Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Warriors cranking up defense as playoffs near

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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) Warriors cranking up their defense as playoffs near, just ask the Pacers. Golden State’s defense this season has been like the team in general: There some nights and not others. Inconsistent. Blame injuries or lack of depth or just boredom, but on the season the Warriors have been a middle of the pack defensive team.

No longer. Starting to focus on good habits before the playoffs, the Warriors have cranked up the defense of late, with a defensive net rating of 100.7 in their last five games (just over a point per possession), and they are smothering teams. Such as the Pacers. A scrappy Indiana team scored less than 20 points in two quarters and the Warriors cruised to a 112-89 win Thursday night. The Warriors held the Pacers to 24 percent shooting in the first quarter, 32.7 percent in the first half.

Draymond Green remains the guy who makes the defense work, and DeMarcus Cousins now provides a big body in the paint to deter shots, but the Warriors defense really works best when players such as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are engaged. Of late, they have been.

Offensively against the Pacers, DeMarcus Cousins led the way with 19 points and 11 boards.

One of the best moments of the night was the warm welcome Andrew Bogut got in his return to Golden State.

Thursday’s win keeps the Warriors half a game ahead of the Nuggets (who also won Wednesday) for the top seed in the West.

2) The bottom half of the West is a seeding battle royal — Jazz, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs all tied in seeds 5-8. Utah had a chance to create a little space in the standings Thursday night, but their legs just got stuck in the mud in Atlanta. After a stellar third quarter, the Jazz looked like a team on the second night of a back-to-back playing their third game in four nights in the fourth, and the Hawks pulled away behind Trae Young (who did more damage with his 11 assists than his shot on the night) to get the win.

With this loss, there is now a four-way tie in seeds 5-8 in the West — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Utah, and the L.A. Clippers are all 42-30.

This is going to make the final 10 games fun to watch.

Seeding matters. Nobody wants to be the eight seed and get Golden State in the first round (this assumes the Warriors don’t get bored and let Denver get the top seed, but the Nuggets have a much tougher schedule the rest of the way). When I asked Portland coach Terry Stotts about trying to think about playoff matchups in the first round of the West, he said there would be no easy ones in the deep conference so sharp play and momentum are what mattered, and he spoke for pretty much every coach on that front.

How is this going to shake out? The Thunder have by far the toughest schedule, one of the most difficult in the league the rest of the way. The Jazz have the easiest schedule of any team in the West in their remaining games, the Spurs have the second easiest. But nothing about this season has been predictable, this will not be either.

3) Did Ja Morant play his way into being the No. 2 pick in the draft? The NBA world, like the sports world in general, was talking about the triple-double by Murray State’s Ja Morant in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He was impressive.

Did Morant play his way into being the No. 2 pick? (Zion Williamson is a lock at No. 1.) Actually, Morant may have done that before Thursday — he had a strong regular season — and Thursday was more of a reinforcement.

Whether Morant or R.J. Barrett or some surprise player goes second in the draft will come down to the draft lottery and who gets that No. 2 pick. Is it Phoenix or New York, teams in desperate need of a point guard? If the Hawks or Cavaliers land the No. 2 pick, are they looking more at Barrett? It’s too early to say, and it depends on those teams’ internal draft boards and how they rate players.

But Morant is in the mix, and may now be the frontrunner.

Kevin Durant helps lead Warriors past Pacers after death of Cliff Dixon

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Kevin Durant established Golden State’s defensive energy by swatting away shots early. Eventually, the Warriors got going on the other end as they almost always do.

Durant had 15 points, six assists and three blocks after losing a close friend earlier in the day, and the Warriors ran away from the Indiana Pacers 112-89 on Thursday night.

Durant led a balanced Warriors attack, playing the same day childhood friend Cliff Dixon was shot to death in Atlanta. Warriors guard Quinn Cook also was close with Dixon as they’re all from the Washington D.C./Maryland area.

Stephen Curry scored 12 of his 15 points with four 3-pointers during the Warriors’ 35-point third quarter in which they limited Indiana to 19.

“Tonight I thought our spirit and our energy were fantastic,” coach Steve Kerr said, crediting his group for being “engaged.”

Tyreke Evans scored 20 points off the bench and Thaddeus Young added 18 for the Pacers, who were without coach Nate McMillan for family reasons.

Indiana ended its four-game swing out West by losing an eighth straight road game and missing another chance to clinch a playoff berth following a 115-109 defeat at the Clippers on Tuesday night.

The Warriors, whose defense has become a greater focus with the playoffs approaching, have allowed their fewest points in two of the past four games. Oklahoma City scored 88 points Saturday before the two-time defending champions held down Indiana.

Klay Thompson began 0 for 7, missing his first five 3-pointers, and wound up with 18 points on 7-for-18 shooting. He scored his first field goal of the night, which he followed with another basket the next possession, at the 7:46 mark of the second quarter and his first 3 came in the final minute of the first half as Golden State built a 53-43 lead at the break.

“Well I finally decided to make a shot, so that felt good,” Thompson cracked.

Golden State returned from an impressive 3-1 road trip – with wins at Houston, Oklahoma City and Minnesota and a loss at San Antonio – to play its first game at Oracle Arena since a 115-111 flop against lowly Phoenix on March 10.

DeMarcus Cousins returned after missing two games with a sore right ankle and had 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Andrew Bogut received a warm welcome for his home debut after re-joining the Warriors on the road. The 7-foot big man played on Golden State’s 2015 championship team and the 73-win team the following season that lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and he got hurt in Game 5 of the finals and missed the rest of the series.

“In my old age you get a bit sentimental,” Bogut said. “It’s funny how life works, right?”

Both teams had slow starts: The game was tied at 19 after the first quarter, when the Warriors were 1 of 10 on 3s.

“I thought our defensive intensity was good in the first half, and what happens in this league is when you’re not scoring points the flood gates can open,” Pacers assistant Dan Burke said.

BOGUT’S RETURN

Kerr still expects Bogut to make an impact even with Cousins healthy again and despite “an insurance-policy role.”

Bogut had seven rebounds and four points – shooting 1 for 8 – in nine minutes.

And Bogut was greeted exactly how Kerr figured – with “a raucous reception.”

The big man waved and smiled as fans cheered when video highlights were shown on the big screen with “Welcome back Andrew Bogut.”

“I think our fans recognize that, in many ways, Andrew represented the shift in the Warriors organization and its emphasis on defense,” Kerr said. “I think that trade was really kind of the first domino to fall in terms of – well Steph’s drafting was the first one, let’s not forget that one – but shortly thereafter Andrew came over in the trade and there was an organizational shift toward a defensive mindset which I think Mark Jackson implemented and the players started to reflect that philosophy.”

TIP-INS

Pacers: G Darren Collison sat out a second straight game with a bruised right quadriceps muscle. When he missed Tuesday it snapped his streak of 71 straight starts this season. … Indiana is 4-9 on the road vs. the Western Conference, having lost the last five.

Warriors: All five Warriors starters scored in double figures for the fourth time, with Golden State winning each of those. … The Warriors won 132-100 at Indiana on Jan. 28, getting 39 assists and shooting 54.1 percent and going 13 of 31 on 3s. … Golden State is 27-4 when notching 30 or more assists (32 on Thursday). … Bogut is three regular-season games shy of 700 in 14 seasons.

UP NEXT

Pacers: Host Nuggets on Sunday.

Warriors: Host Mavericks on Saturday night having won 12 straight at home in the series.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

James Harden has 30+ point game vs. every team this season

Associated Press
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James Harden had a streak of 32 games in a row where he scored at least 30 points a night, the second longest streak in NBA history. It was a run of games that propelled the Rockets from being a below .500 team sitting 13th in the West into a solid playoff team in the conference, and it shot Harden into serious MVP consideration.

However, streak did not include all 29 other NBA teams.

Going into Tuesday night Harden had dropped 30+ on 28 teams, but the Atlanta Hawks — the team that broke the streak back in February — were not on the list. That changed Tuesday night when Harden scored 31 on Atlanta in a Rockets’ win.

Atlanta has some quality defenders on the roster, but it doesn’t matter vs. Harden, who did this to Kent Bazemore.

Harden hit another milestone Tuesday: He has now has attempted more threes in a season than any player in NBA history.

Stephen Curry had the record at 886 during the 2015-16 season, but with his 4-of-11 shooting from deep on Tuesday Harden is now up to 890. And counting. He’s shooting 35.5 percent on them, by the way.

Three Things to Know: D’Angelo Russell’s 27 in fourth sparks Nets 25-point comeback win

Associated Press
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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) D’Angelo Russell’s 27 in fourth sparks, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s circus shot completes Nets’ 25-point comeback on Kings. Heroes in the NBA can come from the most unlikely places.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had fallen out of Brooklyn’s rotation. He got a DNP-CD four of the last six games, and the two games he got on the court it was only in garbage time. He had become an afterthought.

However, on Tuesday, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was frustrated. His Brooklyn team was getting outworked and outhustled by the Kings in a game the Nets needed — lose this and just two games (one in the loss column) would have separated Brooklyn and missing the playoffs. Yet the Nets were flat and down 24 with 4:53 left in the third quarter when Atkinson turned to the bench and put Hollis-Jefferson in looking for a spark. He didn’t get it immediately (Hollis-Jefferson’s first play was a turnover), the Nets were down 25 points at the start of the fourth.

That’s when D’Angelo Russell took over — he scored 27 points in the fourth (of his career-high 44), much of it in transition as the Nets pushed off misses right back at the fast-paced Kings. Russell attacked — he was 6-of-7 inside 8 feet of the rim in the fourth — but also was 4-of-7 from three.

It was an epic comeback that saw a Jared Dudley three put the Nets in the lead for the first time.

But it ultimately took a circus shot from Hollis-Jefferson to get the win. The play was designed for Russell (as it should have been) but De’Aaron Fox did a good job of ball denial, so with time running down Russell yelled “go!” and Hollis-Jefferson went at Marvin Bagley III, then got the circus shot to fall.

This loss was essentially the final dagger in the Kings’ already dying playoff dreams, and you could hear that in the voice of the Kings’ announcers on that final shot.

The Nets won the fourth quarter 45-18. The game before against the Clippers the Nets had made a comeback with a 10-0 run in the final 1:02, only to have Lou Williams spoil the comeback with a game winner. Tuesday night it was the Nets’ turn.

Brooklyn is going to make the playoffs and be a tough out for somebody in the first round.

Russell is a restricted free agent who is going to get PAID this summer.

2) James Harden has now had a 30+ point game on every other team in NBA this season. Which is the more impressive feat from James Harden:

That he has now scored 30 points on all 29 other teams in the NBA this season, a feat he capped off by dropping 31 on the Hawks’ Tuesday in a win.

Or that he has now has taken more threes in a season than any player in NBA history. Stephen Curry had the record at 886 during the 2015-16 season, but with his 11 on Tuesday Harden is now up to 890 attempts. And counting. He’s shooting 35.5 percent on them, by the way.

Or maybe his best play of the night is what Harden did to Kent Bazemore.

We’re going to go with the 30-points on all 29 teams as being the more impressive. The last guy to drop 30+ on every team was Michael Jordan, but that was “just” 27 teams because the league expanded in 2004.

Either way, it’s been an MVP-level season (whether he wins the award or not he played well enough to get it).

3) Doc Rivers is not going to coach the Lakers, signs extension with Clippers. Luke Walton is going to be the fall guy for a disappointing — or if you prefer, disastrous — Lakers’ season. He’s not blameless, but he’s also not the primary reason the Lakers have fallen so far short of expectations. Still, someone’s head has to roll, and the conventional wisdom around the league says it will be Walton.

If/when the Lakers fire Walton, who are they going to get that’s better? What coach can they bring in that LeBron James will instantly respect and trust? What coach will they find who the players want to play for and who puts them in positions to succeed?

That guy is already at Staples Center — Doc Rivers of the Clippers. Which has led to rumors and speculation the Lakers would target him this summer.

Rivers shot that all down Tuesday night, saying he signed an extension to stay with the Clippers.

To be clear, Doc River signed an extension with the Clippers last May, but both sides had an opt-out after this season. Rivers and Ballmer talked, got rid of the opt-out, and extended the deal even further.

Rivers knows the Clippers are in a good spot — they start three guys age 21 or younger, they are going to be in the mix for major free agents, and they have an owner who both helped turn the franchise culture around and is willing to pay for the best to win. Rivers knows a good situation when he sees one and he’s not leaving it.

It’s going to be interesting to see what direction the Lakers go next summer when getting their new coach.

Three Things to Know: Nuggets tie Warriors for top seed in West after win

Associated Press
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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) Denver wins, Warriors lose, Nuggets tie Warriors for the top seed in West after win. We know the Warriors are bored with the regular season, but will the potential of losing the top spot in the West spark something in them?

Denver isn’t bored and has things to celebrate — for the first time in five years, the Nuggets are headed to the playoffs. This was a team that has been good for a couple of years — they won 46 games last season, one game short of the dance — but made a leap this season, mostly through continuity. Coach Mike Malone had the right attitude, “I told the guys after: ‘We should feel good about this. Life is about celebrating moments.’” (Via Mike Singer of the Denver Post.)

But this win was more than just a ticket to the dance — at 47-22, the Nuggets are now tied with the Golden State Warriors for the top seed in the West.

Denver did its part going into Boston and getting the win. The early part of this game was telling: Kyrie Irving tried to take over but started 1-of-5 shooting, while the Nuggets moved the ball, shared the load and raced out to a 13-4 lead. Irving would get hot in the second half and finished with 30 points (on 10-of-23 shooting), but Denver had seven players in double figures, led by another night from Nikola Jokic, who had 21 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists. More than just the numbers, he impacts every aspect of the game when on the court. He just seemed to make the right decisions all night.

The Warriors fell back to the Nuggets, although this Golden State loss was understandable — on the road against a red-hot San Antonio team that has won nine straight, and the Warriors were without DeMarcus Cousins (although Andrew Bogut had his moments in his debut). The Splash Brothers had more of a perfect Greg Louganis Olympics dive on the night — no splash at all. Klay Thompson shot 5-of-18, while Stephen Curry had 25 points but needed 25 shots to get there, although Curry did hit this.

The Nuggets have a much tougher schedule the rest of the way, which is why fivethirtyeight.com predicts they will finish second in the conference, three games back of the Warriors (the teams play again April 2). But if the Warriors continue to be bored and the Nuggets keep going into places like Boston and getting wins, anything can happen.

2) Isaiah Thomas feels the love in return to Boston. This was the real highlight out of the Celtics-Nuggets game.

Celtics fans never got to give Isaiah Thomas the send-off tribute he deserved. They did on Monday when he returned as a member of the Nuggets.

Thomas was undersized, relatable hero who played like an MVP, led the Celtics to the playoffs, all while playing through hip pain and the death of his sister. He loved the city and was active in the community. He embodied what Celtics fans want to see in their stars.

It was good to see him get that emotional moment.

Thomas was scoreless in seven minutes on the court. Hopefully, he can come back next season fully healthy in a situation where he can showcase his talents.

3) Dirk Nowitzki passes Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on NBA all-time scoring list. Nowitzki — the greatest shooting big man the NBA has ever seen and its best-ever European player — can now add another accolade to his long list of them.

With 8:33 left in the first quarter, Nowitzki took a handoff from Luka Doncic‘s handoff, backed down New Orleans’ Kenrich Williams to get to his spot, then drained a turnaround from the midrange. It was a signature move that gave Nowitzki 31,420 points in his career, one more than the legendary Wilt Chamberlain.

Nowitzki is now sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan).

By the way, the Pelicans won the game in overtime behind the fifth straight triple-double from Elfrid Payton, who had 19 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds. Doncic had a triple-double of his own on the night with 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.