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NBA Sunday: A Third MVP Candidate Rising?

As impressive as Kevin Durant and LeBron James have been this season, James Harden also deserves to be in the MVP discussion … Are Indiana and Miami vulnerable?

Bill Ingram



A Third MVP Candidate Rising?

The NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy is almost always a topic of protracted discussion among sports fans. Sometimes there is one player who is so dominant that there is little room for discussion, but over the last couple of seasons it has really come down to just two names: Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Miami HEAT forward LeBron James. There is another player, however, who is making an awfully strong case that he should be in that conversation.

Last season, the Houston Rockets made their triumphant return to postseason play, winning 11 more games than they had the previous season due largely to the contributions of trade acquisition James Harden. Harden took the NBA by storm last season, proving himself to be the best shooting guard in the game, but he was not mentioned in the MVP discussion because Durant’s Thunder and James’ HEAT were among the best teams in the NBA. Of course, both Durant and James had All-Star teammates to aid their cause, which was not true of Harden.

Over the summer, Rockets GM Daryl Morey pulled out all the stops in an effort to get Harden the elite help he needed, and he was successful in landing Dwight Howard, the top free agent on the market. With Howard in place to help shoulder some of the load, Harden has flourished. A foot injury slowed him somewhat over the first half of the season, though he played through it, but since the All-Star break Harden has been as good as any other player in the NBA, including James and Durant.

Prior to the All-Star break, Harden averaged 23.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the line and 33 percent from behind the three-point arc. Since the break, he has been even better, pouring in 26.8 points to go with 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds and shooting 49 percent overall and 44 percent from three.

More importantly, after barely squeaking into the playoffs last season, Harden’s Rockets are now a top-four team in the West and must be seen as possible contenders.

The MVP in the NBA is most likely to be a former teammate of Harden’s. Durant is having a season for the ages, and has kept the Thunder at or near the top of the league even when playing without All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. James will also be a strong candidate, and his dominance on both ends of the court is one of the primary reasons the HEAT are expected to repeat as NBA champions. Still, Harden has pushed the Rockets back into contention, and his nightly contributions should at least get him into the discussion when the time comes to vote for MVP.

Here are some facts that show just how impressive Harden has been this season:

Harden leads all NBA shooting guards in points per game, player efficiency rating, win shares and clutch scoring.

Along with James, Harden is the only other player in the NBA on pace to finish the 2013-14 season with averages of at least 24.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.50 steals.

Harden is the only player in Rockets history to win Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks within a single season.

Harden became just the fourth player since the NBA started tracking steals in 1973-74 to have at least 40 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals in a game, joining NBA legends Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Harden is the only other Rockets player besides Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to record at least 40 points, eight assists and three steals in a game since 1985-86.

Harden is so efficient at getting to the free throw line that he made NBA history by becoming the first player ever to register 27 points on two or fewer field goals made.

Harden became just the third player to score at least 3,000 points in his first 120 games played with the Rockets, joining Hall-of-Famer Elvin Hayes and two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady.

Harden became the first Houston player to score at least 37 points in three consecutive games since Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon did it back in 1994-95.

Harden tied for the most first-quarter points in Rockets history with 22 at Sacramento (2/25/14).

Harden finished a career-best 22-of-25 from the stripe, tying the Rockets single-game record for free throws made set by Sleepy Floyd, who went 22-of-27 vs. Golden State (2/3/91).

Should Harden be in the MVP conversation? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Is the East in Play?

For most of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Eastern Conference has been a two-team race. The Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT have been cutting through their peers like a hot knife through butter, making a re-match of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals seem inevitable. More recently, however, the East has gotten more interesting, and there might be cause for the Pacers and HEAT to re-think their quick trip through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

As dominant as Miami has been for much of the season, over the last few weeks they have looked very beatable. They have won just five of their 11 games in March, and while some of those losses were to very good teams in San Antonio and Houston, they have also coughed up some against non-playoff teams like Denver and Boston. Granted, LeBron James didn’t play in the loss to Boston, but the HEAT should be able to clean up the lottery-bound Celtics even without James. Miami is 18th in the NBA in scoring during March, averaging just 102.2 points per game; they have also slipped to 11th in the league in opponent’s point per game, yielding 103.9 per contest.

Is the trend we’re seeing from Miami an indication that they are not prepared to defend their second consecutive championship? That might be premature to say. The HEAT have shown an ability to simply turn it on when they need to and take care of most opposing teams easily. Still, they are not peaking at the right time, as we see the San Antonio Spurs doing in the West. It’s possible that Miami could be vulnerable come playoff time.

The Pacers aren’t faring much better, and if it weren’t for Miami’s struggles they would likely be out of the East’s top spot. Indiana has lost nearly one-third of their losses for the entire season in the last 10 games, and they have really been struggling since they made a bold move at the trade deadline.

Danny Granger was little more than a highly-paid cheerleader for Indiana as they made their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. When he finally returned to the court this season, he was a shadow of the player who lead Indiana back to prominence in the East. When the Pacers had a chance to land a young talent with potential in Evan Turner, it made sense to add another weapon to their second unit. Lavoy Allen also came over in the deal, and the Pacers also added Andrew Bynum after he was dismissed by the Chicago Bulls.

Unfortunately, Turner has struggled to transition his game from the lottery-bound 76ers to the championship-hopeful Pacers. The move to Indiana changed his role from at-will shooter and starter to reserve who has to pick his spots. As a result, he’s averaging just 8.5 points per game and struggling to fit into the winning culture. The addition of Bynum initially yielded positive results in terms of the box score, but the overall play of the team is not better when Bynum is on the court. He has never been a player who put the team first or impressed anyone with his work ethic, and on top of that his arrival sends a mixed message to starter Roy Hibbert, who is known to be somewhat fragile emotionally. Also, Bynum is now out indefinitely as he deals with swelling and pain in his knee. It’s not hard to see how a very controlled, culture-based team like Indiana is struggling to integrate these new pieces and regain their form.

Is there really reason for concern for the two teams that have been the East’s elite from the opening tip of the 2013-14 season? Certainly not in the first round, but if the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls or perhaps the Brooklyn Nets get hot the second round, things could get very interesting.

NBA Chat with Bill Ingram

In case you missed my last NBA chat, find it by clicking here! You can also go ahead and submit a question for this week’s chat, which you can find here! I make an effort to answer every non-repeat question, and early questions are virtually guaranteed to be answered, so drop yours in now!

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers



When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders



Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte



“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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