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Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden says he’s rounding into form after 39-point, 12-assist performance

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NEW ORLEANS — When he got off to a slow scoring start this season, James Harden said his body and conditioning weren’t yet ready to score 30 and 40 points.

It took him 13 games but Harden cracked 30 points for the first time this season, and nearly hit 40. The Brooklyn Nets guard had 39 points and 12 assists to help Brooklyn hold off the New Orleans Pelicans 120-112 at the Smoothie King Center.

“I’m getting there,” Harden said of him regaining his MVP form. “It wasn’t going to take long. I mean, this is the highest [level] in the sport is the NBA, the most talented players in this world. So it’s not going to be easy for me to just come out there and do what I do. It takes a lot of hard work to be playing at a point to which you guys have seen me play at.

“When I’m not scoring 30 points, when I’m averaging 18-some points, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with James?’ It’s pretty solid still. I’ve been playing so well and so extremely at another level to where you guys set standards for me, and I set standards for myself as well. For me, I just continue to work. I feel a lot better, and the work don’t stop.”

New Orleans actually erased a 21-point, third-quarter deficit and led by three with 4:36 remaining. But Harden and Kevin Durant combined to score 11 points after that to put the Pelicans away.

Durant, who is off to a MVP-caliber start, had 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds to help the Nets (9-4) win for the seventh time in their last eight games. Harden and Durant combined for 67 points, their second-largest total in a game as teammates with the Nets behind the 74 combined points the All-Stars had on January 16, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

When asked what opposing defenses can do when the two All-Stars are cooking at the same time, Harden paused. “Ummm, pray?” Harden cracked. “I’m just playing. I mean, it’s difficult. We’re two unselfish basketball players. We’re versatile. Obviously, Kevin is known for his scoring, efficient scoring, but he’s also a willing passer, especially when there’s double teams and things like that. It’s difficult to guard him, and it’s difficult to guard me, especially when we’ve got it going.”

It’s also hard for defenses to slow down Harden when he is getting to the free-throw line. Harden hit 6-of-10 3-pointers and went 11-of-18 from the field overall. But he also went to the line 15 times, making 11 free throws. It was only the second time this season that Harden enjoyed double-figure trips to the free-throw line as the Nets’ All-Star has had to adapt to the new rule changes with officials cracking down on “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves” of ball handlers looking to draw fouls.

Harden had only been to the line a combined 22 times over his previous six games.

“He was aggressive all night,” Durant said of Harden. “He was getting downhill, getting to the free-throw line, 11-for-18, highly, highly efficient. Twelve assists, he just looked incredible.”

Harden’s biggest scoring night of the season comes one game after he had his third triple-double of the season in a win over Orlando on Wednesday. Harden’s three triple-doubles have come in his last seven games.

The guard attributed his slow scoring start to having to use the offseason to recover from a Grade 2 hamstring injury that slowed him down late last season. But he has repeatedly said his game would be back soon as he builds his confidence up.

“We’ve got to be patient with him,” Nets coach Steve Nash said when asked if Harden is back to full form. “It’s still I think got some yards to go before he feels this way every night or feels at his best. There’s the fitness, there’s the rhythm, and then there’s the confidence. For all those three things to come back, it does take time.

“He was great tonight. He’s been really good the last week or so and trending in the right direction, but I don’t want to get too carried away. Let’s give him time to get his game back.”

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Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups troubled by team’s effort in blowout loss to Spurs

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PORTLAND, Ore. — New Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups questioned his team’s effort after a 114-83 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night.

The Blazers were without All-Star guard Damian Lillard but still put up little fight against a Spurs teams who came into the contest six games below .500.

“My biggest concern, I think, at the moment, is I want us to compete harder, man. I want us to compete harder,” Billups said. “I want us to be competitive in every game. And I don’t feel like every night we do that. We don’t. And it concerns me. And I’ve felt that way in a lot of our wins. This is not just after a loss, me saying this.”

The Blazers fell below .500 with the loss and will be without their superstar for the near future. Portland announced on Wednesday that Lillard will miss 10 days with lower abdominal tendinopathy before being re-evaluated.

They could be missing third-year guard Anfernee Simons soon as well. Simons, who started in Lillard’s place on Thursday, suffered an ankle sprain in the first quarter and did not return.

The Blazers hired Billups this offseason with the hopes of improving the team’s defense, which has struggled again nonetheless this season. The Spurs, who have the fewest 3-pointers in the NBA, made 11 in the opening half — including the first three baskets of the game.

“We didn’t have enough personal pride defensively in the game tonight,” Billups said.

The loss is just Portland’s second at home this season. They are 1-10 on the road.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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Phoenix Suns set franchise record with 18th straight win

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Even with history looming as his team approached a franchise record win streak, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said he tried not to bring it up to his team.

But after a 114-103 victory over the Detroit Pistons set a new franchise mark with 18 consecutive wins, Williams allowed himself time to reflect.

“But it is really cool to be a part of something like that,” Williams said following Thursday’s win. “To win like this, the way we’ve won, guys out of the rotation, losing [Devin Booker], the relentless attitude of our team, the way we stick together, it makes it really cool.

“Obviously it’s hard to win in this league. But we’re not satisfied. We talk about stretching it out but it takes the right things to do that. So we’ve taken it one game at a time.”

The 18th win topped the previous franchise mark of 17 set by the 2006-07 Suns who went on to finish 61-21. The streak also ties the 2019 Bucks for the longest win streak of any NBA team in the last five seasons. The longest streak in NBA history belongs to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 straight games.

Suns players tried to downplay how much they thought about the streak on a day-to-day basis.

“It feels good but at the same time, I don’t know, I guess it feels good but we got another tomorrow,” Cameron Payne said. “We have to keep going. It’s 1-0 today. That’s how I feel.”

Suns point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 12 points and 12 assists, said it was a nice piece of history for the team but the focus remains on the bigger picture.

“But for us I think it’s always about the feeling of making sure we’re playing the game the right way,” Paul said. “We always talk about we have a standard. We say this every night and a win is a win but we feel like we could have played better.”

Phoenix was without their leading scorer in Booker, who missed the game with a hamstring injury. Without him, Phoenix focused on a more balanced scoring effort with seven players in double figures. Payne and reserve forward Cameron Johnson led the way with 19 points each off the bench.

“We have guys that can score the ball across all the lineups,” Johnson said. “Book puts a lot of points up on the board every night. We’re a team that we’re going to find buckets other ways when we need to and that’s what we did tonight.”

Phoenix, who picked up win No. 17 against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, play the Warriors again Friday night on ESPN — a matchup Johnson is looking forward to.

“A team that we just played and beat at home, we get to go to their place, a division game. It’s a lot on the line,” Johnson said. “This is what playing in the NBA is about. Going into these environments with these implications. Granted it’s a December game, but it means a lot. It means a lot to us to continue this streak. It’s gonna be a fun one.”

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Memphis Grizzlies set NBA record after beating Oklahoma City Thunder by 73 points

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Grizzlies broke the NBA record for margin of victory on Thursday night, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 152-79.

The 73-point margin easily topped the previous mark, which was Cleveland’s 68-point win over Miami. The Cavaliers topped the Heat 148-80 on Dec. 17, 1991.

“Tonight is not necessarily who we are,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I think we’ve definitely shown that from a competitive standpoint. This isn’t indicative of who our team is.”

Memphis used 12 players and nine of them reached double figures in scoring, with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 27 points leading the way. Memphis was without its best player, injured guard Ja Morant.

It was 72-36 at halftime, and the Grizzlies just kept adding to the lead, eventually pulling ahead by as many as 78 — the largest lead in any game since at least 1996-97.

The Thunder flirted with being on the wrong end of the record last season, trailing Indiana by 67 points on May 1 before rallying — such as it was — to lose by merely 57 points, 152-95.

This was worse. Historically worse.

The Grizzlies set a franchise record for shooting, making 62.5% of their shots. De’Anthony Melton scored 19 points, Santi Aldama scored 18 and John Konchar scored 17 for the Grizzlies, and none of those three players even started.

“Man, it feels great. It feels great to be in the history books, especially in front of our home crowd,” Melton said. “And we did it one through 15. Everybody contributed, everybody played hard and we all got to get in the game. So, it’s always a blessing.

“We knew with [Morant] going down what we had to do. We had to step up.”

No Memphis starter played more than 21 minutes. The Grizzlies’ bench contributed 93 points, outscoring Oklahoma City’s entire team by 14 points.

Lu Dort led the Thunder with 15 points, and Oklahoma City shot only 33%.

It was 12-8 after five minutes. From there, there was no stopping Memphis. The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder by 15 points in each of the four quarters.

It was the third straight game the Grizzlies have led from start to finish. The Thunder lost their eighth straight as they continued to play short-handed with a number of players unavailable, including leading scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who entered concussion protocol earlier Thursday.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 39 points against the Rockets on Wednesday night but suffered a blow to the head late in the game. Point guard Josh Giddey, who averages 10.4 points and 5.5 assists, sat out with a non-COVID-19 illness, and the remaining players couldn’t fill the void in Oklahoma City’s offense.

The Thunder had been competitive in their seven straight losses before Thursday night. Their largest margin of defeat was 13 points.

“When you compete, you have exposure to the highs and lows of competition,” Daigneault said. “And competition comes with great joy, and it also comes with grief and frustration and anger. And when you step in that ring, that’s what you expose yourself to is all of those things.

“It’s why the joy feels so good, because when you get punched and you taste your own blood, it doesn’t feel right.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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