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Five Takeaways from an NBA Monday: What struggles? Harden leads Rockets past Thunder

James Harden

The NBA had a full slate of games Monday — highlighted by the undefeated Thunder at the winless Rockets — but if you were too busy Monday night noticing that has gotten much better this season, here are five things you need to know out of the night around the NBA.

1) How James Harden and the Rockets got their groove back. Maybe it took James Harden going against his former team for him to find his step back jumper. Maybe it took Patrick Beverley going against Russell Westbrook to light a fire under the Rockets’ defense. Maybe it just took three embarrassing losses by the Rockets to shake them out of their malaise. Whatever motivated them, the Rockets played Monday night with an urgency we had not seen in the first three games, the kind we saw from them last season. Houston went small in this game, playing Trevor Ariza at the four for extended periods, and that seemed to both energize them and throw off Oklahoma City (which stayed big most of the game).

Harden finished with 36 points on 26 shots; he wasn’t particularly hot shooting, but he knocked down 4-of-12 threes and got to the line 11 times — he was attacking and drawing fouls again. The entire Rockets team was not settling for jumpers, and that got Westbrook in foul trouble, he sat most of the third quarter and was out when Houston went on a 14-2 run to make this a game by the time it got to the fourth. Ty Lawson had his best game as a Rocket by far and added seven points in that tight fourth quarter. Dwight Howard wasn’t moving terribly well but he finished a few alley-oops, played defense at the rim, and he ended the night with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Oklahoma City still has Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and with those two they will be contenders, but their defense remains a work in progress under Billy Donovan. They allowed 103 points per 100 possessions against Houston and through four games are surrendering 101.7 per 100, which is 20th in the NBA. Part of it is the Thunder are forcing turnovers on just 12 percent of opponent possessions, and then opposing teams are shooting 48.8 percent against them. The Thunder defense needs to improve if they are going to challenge the Warriors, Clippers, and Spurs come the playoffs.

2) LeBron James becomes the youngest player ever to reach 25,000 career points. LeBron became the 24th player in NBA history to score 25,000 points in a career — and nobody got there at a younger age 30 years, 307 days). Classy move by the Sixers fans to give LeBron a warm round of applause for reaching that milestone. And those fan got a little show because when LeBron crossed that threshold he did it with some flare.

3) How do the Trail Blazers win games? A whole lot of Damian Lillard. Portland is going to win most of its games this season by simply overwhelming the other team with offense — on Monday night it was Daminan Lillard’s turn to do that against the Timberwolves. Lillard put up 34 points (15 in the third), the Trail Blazers got the breaks down the stretch, and they handed the young Timberwolves their first loss of the season.

4) Warriors off to hottest four-game start in NBA history. This stat is mind blowing: Through four games, the Golden State Warriors have beaten their opponents by a total of 100 points — the largest margin of victory through the first four games of the season ever. Monday night Golden State absolutely throttled a good Memphis team 119-69, holding Memphis to 27 points on 18 percent shooting in the second and third quarters combined. Stephen Curry had 30 points on the night, 21 points in the second alone. However, the bigger stars may have been Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, as the Warriors front line owned the Memphis front line that is their cornerstone.

It’s very early, but the Warriors again have the best offense and the second best defense in the NBA so far, outscoring teams by 26.6 points per 100 possessions. They are on a tear. And the showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday will be must-watch.

5) Minnesota had a touching tribute to Flip Saunders. Monday was Minnesota’s first home game of the season, and the night opened with a tribute to the team’s late coach and GM Flip Saunders. That included this moving video with comments from people around the league, including former and current players, about how he touched their lives.