No. 1: Harden will continue to play through pain -- No team is more locked into its playoff spot than the Houston Rockets, who are 6 1/2 games behind the second-place San Antonio Spurs and five games ahead of the fourth-place Utah Jazz in the Western Conference. And with James Harden dealing with a sore wrist and only seven games left to play, it would seem like a good time to give him some rest. But Harden, who has said that availability should be a factor in MVP voting, has no intention of sitting. The MVP candidate ranks second in total minutes (after leading the league each of the last two seasons) and has shot 16-for-50 (32 percent) in his last two games, but said before Thursday's loss in Portland that he intends to play through the pain. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle has the story:
"I've been dealing with it since it happened, honestly," Harden said. "I try not to put so much attention on it, go out there and try to win games. It'll get better. Hopefully."
Asked how he knows it will improve, Harden said, "I talk to trainers. That's what they tell me. I trust them. I believe them."
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said he has spoken with trainer Biles and Jones extensively to be confident that Harden cannot make the injury worse by playing and would have time to be 100 percent for the start of the playoffs either April 15 or 26 without sitting out. But he said he will also watch Harden especially closely.
"Jason, Keith, him, we talk to everybody; doctors," D'Antoni said. "You can't look inside and see how much it hurts. He says it's fine, it's fine. You have to have that trust. Just want to make sure. At 27, he knows what's at stake. There's no way he's going to jeopardize our playoffs."
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No. 2: Cousins downplays first meeting with Kings -- On Friday in New Orleans (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), DeMarcus Cousins will play against the Sacramento Kings for the first time in his career. We know that Cousins, the league leader in technical fouls for the fifth time in the last six seasons, is an emotional guy. But, in speaking to reporters on Thursday, he tried to downplay the matchup with his old team. As William Guillory writes in the Times-Picayune, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry doesn't exactly believe what his player is saying:
The New Orleans Pelicans big man spoke to reporters after Thursday's practice leading up to his first matchup against his former team on Friday at the Smoothie King Center, and he attempted sticking to one talking point through all of the questions:
"It's just another chance to come out, play hard and try to get a win," Cousins repeated with a smile on his face after the first round of Kings-related questions.
While Cousins tried to downplay his emotions leading up to Friday's game, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said there is little doubt in his mind that Cousins will be very excited for the game and it's only "human nature" for players to want to prove why teams are wrong for trading them away.
"I think guys are kidding themselves when they say it's just another game. It's never just another game," said Gentry. "It's just like coaches, when you get fired by a team and you play them, you want to beat that team. It's not like when you play anyone else. It's human nature."
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No. 3: Bird still a Stephenson fan -- Neither the Indiana Pacers nor Lance Stephenson have been as good in the three years since they parted ways as they were when they were together. Now, with the Pacers trying to hold onto a playoff spot, Stephenson is back, having signed a three-year contract on Thursday. Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star writes that Pacers president Larry Bird has been thinking about bringing Stephenson back:
The story of Bird and Stephenson is one that is rare in the NBA. Most players who voluntarily leave the team that drafted them usually don't return while still considered to be in their prime. Rarely does a player openly acknowledge that leaving the team that drafted him was mistake. Most team presidents or general managers let unsuccessful contract negotiations have a negative impact on their relationship with the player.
Yet Stephenson is no ordinary player. The same could be said about Bird.
"Larry and Kevin are genuine guys and they believe in relationships," Bartelstein said. "I think Larry, being a player in this league, knew what Lance was looking for at that time and I think there was always respect. When Larry believes in you, he's always going to be a fan and he doesn't hold grudges."
Although the Pacers tried to retain Stephenson in 2014 with a five-year, $44 million deal, Stephenson signed a three-year deal worth $27 million with the Charlotte Hornets. What followed was the worst season of Stephenson's career. He averaged just 8.2 points and 4.5 rebounds and shot an abysmal 37.6 percent from the field. The Hornets traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers after the 2014-15 season.
"If Lance had to do it all over again, he wouldn't have left the Pacers," Bartelstein said. "You don't often get a second chance and Lance knows that and is really appreciative and grateful for that."
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No. 4: Fizdale pushing Conley to stay aggressive -- The Memphis Grizzlies aren't in danger of losing their playoff spot, but they are 5-9 in March and missing All-Star Marc Gasol. The situation isn't nearly as dire as it was at this point last season, because Mike Conley is healthy and playing some of the best basketball of his career. Conley helped the Grizzlies end a four-game losing streak with 36 points against Indiana on Wednesday, and head coach David Fizdale wants him to keep being aggressive off the dribble, as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery writes:
Conley's recent surge indicates that his bouts with sore ankles, feet, an Achilles and broken face are buried in the past. He's risen to being the Grizzlies' Alpha on the court with the highest scoring average of his career at 20.4 points per game. Conley's .403 shooting percentage from three-point range is a career-best when you consider he attempts six long-range shots per game.
"I feel like I'm back to where I was at the beginning of the year. I'm back to being reckless again," Conley said. "I'm not worried about my back and all of the things that go along with that. That's one part of it. And having guys go in and out of the lineup kind of forced me to be more aggressive. That plays a part of it, too."
Fizdale continues to push Conley toward being a go-to guy with force given his ability to put pressure on defenses off the dribble in space.
"Since post All-Star, he's been killing it. I know our record doesn't necessarily display him killing it," Fizdale said. "I know he doesn't care about the individual numbers, but you can see it. He's turning it up a notch. You know me, I love it. When I look at this score sheet and see this kind of box score from Mike Conley, I get excited to see that.
"Unfortunately, I walk right into my office, look up at the TV and I see that Russell Westbrook has like 60 (points), 20 (rebounds) and 10 (assists) or something like that. I look at that and I'm like, 'I'm pushing Mike to be aggressive and this guy is like out of this world, right.' I like it. That's the Mike Conley I'm pushing for. I really want him to continue to embrace that role and he is."
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No. 5: Carlisle enjoying transition year for Mavs -- Five and a half games out of eighth place, the Dallas Mavericks are probably going to miss the playoffs for just the second time in the last 17 seasons. With 43 losses, they've already clinched their first losing season since 1999-00. But head coach Rick Carlisle is happy with how his team is transitioning to a younger roster, as Dwain Price writes for the Forth Worth Star-Telegram:
Despite the Mavericks' subpar 31-43 record, along with their extremely slim playoff chances, Carlisle is optimistic enough that he still sees the glass as half-full. That might be why, after Thursday's practice at Rhodes College, Carlisle said, "This is one of the funnest years of coaching I've ever had. Because it's great guys, we've seen great improvement and we've managed to cultivate a nucleus of young talent here that's got a chance to play.
"That will serve us well next year. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it's hoping to set us up for the future. The other part of this is we've got to keep this thing set up so that we've got the right guys around Dirk (Nowitzki) so that he can play as long as he can play."
"I don't look at it that it's a losing season," Carlisle said. "All this stuff, you look at the opportunity for improvements, and there's a big picture.
"Look, I've been here nine years and I'm signed up for another five, so I've got to look at this like a management/ownership type person that says 'Here's what we got, how do we get these guys better today and prepare them to get better tomorrow.' We've got to get to the summertime with a good idea of what we've got, figure out who we need to get back, who we need to get rid of, and what we're going to do in the draft."
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The #TNTBulls did it again and things have turned "real ugly" for the Cavs ... Austin Rivers (strained left hamstring) is likely out for the remainder of the regular season, but hopes to be back for the Clippers' playoff opener ... Before Wednesday's loss to Charlotte, the Raptors had won six straight games without Kyle Lowry, but Kyle Lowry is still very important to the Raptors ... Could Luke Walton coach the Lakers for the next decade? Jeanie Buss thinks so ... D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns plan on working out together this summer ... and Scottie Pippen blames his old coach for the Knicks' struggles.