Thursday, January 5, 2017

J-Speaks: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly In December in NBA

The month of December in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is a time when certain team really rise and prove that they can play with “The Big Boys,” which is what a team in Texas has done while making some franchise history in the process. Speaking of history, that is what the Celtics’ starting lead guard did, while the NBA’s leading MVP candidate garnered more triple-doubles and made some league history. This is also a month where teams that got off to a rough start make up ground which is what happen in our nation’s capital and in “Cheese Nation.” It’s also a month where certain teams are dealing with some adversity like in the Hollywood; the “Windy City,” and in the “Big Apple.” This is also a month where certain teams are waiving the white flag and trying to build toward next year like again in Hollywood. Here is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in December in the NBA.

The Good

“The Beard” and His Mates Make History

Two years ago, the Houston Rockets had a great regular season and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell in five games to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors. The two teams met again in the postseason a year ago, but it was in the opening round and the Rockets lost to the defending West champs again in five game, but were nowhere near the same team. A new head coach coming into this season with a successful offensive system; their star player coming into training camp in the best shape of his life and some new additions have made the Rockets into a serious player again in the West and led by their candidate for league MVP, made a major statement, while also making some history of their own.

On New Year’s Eve 2016 this past Saturday night, James Harden continued to make his case for MVP of the 2016-17 NBA campaign with eight triple-double of the season and his second in a row of 53 points, a new career-high, 16 rebounds and a tying a career-high of 17 assists on 14 for 26 from the field, including hitting a career-high of nine three-pointers in 16 attempts and going 16 for 18 from the free throw line in 42 minutes in leading the Rockets (27-9) to a 129-122 win versus the struggling New York Knicks (16-19).

The Rockets won their fifth consecutive contest and their 15th of December in 17 chances, setting a new franchise record for wins in a month and it was their fourth game in succession where they scored 123 points or more.

Harden, not only became the first player in NBA history with 50-plus points, 15-plus rebounds and 15-plus assists in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he also tied the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin for most points in a triple-double. This is on the heels of his seventh triple-double of the season of 30 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in the Rockets 140-116 win versus the struggling Los Angeles Clippers (24-14).

To really bring home how well Harden has been playing coming into the contest against the Knicks on New Year’s Eve, Harden was tied with former teammate and Oklahoma City Thunder lead guard Russell Westbrook with 26 double-doubles and second in the league in triple-doubles with six. He has recorded 10 games of 30 points or more; 27 games of 10-plus assists, which includes eight games of 15-plus assists and that is the most by a Rocket since John Lucas’ nine back in the 1985-86 campaign. His 99 three-pointers made were ranked fifth in the NBA.

The difference between last season’s Rockets, who finished as the No. 8 Seed at 41-41 and lost as mentioned earlier to the Warriors in the opening round and this season is the addition of new head coach Mike D’Antoni and his offensive system. He put the ball in Harden’s hands as the lead guard and the additions of sharp shooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, alongside Trevor Ariza.

“He’s the man,” Harden, who now has 18 triple-doubles in his career said about coach playing for Coach D’Antoni after the win on Friday night versus the Clippers to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and I’m happy he’s here.”

The role players like Patrick Beverly, Corey Brewer, Sam Dekker, Nene and Montrezl Harrell, who has been very important with the loss of starting center Clint Capela to a fractured left fibula he sustained back on Dec. 17, 2016 at the Minnesota Timberwolves (11-24) have made a huge difference.

The team has been able to take what you do in practice and put it into action on the hardwood and it has made playing basketball easier and enjoyable for the Rockets, especially for Harden.

“You have fun in any job that you do, you’re going to be better at it,” Harden said to Greenberg. “Guys embrace their roles. They go out there, do it at high level and do it for each other. Mistakes cover themselves up and a lot of wins are in the process.”

Two key parts the Rockets winning a lot of games in December has been the play of Anderson and Gordon, who are healthier this season compared to the past couple when both were with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Gordon, who has put himself in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 18.8 points off the bench in December, scoring 20 points or more on six occasions, and on 11 occasions in December made four or more triples in a game. That included an 8 for 12 performance from long range in route to 26 points in the Rockets 134-95 win versus the Los Angeles Lakers (13-25) back on Dec. 7, 2016. He scored a season-high of 29 points, going 7 for 12 from three-point range in the Rockets 122-100 win over the Pelicans (14-22) on Dec. 16, 2016.

That night, the Rockets made an NBA record 24 triples on a record 61 attempts and Harden had a triple-double scoring 29 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out 13 assists, hitting six triples of his own on 12 tries. Gordon hit seven threes again in 13 tries scoring 24 points in the Rockets 131-115 win at the Phoenix Suns (11-25) the day after Christmas, 2016.

“We shot the basketball. Open threes and they went in,” Harden said of the Rockets performance from three-point range versus the Pelicans. “They were packing the paint. Our shooters were ready to shoot. Had confidence in their shot as usual and knocked them down.”

After three seasons dealing with injuries, Anderson has been healthy and a major contributor to the Rockets as their starting power forward with a 16.3 scoring average on 45.9 percent shooting and 41.4 percent from three-point range in December.

He got the ball rolling for the Rockets last month with a 29-point performance, hitting 5 for 10 from distance in the Rockets 132-127 overtime win at the Warriors (30-5) on Dec. 1 on TNT.

Anderson scored a season-high 31 points, going 8 for 14 from three-point range and grabbing seven boards in the Rockets come from behind 111-109 win at the Minnesota Timberwolves (11-24) on Dec. 17, 2016.

While the Rockets were average from three-point range hitting 17 for 51 and shot overall just 40.6 percent from the floor; were out-rebounded 66-53 and outscored on the fast break 19-4, they forced 22 turnovers that led to 26 points and registered 14 steals. They also executed in the final 2:10 of the game outscoring the T’Wolves 14-2, going 5 for 6 shooting compared to their opponent’s 0 for 4 and the Rockets hit 4 for 5 from the three-point line.

“It was a heck of a comeback. We didn’t give up. We made big shots down the stretch. We shot the ball horribly tonight, but we made shots when it counted and that’s what were all about,” Anderson said to Root Sports commentator and former Rocket Matt Bullard after the win.

The only two losses this month by the Rockets came versus the San Antonio Spurs (28-7) 102-100 on Dec. 20, 2016 who have gone 16-3 on the road, best in the NBA this season and at the Memphis Grizzlies (22-16) 115-109 three days later.  

Two years ago, the Rockets made themselves into a serious contender in the West and in the entire league. Last season they fell off the NBA title radar. So far, they put themselves back into that conversation. They do know though that there is a lot of season left and they need to prove their style of play can work in the postseason.

 “We’re still a fairly new team, so we got a long way to go,” Harden said. “We’re competing at a high level for each other and that’s the most important thing.”

Thomas enters Celtic History Books

In the rich and storied history of the 17-time NBA champion Boston Celtics, only Hall of Famers in Larry Bird, the current President of the Indiana Pacers, Sam Jones, Kevin McHale, who is currently an analyst and game commentator for NBATV/TNT and current Clippers’ swingman Paul Pierce have scored 50 points or more in a game, Bird doing it three times. That field was joined by the 60th and final pick of the 2011 draft, who had a night and a fourth quarter at TD Garden that the 18,624 in attendance and those that watch on television will remember for a long time.

All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, who the Celtics (21-14) acquired on Feb. 19, 2015 from the Suns scored a career-high of 52 points going 15 for 26 from the field, including 9 for 13 from three-point range and 13 for 13 from the charity stripe in 37 minutes in the C’s 117-114 win versus the Miami Heat (11-26) on Dec. 30, 2016.

It was the fourth highest scoring output in a regular season contest in Celtics history and he scored 29 points of those were scored in the fourth period, setting a new franchise record for points in a quarter on 9 for 13 shooting, including 6 of 8 from three-point range and 5 for 5 from the charity stripe.

The previous franchise mark for points in a quarter was 24 points done by Bird in 1983 and matched by former Celtic Todd Day in 1995.

The most points scored by a Celtic in the regular season was a 60-point performance, a career-high by Bird on Mar. 12, 1985 in New Orleans against the Hawks. In that same season, current NBATV/TNT analyst in Hall of Famer Kevin McHale had a career-high of 56 points the game prior. Bird scored 53 points in a game back in the 1982-83 season. Before Thomas’ performance, Hall of Famer Sam Jones scored 51 points in a game back in the 1965-66 campaign. Current Los Angeles Clippers swingman Paul Pierce had a career-high of 50 points in a game back in 2005-06 and Bird scored 50 points in a game in 1985-86 and in 1989-90.

“You just get into a zone and you feel like you’re in the gym by yourself. Shooting shots, you work on and that’s what I did,” Thomas said with a smile to Comcast SportsNet New England’s Abbey Chin after the win.

Thomas’ previous career-high was 44 points, which he accomplished in the C’s 112-109 win at the Grizzlies on Dec. 20, 2016, going 10 for 16 shooting, including 7 for 10 from distance and 17 for 17 from the charity stripe.

It took every point Thomas scored to pull out the victory, especially when starting center Al Horford, who had 21 points on the evening, were the only two Celtics to score in double-figures while the Heat had a balance scoring attack.

James Johnson led the way with 22 points, off the bench. Starting guard Josh Richardson had 19 points, eight assists, six boards and four steals. Tyler Johnson had 19 points and six assists off the bench and Wayne Ellington also had 14 points off the pine. Starting center Hassan Whiteside had 11 points and eight boards and forward Justise Winslow also had 11 points, nine boards and six assists.

Thomas was the difference though as he scored from outside and inside thanks in large part to getting good screens set by his teammates and the belief from his coach Brad Stevens that he could go out there and get the job done. It is even greater when you hear chants of M-V-P, like Thomas did throughout the entire fourth period.  

“My teammates put me in position. Brad trusted me in the fourth quarter, so I can’t do without Brad or my teammates,” Thomas said to Chin.

“You dream about things like that, especially playing for the Celtics. Getting M-V-P chants. All the great players that did it before me. It’s a blessing. I’m gonna just keep going and I can’t say enough about my teammates and my coach for putting me in position to do the things I do.”

It was a special performance that came from the Celtics on a back-to-back, on the third game in four nights. It was the 18th straight performance Thomas scored 20 or more and he missed four games earlier in the month with a strained groin.

As Celtics legend and the team’s television color analyst Tom Heinsohn said during CSNNE Celtics’ Postgame Live, “There’s nothing more fun in the game of basketball than watching a guy master his craft like this little guy did tonight. I mean he was sensational. That’s all I can say. In the history books, people will be turning the pages and they won’t be saying ‘Who’s he? The will be saying I.T.”

More Triple-Doubles From Russell Westbrook

It is one thing to be considered one of the best all-around players in your sport. Oklahoma City Thunder lead guard and perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook is one of the best all-around players in the NBA and is this season has put himself into the conversation of best player in the league thanks to the triple-doubles he has put up, which continued in December.

His fifth straight triple-double, dating back to Nov. 25, 2016 came in a 101-92 versus the Pelicans on Dec. 4, 2016 when he put up 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists.

Westbrook’s sixth triple-double in succession of 32 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists came in a hard fought 102-99 win at the Atlanta Hawks (19-16) the next night.

The streak concluded at seven with 27 points 10 boards and 10 assists in a come from behind 102-99 win versus the Rockets. That streak tied Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson’s in 1961 and Michael Jordan in 1989. It fell two short of the nine in a row that the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin in 1968.

After two straight ordinary games by Westbrook that resulted in losses at the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 13, 2016 (114-95) and at the surging Utah Jazz (22-14) the next night 109-89, Westbrook registered the 50th triple-double of his career with 26 points, a career-high 22 assists and 11 rebounds in a 114-101 win versus the Suns.

“I never know what may happen to our games or what. Good or bad. My job is to go out there. Compete at a high level and I’ve been blessed to play the game and every night, I try to leave it on the floor,” Westbrook said after the game. “Sometimes good things happen. Sometimes bad things happen. That’s the nature of the game. As long as I leave it on the floor, I’m always happy with the result.”

In an epic back-and-forth versus Thomas and at the Celtics on Dec. 23, 2016, Westbrook outdueled Celtics’ lead guard by not only garnering his 14th triple-double of the season, but he registered his third straight 40-plus point game with 45 points, 11 assists and 11 boards. Thomas had 34 points and 10 assists. 

After putting up 31 points, 15 assists and seven rebounds in a 112-100 win versus the Timberwolves on Christmas Day, Westbrook notched number 15 of the season with 29 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists in the Thunder’s 106-94 win at the Heat.

It was also the 30th triple-double in the 2016 calendar year for Westbrook, joining him Robertson, who had 34 in 1961 as the only players in league history to register 30 or more triple-doubles in that fashion.

Westbrook also recorded that triple-double in three quarters for the 6th time this season and the 20th of his career, which is 13 more than any other player in the last 20 season.

Westbrook’s stellar performance was praised by both his head coach and the opposing head coach after the game.

“I said this about his triple-doubles and what he’s doing. He’s going to get 10 points. Like the hard part is the fact that he rebounds the basketball, which is truly special and the fact that he gets 10 assists in the first half,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said of his lead guard, who got the 52 triple-double of his career after the win.”

“What defies is consistency, and that’s what you can book pretty much every night,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of Westbrook. “Great, great lesson…from somebody’s that is really imposing a competitive will on every contest.”

Westbrook’s had an early hook two nights later when Thunder were blown out of the Grizzlies own gym 114-80, the third largest win in Grizzlies franchise history.

He was ejected after being whistled for two technical fouls at the 6:41 mark of the third period with 21 points, five rebounds and zero assists, which kept the longest current run of not allowing a triple-double at 176 games.  

It was also the first ejection Westbrook had this season, the fifth of his career and he became the first player in the last 25 seasons to be tossed from a game with zero assists, which also was the third time in his career and to compile more than five turnovers, which he had six of.

“I get so many techs just for talking,” Westbrook said after the game. “I can’t say nothing when I’m getting hammered every time I go the damn basket through the games and previous games. Not tonight, but every night. I just don’t get refed the same way as other people, and I don’t appreciate it.”

Westbrook and his teammates took that frustration out on the Clippers on New Year’s Eve with a 114-88 win, thanks to a 33-12 in the first quarter.

Backup center/forward Enes Kanter led the way with 23 points off the bench, along with eight rebounds. Victory Oladipo, who missed the previous nine games because of a right wrist injury had 15 points. Alex Abrines had 12 points off the bench and starting center Steven Adams had 11 points.  

Westbrook garnered his NBA leading 16th triple-double on the season with 17 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds, which was two shy of what he had in total all last season and the 53rd of his career. He also became the fastest player to record a triple-double doing so in just 19 minutes of the opening half and it was the ninth of his career done in under 30 minutes on the court, which is six more than any other player in NBA history.

“It’s a blessing. My teammates do a great job of making it easy for me,” Westbrook said after the win last Saturday night. “My job is to keep the pace high…The game will tell you what to do and that’s just what I do.”

To bring into context what Russell Westbrook did in 2016, he recorded 31 triple-doubles, again joining Robertson as the only players to produce 30-plus in a calendar year. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Westbrook’s 14 triple-doubles before Christmas are the second most in NBA history to the 20 Robertson had in the 1961-62 campaign. The Thunder won 28 of those 31 games and he averaged averaged 25.6 points, 11.0 assists and 9.4 rebounds per game in that span. Westbrook also played in 81 games of 83 games, missing just two to rest.

When Kevin Durant decided to leave in free agency to join the Warriors, many people asked could Westbrook lead the Thunder not just to the playoffs this year, but going forward. He answered that with an emphatic yes so far and right now is the leading candidate for MVP this season along with James Harden of the Rockets, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs and LeBron James of the defending champion Cavs. 
“The Deer” Is Being Feared Again And So Are Their Triples

The 2015-16 season was a step backwards for the Bucks at 33-49 after making the postseason the prior year. While the team is just 16-16 this season, going 8-8 in December, they are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and their two major building blocks Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, along with their improved marksmanship from long range are three major reasons why.

Antetokounmpo, also known as “The Greek Freak,” leads the Bucks (18-16) in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks averaged 24.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.9 steals in December, with eight double-doubles.

He garnered his second triple-double of the season and seventh of his career with 15 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists to go along with four blocks and two steals in the Bucks 115-107 win versus the Portland Trail Blazers (15-22) on Dec. 7, 2016. He had a career-high of 39 points, along with eight boards and six assists in the Bucks 123-96 blowout of the surging Wizards (16-18) on Dec. 23, 2016.

He finished 2016 with a bang with 35 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks and two steals in the Bucks 116-96 win on Dec. 31 at the Bulls (18-18), their third win versus their Central Division rivals this month. He became just the fourth player in league history to have 35-plus points, nine-plus rebounds, seven-plus assists and seven-plus blocks in a game. The last to do it was New Orleans Pelicans’ forward/center Anthony Davis last season. Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J.” Erving did it for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982 and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was drafted by the Bucks No. 1 overall in 1969 out of UCLA did so the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975 and 1980.

In that same game, Parker scored 27 points on 10/15 shooting and Rookie guard Malcolm Brogdon registered his first career triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Backup center Greg Monroe had his seventh double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.

“I think he’s going to be a very, very prominent player,” Brogdon in his second career start said of Antetokounmpo after the game. “He already is one of the best players in the NBA. He’s leading this team every night and I think he deserves a lot of credit.”  

They defeated the Bulls on Dec. 15 108-97 and one night later on the back end of their home-and-home set defeated them in Chicago 95-69 and Antetokounmpo had 22 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and three steals in that one.

Two seasons back, the No. 2 overall pick by the Bucks Parker in the 2014 draft suffered a serious knee injury 25 games in that ended his season. While he had a solid season a year ago with averages of 14.1 points, 5.2 rebounds on 49.3 percent shooting, he was not himself like he was at Duke University. Two years removed from that injury he has looked every bit like the player the Bucks thought he could be as he scored 20 points or more 11 times in December 2016.

Where he really has shown improvement is in his three-point shooting, where he raised it to 39.1 percent this season.

In the Bucks’ 119-94 win at the Detroit Pistons (16-21) on Dec. 28, 2016, Parker scored 31 points, going 13 for 18 from the field, including 4 for 7 from distance, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out seven assists.

The Bucks as a team went from one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league a season ago to eighth best in terms of percentage at 36.1 percent, thanks to the additions of Brogdon (43.1%), Matthew Dellavedova (33.3%), Tony Snell (33.8%), Mirza Teletovic (37.3%) and Jason Terry (37.3%). While their shooting percentages have okay, the fact of having each of the previously mentioned sharp shooters on the court allows Parker and Antetokounmpo room to operate in the half court.

The next big step for the Bucks’ to reach the playoffs this spring is to be more consistent. It is one thing to beat the Bulls three times, which they did in December, it is another to have setbacks against lesser opponent’s like the Timberwolves and Wizards, which happened twice. Beating the teams that you are supposed to is how the Bucks will make it back to the playoffs.

Winning Returns to D.C.

Falling to 2-8 after a disappointing loss at the Philadelphia 76ers back on Nov. 16, 2016, the Washington Wizards (16-18) were falling and falling fast in 2016-17. It seemed like new head coach Scott Brooks and the players were not connecting. Another season was going down the drain fast. Things all came together though in December.

Led by the dynamic backcourt of All-Star John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards went 10-5 in December and put themselves in position to make a run at the postseason after missing out a season ago.

Wall, who had a bit of a slow start to this season, recorded 11 of his 21 double-doubles on the season in December 2016 and averaged 24.5 points, 10.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 steals in the month on 49.1 percent from the field.

He especially took charge after he scored a career-high 52 points, going 18 for 31 from the field, including 5 for 8 from three-point range and 11 for 14 from the charity stripe, along with eight assists in the Wizards 124-116 setback versus the Orlando Magic (16-21) on Dec. 6, 2016.

That began a string of five wins in seven tries for the Wizards and after that home loss versus the Magic, they have won their last seven games at Verizon Center.

It began with a 110-105 versus the Bucks on Dec. 10, 2016. Wall led the way with 24 points, 11 assists and two steals. Beal had 20 points and six assists. Second-year forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. had 19 points, nine boards and three steals off the bench. Markieff Morris had 15 points, nine boards and three steals and Otto Porter, Jr. had 10 points.

Four nights later, the Wizards won versus the Charlotte Hornets (20-16) 109-106, thanks to a third quarter output of 38 points to their opponent’s 23. Wall led the way with 25 points, 10 assists, six boards and seven steals. Beal had 20 points and nine assists. Starting center Marcin Gortat had 16 points and 12 rebounds. Oubre, Jr. in a starting role had 15 points and six boards and Porter had 10 points and five boards.

The biggest win of December by the Wizards came versus the slumping Clippers 117-110 on Dec. 18, 2016, where they outscored their opponent from the West Coast 65-55 in the second half, which included a 32-23 output in the fourth quarter.

Beal led the way with 41 points, with 18 coming in the third quarter on 13 for 23 shooting, including 6 for 10 from distance and 9 for 11 from the foul line. Morris had 23 points and nine boards and Wall had 18 points and 11 assists.

The Wizards finished 2016 in a big way with a 118-95 win versus the Brooklyn Nets (8-25) on Dec. 30, 2016.

Without the services of Beal that evening due of a “mild” ankle sprain, reserve guard Trey Burke picked up the slack with a season-high of 27 points off the bench on 10 for 12 shooting, including 5 for 5 from three-point range. Wall had 19 points and 14 assists. Gortat had 19 points and 13 boards. Porter, Jr. had 12 points. Morris had 10 points and six boards and Jason Smith off the bench had 10 points and eight rebounds.

The Wizards have dug themselves out of a deep hole they started in early in the season. Going forward though Wall and Beal need to bring it every night going forward. Gortat must continue to give the Wizards a present in the paint on both ends and consistent contributions from Porter, Jr., Oubre, Jr., Morris, Burke, Smith, and Marcus Thornton will be necessary if the Wizards want back into the postseason this spring.

The Bad

Injury And Defensive Issues For Clippers

After a 124-104 win versus the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 23, 2016, the Los Angeles Clippers went to 14-2. They were playing well offensively and especially defensively. The Clippers got back on track to start December with two straight wins after three straight losses from Nov. 25, 2016 through Nov. 29, 2016 to close the month. Things appeared to be on the uptick after a 106-101 win versus the Spurs on TNT Dec. 22, 2016 the team’s second win in successions and their sixth victory in their last nine games. A key injury to their star guard in that game, with their other All-Star already sidelined would begin a serious slide for the Clippers.

Their victory on that night cost them starting point guard Chris Paul, who had 19 points, six assists and seven rebounds on the evening injured his left hamstring during the game and when he left he did not return in the Clippers 106-101 versus the Spurs.

The team was already without their other star player in forward Blake Griffin, who missed his second game in a row following surgery on his right knee that is expected to keep him sidelined for up to four to six weeks.

The Clippers offensive struggles and a six-game losing streak beginning with a 90-88 loss versus the struggling Dallas Mavericks (11-24) 90-88 thanks to an eventual game-winning floating jumper by Harrison Barnes in the closing seconds.

It continued with a nine-point loss at the Lakers on Christmas Day 111-102, which ended an 11-game skid to their STAPLES Center co-tenants. A four-point loss versus the Nuggets (14-20) one day later 106-102, which was followed by another four-point setback at the Pelicans on Dec. 28, 2016.

Two days later, the Rockets blasted them out of Toyota Center 140-116 and the frustration did was just beginning.

Clippers’ guard Austin Rivers, who is the son of the team’s head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers was tossed at the 6:38 mark of the second quarter by referee J.T. Orr when after missing a layup he slightly pushed him.

Moments later during a timeout, Coach Rivers walked towards where all three officials Orr, Jason Phillips, and Derrick Collins where standing and he began yelling at them, which earned him an early trip to the showers Phillips, the crew chief threw him out.

After the game, father and son gave their explanations of what took place that led to them being tossed.

“I would never put my hands on a ref. I have never done anything like that in my career and it was frustrating to me because he happened to be right behind me,” the young Rivers said. “He knows I didn’t touch him like that…he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and unfortunately it cost me the game…and it was a big deal for our team me going down.”

Rivers was tossed because Phillips in his words said that the elder Rivers used “extreme profanity” while he complained about his son getting the boot. Rivers said that was not the case and that he called a timeout because they saw one of the officials call a foul on a made layup by Marreese Speights prior to the break in the action, but he did not shoot a free throw to try to complete the old fashion three-point play.

“I said: ‘No you forgot to give us the free throw,’” Rivers said after the game. “I said: ‘Come one you guys don’t know what you’re doing. That was it.’”

This was the second time the pair was ejected in the same game since they both were ejected in the Clippers’ Dec. 18 setback to the Wizards 117-110.

The end of 2016 was a sour one for the Clippers, who where blown out at the Thunder at 114-88 on New Year's Eve.

The hope right now is Paul can return quickly and Griffin can return sooner rather than later and the team can return to the form they had at the start of the season. This team has had many failures in the playoffs recently and another setback short of the Western Conference Finals would spell the end of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

No D in “Big Apple”

In terms of talent, the New York Knicks have one of the most talented rosters in the NBA. You say the names of Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings, these are guys that have or in the case or Porzingis are on the verge of doing some major things in this league. They also have young players in Kyle O’Quinn, rookie Willy Hernangomez, Lance Thomas, Justin Holiday and rookie Mindaugas Kuzminskas who have showed or shown flashes of brilliance when they have gotten minutes. So why are they hovering at, around or below the .500 mark? Simply, head coach Jeff Hornacek’s team does not play any defense.

In December alone, the Knicks accept for a 106-98 win versus the Sacramento Kings (15-20) on Dec. 4, 2016 and versus the Magic on Dec. 22, 2016 did the Knicks allow their opponent to score 100 points or more.

They allowed 126 points in a 32-point home loss versus the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers (26-8) three nights later, where they shot 55.0 percent from the field and made 22 triples, a Knicks’ record for an opponent.

In their Dec. 17, 2016 13-point loss at the Nuggets, the Knicks gave up 127 points as the Nuggets scored 30-plus points in three of the four periods with 33 points in the opening stanza; 34 points in the third quarter and 31 in the fourth. The Nuggets shot 55.6 percent from the floor; out-rebounded the Knicks 57-43; turned 13 turnovers in 23 points and outscored the boys from the “Big Apple” 68-32 in the paint.

Last Saturday night On New Year’s Eve 2016 Saturday night, the Knicks were lit up like the fireworks that lit up the New Year’s Eve sky over the river in New York, NY by the Rockets 129-122, with Harden leading the way with a previously mentioned triple-double of 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists.

The Knicks played a solid game despite not having Porzingis and Lee because of injury and Anthony did not play in the second half because of sore knee. The won the battle of the boards 61-59, including 13-10 on the offensive glass; they outscored the Rockets on the fast break points 17-7 and points in the paint 54-34, gave up 21 three-pointers to the Rockets, who scored 42, 30 and 30 points in the next three quarters after a 27-point output in the first.

In the loss, Jennings led the way with a season-high of 32 points to go along with seven assists and five boards. Rose had 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Noah had his fourth double-double of the season with 15 points and 16 rebounds. Holiday had 15 points, six boards and four steals off the bench, while Kuzminskas had 14 points and Hernangomez had 10 boards off the pine in 19 minutes. Thomas had 11 points.

Teams that win in the NBA play on both ends of the court, especially if they want to win championships. It is a part of game that takes effort and want to.

The Knicks showed in December they do not have the want to for playing defense and they especially have shown at times that their effort at that end of the floor can pedestrian. If that does not change, they will find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in again.

They also need to keep out of the headlines, like when Team President Phil Jackson called the business associates of LeBron James a “posse.” That will not help the team’s cause moving forward.

Issues In The Motor City

A season ago, the Detroit Pistons made it back to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and despite being swept by the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers in the opening round 4-0, they did not go quietly into the postseason night. It was believed that head coach Stan Van Gundy and his team were ready to make it back to the postseason this spring, but that goal has been a difficult one so far.

After a 10-10 record in Oct./Nov. 2016, which was partly due to the absence of starting lead guard Reggie Jackson, who missed the first 21 games because of knee tendinitis, the Pistons (16-21) went just 5-10 in December, which included a five-game losing streak from Dec. 16, 2016 to Dec. 26, 2016.

The biggest problem has been their inability to stop the opposition, especially to close out 2016. In their five-game slide, the Pistons surrendered 100 points or more four of the five games, which included giving up 113 points in a 113-82 loss at the Bulls on Dec. 19, 2016. The Bulls shot 59.8 percent on the evening, as the Pistons surrendered 69 points in the opening half. The Bulls had 34 assists to the Pistons 19 and 56 points in the paint.

“We got crushed,” Van Gundy said after the game. “It was a disgusting performance by all of us, me included. I mean, it was unprofessional, embarrassing, humiliating. Whatever you want to say, it was terrible.

The other issue for the Pistons has been the fact that they play up or down to the level of competition. They can look sensational against the Atlanta Hawks, who they defeated 121-85 on Dec. 2, 2016 and came back 48 hours later to lose back at The Palace of Auburn Hills Magic 98-92.

The Pistons scored a 117-90 win at the Timberwolves on Dec. 9, 2016 and three nights later fall at the Dallas Mavericks 95-85.

They went toe-to-toe with the defending Western Conference Champion Warriors before falling 119-113 on Dec. 23, 2016, then turnaround three days later and defeat the defending champion Cavs 106-90, even though LeBron James sat out the game to rest, then loss badly versus the Bucks 119-94 on Dec. 28, 2016 and then at the Hawks 105-98 two nights after that.

Van Gundy, who is also the President of Basketball Operations for the Pistons has tried everything this season to get his team back on track from chastising his team through postgame press conferences, to preaching the details about who they are supposed to be and play as a team in timeouts and he even shook up the starting lineup moving forward Tobias Harris to the bench recently and moving forward Jon Leuer.

It seems like nothing is working and if the Pistons do not get themselves in gear soon, the playoffs will pass them by.

Rough Times in “Chi-Town”

When the Bulls beat the Cavs back on Dec. 2, 2016 111-105, they moved to 11-7 and seemed to be trending upward. That bright moment was short lived and some tough times came about that have this team spiraling downward.

After that win, three straight losses ensued from Dec. 3, 2016 to Dec. 6, 2016 that began with an embarrassing 107-82 loss to the Mavericks. That was followed by a 112-110 loss versus the Trail Blazers two nights later, and that was followed by a 102-91 loss at the Pistons.

Two straight solid wins versus the mighty Spurs (95-91) on Dec. 8, 2016 and versus the Heat (105-100) 48 hours later, another three-game losing streak followed from Dec. 13, 2016 to Dec. 16, 2016, that included back-to-back double-digit home loses to the Bucks.

A blowout victory over the Pistons 113-82 on Dec. 19 stopped the bleeding for a moment, but another three-game losing streak from Dec. 21, 2016 to Dec. 26, 2016 ensued, which included a Christmas Day 119-100 loss at the Spurs as starting forward LaMarcus Aldridge scored a Spurs’ Christmas Day record of 33 points going 15 for 20 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds.

Two much needed wins versus the Indiana Pacers (18-18) 90-85 the day after Christmas and a buzzer-beating jumper by All-Star Jimmy Butler at the horn versus the Nets which gave the Bulls a 101-99 win on Dec. 28, 2016 got the Bulls back to .500.

Unfortunately, a loss at the Pacers 111-101 on Dec. 30 and a thrashing versus the Bucks 116-96 on New Year’s Eve put the Bulls two games under the .500 mark and big time issues with starting lead guard Rajon Rondo began emerging.

The Bulls other off-season addition along with perennial All-Star Dwyane Wade was supposed to be a major stabilizer for the Bulls has been nothing close to that.

Rondo did not play in the second half of the Bulls’ second setback to the Pacers in the last four days and after the game, head coach Fred Hoiberg that he thought his understudy Michael Carter-Williams gave the team “good energy” in the opening half and he went with the 2014 Rookie of the Year to start the second half. The former Celtic, Maverick and Sacramento King was then benched for the Bulls’ New Year’s Eve contest versus the Bulls

A report from K.C. Johnson of Chicago Tribune said that Rondo has no intentions of quitting on the team, which allegedly he did two years ago to the Dallas Mavericks in the middle of the postseason.

This past Saturday, Rondo met with the Bulls’ front-office and that meeting was productive, with Rondo seeming coming to the conclusion that he will have to take on this new role and just put in the practice time until he is called upon.

The track record of that happening is very small considering that Rondo has burned bridges on the other teams he has been on.

There is a mix of talented and veteran players on the Bulls, led by the All-Star trio of Wade, Butler and Rondo and players like Taj Gibson, Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Michael Carter-Williams, Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, Isaiah Canaan and Jerian Grant.

The question has always been since the beginning of the season can these talented group co-exist on the court together. The results right now are mixed and something is going to have to give if they expect to make the playoffs.

The Ugly

Unhappy Close To 2016 For The Lakers

A 96-90 win at the Bulls on Nov. 30, 2016 had the Los Angeles Lakers (13-25) at 10-10. To put that into perspective, the Lakers did not get their 10th victory a season ago until Feb. 2, 2016, a 119-115 win at the Timberwolves. It seemed things were on the uptick under the direction of new head coach Luke Walton, then December and injuries came about and just as things were going up very swiftly, they came crashing down just as swiftly.

The Lakers went an abysmal 2-14 in December, which began with an eight-game losing streak from Dec. 2, 2016 to Dec. 14, 2016.

A 100-89 win at the 76ers on ESPN was followed by four straight losses and a rough 1-6 record on their seven-game road trip from Dec. 14, 2016 through Dec. 23, 2016.

The loan bright spot for the Lakers came on Christmas Day, when they defeated their shorthanded co-tenants of STAPLES Center the Clippers 111-102 to halt not just a recent four-game skid, but an 11-game losing streak to L.A.’s other basketball team. A 34-16 scoring output in the third quarter erased an 11-point lead in the first half, thanks to a 28-12 run that gave the Lakers a 15-point lead entering the fourth quarter.

Injuries were a major culprit in the Lakers slide in December as second-year guard D’Angelo Russell missed 12 of the prior 13 games bridging Nov. 2016 and Dec. 2016 because of left knee soreness and a resurgent Nick Young had been shelved for a seven-game period in a nine-game stretch because of a strained calf muscle.

On top of that, the defense has been a major issue for the Lakers as they gave up an average of 105.1 points to the opposition to close 2016 and their point differential was a -9.9.

In their worst loss of the month at the Rockets 134-95 on Dec. 7, the Lakers gave up 54.3 percent shooting from the field in their opponent’s building. They went 15 for 36 from three-point range; registered 35 assists and scored 42 points off 28 Laker turnovers; gave up 34 fast break points and were outscored in the paint 68-52.

Five days prior in a 113-80 loss at the Atlantic Division leading Toronto Raptors (23-11), the Lakers were outscored 41-26. The Raptors shot 54.2 percent from the field. Despite winning the rebounding battle 62-46, including 19-7 on the offensive glass, the Lakers had only 16 assists to the Raptors 25; were outshot from three-point range to the tune of 12 for 29 compared to 6 for 26 and they gave up 22 points from 18 turnovers.

Unlike last year, which was basically a farewell tour for future Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, there is hope in Laker nation behind youngsters in Russell, Julius Randle, Rookie Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Timofey Mozgov and Larry Nance, Jr., who is on the mend right now because of a bone bruise in his left knee and they have veterans like Luol Deng, Louis Williams, Young, Jose Calderon and Metta World Peace, to show them the way in the NBA.

It is possible that they will match the 17-win total, which was the worst in the glorious rich history of the Lakers, who have 16 NBA titles to its name. For them to have better days as this season goes on, they must play much better defense if that will take place for Walton and his team.
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 12/8/16 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Dennis Scott, and Shaquille O’Neal; 12/9/16 8 p.m. tilt between the Houston Rockets versus Oklahoma City Thunder on ESPN with Mark Jones and Jeff Van Gundy; 12/16/16 8 p.m. contest New Orleans Pelicans versus Houston Rockets on Root Sports with Bill Worrell, Matt Bullard and Clyde Drexler; 12/17/16 1 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” with Neil Everett and Nicole Briscoe; 12/18/16 5:30 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by Kia Motors with Kristen Ledlow, Dennis Scott, and Caron Butler; 12/23/16 11:30 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” John Buccigross and John Anderson; 12/27/16 ESPN Bottom Line news crawl at 10 p.m.; 12/28/16 1:15 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” with Neil Everett; 12/29/16 ESPN Bottom Line news crawl at 9 p.m.; 12/30/16 7:30 p.m. contest Miami Heat versus Boston Celtics on Comcast SportsNet New England with Mike Gorman, Tom Heinsohn and Abbey Chin; 12/30/16 10 p.m. Comcast SportsNet Boston Celtics Postgame Live, presented by New England Ford Dealers, with Kyle Draper and Brian Scalabrine; 12/31/16 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,”presented by State Farm with Kristen Ledlow, Steve Smith and Grant Hill; 1/1/17 2:30 a.m. edition NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by Kia Motors with Casey Stern, Ron Thompson and Sam Mitchell; 1/2/16 1:30 a.m. edition NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Brent Barry;;; and

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