Posts Tagged ‘James Harden’

MVP Ladder: Durant’s streak impresses

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com



VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks to the Fan Night crew after dropping 42 on the Houston Rockets

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Six times in the last 50 years a NBA player has strung together a streak of 29 or more straight games of scoring 25 or more points. Just six times in five decades.

Oklahoma City Thunder scoring ace Kevin Durant has done it twice … in the past four seasons.

He’s on the elite streak scoring list that also includes Michael Jordan (40 straight in 1986), Spencer Haywood (31 straight in 1972), Bob McAdoo (29 straight in 1974) and Oscar Robertson (29 straight in 1964). Scoring isn’t the only thing that helps a player built his MVP case, but scoring at a transcendent clip certainly strengthens one’s case.

Durant’s all-time great scoring ability and his better-by-the-day all-around game has propelled him back to the top of the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder this week … and perhaps for good, if he keeps this up.

LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and James Harden round out the top five of the Ladder this week.

Dive in here for more on who made the cut on this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!


Blogtable: How can Phil fix the Knicks?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Contenders’ concerns | What can Phil do? | Which team is better?



VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses the rumblings surrounding Phil Jackson and the Knicks

> What must happen for Phil Jackson to have a chance of fixing the Knicks?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comA fistful of compromising photos of Mr. Dolan? OK, failing that, patience on everyone’s part to get to the summer of 2015, not 2014, for a massive overhaul to really take shape. I’m not even sure how Jackson feels about Carmelo Anthony, but if we assume Anthony sticks in NY, it won’t be until 2015 that the Knicks’ payroll cooperates with a desire for real change. Here’s my Jackson concern: Will rival GMs be loathe to deal with him? He has had an air of condescension toward other organizations in the past, and many could shy away from transactions that might grow his legend further.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Pigs must fly. Hell must freeze over.  The always hungry, ridiculously partisan NY media must face reality. There is no quick fix, but living on the back pages of the tabloids has never afforded the Knicks to take a prudent, patient approach. Assuming there are no shenanigans such as frozen lottery envelopes — wink! wink! — in the early days of the Adam Silver regime, it is a long-term project. The Rockets never took a dive to the bottom for lottery salvation, and GM Daryl Morey needed seven years to finally reel in the combination of James Harden and Dwight Howard. Can the NY media wait that long with out its collective head exploding? Good luck, Phil.

Carmelo Anthony (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Carmelo Anthony (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comJames Dolan has to get out of the way. Write the checks to Phil and let Phil take the wheel. That’s the deal right? Arguably the most messed-up franchise in all of sports hires the Zen Master to make it all better. Well, get out of the way and be quiet. There’s no guarantees Phil the Rookie Executive can get this done, but if you hire him, back off. Also: Don’t re-sign Melo, get the books more in line with the CBA and start from scratch.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: First, he has to have the job. If that happens, he needs to be three times the general manager he was as a coach. He needs to be more than great, in other words. Not only are the Knicks overhyped and mediocre, they’re not in a very good place to do anything about it. Jackson would be looking at two summers of heavy lifting before New York has a chance, just a chance, of becoming real, unless he finds a genius general manager who will take Amar’e Stoudemire or Andrea Bargnani. Otherwise, it will be seeing what the Knicks can get for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, etc. They want to keep Carmelo Anthony, but doing that also means a commitment to trying to win now that will stand in the way of the necessary renovation job.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: A lot of time must pass. This is not a quick fix. Not only are Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani on the books for almost $50 million next season, but the Knicks have hardly any assets in the cupboard. So, while some 2015 cap space is nice, they must also find and develop young talent to fill out the rotation, have available if a star can be acquired via trade, and to give any potential success a longer shelf life.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: A Zen-fueled asteroid storm that reverses time and takes us back 40 years to the … no seriously, there is no chance. None. It’s not happening. Fixing the Knicks is like beating Floyd Mayweather … 45 men have tried and 45 have failed. No one has better championship credentials than Phil. But he’s never had to bring a patient back who has gone to the other side. He’s never done it. Never even had to think about doing it in his previous stops. So it’s hard to just assume he can or will with the Knicks. Watching him try, though, could be some of the best fun any of us have had observing the Knicks.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: I’ve heard the questions about how Phil Jackson will fit into the power structure of the Knicks organization, and I get it. But to me the only real way for the Knicks to build a championship contender is to rebuild. Ditch all the high-priced contracts and go young, even if that means a team of D-League players. If I’ve learned anything living in New York the last 14 years, it’s that New York City loves the underdog, the people who have to fight for everything. I mean, remember Linsanity? Rebuilding might mean they may lose a bunch of games for a few years, but if the Knicks leave it all on the floor, they’ll at least earn the respect of Gotham as they build toward something bigger down the road. Which is more than this current crew has done.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: Well, what do the team’s owners want them to be? That’s the big question. He needs to make sure that he has a positive relationship with James Dolan. Then make sure Carmelo Anthony signs, try and somehow acquire some meaningful assets and just do well on draft day. Then he has a platform to build from.

Karan Madhok, NBA IndiaTo allow Phil Jackson to do more with the Knicks, team owner James Dolan has to do less. This means more autonomy to Jackson in the decision-making process in hiring the coaching staff, negotiating trades, player contracts, drafts, etc. Jackson may not be a proven executive yet, but he’s a proven great basketball mind. And for him to achieve more, the owners have to take a step back and allow him his free space, like Pat Riley in Miami.

Westbrook handles emotions, dominates Beverley, Rockets


VIDEO: Fan Night crew breaks down the Westbrook/Beverley battle

OKLAHOMA CITY – Loud City vented on the Rockets’ alley cat of a point guard Patrick Beverley, who returned to the scene of the crime for the first time Tuesday night bearing no remorse, no regrets and certainly no apologies.

He did come looking to scrap and claw and needle his nemesis Russell Westbrook, and it took only 44 seconds into it for the lid to pop off with the first of three intense entanglements between the two before this wild and woolly game throughout, won by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 106-98, was barely seven minutes old.

With six minutes to go in the opening quarter, Beverley solidified his role as No. 1 villain in these parts with a bold, deja vu move, running up on Westbrook as the Thunder point guard dribbled toward the OKC bench to call a timeout, just as he had done in that fateful Game 2 of the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Instead of Beverley going low as he did last April, a move that tore the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee and landed him on the operating table — and then back there twice more — and OKC’s championship dreams on life support, Beverley went high, practically body bumping Westbrook and planting both his palms on Westbrook’s chest.

Westbrook bowed up, Beverley didn’t back down and tempers revved on both sides. The officials huddled and emerged with a technical foul on Beverley.


VIDEO: Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook get into a scuffle in the first quarter

Was the ballsy play a message from Beverley?

“No, no messages,” the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder said. “That’s how I play against everybody. No personal battles out there today, just try to go out there and fight and do what I do to try to help my team win a basketball game today.”

That didn’t happen. Beverley had a forgettable night, finishing with as many fouls (five) as points and assists combined. Westbrook dominated this round with 24 points, seven assists and four rebounds. He got to the free throw line 14 times, six on two bad fouls by Beverley behind the arc.

When Westbrook checked back into a 34-28 game in favor of OKC with 7:42 to go in the half, Brooks kept calling Westbrook’s number. He attacked the smaller Beverley, beating him off the dribble and launching to the basket. He scored nine consecutive points and 11 of 15 that put OKC ahead 56-41 at the half, a lead the Thunder would have to work to protect, and Kevin Durant made sure they did with a spectacular second half, scoring 25 of his 42 points and four of his five 3-pointers.

“He took advantage of every opportunity,” Durant said of Westbrook. “Posting little guys up, getting to the cup, getting to the free throw line, so he was great.”

It was Westbrook’s night, facing Beverley again, staying cool when the Houston guard tried to stir it up and producing a mostly composed effort that included no turnovers in 15:31 of action in the second half. Before and after the game, Westbrook was short on words, saying he held no grudges, that he’s only out to win. His coach, Scott Brooks, had more to say.

“You guys know I love Russell, and this is why I really love him — he doesn’t like the 58 point guards that he plays against,” Brooks said. “He’s not out there to make friends, he’s not out there to be anybody’s buddy and he competes with everything he has in his body. He’s about playing the right way, about playing a game that we as a coaching staff, as fans, as an organization can be proud of. And that’s what he does every single night. I will never ever think anything else that he does, he just plays the way it’s supposed to be played.”

What did Brooks think about Beverley lunging at Westbrook near the sideline again?

“You saw the same thing I saw,” Brooks said. “There’s really not much to talk about. We played a good basketball game and I’ll just leave it at that. I’m not worried about what they do and don’t do. I’m worried about what we do.”

What OKC did was end an ugly slide that was making the natives restless, and cool off a Rockets team that had won five in a row and 15 of 17. The Thunder had lost two in a row — allowing 242 points to the Suns and Lakers — and five of eight coming out of the All-Star break. Never mind that Westbrook was playing in just his ninth game and still on a minutes restriction since a near-two-month recovery from a third surgery related to the initial injury. Plus perimeter defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and heavyweight center Kendrick Perkins are both out with injuries.

It made this third consecutive win over the Rockets this season all the more impressive. Dwight Howard, up against rookie Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, had just nine points and 10 boards. Ibaka had 12 points and 16 rebounds. Newly signed Caron Butler, who has quickly supplanted youngster Jeremy Lamb, brought spurts of tenacious defense plus 11 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.

“We went in there soft tonight,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.

Former Thunder sixth man James Harden started slowly and couldn’t quite bring his team back despite 28 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. He acknowledged that the high emotion delivered early, and arguably recklessly, by Beverley threw off the Rockets.

There was no doubt Beverley came in bearing fangs, but Westbrook ultimately provided the much bigger bite.


VIDEO: Durant, Westbrook lead the Thunder past the Rockets

Pierce cares not about your hand in his face


VIDEO: Pierce’s big three seals Brooklyn’s win vs. Toronto

BROOKLYN – Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t think Paul Pierce was going to play Monday night.

Pierce, dealing with an injured shoulder, played. He played 30 minutes, scored 15 points, and hit the biggest shot of the night, a 3-pointer that gave the Nets a three-point lead with 1:14 left and propelled them to a big win over the visiting Raptors.

It was a tough shot, because Kyle Lowry was in Pierce’s shirt with a hand in his face. But Pierce had to take it because the shot clock was about to expire.

And maybe it didn’t matter that Lowry was there, because, according to SportVU, Pierce has shot better on contested jumpers than uncontested jumpers. Among 92 players who have attempted at least 100 of each, only one — the Pelicans’ Brian Roberts — has a bigger discrepancy.

Players who have shot better on contested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Brian Roberts 82 213 38.5% 63 128 49.2% -10.7%
Paul Pierce 83 236 35.2% 62 151 41.1% -5.9%
Russell Westbrook 73 203 36.0% 57 138 41.3% -5.3%
Dirk Nowitzki 200 439 45.6% 210 431 48.7% -3.2%
LeBron James 140 370 37.8% 47 117 40.2% -2.3%
Marcus Morris 102 252 40.5% 61 143 42.7% -2.2%
Rudy Gay 87 223 39.0% 105 259 40.5% -1.5%
Evan Turner 107 288 37.2% 88 231 38.1% -0.9%
Rodney Stuckey 67 178 37.6% 55 145 37.9% -0.3%
Jamal Crawford 142 355 40.0% 143 356 40.2% -0.2%
James Harden 141 375 37.6% 69 183 37.7% -0.1%

Minimum 100 of each.
Contested = Any jump shot outside of 10 feet with a defender within four feet of the shooter.

Note: We’re looking at standard field goal percentage and not effective field goal percentage to simply see the effect on a player’s success rate.

That LeBron James has shot better on contested jumpers is more incentive for defenses to play off him on the perimeter, as the Spurs did (successfully, until Game 7) in The Finals.

The league has shot 5.4 percent better on uncontested jumpers this season. But a contest will affect some players more than others. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Roberts and Pierce is the Suns’ Goran Dragic

Players who have shot at least 10 percent better on uncontested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player Name FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Goran Dragic 145 279 52.0% 52 178 29.2% 22.8%
David West 142 288 49.3% 35 102 34.3% 15.0%
C.J. Miles 86 191 45.0% 36 118 30.5% 14.5%
Khris Middleton 148 302 49.0% 57 161 35.4% 13.6%
Jameer Nelson 118 312 37.8% 35 143 24.5% 13.3%
Kevin Love 201 473 42.5% 45 152 29.6% 12.9%
Bradley Beal 181 431 42.0% 78 263 29.7% 12.3%
Jerryd Bayless 91 217 41.9% 41 137 29.9% 12.0%
Terrence Ross 107 240 44.6% 59 181 32.6% 12.0%
Randy Foye 150 363 41.3% 39 132 29.5% 11.8%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 121 296 40.9% 30 103 29.1% 11.8%
Josh Smith 126 380 33.2% 28 129 21.7% 11.5%

For some of these guys, the difference is about how well they shoot when they’re left open. For some, it’s about how poorly they shoot when there’s a defender nearby. Josh Smith probably shouldn’t shoot jumpers at all.

Danger rears its head for OKC, Indy




VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about the concerns facing some of the league’s elite teams

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That small market NBA Finals you were daydreaming about is in jeopardy based on what we’ve seen from the likes of the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and even the Portland Trail Blazers recently.

Early-season visions of say the Pacers and Thunder squaring off in The Finals and restoring the faith of the fans in the hinterlands have faded since before All-Star weekend.

The Pacers’ struggles are real. You don’t lose four straight games, and five of your last 10, and allow 106 points in your past four games and maintain your aura as the defensive juggernaut that we assumed you were based on your work up until now. No matter how much coach Frank Vogel insists that his team is capable of navigating these bumps in the road, we have no idea how they will recover from this stretch because they’ve never been in this position before.

The Thunder’s issues are tangible as well. You don’t lose five of your past eight games, give up 121 points in consecutive games and get torched for 40-point games by the likes of Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks without two of your top defensive players (Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins) and expect us to just chalk it up to a temporary hiccup. Even if all that happens as Russell Westbrook is transitioning back into the mix after missing nine weeks recovering from knee surgery.

Contenders tend to show their teeth this time of year, embrace statement games and remind the competition that what they see now is merely a glimpse of the fury to come in the postseason. But these current struggles, particularly for the Pacers and Thunder, constitute a clear-and-present danger to their big-picture plans.

We are nit-picking at the highest level here, I understand that. But vetting championship contenders is a tedious, season-long process that requires us to examine each and every little tidbit of information gathered. While I don’t agree with the wilder sentiments like this one (of course, the Thunder aren’t trying to get Scott Brooks fired), I do think a contender’s February and March performance is a much better indicator of what’s to come in the playoffs than anything accomplished before then.

And the Pacers and Thunder, two teams that would appear to have as good a chance as any to unseat the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, respectively, have both shown signs of vulnerability in the past few days and weeks.

In addition to locating their defensive punch, the Pacers need Paul George to regain the form he showed earlier in the season, when he was being mentioned in the MVP conversation with Kevin Durant and LeBron James. The playoffs are looming and a quality team like the Chicago Bulls will identify your weakness and attack it in a best-of-7 series … the same way the Pacers did to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last year.

UPDATE:



VIDEO: Pacers coach Frank Vovel talks about Andrew Bynum maing his debut against the Celtics

The Thunder have to worry as much about getting their own house in order as they have to worry about the neighbors. The Spurs, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers all appear to be as up to the task of winning the Western Conference crown and representing their side in The Finals.

The Spurs have enough corporate knowledge to navigate these rough waters for a second straight season. The Rockets have two stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard, who have just as much experience in The Finals as Durant and Westbrook. And the Clippers, when healthy, have what is arguably the deepest and most balanced roster in the league with one of the game’s best button-pushers (coach Doc Rivers), especially at playoff time, leading their charge.

Momentary hiccups are one thing. All teams, even the great ones, deal with them at one time or another.

Cracks in the foundation, though, require more and immediate attention.

Time will tell which of these the Pacers and Thunder are dealing with …

Rockets stake claim as NBA’s best


VIDEO: Harden’s huge night rallies Rockets past Blazers in OT

HOUSTON — This is what it’s like to stand on the beach when the birds start to twitter, the winds begin to kick up and the ocean is suddenly roiling and full of foreboding.

There’s not much you can do when the tsunami rolls in and the Trail Blazers were just the latest to get washed away.

It’s past the point where the Rockets are an interesting little side trip on the road to June and thoughts of a championship.

Right now, Dwight Howard, James Harden and their dangerous buddies are in the fast lane with the top down and passing everybody else on the freeway.

Miami? Been there.

Indiana? Done that.

Portland? Please.

The Rockets spotted the Blazers a 12-point lead going into the fourth quarter and still didn’t panic. Not even when it took a flick-of-the-wrist, never-a-doubt 3-point statement at the end of regulation.

That statement? We’re as good as it gets. The best team in the NBA.

“I think so,” said Chandler Parsons. “We’re playing well. We don’t think we’re done. We’re not getting arrogant or conceited or anything, but we think we can play with anybody and we’ve proved that this week. It’s fun because we know we can even get better.”

“Yes. Yes. We are,” said Harden.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. To the outside world, it probably wasn’t even thinkable this season.

So here are the Rockets with the best record in the league (23-6) since the start of 2014, with 15 wins in their last 17 games, and with the surging confidence that comes from having not only survived a grueling week that was supposed to examine their credentials, but aced the test.

It’s no longer about them just constantly trying to push the pace and beat every opponent with a crazyball attack of firing up 3-pointers.

Now they’re learning to win games like the one Sunday night, when it starts in a torpor, improves eventually to a slog and they manage to come out the other side because they just don’t stop grinding.

“I can feel guys coming together,” said coach Kevin McHale. “Their chemistry is improving. Their belief in each other is improving. They’re bonding has improved and you can feel that. And it’s nice.

“That’s what makes sports special, when you get around guys that are bonding and fighting together. It’s kind of why you’re in the business. That’s the hope for all us guys that have been doing it for many, many years, that belief that together you can get something accomplished.”

Jeremy Lin came off the bench to end his slump and with his biggest-scoring game since November with 26 points.

Harden popped in 20 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The unique ability of Harden to suddenly turn it on and turn around a game when the Rockets started out making just 1-for-13 on 3-pointers is part of what makes them dangerous.

But it’s also a growing sense of purpose inside the locker room that says there is no reason they have to honor a predetermined pecking order and wait their turn.

Howard is in his 10th season. He’s climbed nearly to the peak with a trip to the NBA Finals in 2009 with Orlando and knows how quickly the best-laid plans can fall apart.

This was a night when the Rockets’ big men were getting beaten on the boards by Portland through the first half. Then McHale went to a small lineup and it all turned around.

Howard knows there are nights when he can be the fearsome low-post beast that gobbles up rebounds and points in the paint. But he also feels like he can almost blend into the background, put in an honest day’s work and his team will still survive.

The Rockets are a bunch that you can practically see growing taller and stronger right before your eyes.

“We’re as good as we are right now,” said point guard Patrick Beverley. “We don’t really look for other teams. We just go out there and try to play the type of basketball we know how to play. We don’t focus on other teams. We focus on us.”

Beverley will sink his teeth in, Parsons will scratch and claw, Howard will do the heavy lifting and Harden makes magic happen.

It’s enough to make you change your notions of just which is the team to beat in the wild, wild West as the playoffs approach.

San Antonio is currently the No. 1 seed in the conference. But the Rockets are 3-0 against the Spurs.

The Thunder are the No. 2 seed. But the Rockets didn’t just lose on Sunday afternoon to the, uh, Lakers Lite.

Is it possible the best team in the NBA is gathering like a hurricane off the Gulf Coast of Texas?

The week ahead might hold the answer as a three-game road trip to OKC, Chicago and Miami looms.

“We just want to hold up that trophy come June,” Howard said. “We’ve got to stay humble. That’s the message. We cannot get cocky. We cannot lose our focus. That’s when you fail. So you got to stay humble.

“We’re getting better. We’re not satisfied. We still have a ways to go. But I like the way we’re playing. No fear. We make mistakes. We get in the huddle. We come out and try to get the job done. We’re together. That’s the sign of a good team.”

And maybe, just maybe, much more.


VIDEO: James Harden discusses his monster game against the Blazers

Morning Shootaround — March 8


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played March 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers’ woes start from within | Other side to that coin was Rockets’ paybackPhil Jax rumors blow up in New York | Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, him | Noah bored by whines about “tampering”

No. 1: Pacers’ woes start from within – To hear Indiana coach Frank Vogel, his team’s claim on the NBA’s best record this season put a target on the Pacers’ backs, turning them into every opponent’s favorite target. While that might be true to some extent, the slump in which Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West & Co. find themselves now – after suffering their third consecutive loss in the 112-86 rout at Houston Friday – owes more to what Indiana isn’t doing at either end of the court the way it had through the schedule’s first four months. Only the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers have avoided a three-game losing streak now, with the Pacers turning to post-game meetings and some mirror-gazing to check theirs, as ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst wrote from Houston:

The Pacers have now lost three in a row for the first time all season and fallen back into a tie with the Heat in the loss column for the best record. But the chase for that top seed, which has been a Pacers priority all season, was not on their minds as midnight passed in that quiet locker room.

“We haven’t talked about the [No. 1 seed] in awhile,” Hibbert said. “We just need to win games at this point. Something has got to change. Something is going to be addressed.”

There were warning signs even when the Pacers were on a five-game winning streak recently as they had to work harder than expected to beat bottom-feeders like the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.

“Every team we play is playing above themselves,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it’s a different thing to feel it. These teams are coming at us with great force and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge.”

Teams running up the score against the Pacers is not normal. But over the last 10 games their league-best defense has not been league best.

They are allowing 46 percent shooting and 100 points per game in that span. In the first 40 games of the season when they distanced themselves from the rest of the league, they allowed just 41 percent shooting and just 88 points a game.

“We have to get back to what the Indiana Pacers used to be,” George said. “When teams came to play us, they knew it was going to be a long night.”

***

No. 2: Other side to that coin was Rockets’ payback – Twenty-six points isn’t 34, the number Houston’s players had in mind as a way to avenge their 33-point smackdown by Indiana in Indianapolis in December. The Rockets “only” pushed their lead to as many as 32 before settling for the final margin. But as Jonathan Feigen wrote in his Houston Chronicle blog, team and individual payback was very much in play, as the league’s hottest team in calendar year 2014 starts to sniff its potential:

“That’s all we talked about, every time out, every possession, how they blew us out,” Dwight Howard said. “We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to get payback.”

Yet, as the Rockets put together a stretch [James] Harden would call their best on both ends of the floor, he could have been thinking of much more than just the third-quarter run to a 30-point lead.

“Always wanted to get back against them,” Harden said after scoring 16 of his 28 points in the knockout punch of a third quarter. “The third quarter was probably the best I’ve seen us play offense and defense in one quarter. We were rolling. These last weeks we’ve been rolling on both ends.”

At that moment, as the Pacers called time out the rout was certain, Harden could have been celebrating his own turnaround against the Pacers. When Harden was done for the night before the third quarter had ended, he had made 10 of 17 shots, including 4 of 7 3s. In his seven previous games against the Pacers, he had made 28.4 percent of his shots, just 24.6 percent in his three games against them with the Rockets.

He could have been thinking off the credibility the Rockets had added to their 2014 rise to a 22-6 record, the NBA’s best since New Year’s, a season-best seven-game home winning streak or their 12-2 record since the start of February when the only losses were in the second half of back-to-backs.

Had he thought of it with the pairing of a win against Heat to go with the blowout of the Pacers, he even could have been marking their season-long dominance of the Eastern Conference in Houston, with the Rockets 14-0 against Eastern Conference teams.

In many ways, however, he might have just enjoyed the clearer-than-ever signs of how much the Rockets have progressed in the months in between.

“We’ve been playing well since the beginning of the New Year,” Harden said. “We kind of got a feel for each other now. We’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten healthy.

“When we hold the ball and let them set up defensively, then they’re great. But if we play fast like we did and make plays for each other, it’s hard to beat.”

***

No. 3: Phil Jax rumors blow up in New York — The man had taken sabbaticals before. He roared off on his motorcycle after helping Chicago win its sixth NBA championship in eight years in 1998 and sat out the following season before acquiescing to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. He stepped away again in 2004-05 to recharge and get healthy, then came back for six more seasons and two more Lakers championships.

But Phil Jackson is going on three years now off the NBA stage and out of the daily sports spotlight, so it’s totally understandable that he might be getting a little restless. That restlessness might or might not – remember, we’re talking both rumors and Jackson weighing multiple options at this point in his life (age 68) – land him in New York, running or coaching the Knicks. Here’s some of what ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne wrote on the topic:

 Phil Jackson is “ready to go back to work,” a source with knowledge of his thinking told ESPN.com on Friday.

The former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach has spent the last couple of years working to improve his health — which included several surgeries and a successful fight against prostate cancer — and writing a book. But the itch to return to the NBA in some capacity is strong.

While Jackson has made it clear to any team that has approached him that he prefers a front-office role that would allow him to shape and mold a franchise the way Miami Heat president Pat Riley has, he is open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it was necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations, the source said.

He would not consider any coaching position that did not have a significant guarantee of personnel power as well, sources said.

***

No. 4: Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, himPaul Pierce, the beloved forward who returned to Boston again Friday in the jarring black-and-white of the Brooklyn Nets, has seen this Celtics movie before. He knows what it must be like for former teammate Rajon Rondo, who is used to better times and has to endure the losing and no longer sees respect or fear in foes’ faces. But Pierce doesn’t worry about the feisty Celtics playmaker because he sees better days ahead, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

“They’re a young team,” Pierce said. “They got a mix of some veterans, some young guys developing. They’re only going to get better.”

And a significant part of that improvement in Pierce’s eyes, is point guard Rajon Rondo.

Rondo continues to look more and more like the four time All-Star that he is, and not the player on the mend from a torn right ACL injury in January of last year.

On Friday, he had a team-high 20 points to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.

“Rondo is ready to lead,” Pierce said. “He’s leading them right now, moving them into the next generation of Celtics. Their future is going to be very bright.”

But in order to fully appreciate what awaits them at the end of the journey, first they must navigate a path that, for now, will be difficult when it comes to winning games.

Seeing the big picture when he was a young player in Boston wasn’t easy for Pierce who admits Rondo’s better prepared for what lies ahead than he was.

“Rondo understands,” said Pierce, adding “He understands a little more than I did at the time. When I first got here (in Boston), I was in rebuild mode, made the playoffs and went back to rebuild mode. Same with him (Rondo). He came in, we were rebuilding. We went through a phase where we were winning. Now he’s back in rebuild mode, but he’s still young enough to see it out to still be in his prime. I know the Celtics are going to do whatever it takes, to get back to that top level again.”

***

No. 5: Noah bored by whines of “tampering” – So what if it was true that, at some point during All-Star weekend, Chicago center Joakim Noah teased, suggested or even downright pleaded with New York’s Carmelo Anthony to consider signing with the Bulls this summer rather than the Knicks or the Lakers? If that’s “tampering,” the SEC needs to throw a net over the entire NBA for insider trading violations. After the summer of 2010, when Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together after huddles and strategy sessions great and small … after the Rockets’ Chandler Parsons inundated Dwight Howard with text messages daily leading up to his choice of Houston over the Lakers … the reports that Noah told Anthony he’d be best off by choosing Chicago seem like so much trash-talking or idle banter. Knicks coach Mike Woodson needs to focus on Xs, Os, Ws and Ls, too, more than on some alleged he-said, he-said distraction. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times addressed some of what seems much ado about nothing:

Noah was asked about the Anthony rumor after the morning shootaround and never denied it, but he chalked it up as nothing more than March gossip.

“What are you talking about, the gossip going on?’’ Noah said.

“You want me to address that? I don’t feel like addressing it. I really have nothing to say.’’

When asked if the story was accurate, Noah said, “Doesn’t matter. What does that have to do with our team now? It doesn’t matter.’’

[Coach Tom] Thibodeau did take exception to Knicks coach Mike Woodson telling a radio station that Noah broke league rules and was tampering.

“You know, legally, nobody can recruit anyone,’’ Woodson said.

“To me, it’s just a bunch of nonsense,’’ Thibodeau said. “We don’t pay any attention to it, just get ready for [the next game]. . . . It’s all nonsense. We’re just concentrating on our next opponent.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Whew! They must be breathing easier in Milwaukee now, knowing that veteran Drew Gooden, on his second 10-day contract with Washington, won’t have vengeance on his mind when the Wizards visit Saturday night for the way the Bucks warehoused him last season (while paying him a whole lot of cash). … If Sam Malone could do it, maybe Paul Pierce could too: Open a bar or restaurant back in Boston when his playing days are over. Pierce was pondering the future Friday night. … Will Saturday’s clash with UNC be Jabari Parker‘s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or might he return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA Draft pool? OK, we’ll play along. … Knicks center Tyson Chandler didn’t really mean to mock Kevin Love‘s defense, Chandler said via Twitter a day later. … Patty Mills listened to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — wise move, Patty — and grabbed 10 rebounds.

MVP Ladder: LeBron and KD to the finish!



VIDEO: The Fan Night crew debates LeBron or KD for MVP

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They can see the finish line from here, both LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the headliners in an epic battle for MVP honors this season.

And it’s at the finish where this race will be decided. It’s that close between two of the league’s truly elite, transcendent talents. They are essentially deadlocked at the top of this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder … LeBron has the slightest of edges thanks to that career-high and franchise-record 61 points he scored Monday night in a win over Charlotte.

Blake Griffin, James Harden and Paul George round out the top five of the Ladder this week with the Big Fundamental himself, Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, joining the party at No. 10.

Dive in here for more on who made the cut on this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!


Rockets Face Defining Test Of Their Might


VIDEO: Kevin McHale talks about Dwight Howard’s increased role of late

Since the giant ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve the Rockets have gone nowhere but up.

Dwight Howard has rocked, James Harden has rolled and a team that was supposed to be still figuring it all out in its first season together suddenly looks like it has all the answers.

Now comes the test.

Call it a dirty dozen days of the schedule. Call it a magnificent seven lineup of (almost entirely) worthy opponents who’ll peel back the curtain to reveal whether the Rockets might be merely a problematic playoff hurdle or a real contender for a Finals run.

From tonight through March 16, the team with the best record in the NBA since Jan. 1 will have to deal with a grueling stretch sandwiched on either end by a home and road set with the two-time champion Heat. As if that alone were not a mouthful, there’s a good deal of meat in between. By the time the Rockets come up for air, they’ll have also faced the Pacers (No. 1 in East) and Blazers (No. 3 in West) at home and the Thunder (No. 1 in West) and Bulls (No. 3 in East) on the road. The only breather is a road game against the young and struggling Magic, but even that comes off the second night of a back-to-back after dueling the Heat.

“It’s definitely going to be a tough couple of weeks,” Harden said. “It will be a good test.”

All season long there has been a general reticence to lump the Rockets in with the so-called true championship contenders. Much of that has to do with their predilection for launching 3-pointers like they were spitballs in a grade school classroom.

But while the 3-pointer makes them wild and crazy, the truth is that the Rockets have grown into more than a novelty act that relies on the long ball and a hyper-caffeinated fast pace.

The Rockets came off their recent five-game West road trip having averaged 55.6 points in the paint per game. Then they went inside on the Pistons Saturday for another 58. It’s all the result of the work Howard has done in the practice gym to learn how to be more effective around the basket. As well, Harden’s growth curve that has turned him into the game’s best closer, regardless of any traffic or would-be defenders in the paint. Since Kevin Durant has played most of the season without Russell Westbrook and LeBron James’ help from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh comes in fits and spurts, it’s hard to argue that there is a better 1-2 punch in the league.

Not that there aren’t holes in their game. The Rockets have a penchant for running hot and cold, often unable to maintain a consistent intensity or focus. They also tend to throw the ball around, piling up careless and costly turnovers. Then there is the matter of leaving themselves vulnerable to second chance points, which squander away whatever efforts a middle of the road defensive team puts out.

All that said, the Rockets are just three games behind the Spurs for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. That’s a reachable — and desirable — goal because it would keep them out of the playoff bracket that contains the Thunder and Clippers, who have so far been insolvable (0-5).

Since the ball first went up in the season opener, Howard has been talking about the Rockets being a work in progress as he learns about his new city, his new teammates and his new role while coach Kevin McHale puts the pieces together. Even as a season-long litany of nagging injuries has healed and those pieces have come to fit, Harden has said that life has been good and comfortable in Houston below the radar.

But how long can a dark horse remain in the shadows if the spotlight starts to shine? In the next dirty dozen days, we’re about to find out.


VIDEO: James Harden talks about Houston’s upcoming road trip

Pick-and-roll Data Likes The Suns

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – On the Washington Wizards’ first possession of their big, triple-overtime win in Toronto on Thursday, John Wall and Marcin Gortat ran a side pick-and-roll. The same primary action produced two big free throws in the final minute of the second overtime and a huge three-point play in the third OT.

SportVU cameras captured every pick-and-roll run in the 63 minutes of basketball at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday. The folks at STATS LLC have been tracking pick-and-rolls via SportVU this season, opening a new door as we look to learn more about the game, and have provided some of the data to NBA.com.

Note: All pick-and-roll stats included are through Wednesday’s games.

Heading into Thursday’s game, Wall and Gortat had run almost 200 more pick-and-rolls than any other combination in the league. They’ve been a pretty solid combination, with the Wizards scoring 1.06 points per possession when the pair ran a pick-and-roll. That mark is a notch better than the league average of 1.03 (on pick-and-roll possessions) and ranks 87th among 209 pairs of teammates who have run pick-and-rolls on at least 100 possessions.

But there’s a big difference between a Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll and a Wall-Nene pick-and-roll, which has produced just 0.85 points per 100 possessions. That’s one reason why Washington ranks 29th in pick-and-roll efficiency (better than only the Milwaukee Bucks).

Wizards’ most-used pick-and-roll combinations

Ball-handler Screener Scr. P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Wall Gortat 784 731 772 1.06
Wall Nene 349 324 275 0.85
Beal Gortat 240 226 224 0.99
Wall Booker 147 139 128 0.92
Beal Nene 121 116 110 0.95
Wall Ariza 111 111 119 1.07
Ariza Gortat 113 108 105 0.97
All other combinations 1,295 1,249 1,077 0.86
TOTAL 3,160 3,004 2,810 0.94

Wall has been more likely to pass to Nene than Gortat, but that hasn’t been a good idea, as Nene has shot just 16-for-48 (33 percent) on those plays.

John Wall pick-and-roll partners

Screener Scr. P&R Poss. JW FGM JW FGA JW FG% JW PTS Pass to S S FGM S FGA S FG%
Gortat 784 731 74 183 40.4% 171 188 42 85 49.4%
Nene 349 324 24 71 33.8% 56 129 16 48 33.3%
Booker 147 139 15 49 30.6% 33 34 6 13 46.2%
Ariza 111 111 14 23 60.9% 41 29 5 9 55.6%
Seraphin 85 81 4 11 36.4% 10 27 3 15 20.0%
Others 149 143 6 22 27.3% 17 25 2 10 20.0%
TOTAL 1,476 1,386 131 337 38.9% 311 407 72 170 42.4%

You see that Wall has shot worse when he’s come off a Nene screen, perhaps because Gortat sets a better pick and/or because Nene’s defenders are more mobile and able to defend Wall on a hedge or switch.

The Wizards will miss Nene, who’s out six weeks with an MCL sprain, but mostly on defense. The Wizards have allowed slightly less than a point per possession when he’s been the big defending a pick-and-roll. They’ve been almost seven points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

Offensively, they’ve been a point per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. And their pick-and-roll game might actually get better in these six weeks without him.

Top of the list

The Dallas Mavericks have been the most prolific pick-and-roll team in the league, but the Phoenix Suns have been the best, scoring 1.09 points per pick-and-roll possession, just a hair better than the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, team

Team Screens Scr/100 Rank P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Phoenix 2,640 47.8 24 2,162 2,362 1.093
Houston 2,480 44.2 27 2,091 2,282 1.091
Portland 2,805 49.7 23 2,295 2,499 1.089
Oklahoma City 2,834 50.0 22 2,354 2,554 1.08
New York 2,782 51.9 16 2,292 2,452 1.07
Miami 2,768 54.0 12 2,145 2,294 1.07
Dallas 3,955 69.6 1 3,031 3,226 1.06
San Antonio 2,752 50.7 20 2,224 2,361 1.06
Indiana 2,420 44.6 26 2,015 2,139 1.06
Toronto 3,529 66.2 2 2,696 2,848 1.06

Scr/100 = Screens per 100 possessions

The Suns’ success starts with Goran Dragic and Channing Frye, the aggressive ball-handler and the 6-foot-11 floor spacer. They’ve been the league’s top pick-and-roll combination among those with at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, tandem

Team Ball-handler Screener Scr. P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
PHX Dragic Frye 425 392 510 1.30
MIA Wade Andersen 131 124 160 1.29
OKC Durant Collison 119 114 143 1.25
OKC Westbrook Durant 156 148 185 1.25
NOP Holiday Anderson 130 125 156 1.25
SAC Thomas Gay 168 165 202 1.22
POR Batum Lopez 183 180 220 1.22
POR Williams Lopez 121 111 135 1.22
IND Stephenson Hibbert 147 144 175 1.22
OKC Durant Perkins 209 196 238 1.21

Minimum 100 pick-and-roll possessions

Dragic has run almost the same amount of pick-and-rolls with Miles Plumlee (407 screens on 390 possessions) as he has with Frye (425, 392). But the Suns have  scored only 1.03 points per possession on the Dragic-Plumlee pick-and-rolls. Clearly, Dragic prefers to have a screener who pops out for a jumper, rather than one who rolls to the rim.

On those 390 Dragic-Plumlee possessions, Dragic has passed the ball 232 times, but only 59 times (25 percent) to Plumlee. On the 392 Dragic-Frye possessions, he’s passed the ball 234 times, and 113 of those passes (48 percent) have gone to Frye.

Overall, the Suns have been efficient when Dragic has the ball, scoring 1.16 points per possession from his 1,238 pick-and-rolls. That’s the best mark among 46 starting point guards and other high-usage perimeter players who have been the pick-and-roll ball-handler for at least 300 possessions. And who’s next on the list might surprise you.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, ball-handler

Ball-handler Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss. Top Partner Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss.
Goran Dragic 1,172 1,361 1.16 Channing Frye 392 510 1.30
DeMar DeRozan 690 793 1.15 Amir Johnson 261 303 1.16
Kevin Durant 732 813 1.11 Serge Ibaka 284 286 1.01
Jeremy Lin 528 586 1.11 Dwight Howard 166 181 1.09
LeBron James 659 729 1.11 Chris Bosh 188 225 1.20
Damian Lillard 1,121 1,238 1.10 LaMarcus Aldridge 441 526 1.19
Dwyane Wade 469 516 1.10 Chris Bosh 155 144 0.93
Jrue Holiday 783 859 1.10 Anthony Davis 245 256 1.04
Monta Ellis 1,451 1,583 1.09 Dirk Nowitzki 500 554 1.11
George Hill 619 672 1.09 David West 258 279 1.08

Among 46 starting point guards and other perimeter players in the top 25 in usage rate.
Top partner = Player with whom he’s run the most pick-and-rolls.

DeRozan’s numbers seem a little fluky. He’s shot just 41 percent out of pick-and-rolls, has recorded an assist on just 5.8 percent those 690 possessions (the fourth lowest rate of the group), and averages less than one secondary assist (where his pass directly leads to somebody else’s assist) per game. But he has drawn fouls on 9.4 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions, a rate on par with that of LeBron James.

Some more notes from this list…

  • It’s interesting that James has had good success with Chris Bosh, but Dwyane Wade hasn’t. Wade has actually shot better (18-for-32) than James has (14-for-31) coming off Bosh screens, but Bosh has shot better when receiving a pick-and-roll pass from James (15-for-22) than he has when getting one from Wade (9-for-25). The shooting numbers, of course, are some small sample sizes.
  • Of the 46 pick-and-roll ball-handlers I looked at, the most likely to shoot is Tony Wroten, who has taken a shot on 31.0 percent of the screens he’s come off of. Next on the list are Nick Young (30.7 percent), Reggie Jackson (30.0 percent), Jamal Crawford (29.6 percent) and Rudy Gay (29.6) percent.
  • The players least likely to shoot are Kendall Marshall (12.4 percent), Patrick Beverley (12.9 percent), Mario Chalmers (14.5 percent), George Hill (15.9 percent) and Ty Lawson (16.3 percent).
  • James (20.1 percent) is less likely to shoot than Chris Paul (21.3 percent), Dragic (21.7 percent) or Wall (22.1 percent).
  • The guy most likely to pass to the screener is Stephen Curry. Of Curry’s 830 passes out of pick-and-rolls, 56.3 percent have gone to the screener. Next on the list are Russell Westbrook (55.3 percent), Michael Carter-Williams (52.1 percent), Deron Williams (50.7 percent) and Kyrie Irving (48.7 percent).
  • The guy least likely to pass to the screener is James Harden (27.2 percent). So when they come off pick-and-rolls, Curry is twice as likely to pass to the screener than Harden is. After Harden comes Carmelo Anthony (27.4 percent), James (28.0 percent), Jrue Holiday (29.0 percent) and Tyreke Evans (30.3 percent).
  • Six of the 46 have shot better than 50 percent when coming off a pick-and-roll: Chalmers (54.8 percent), Dragic (53.2 percent), James (52.5 percent), Wade (51.3 percent), Kevin Durant (50.2 percent) and Tony Parker (50.2 percent).
  • Get this: Durant has recorded an assist on a higher percentage of his pick-and-roll possessions (13.0 percent) than James (10.3 percent) and more than twice as often as Paul George (6.0 percent).

Location is key

SportVU keeps track of where every pick-and-roll takes place. As you might expect, the closer to the basket the screen is set, the more likely the offense is to score. The most efficient pick-and-roll spot on the floor is at the high post (around the foul line, inside the 3-point arc), which produces 1.05 points per possession.

But high post pick-and-rolls account for only 4 percent of all pick-and-rolls. The most common location is the top of the key, which sees 41 percent of pick-and-roll action. Next is the wing (foul-line extended), which sees 28 percent and the “sideline point” area (out by the coach’s box line) at 25 percent.

Pick-and-rolls by location

Location Most PCT PPP Best PCT PPP Worst PCT PPP Lg. avg. PPP
Center Point NOP 53% 1.05 POR 42% 1.12 MIL 41% 0.90 41% 1.02
Wing CHI 39% 1.05 GSW 16% 1.11 ORL 19% 0.93 28% 1.02
Sideline Point DAL 32% 1.10 OKC 31% 1.17 WAS 25% 0.92 25% 1.03
High Post PHI 7% 1.03 HOU 3% 1.31 GSW 3% 0.80 4% 1.05
Corner MIA 7% 0.97 MIN 2% 1.28 BOS 3% 0.76 3% 0.99

PCT = Percentage of total pick-and-rolls run from that location.
PPP = Points per possession on pick-and-rolls run from that location.

We’re just scratching the surface here. And that’s the issue with SportVU. There’s so much data to digest, it has to be compartmentalized and put into the proper context. But we’re really starting to see how much it has to offer.

Next week, I’ll take a look at pick-and-roll defense. (Hint: Indiana good, Portland bad.)