Houston Rockets

Hunger of the wolf drives Covington

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Hunger of the wolf drives Covington

In the first of a two-part story, Gordie Jones takes an in-depth look at the journey of Sixers forward Robert Covington.

The care and feeding of Robert Covington’s jump shot begins about an hour before each 76ers game, when the fifth-year forward takes to the court with assistant coach Lloyd Pierce.

With Pierce alternately feeding him passes as they would come from the point, the post and via dribble handoff, Covington fires three-pointers from all over the arc — left corner, left wing, top of the circle, right wing, right corner. And back again.

The entire exercise takes maybe 15 minutes, as around him the stands within the Wells Fargo Center begin to fill. Opposing players are usually going about their business at the other end of the court, and other Sixers (usually JJ Redick) filter out of the locker room. Some sort of pregame entertainment is often going on at midcourt. One night earlier this season, it was the Villanova dance team. Another it was a half-dozen schoolgirls, lining up and singing.

Covington seems to notice only Pierce, the ball and the basket.

And that jumper — just a lovely thing.

“Great rotation, great air time, almost too much arc,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.

The arc of his career has not always been so neat and clean — not when you consider he was undrafted in 2013, under-recruited four years before that (he wound up at Tennessee State) and unable to so much as make his middle school team several years before that.

This season has not been without turbulence, either. While he signed a four-year, $62 million contract extension in November — and while he is averaging 14.6 points and shooting 39.3 percent from the arc, both career highs — the 27-year-old Covington has had stretches when his touch has deserted him. He has dealt with ill health (a back injury, suffered earlier this month in Cleveland) as well as tragedy (the shooting death of a friend, who he has declined to fully identify, in his native Chicago in late November).

His approach — nose to the grindstone, control what you can control — remains a constant, however. Brown called his work ethic “a blueprint” for others, adding that he is “very much a poster child to what we hope to do.”

It matters little to Covington that he has been hailed as the NBA’s best undrafted player (by The Ringer’s Ben Detrick) or the foremost example of The Process (by The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann). And he vows his new contract, while nice, will not affect his mindset, either.

“I’m not going to let what happened to me now change me and get comfortable,” he said, “because I don’t know what comfortable is.”

As it happens he owns two black backpacks, one featuring a three-dimensional rendering of a lion on the side, the other featuring a wolf. The latter is the one he most often brings to games, and he tends to leave it in a prominent spot near his cubicle, just inside the door to the Sixers’ locker room.

It is, in other words, hard to miss, harder still to miss what it represents to him.

“The wolf,” he said, “symbolizes that hunger.”

That’s news to his stepdad, Dennis Bryant, who bought it for him.

“It was just a cool backpack to me,” he said, “and I knew it was something he would like to carry around.”

Then Bryant thought about it.

“Hungry like a wolf — think of it like that,” he said.

That hunger, not to mention that jumper (“the most powerful weapon there is,” Brown said), have allowed him to track ever upward, to reach this lofty point on his career arc.

“It was a time in the making,” Bryant said. “It was going to happen. It was just a process he was going through, but I’m not just going off the ‘Trust the Process’ thing. … We call his ‘The Journey.’”

It was aided and abetted not only by Dennis but also Covington’s mom, Teresa Bryant — a longtime postal worker and retired retail manager, respectively. Covington did not play middle school hoops as he grew from 5-9 to 6-3 (en route to his current 6-9), and he didn’t attract much recruiting interest as he was coming out of Proviso West High School, just outside Chicago.

And while he was productive at Tennessee State, he was not taken in the 2013 NBA draft, landing instead with the Houston Rockets as a free agent. He spent most of the 2013-14 season with the Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he was coached by a man named Nevada Smith.

“Crazy competitive,” Smith, now coach of the Sioux Falls Skyforce, said of Covington.

That didn’t change after the Sixers picked him up on waivers in November 2014, and hasn’t changed since. 

He’s still the same guy he’s always been, still hungry like a wolf.

Clippers top Rockets despite Harden's 2nd straight 51-point game

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Clippers top Rockets despite Harden's 2nd straight 51-point game

HOUSTON — After Austin Rivers scored just six points in the first half on Friday night against the Houston Rockets, his Los Angeles Clippers teammates had a message for him.

"Austin, you've got to be more aggressive," Rivers recalled them saying.

He certainly took their advice, scoring 30 of his career-high 36 points after halftime to allow the Clippers to withstand James Harden's second straight 51-point performance in a 128-118 victory.

"If we were going to win I had to start being in attack mode," Rivers said. "And right from the get-go my whole attention was to just be aggressive and take the fight to them."

The Rockets, who had a 14-game winning streak snapped by the Lakers on Wednesday, lost consecutive games for just the second time this season and the first since Oct. 28 and 30 (see full recap).

Westbrook's game-winning 3-pointer lifts Thunder past Hawks
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder like their chances with the ball in Russell Westbrook's hands at the end of a game.

Westbrook hit a 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left to cap a 30-point, 15-assist outing, and the Thunder held off the resilient Hawks 120-117 on Friday night. Carmelo Anthony added 24 points on 7-of-12 3-point shooting and Paul George scored 17 for the Thunder, who have won five of their last six after a 12-14 start.

"I think we know now how to close and where we're going to to close," George said. "Russ is our leader. ... We knew that we could kind of mess them up with the play that we had, cause some confusion. They backed off and Russ had an easy, open opportunity. Russ is as good as anybody when it's closing time."

Atlanta, in last place in the Southeast Division, made Oklahoma City work for this one, rallying after falling behind by 16 points in the first half, and again by seven in the final minutes. Marco Belinelli scored 30 points to lead Atlanta. Ersan Ilyasova added 22 points for the Hawks, who went 15 of 32 from 3-point range (see full recap).

Drummond's double-double leads Pistons over Knicks
DETROIT — For a few moments Friday, Stan Van Gundy thought his Detroit Pistons were going to fall back into the same bad habits that plagued them early in December.

After leading for most of the game, the Pistons found themselves trailing the New York Knicks by four with 1:48 to play. A loss would have dropped them to 3-9 in December and a game behind the Knicks in the Eastern Conference standings.

Instead, Detroit finished with a 9-2 run to post a 104-101 victory and a fourth win in five games.

"Down four in the last two minutes is a bad situation, but I was very happy with the way we closed out the game," Van Gundy said. "We made some big defensive plays and Reggie (Jackson) attacked on the offensive end." (see full recap).

Bucks close with 9-0 run to beat Hawks 
MILWAUKEE — With Dwight Howard going out early, Kemba Walker did his best to give the Charlotte Hornets a chance to grab a road victory against the Milwaukee Bucks.

But when Walker went down with an apparent injury late in the fourth quarter, the Bucks capitalized, closing on a 9-0 run for a 109-104 victory Friday night.

"This was a tough game," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "There were a lot of emotions in the last game we played. Charlotte is playing extremely well and hard, especially with their coach out. ... They were right there and we found a way down the stretch to make plays on both ends."

After Walker gave Charlotte a 104-100 lead with 2:24 remaining, Milwaukee held the Hornets scoreless the rest of the way. The Bucks tied it on dunks by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and took the lead on Eric Bledsoe's layup (see full recap).

Kuzma's career night helps Lakers cool off Rockets

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Kuzma's career night helps Lakers cool off Rockets

HOUSTON -- Rookie Kyle Kuzma set career highs with 38 points and seven 3-pointers, and the Los Angeles Lakers overcame 51 points from James Harden to end the Houston Rockets' 14-game winning streak with a 122-116 victory Wednesday night.

It was Houston's first loss since Nov. 14 and snapped a three-game skid for the Lakers.

The game was tied before Los Angeles scored 10 straight points -- while Houston missed seven shots in a row -- to go up 110-100 with about four minutes left.

Houston ended an almost four-minute scoring drought when Harden made a free throw, and he added three more after being fouled on a 3-point attempt a few seconds later to cut it to 110-104. But former Rocket Corey Brewer made a 3-pointer before Lonzo Ball hit two free throws to make it 115-104.

Harden powered Houston on a night when Chris Paul had just eight points before leaving early in the fourth quarter with a sore left leg.

The Rockets made seven free throws down the stretch but hit just four field goals in the last eight minutes -- all in the final 1:05.

Kuzma was unstoppable in the first half, making all nine of his shots, including six 3-pointers. He cooled a bit after the break and finished 12 of 17 overall and 7 of 10 from deep (see full recap).

Olynyk goes off on former team as Heat top Celtics
BOSTON -- Kelly Olynyk scored a career-high 32 points in his rousing return to Boston, and the undermanned Miami Heat hung on Wednesday for a 90-89 victory over the Celtics.

On a night when the Celtics honored their former forward in his first game back, the popular Olynyk received a standing ovation from Boston fans and led the Heat (16-15) to another win against the top team in the Eastern Conference. Josh Richardson had 19 points and six assists for Miami, which took two of three in the season series. The Heat ended Boston's 16-game winning streak earlier this season with a victory at home.

Olynyk signed with Miami as a free agent during the offseason. His previous high was 30 points on Dec. 15, 2014.

When this one was over, he took photos with fans.

Kyrie Irving paced the Celtics (26-8) with 33 points, but missed a jumper from the right wing that bounced off the rim at the buzzer. Jaylen Brown scored 16 and Marcus Smart had 15 (see full recap).

Bulls blast shorthanded Magic for 7th straight win
CHICAGO -- Denzel Valentine had 16 points and 10 rebounds, Nikola Mirotic had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and the Chicago Bulls beat the Orlando Magic 112-94 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win.

The Bulls had lost 10 straight with Mirotic out of the lineup prior to his return Dec. 8, and they haven't lost since to improve to 10-20.

Nikola Vucevic scored 18 points for Orlando, which lost its sixth in a row.

Facing the league's fourth-worst scoring defense, the Bulls took a 43-27 lead with 9:05 left in the second quarter on Mirotic's layup, one of many easy baskets. Chicago's strong ball movement resulted in easy looks inside and out, and the team had assists on 10 of its first 15 shots.

Robin Lopez connected on his first four attempts for a club averaging 111.1 points per contest since Mirotic returned to the lineup -- up from 95.7 points in 23 games without the forward.

Injury-riddled Orlando, which played without leading scorers Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, struggled to keep pace. The Magic made only 3 of 15 first-half 3-point tries en route to their 17th loss in 20 games (see full recap).