise? Maybe.

But the bottom line is Paxson and GM Gar Forman need to get a lot more talent on the roster before they blame the coach for wins and losses. The Bulls have made some smart moves to start building this franchise up again in the past couple of seasons, but they have a long way to go still. Regardless of who is the coach.

2) Denver goes into Toronto and picks up a “we’re for real” win on the road. Toronto gave up two dead-ball points late in the game that cost them a chance for the win at home. Well, the 3-of-22 shooting from three in the first half had a lot to do with it too — it’s never just one thing, a lot of things go into a close loss — but let’s focus on the two dead ball points at the end of the game.

The first came when Raptors coach Nick Nurse earned — and we mean EARNED — a technical foul with this reaction to a closeout foul call on Jonas Valanciunas.

Nurse was lucky not to be tossed for that reaction. As for the foul, Nurse has a point — while that’s a late and sloppy closeout by Valanciunas (why was he in a deep help position on Plumlee, leaving a shooter open) Monte Morris does jump forward with his shot, Valanciunas did not slide under him on a vertical leap. That said, Nurse has to own his reaction and giving up a point late in a close game is a mistake by the coach, regardless of what he thinks of the call.

Then there was the one Nurse can’t argue: With the game tied at 103-103 and :07 on the clock, Serge Ibaka unquestionably holds and hooks Nikola Jokic on an inbound play as Jokic is trying to come around a Jamal Murray pick. Because the ball was not inbounded it was one free throw plus the ball for Denver, but that changed everything (the game was no longer tied, it forced the Raptors to play the foul game).

Maybe last season this doesn’t get called (the Utah Jazz wish it wasn’t getting called) but that was not some subtle hold off the ball. Ibaka grabbed him and impeded Jokic’s movement. If you’re going to emphasize freedom of movement calls, you have to call that blatant one late in the game.

For Denver, this is their best win of the season — they have won six in a row, four of those on the road, and it includes wins at Oklahoma City, Portland, and now Toronto. On the big stage, against a good defensive team inside, Jokic looked All-NBA with a triple-double of 23 points, 15 assists, and 11 rebounds. He is brilliant, and the 16-7 Denver Nuggets are tied for the top seed in the West, and they are legit.

3) Timberwolves show how much things have changed since last playoffs with a 103-91 win against Houston. Last season, the Houston Rockets easily swept aside the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first-round of the playoffs, 4-1.

Right now, the Rockets are scuffling and don’t look like the same team, but how Minnesota played in Monday night’s win shows how much the script has flipped.

Remember last playoffs how Karl-Anthony Towns had trouble posting up against Clint Capela (and took a lot of grief for it)? Towns beasted inside Monday night, attacking much more forcefully out of post-ups, and he shot 8-of-12 inside eight feet of the rim. One thing that helped with that, however, is it was harder for Houston to bring help on those post-ups because they had to stay closer to Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and the shooters around Towns now.

The other big thing, Minnesota’s defense since the Butler trade has been much better — thank Covington for that. He has Towns focused and energized on that end, the Timberwolves have the second-best defense in the NBA since the trade (101.2 points per 100 possessions) and are 8-3.

The Rockets helped out that defense with a terrible shooting night, they missed their open looks, too. Houston scored just nine points in the fourth quarter, which is ugly and speaks to other issues. That said, bad shooting ights nights happen. The difference is last season Houston had a defense that could keep it in games when the offense stumbled, this season they get crushed. They have a bottom-10 defense on the season that has been worse lately (third worst in the NBA over the last 10). That is the end of the floor that is holding the Rockets back.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves use big second half to beat Rockets 103-91

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves got together in the locker room at halftime to address what needed to be fixed – all their defensive lapses that led to a big second quarter by the Rockets.

Minnesota clamped down after that, and Houston had hardly any offense at all.

A stingy defensive effort by Minnesota helped erase a 14-point halftime deficit, and the Timberwolves beat the Rockets 103-91 on Monday night. Minnesota shut things down after the break, holding the Rockets to 29 points in the second half.

“We came in here and we made it clear we’ve got to change things and we’ve got to be the team that wants it more,” Towns said of the halftime discussion. “I think everyone in the building saw that we came out with an edge to us and a fire to us to get back in the game.”

Towns led Minnesota with 24 points and 11 rebounds.

Andrew Wiggins had 16 points. The Rockets led by as many as 19 in the first half before Minnesota stormed back to take the lead for good in the third quarter.

James Harden finished with 29 points, and Clint Capela added 24 for the Rockets. Houston went cold after halftime, scoring just nine points in the fourth quarter.

“In the second half, we just laid an egg,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon said. “They had everything going. You could tell by their confidence. They just played better defensively.”

Following the example set Robert Covington, Minnesota stepped up its defensive intensity in the third quarter while shooting 7 of 10 from 3-point range. Houston shot just 38.1 percent in the third quarter and connected on 2 of 11 from deep.

Covington, acquired by Minnesota last month in a trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia, has helped jumpstart the Wolves’ defense since his arrival. Since the All-Defensive First Team selection made his Timberwolves debut, Minnesota has held opponents to 100 points or fewer in seven of 10 games.

“It just shows how good we can be defensively,” said Covington, who had two blocks, two steals and 13 points. “Everyone that stepped on the court was really engaged in the second half defensively, and that’s what allowed us to hold them to that.”

Harden scored 14 of Houston’s 38 points in the second quarter as the Rockets pushed their lead to 14 at the half.

Minnesota had three technical fouls in the first half. Towns received a technical after he thought he was fouled, and Covington got one late in the second quarter. Jeff Teague was hit with a technical foul on a play in which he was fouled.

After Houston scored 38 points in the second quarter, Minnesota answered with a 38-point quarter of its own. The Timberwolves tied it at 76 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Teague to cap a 15-3 run. Wiggins also hit a 3-pointer and had a block at the other end during the stretch.

Minnesota took its first lead since 14-11 when Dario Saric hit a 3-pointer that made it 79-77.

The Wolves grew their lead in the fourth quarter on a three-point play by Saric and a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Covington that made it 94-82.

Harden hit a shot in the fourth that ended a 42-14 Timberwolves’ run over 14 1/2 minutes. The nine points in the fourth quarter was the fewest for the Rockets in any quarter this season.

“For whatever reason, the second half we played without any kind of spirit or energy,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Things were going great in the first half, and then at the end of the first half we let them come back.”

Monday marked the first time Minnesota and Houston faced off since last year’s playoffs. The Rockets beat the Timberwolves in five games, including a game that saw Houston score 50 points in a quarter at Target Center.

 

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three pointers

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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) Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three-pointers in Blazers’ victory. When Damian Lillard gets hot —yes, I believe in the hot-hand theory, so sue me — there is no more dangerous player in the NBA.

Wednesday night, Lillard was hot — 10 three-pointers made on his way to 41 points, sparking a 115-112 win over Orlando. Lillard was 10-of-15 from three on the night.

The previous Portland record had been nine threes in a game, which Lillard co-held with Nicolas Batum. The Blazers also tied a team record with 12 threes in the first half. They ended up needing all of that against a pesky Orlando team that is playing everyone tough right now behind the career-best play of Nikola Vucevic.

2) Kyle Korver will help but isn’t the answer in Utah. The scuffling Utah Jazz got a little better on Wednesday.

For one thing, the Jazz got Donovan Mitchell back from injury, their offense looked less bad (not quite good, but better) as Utah got a win on the road in Brooklyn. That improved the Jazz to 10-12 and moved them up to 13th in the crowded West (still way below expectations, we all thought this was a top-three team in the West before the season).

Utah also got better because they traded for Kyle Korver. The Jazz are sending Alec Burks and two future second-round picks (theirs in 2020 and the Wizards in 2021) to Cleveland for the 37-year-old sharpshooter.

The trade should make Utah a little better, but it isn’t a game changer — they still need a high-quality secondary playmaker to take some of the pressure off Mitchell. However, Korver should help the second unit.

As a team, the Jazz have struggled from three this season, shooting 31.9 percent, third worst in the league. Joe Ingles has carried the team’s shooting load hitting 38.5 percent from three on six attempts per game, but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.7 threes a game and hitting 28.9 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.2 per game and is knocking down 29.2 percent, and even Grayson Allen — drafted out of Duke as a shooter — is at 28.6 percent. Second spectrum tracking data shows the Jazz as a team are generating good looks but not hitting the shot — Utah as a team is shooting 31.1 percent on open threes (defender 4-6 feet away) and 34.5 percent on wide open threes (defender more than six feet away, Utah’s shooting percentage on those is sixth worst in the league).

Korver is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the arc this season on 3.4 attempts per game. The Jazz need that.

Expect Korver to play with Utah’s second unit — the Jazz have really struggled with their shooting and spacing the second Ingles goes to the bench. Now Korver will come in and provide some of that shooting. Korver is 37 and will be 38 before the playoffs start, he doesn’t move as well as he once did and the Jazz will get torched a few times on defense because of him, but when the Jazz have the ball defenders can’t leave him. The Jazz are a system team, they can run Korver off a series of picks to get him looks and the defenses will have to respect him.

Korver isn’t the answer to all the Jazz problems — their defense has been average this season (and just bad when Rudy Gobert sits) and they need another playmaker — but he helps them in a key area. Korver makes them better.

And the price was not that steep, but was as good a haul as Cleveland could expect. Burks can give them some nightly minutes on the wing this season, and he is in the last year of his contract so he helps free up some cap space for Cleveland. With this deal happening now, it’s also possible the Cavs could flip Burks in another deal at the trade deadline. The two second-round pick is about right — no team was giving up a first for Korver — and that 2021 Washington one has the potential to be a high second rounder with some real value.

3) After thrashing by Dallas 128-108, Houston is now the 14-seed in the West. Going into this season we expected the Rockets to be the second-best team in the West, third best at worst. It felt like they took a step back in the off-season on the wing, but this team still had the MVP James Harden, plus Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

After getting crushed by Dallas 128-108 on Wednesday, the 9-11 Rockets are the 14 seed in the West. (The good news for Houston is it’s the crowded West, so it is just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and, amazingly, five games out of first place.)

The Rockets were without Chris Paul again Wednesday (hamstring) and guys missing time has been one factor in the slow start for the Rockets. But it’s more than that. Carmelo Anthony is gone, Jeff Bzdelik is back on the bench as an assistant coach, and yet the defense is still a disaster — third worst in the NBA for the season, worst in the NBA by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in the last five games.

The Rockets’ roster is top-heavy, but that’s how it is with contenders (the Warriors have the same situation). The problem in Houston is Daryl Morey’s off-season bets on role players have not worked out at all — it’s not just that Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson are gone, it’s that their replacements (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss) have not worked out. At all. Then you throw in the injuries, not just to CP3 but to Gerald Green and Nene, and you have a team that just lacks depth and continuity. The nights Harden can’t bail them out, they lose (and sometimes, even when he drops 54, they lose).

When the Rockets get healthy they will be good enough to make the playoffs (the team is 8-4 when both Paul and Harden play), but they are not the team we thought they could be. Morey is actively looking for trades that will help fill in the wing depth, but that may be too little, too late at this point.

• BONUS THING TO KNOW: Watch Khris Middleton‘s game-winner for Milwaukee. Kids, this is why your coaches preach rebounding.

Milwaukee grabbed three offensive rebounds in the final 10 seconds, eventually kicking the ball out to Middleton who drained a three and gave the Bucks a 116-113 win over the Bulls Wednesday.

Thunder blast Rockets by 18 without Russell Westbrook, grab seventh straight win

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Paul George scored 20 points and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Houston Rockets 98-80 on Thursday night without point guard Russell Westbrook for their seventh straight victory.

Westbrook missed his second consecutive game with a sprained left ankle. George also had 11 rebounds, six assists and six steals. The Thunder were 0-4 before the streak.

Steven Adams had 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder each added 14 points for Oklahoma City. All five Thunder starters scored in double figures before the end of the third quarter.

James Harden scored 19 points, but made just 7 of 19 shots for the Rockets. Clint Capela added 17 points for Houston, which had won three in a row.

Houston’s Carmelo Anthony, who played for the Thunder last season and was traded this summer, scored two points on 1-for-11 shooting. Chris Paul added 10 points.

The Thunder led 59-45 at halftime behind 53.8 percent shooting. In the second quarter, George made all five of his shots and scored 14 points. Oklahoma City held Paul and Anthony scoreless before the break.

Grant dunked on a lob from Schroder and made the free throw on the foul to put the Thunder up 80-60, a score that held up until the end of the third quarter.

TIP-INS

Rockets: G Eric Gordon missed his third straight game with a strained muscle in his right thigh. … Anthony was mostly cheered when he checked into the game for the first time in the first quarter. … Reserves made 1 of 11 shots in the first half. … Paul was called for a technical foul in the fourth quarter.

Thunder: Ferguson, a 6-foot-7 guard, came out of nowhere to stuff 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein in the first quarter. … Made 27 of 44 shots inside the 3-point line but 9 of 37 beyond the arc.

UP NEXT

Rockets: At San Antonio on Saturday night.

Thunder: At Dallas on Saturday night.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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