Robert Covington

Watch James Harden drop 49, lead Rockets past Mavericks in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — James Harden scored 49 points and the Houston Rockets outlasted the Dallas Mavericks 153-149 in overtime Friday night in their first game in the NBA bubble.

Harden made 1 of 2 free throws before Trey Burke made a 3-pointer to get the Mavericks within 3 with about 15 seconds left in OT. Harden made 1 of 2 free throws after that, Burke missed a 3, and Harden got the rebound to secure the victory.

Dallas led by 3 before Harden made the first of two free throws, and Robert Covington tipped in a miss on the second to tie it with 3.3 seconds remaining in regulation.

Luka Doncic missed a shot at the buzzer that would have won it for Dallas.

Kristaps Porzingis had 39 points and 16 rebounds for Dallas, and Doncic had a triple-double with 28 points 13 rebounds and 10 assists.

Porzingis put the Mavericks up four early in overtime. Houston scored the next eight points, with the last five from Harden, to take a 147-143 lead.

Porzingis had a three-point play, but Robert Covington added a 3-pointer after missing his first eight to extend Houston’s lead to four.

Harden, who had 23 points in the first quarter, passed Calvin Murphy to become the second-leading scorer in franchise history behind Hakeem Olajuwon.

Harden made two free throws with a minute left in the fourth to cut the lead to four, but Maxi Kleber made a 3-pointer on the other end to extend the lead to 138-131.

Harden cut the lead again seconds later with a 3-pointer with 40 seconds to go.

Covington got the Rockets within 2 points with two free throws. The Rockets were forced to foul, and Seth Curry made 1 of 2 free throws to leave Dallas up 139-136 with 5.2 seconds to go.

Westbrook added 31 points for the Rockets after arriving to Florida late after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The teams combined for the most first-half points in the NBA this season, with Dallas leading 85-75 to tie its franchise record.

The Rockets went on a 7-0 run, with four points from Westbrook, to trim the deficit late in the third quarter. But Dallas wrapped up the third with a 6-2 run to lead 119-108 entering the fourth quarter.

Bring on the games! Seven predictions for NBA restart

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Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go and the NBA is back! Finally.

The players from the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans will kneel around the Black Lives Matters phrase on the court then tip-off the restarted NBA season, maybe with Zion Williamson playing, maybe not. After that appetizer comes the main course, the Lakers vs. Clippers.

You’ve got questions about the return of the NBA season, and we’ve got answers. Or at least predictions. Here are Dan Feldman and my predictions for the restart of the NBA season.

1) WHAT TEAM MAKES A SURPRISING PLAYOFF RUN?

Kurt Helin: Give me the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was a team that was 33-13 from Dec. 1 on with a top-10 offense and defense, before the coronavirus sent the league into hibernation. Chris Paul has been arguably the most clutch player in the league this season, and the three-guard lineup with CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder has been a problem for opponents. I think they advance to the second round, regardless of opponent, and they can push the Los Angeles teams. (Honorable mention to Dallas in this category.)

Dan Feldman: Nobody. I’m picking mostly chalk. But I like the Rockets as a dark horse. They have top talent in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and supporting players like Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker fit so well. Houston’s small-ball system invites variance, which could lead to upsets.

2) WHAT TEAM IS THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE BUCKS IN THE EAST?

Kurt Helin: I like playoff teams that have versatility, so I will take the Boston Celtics. Their combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — makes them a matchup nightmare on offense and a switchable defense. With Kemba Walker at the point (if his left knee doesn’t hold him back) and Brad Stevens drawing up the plays, the Celtics just need good play out of the center position to be a real challenge for the Bucks. That said, they may need Milwaukee to stumble to beat them.

Dan Feldman: Raptors. The Raptors, Celtics, 76ers and Heat all have a chance. Philadelphia has the highest upside – a roster designed not only for the playoffs, but specifically to match up with Milwaukee. Still, I’ll take Toronto, which can also match up with the Bucks but has played at a much higher level throughout the season.

3) WHICH PLAYER NOT IN THE BUBBLE WILL BE THE BIGGEST BLOW TO THEIR TEAM?

Kurt Helin: Avery Bradley of the Lakers. So long as Los Angeles has LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they are title contenders (and Davis is expected to play in the opener after suffering an eye injury). But losing a versatile starting two guard hurts. There are matchups where Bradley may not have played extensive minutes, but against teams with elite wings (the Clippers or Rockets, for example), his defense, three-point shooting, and veteran presence would have helped. Throw in the loss of Rajon Rondo (thumb) and that’s 44 minutes a game of guard rotation that has to be filled.

Dan Feldman: Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic. Though better players will miss the rest of the season, they’re on lesser teams. Bogdanovic was superb for Utah before undergoing season-ending surgery. With him, the Jazz were a fringe championship contender. Without him, they’ll likely lose in the first round. The difference is especially stark considering Donovan Mitchell‘s and Rudy Gobert‘s rift. Winning cures most ills, and losing tends to exacerbate problems.

4) WHICH TEAM IS MOST LIKELY TO GO 0-8?

Kurt Helin: The Washington Wizards. No John Wall, no Bradley Beal, no Davis Bertans. Outside of that, how many Wizards players can you name? This is a 24-40 team without its two best players and questionable motivation to push and stay in the bubble. Don’t be surprised if things fall apart fast for Washington.

Dan Feldman: Suns. I project Phoenix to play at a higher level the rest of the season than the Nets, Wizards and Spurs. The Suns will probably beat Washington in their first seeding game and render this moot. But if not, they have a tough schedule that ends with teams (Thunder, 76ers, Mavericks) likely to be still competing for seeding position. Phoenix could also fall from playoff contention quickly, reducing motivation to compete.

5) WHICH TEAM GETS THE EIGHTH SEED IN THE WEST?

Kurt Helin: The Memphis Grizzlies. Two reasons for this. First, Ja Morant is really good at basketball. Second, the NBA gave advantages to the Grizzlies at the restart — advantages Memphis earned in the first 65 games playing its way into the eighth seed. They have a 3.5 game cushion, outside of a total collapse the Grizzlies will be in a two-game play-in series to make the playoffs. Then Memphis just needs to win one of those two games to advance. Portland and New Orleans have a shot, but Memphis is the favorite to get that spot.

Dan Feldman: Grizzlies. This is math more than confidence in Memphis, though both obviously factor. Up 3.5 games on the chasing pack, the Grizzlies are the most likely team in the race* to clinch a playoff spot in seeding games. The Grizzlies are the most likely team to be involved in a play-in. The Grizzlies are most likely to be in eighth place in a play-in, which would mean needing to win only once before the ninth-place team wins twice. The Trail Blazers and/or Pelicans might play at a higher level than Memphis the rest of the way, but the Grizzlies’ record advantage makes them the safe pick.

*The Mavericks haven’t technically clinched a playoff spot yet. But I don’t consider them in the race. They’re practically a lock.

6) WHO WILL BE THE MVP OF THE BUBBLE?

Kurt Helin: Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers. He showed last season for Toronto that, when healthy and focused, he can raise his game to the highest level of any current player and lead a good team around him to a ring. He is trying to replicate that formula with Los Angeles. Leonard is fully rested and ready to go, and a Clippers team around him that was knicked up is healthy as well. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo both have a real shot at earning this title as well.

Dan Feldman: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all fine choices. But how could Leonard not get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s championship run with the Raptors? Leonard absolutely can deliver in the biggest moments. He looks even better this season – getting closer to his peak lockdown defense and improving as a passer.

7) WHAT IS YOUR NBA FINALS MATCHUP? WHO WILL BE CROWNED CHAMPION?

Kurt Helin: I’ll take Leonard and his Clippers over the Bucks. If any of the Lakers, Bucks, or Clippers won the title it would not be a surprise — they are all incredibly close — but come the playoffs the teams that win have great versatility and strong play on the wings. That’s the Clippers. They can beat a team playing small or playing big, and the Leonard and Paul George pairing is the best wing combo in the league. The only question for the Clippers is getting everyone healthy and in Orlando, and building enough chemistry.

Dan Feldman: Clippers over Bucks. The Lakers are right in the mix, too. But the Clippers get the edge because their stars (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) outshine Milwaukee’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton), and their depth/versatility bests the Lakers’ depth/versatility around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

James Harden looks ready: 31 points, near triple-double in scrimmage (VIDEO)

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James Harden is rested. He’s skinny (or, at least skinnier). And while he was late arriving he showed up with his mid-season “A” game in Orlando.

It’s just a scrimmage, but Harden had 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists — a near triple-double — in 35 minutes of action.

It was vintage Harden, he shot 7-of-15 but got to the free throw line 16 times against Memphis.

A rested and healthy Harden and Russell Westbrook on a Rockets team playing micro-ball with P.J. Tucker or Robert Covington at center (take your pick, the official box score lists Covington) remains one of the most unpredictable teams in the NBA restart. They are dangerous and going to put up points every night, but how teams adjust when the games matter will be something to watch.

Houston tips off its seeding games Friday against Dallas.

Five dark horse teams to watch during NBA Orlando restart

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We all know the contenders: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. In the East, Boston or Toronto will be there should Milwaukee stumble.

But who are the NBA dark horse teams? What teams could come out of the pack to make a surprising deep playoff run?

Here are the five dark horse teams to watch at the NBA restart in Orlando.

1) Houston Rockets

Small ball — microball, really, with their best center being 6’5” P.J. Tucker — could be big in Orlando.

While Houston’s unorthodox style gets all the press — they do put out athletic lineups that can score a lot of ways — the real key is James Harden and teammates are rested. In his last five games before the league was shut down Harden looked worn down, shooting just 37.4% overall and 25% from three. His legs were not under him. Same with Tucker, who was asked to play more minutes and a larger role in this small-ball system and shot 30% overall and 25% from three in his last five games before the break.

Now Tucker and Harden are rested (Harden had 24 points and 10 assists in the Rockets first scrimmage), paired with the athletic Russell Westbrook (whose shot selection improved over the course of the season). Plus, Eric Gordon is finally healthy and the addition of Robert Covington should be a perfect fit. The Rockets are going to launch threes, attack the rim, put up points, and unapologetically be who they are under Mike D’Antoni. It all could come together and surprise some teams — the Rockets and their small-ball ways are poised to make a deep playoff run.

2) Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have been a sleeping giant all season long. The problem was their big off-season acquisition, Al Horford, was just not fitting in. When Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Horford shared the court this season, Philadelphia’s offense scored less than a point per possession (0.98) and had all the spacing of a New York subway at rush hour.

At the Orlando restart, Horford will come off the bench and Ben Simmons will start at the four, working more off the ball. That means Shake Milton will get the start at the point, adding a second ball handler and a catch-and-shoot threat. The starting five will be Embiid, Simmons, Milton, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson. Will it work? Who knows, that lineup has played zero minutes together this season. But it works on paper, especially now that Simmons is now fully healthy — he even hit a corner three in a scrimmage this week.

If this comes together quickly, Philadelphia is a serious threat to Milwaukee to come out of the East. It could work. If not, coach Brett Brown likely pays the price.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were already better than you realized: From Dec. 1 until the shut down they were 33-13 with a +3.9 net rating, and OKC had a top 10 offense and defense. Chris Paul, in the midst of a bounce-back season, has been arguably the most clutch player in the NBA all season — he has shot 57.7% in the clutch (last five minutes of a game within five minutes) and orchestrated a dangerous offense.

Oklahoma City has been at its best this season with a three-guard offense of CP3, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+28.6 net rating in those minutes, giving up less than a point per possession defensively).

Roll that threesome out for some key minutes, get the usual solid minutes from Steven Adams, and the Thunder could surprise teams in the West. OKC simply is better than many fans realize and are a real dark horse in the NBA Orlando restart.

4) Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic. Do we need to say more?

Dallas has the ultimate pick-and-pop partner for Doncic in Kristaps Porzingis (he can roll and finish a lob, too), plus a lot of shooting depth across this roster. Seth Curry looked fantastic in his first game back. They have guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith who knocked it down this season.

Most importantly, Dallas has depth — which can translate into versatility — and a coach in Rick Carlise who knows how to use it. Look for Dallas to move up the West ladder in the seeding games and be a real threat once the playoffs start.

5) Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler showed up and was a perfect fit with the Heat culture this season — now he’s healthy, rested, and ready to go. Remember how far he led Philadelphia last season in the playoffs (but for a couple of crazy Kawhi Leonard bounces the 76ers could have been in the Finals).

The Heat have Bam Adebayo at center, who made the leap to All-Star level player this year. They have scoring off the bench in Goran Dragic. They added veterans who should fit in perfectly in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. They have talented rookies in Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. There is just a lot to like about this roster, and how a smart coach like Eric Spoelstra can make it all fit together.

Miami could burn a few teams in the East this postseason.

Rockets: Russell Westbrook arriving in Orlando on Monday

Rockets guard Russell Westbrook
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
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Rockets guard Russell Westbrook tested positive for coronavirus. There was no clear timeline of when he contracted coronavirus, let alone when he’d recover. There was some talk he’d travel with James Harden – another latecomer – to Orlando, but Harden arrived last week.

Now, Westbrook is headed to Disney World.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Westbrook must still quarantine in his hotel room on campus. But it’s good he’s ready for this step.

Houston is a championship contender.

The Rockets’ extreme small-ball style has unlocked Westbrook, who struggled with a non-shooting center. Now, Westbrook’s aggressiveness shines as a secondary option to James Harden. As versatile defenders who can hit spot-up 3-pointers, P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington really complement those stars. Though a first round loss is also possible for this high-variance team, Houston has awesome upside.

Now that its top players are joining the team.