76ers

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

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Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

CLEVELAND -- There was none of the usual postgame chatter or music in the Cavaliers locker room.

The mood was somber and quiet, not the same place.

"Right now we're in Strugglesville," LeBron James said. "But it felt like a win. We needed it. Definitely."

Isaiah Thomas made two free throws with 11 seconds left and Cleveland came up with a defensive stop in the frantic final seconds after blowing a 23-point lead to beat the Orlando Magic 104-103 on Thursday night and snap a four-game losing streak.

After Thomas made his shots, Orlando's Elfrid Payton missed a contested layup with three seconds left. The three officials ruled there was an inadvertent whistle and held a jump ball at midcourt.

Magic forward Aaron Gordon grabbed the toss and sank a 45-footer as the horn sounded and Cleveland's crowd shrieked in disbelief. But Gordon committed a jump-ball violation with the move and Cleveland only had to inbound the ball to come away with a victory following a crazy and exhausting final sequence that left everyone dazed.

"No, I don't," said Thomas when asked if he knew what happened. "It was a lot of back and forth. I'm just glad we just came out with the win" (see full recap).

Rockets cruise past Timberwolves in Harden’s return
HOUSTON -- Eric Gordon scored 30 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 116-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night.

James Harden returned to the Rockets' lineup after missing seven games with a left hamstring strain and finished with 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting, and added seven assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes. Houston went 4-3 in his absence.

Chris Paul had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds, and Clint Capela added 20 points for the Rockets. Houston has won 15 of the past 17 meetings with Minnesota, including a 10-game winning streak at home.

Gordon closed out a big third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass from a step behind the half-court line. After hitting the shot under heavy pressure from Andrew Wiggins, Gordon gave a high-five to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who was sitting courtside near the shot.

Gordon's 3-pointer helped the Rockets finish the third quarter on a 16-4 run to take an 89-70 lead into the fourth with their largest advantage of the game. Gordon made 11 of 19 shots, including 7 of 13 from 3, and fell just short of his season-high 33 points against Utah on Dec. 18.

With Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza sitting out the first part of a two-game suspension for a postgame locker room incident on Monday night in Los Angeles, Luc Mbah a Moute started in Ariza's place, scoring 14 points in 32 minutes.

Along with Ariza, reserve guard Gerald Green was also serving the first of a two-game suspension for the altercation with the Clippers (see full recap).

Blazers top Pacers for 5th straight home win
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard scored 26 points and eight assists, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and the Portland Trail Blazers won their fifth consecutive home game, beating the Indiana Pacers 100-86 on Thursday night.

C.J. McCollum added 16 points and Shabazz Napier 13 for Portland, which seems to have its homecourt mojo back, winning five straight after dropping six consecutive home games in early December. The Blazers also beat Indiana for the ninth consecutive time on their home floor.

Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison scored 23 points each for Indiana.

Portland took control late in the third quarter, when the Blazers held Indiana scoreless for more than five minutes. It was part of Portland's 21-2 run, during which Napier scored eight points to help erase a six-point deficit and give the Blazers an 89-76 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Indiana was without forward Myles Turner, the team's second-leading scorer this season. Turner has missed five consecutive games with a right elbow injury (see full recap).

Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' lead slipping

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Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' lead slipping

Donovan Mitchell continues to creep closer to Ben Simmons in the NBA Rookie of the Year race, and the gap in Bovada's odds for the two is as close as it's been all season.

Simmons is now -250 to win the award, meaning a $250 wager is required to win $100. 

Mitchell is at +170, meaning a $100 wager wins you $170.

In the most recent odds update in January, Simmons was at -650; Mitchell was +400.

It's a clear two-man race at this point.
 
Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks this season. No player in recorded history has hit all five criteria in the same season.

Mitchell, however, has been on fire for the NBA's hottest team. The Jazz have won 11 straight games to test the Pelicans for the 8-seed, and over that span, Mitchell has averaged 21.3 points, albeit on 41 percent shooting.

For the season, Mitchell is at 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. He's made 35.4 percent of his threes and 83.6 percent of his free throws.

Both are stars in the making, but it's worth noting that the Jazz are playing better than they have all season and Simmons is still the favorite. Where Utah ends up will be a determining factor in the Rookie of the Year race — if the Jazz can somehow end up the 7-seed in a loaded West, arguments for Mitchell will grow louder.

Both Simmons and Mitchell were two of five guests this week on NBA TV's Open Court: Rookies Edition. Interest talking points from the special: 

• Mitchell referenced former Sixer Jrue Holiday as an under-the-radar tough player to guard, saying he watches film of Holiday every day.

• Simmons recalled LeBron attacking him frequently in the first quarter of their first meeting, saying he wasn't surprised LeBron wanted to send a message by going right at him.

• The Morris twins were mentioned by Simmons and Jayson Tatum when asked about the most imposing players in the league. Everyone cited DeMarcus Cousins.

• Simmons downplayed the importance of his NBA redshirt season, saying you don't really know what it's like to play back to back and deal with the hectic travel schedule until you're involved in it every day.

Hinkie's old boss expected Giannis to be a Sixer

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Hinkie's old boss expected Giannis to be a Sixer

The 2013 NBA draft was one of the strangest in recent memory. There was no consensus first overall pick, which is how Anthony Bennett happens.

Nerlens Noel was viewed as a candidate to be the top pick before tearing his ACL late in his lone college season. The Sixers, then under Sam Hinkie, bought the upside on Noel and traded Jrue Holiday for the sixth overall pick to take him. 

Five picks later, the Sixers took another big, athletic, upside-based player in Michael Carter-Williams.

Four picks after that ... Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Hinkie's boss before the protege left for Philly, said on The Bill Simmons Podcast this week that he was convinced the Sixers were set to take Giannis.

"I was actually really surprised Philly didn't take him," Morey said. "They ended up taking the Rookie of the Year (MCW) so they did fine. But [Giannis] was this super-high-upside guy. We had bet that [Hinkie] might take [Giannis] because we were like, 'Super-high upside, might as well go for it.'"

Could you even begin to imagine ...

Keep in mind, though, that these types of what-if conversations require more context. Had the Sixers taken Giannis then, they're probably not bad enough to pick high enough to get Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in two of the next three years. (Same concept to remember whenever someone says the Sixers should have taken Kristaps Porzingis over Jahlil Okafor. Of course they should have, but if you draft Porzingis, you probably don't get Simmons.)

Giannis was by far the best player in that draft, with Rudy Gobert (27th), C.J. McCollum (10th) and Victor Oladipo (2nd) the only other standouts. Otto Porter (3), Dennis Schroder (17) and Steven Adams (12) are good players, but that's pretty much it. Everyone else in that 2013 draft is either a fringe rotational player, a non-factor or out of the league. 

That was a rough draft for GMs to navigate, as opposed to the year before when Anthony Davis was the consensus No. 1 and Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond were all top-10 picks. The only surprise outside the top 10 that previous year was Draymond Green, a huge steal but one of the only steals of 2012.

The Giannis draft (2013) was Hinkie's first as the Sixers' GM. Though Hinkie was a swing-for-the-fences type, perhaps even he couldn't justify trading an established player in Holiday for the ultimate risk-reward player in Antetokounmpo. Not many execs had seen the Greek Freak more than a few times, and it was difficult to gauge how his work against inferior competition would translate to the best league on Earth.

Alas ...

Hinkie's final days
Morey clearly still rides for Hinkie, and he had an interesting take on how his former colleague's tenure with the Sixers ended.

Should Hinkie have been more front-facing?

"If you know it's gonna end how it's gonna end, I think he would say for sure," Morey said when Simmons referred to Hinkie as "Howard Hughes-ish." 

"He felt like he had ownership's support there to execute on the plan and part of the plan was to not be as out there, especially during the down times," Morey continued. "Sam can be more communicative, it's just he thinks it's better for the team, especially at that point when he was there, it didn't make sense to be that communicative.

"That said, if he knew he didn't have the support (from ownership) that he thought he had, I'm sure he would have been out there more.

"Hopefully, someone will give him a shot. I think he can obviously help a lot of teams."