Then Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic added another triple-double as his team beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 126-110.
Jokic’s triple-double was a historic one at that. According to the NBA, Jokic’s triple-double helped him join Oscar Robertson as just one of two players in history with multiple 30-point, 15-rebound, and 10-assist games before the age of 24.
It was the first game back for Jokic after he was suspended for one game after leaving the bench during an altercation between Utah Jazz big man Derrick Favors and Mason Plumlee on Jan. 23. Jokic missed the next game against the Phoenix Suns, but returned to Denver in style.
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) James Harden’s Chamberlainesqe run hits a new high in Madison Square Garden. For all he has dome already in his career — MVP award, scoring champion, six-time All-Star, Sixth Man of the Year — James Harden had never had his Garden moment.
Check that one off the list.
James Harden went into Madison Square Garden and dropped 61 on the Knicks Wednesday night leading the Rockets to a 114-110 win.
This was impressive on so many levels we’re going to bullet points.
• It was Harden’s career high.
• The 61 tied Kobe Bryant for most points scored by an opponent in Madison Square Garden since 1968. (Carmelo Anthony holds the overall record at 62).
• Those 61 points are now the Rockets’ franchise record for a game.
• Harden in this game became the first NBA player to shoot at least 20 threes and 20 free throws in a game.
• This was Harden’s 21st consecutive 30-point game, tying the legendary Wilt Chamberlain for fourth-longest such streak in league history (Chamberlain has the top three, too).
• This was his fifth 50+ point game this season, the only other players to have five or more are Kobe and Michael Jordan
• Harden has averaged 52.2 points per game in his last five games, a total of 261 points.
• Harden scored those 261 points without a teammate assisting on one of those buckets. (Some people want to use this as a slight to Harden and call him selfish, but it’s more about his teammates and the lack of other shot creators on this team. They don’t have them, and Harden has to do this to win — he dropped 61 and they only beat the lowly Knicks by four. The Rockets are 3-2 during this insane run because of those teammates and the team’s defense. Also, he would have a lot more than 21 assists in those five games if his teammates could knock down shots.)
• Harden became the first player to score 60+ points and have 15+ rebounds in a game since then-Laker Shaquille O’Neal in March of 2000.
To cap it off, Harden had the seal and dunk that sealed the win.
2) Pacers’ Victor Oladipo was taken off the court on a stretcher with what looks to be a serious knee injury. All we can do is hope this is not as bad as it looked. But the Pacers fear that it is.
Indiana’s All-Star (and a lock to be again this season) Victor Oladipo went down with an ugly-to-watch knee injury. Here is the video, but know this is hard to watch and some of you may want to skip it.
The Pacers called the injury “serious” and said an MRI is scheduled for Thursday, but we know nothing else concrete, yet. It’s safe to say the Pacers are not optimistic about the outcome of that MRI.
Indiana is 32-15 on the season and hung on against Toronto to win without Oladipo 110-107. This season the Pacers are 7-4 with an impressive +6.6 per game when Oladipo has missed the game — if they can just hang around .500 the rest of the way Indiana will cruise into the playoffs.
However, this team is not near the same threat without Oladipo. If he is going to miss the rest of this season and, potentially, much of next season, the Pacers’ front office may want to change plans and become sellers at the trade deadline. They have to consider adding youth and athleticism to the roster and targeting when Oladipo returns from this injury. It puts a lot of things up in the air.
Which is too bad, because Indiana was one of the great stories of this season.
3) Jazz beat Nuggets in what had the intensity of a playoff game. In Salt Lake City, they see the upstart team in second place in the West, the team with the center who is a media darling and players winning over fans, and they think “that should be us, not Denver.” Instead, Utah got off to a slow start and only recently has put things together to climb back into the playoff picture.
Last night the teams faced off in what was one of the more intense and entertaining games of the season — it felt a lot like the playoffs for a Wednesday in January.
Rudy Gobert may be the best defensive center in the game and the Jazz one of the elite defenses in the league, but they don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic either, he had 28 points, 21 rebounds, and six assists in the game.
Gobert himself scored 15 points and had three blocks, but this was the Donovan Mitchell show — 35 points with six three-pointers in what ended up a 114-108 Jazz win. Utah has figured it out this season, this is not a game they won a couple of months ago.
Of course, what everyone is talking about is the first quarter scuffle between Utah big man Derrick Favors and Denver’s center Mason Plumlee. Both men got ejected for this.
But that’s not the interesting part. Denver’s Jokic leaves the bench during the fight and heads down the baseline — by the rule that should lead to a suspension. To be fair, Jokic never steps on to the court itself and never engages with any Jazz players (before an assistant pulled him back to the bench). We’ll see how the league responds, but guys have been suspended for less.
Derrick Favors, Mason Plumlee ejected after scuffle during Jazz, Nuggets game (VIDEO)
The most pressing question out of this is not even the fight itself.
In the first quarter of Utah’s eventual win over Denver, Jazz big man Derrick Favors got tangled up with Denver’s center Mason Plumlee. Favors pulled Plumlee’s arm, at which point Plumlee came back and got in his face, then Favors shoves Plumlee and a little scuffle breaks out.
Both Favors and Plumlee were ejected for the incident. Utah’s Royce O’Neale and Denver’s Will Barton picked up technicals.
None of that is what people are talking about.
Watch the video again: Denver’s Nikola Jokic leaves the bench during the fight and heads down the baseline — by the rule that should lead to a suspension. Jokic never steps on to the court (he stays along the baseline) and never engages with the combatants. Still, guys have been suspended for less.
Jokic went on to score 28 points, grab 21 rebounds, and he dished out 6 assists. It wasn’t enough as Rudy Gobert had 15 points and three blocks, and Donovan Mitchell had 35 points in a 114-108 Jazz win, one of their best in the season in what was a highly entertaining game.
Trail Blazers gambling that youth, shooting can keep them afloat
On paper, and from a distance, it doesn’t appear that the Portland Trail Blazers have become much better over the summer. The largest contract for a new player that general manager Neil Olshey handed out was to Seth Curry for $2.8 million. Hoping to find a veteran either by trade or with the mid-level exception, the Blazers instead will move forward with young, cheap talent to bolster a roster built around a core that looks awfully familiar.
So the question both in the Pacific Northwest and around the league is this: What is Portland’s plan, exactly?
Coach Terry Stotts saw his team ranked sixth or higher in terms of of 3-point attempts every season under his reign until 2016-17. The past two seasons, Portland has dipped to 10th and then finally 19th this last year. Olshey tried to remedy this shooting issue — caused in part by teams keying on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum but also thanks to inconsistent play by Blazers wings — by bringing in veteran talent.
Olshey has said that he was unable to secure shooting on the wing either via the TPE from the Allen Crabbe trade with his mid-level exception, having targeted six players but being outbid for all of them.
Having struck out, Olshey quickly moved to plan B: duck the tax, and try to get less experienced shooting on the cheap.
Putting this roster into play assumes a couple of things. First and foremost is that Portland will be able to enact an offensive scheme that allows some of their more limited players to thrive with purpose.
There should be some cause for hope in Rip City given how good Stotts is at doing this sort of thing. Stotts turned Mason Plumlee into a high-post passing genius in 2016, and made Allen Crabbe a valuable shooter despite holes in his developing game.
Let’s also set aside health in this conversation about Portland. I’ve heard a lot about how the Blazers have been the recipients of good health over the past couple of years, but that overlooks significant and untimely injuries to players like Harkless, Nurkic, Lillard, and Turner that have reduced the team’s effectiveness. There is this murmur out west that the Blazers are due for an injury and teams like the Denver Nuggets are finally going to be healthy, and I just don’t buy it.
Portland’s injury concerns are thus: Curry didn’t play all of last season with a leg injury, and Harkless is still recovering from last spring’s knee surgery. Anything outside of that is just anxiety.
The real pitfall for Portland is the idea of having to integrate new, young players to a scheme that desperately needs to breathe in order to maximize its star players. Collins is set for a big new role with Ed Davis gone, and we don’t know if he’s up for the challenge given how well he played with the veteran, particularly on defense. It’s likely that Stotts will need to play Meyers Leonard as a shooter within his scheme, and that opens up the possibility for further defensive inequities.
“75% of practice was focused on defense.” -Zach Collins #RipCity
The Blazers were a good defensive team last season, ranking 8th in defensive rating and notching the second-best mark in that statistic during Stotts’ career in Portland. The Blazers know this, too. Apparently, they spent much of the first practice during Tuesday — up to 75% of it, according to Collins — working on defense.
The reality of the season in Portland is not held in the hands of the rest of the Western Conference getting better. Golden State was always going to top things out, and the Rockets are the most likely pick to finish second. Everything below that is up to chance, health, and chemistry. The Trail Blazers have the benefit of bringing back very good players, and the continued success of the team will rest in the gamble that Olshey has made in moving toward youth while trying to save cap space.
Nuggets sidestep backtrack with two big re-signings, two savvy additions
NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.
The Nuggets could pick two of three this offseason:
Denver chose Nos. 1 and 3, which is both unsurprising and somewhat disappointing. Locking up Jokic is nice, but the Nuggets are on the edge of breaking a five-year postseason drought, and they have potential to make noise if they get in. A young team, Denver could build on this season for years to come. It would have been a good time to pay a small amount of luxury tax to preserve the full array of players and picks.
Instead, the Nuggets traded draft picks to dump at least potentially helpful players. It’s a knowing step back to save money.
Yet, in that context, Denver got everything it wanted and made a couple nice moves that mitigate the damage.
Start with the big moves that went by design: The Nuggets re-signed Jokic and Will Barton to big contracts.
Denver declined Jokic’s cheap team option to make him a restricted free agent, ensuring no risk of losing him and getting concessions in exchange for paying him sooner. Jokic’s five-year contract contains no player option, and his base salary is juuust sub-max (though incentives could push it higher). Some teams would have lavished their top player with max money and every contract term in his favor. The Nuggets did well to get – albeit, small – team-friendly aspects into Jokic’s deal.
On the other hand, Denver didn’t get a break with Barton, an unrestricted free agent. He’s a good player, and the Nuggets should be happy to keep the 27-year-old. But $53 million over four years certainly isn’t cheap.
Chandler was Denver’s starting small forward last year, though he appears to be slipping and Barton is capable of replacing him in the starting lineup. Faried and Arthur were mostly out of the rotation, but there would have been a chance Faried could still help.
The surrendered first-rounder is particularly painful, as it’s only top-12 protected. That means the Nuggets could narrowly miss the playoffs – as they did last season – and still convey the pick. That’d be a worst-case scenario, but it’s also near the middle of potential outcomes.
That was about it for Denver’s major charted moves. Uncharted moves are where the Nuggets really shined.
Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14 pick) and Isaiah Thomas (minimum contract) were great gambles considering their low costs. The injury and chemistry concerns are real, but so is the upside. Porter might have been the No. 1 pick if not for his back issues, and Thomas is just a year removed from finishing fifth in MVP voting. Neither looks like a great fit with a Jokic-Gary Harris–Jamal Murray core, but who cares? Porter and Thomas were too valuable to pass up.
With Barton starting and Thomas’ health unproven, Denver needed another reserve point guard. So, the Nuggets signed two-way player Monte Morris to a three-year minimum contract with two years guaranteed. They also gave their other two-way player from last year, Torrey Craig, $4 million guaranteed over two years. Given the vast amount of power teams hold over their two-way players, those contracts are mighty generous.
Though those are small, indulgences like that – looking at Mason Plumlee – got Denver into this trouble where dumping draft picks and decent players became necessary. Barton’s contract could create complications down the road.
It’s a never-ending race between keeping costs manageable while maximizing talent. In a year it seemed they’d bear the cost of previous spending, they stayed ahead of the curve.