Empty Sac: Kings battle back only to come up short, lose to Magic 114-112

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–Slow starts, heartbreaking finishes, the Kings have seen enough of those this season.

But the reality is that’s what the Kings are about, and Monday’s heartbreaking 114-112 loss to the Magic–decided on Aaron Gordon’s three-point play with 1.1 seconds remaining–was another painful reminder.

“You don’t want to come down to these one-point games because crazy things happen,” coach Luke Walton said. “You have to take care of business before that.”

The Magic came in as the NBA’s lowest-scoring team, averaging just above 103 points per game. But the Kings immediately made the visitors feel comfortable by allowing them 33 first quarter points, which matched their best output in the opening quarter this season. Orlando didn’t have to up the tempo, they just took what the Kings gave them: 26 shot attempts, ample second chance opportunities, four made threes and five made free throws. Down 33-25 after a period, the Kings were already trending negatively.

With the threes falling, and the free throw opportunities swinging dramatically in Orlando’s favor, the Magic took their biggest lead of the night, 65-48 with a minute remaining before halftime. At that point the Kings not named Nemanja Bjelica started to play, constructing a 15-2 run ending the second quarter and starting the third that got them back into it.

Bjelica was keeping the Kings afloat at that point, scoring 25 of the team’s first 63 points. Bjelica would go on to put up 34 points and eight 3-pointers, both career bests, but his super efficient output wasn’t what consumed his thoughts after the game.

“We lost the game earlier, and we need to stop that,” Bjelica said. “We need to start the game like we finished the last five minutes.”

In the game’s final five minutes, Kings’ guard De’Aaron Fox turned on the jets and helped his club wipe out a 100-93 deficit. As the capper to his 31-point, 10-rebound, 8-assist night, the speedy guard got into the lane and converted a three-point play that gave the Kings a 112-111 lead with 15 seconds remaining. As a small consolation, Fox thoroughly outplayed Markelle Fultz in matchup of guards taken in the first five picks of the 2017 NBA Draft. Fultz finished with 16 points and two assists.

On the Magic’s final possession, Evan Fournier patiently dribbled down Fox, but didn’t gain much advantage, and seemed content to settle for an off-balance jump shot at the free throw line extended. Instead Fournier got the ball to Gordon in the lane, who flipped the ball in the basket as Cory Joseph fouled him for the three-point opportunity. The resulting free throw put the Magic up 114-112 with little time remaining.

The Kings felt a foul should have been called on the game’s final play in which a pass in bounds gave Harrison Barnes a four-foot shot opportunity that fell short. But whistles weren’t blowing in Sacramento’s direction on Monday: the Magic converted 25 of 30 free throw attempts to the home team’s 10 of 11.

The Kings fell to 15-25 with the loss, and it was eighth time this season they’ve lost by three points or less.

Marvin Bagley Jr. returned to the lineup after missing the previous ten games and had a strong game with 18 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes. Buddy Hield added 16, but Barnes and Trevor Ariza combined to miss 11 of their 14 shots.

The Kings continue their homestand on Wednesday when the Dallas Mavericks come to town looking to break a four-game losing streak to Sacramento that dates back to last season.

 

 

 

 

Bradley’s Banker In Overtime: Cal defeats Washington with dramatic 3-pointer, 61-58

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Winning ugly has a new signature: the dagger three off the bank in the final seconds of overtime.

Cal’s Matt Bradley pulled off the feat in the Bears’ 61-58 win over Washington, and while he didn’t gush over his game-winning basket, coach Mark Fox did.

“It was a thing of beauty,” Fox said. “As hard as he’s worked and as much as he’s bought in, he deserved to have that thing go down.”

Bradley’s basket with seven seconds remaining brought an end to what had to be characterized as an ugly ballgame with both teams failing miserably at the offensive end.

Through the conclusion of regulation, the Huskies and Bears had just 98 combined points, 33 missed 3-point shots, with both teams shooting less than 37 percent from the floor. And Cal managed got to the line for a minuscule, four free throw attempts.

The Huskies had an excuse of sorts in the academic disqualification of point guard Quade Green. In Green’s place, 6’6″ Jamal Bey was promoted to the starting lineup with Oakland’s Elijah Hardy in reserve. When Coach Mike Hopkins looked at the halftime stats and saw his club had seven made baskets and five of those were from three, Hopkins sat Bey and inserted Hardy.

But things didn’t improve much: Washington followed their 20-point first half with 34 percent shooting in the second, including 11 misses on 13 3-point attempts.

Cal was faring much better but primarily due to a spirited defensive effort that neutralized Isaiah Stewart, Washington’s leading scorer, with double teams in the post. Cal’s Andre Kelly deserved most of the credit for stopping Stewart by helping and recovering with great zeal.

But Cal’s 28-20 halftime lead dissipated with nine misses in a ten-shot stretch midway through the second half that allowed the Huskies to climb even with 6:39 remaining. But that would be effectively as close as Washington would come to stealing one from behind. Despite their edge on the glass and some, representative defensive moments of their own, UW simply missed too many shots.

“We had to fight from behind, but I still felt when we went up two we could have made some plays, but we didn’t,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got to finish better. We have to finish games.”

In the final seconds of regulation, Nahziah Carter missed a trio of shots, as did Bradley and Grant Anticevich for Cal. Any of those shots would have forged a final minute lead, but none connected, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra session, Bey’s 3-pointer drew Washington even at 52 with 4:08 remaining. The significance? It would be the Huskies’ final made shot of the game, and their alternative plan to subsist on free throws and defensive rebounds would fall short.

That set the table for Bradley in the final seconds, and as implored by Fox in the previous timeout, the sophomore dribbled up to the top of the key and launched from straight away. The outstretched arm of 6’9″ Jaden Daniels caused Bradley to a quicker, higher release but the shot dropped off the bank setting off a celebration with seconds remaining.

The Bears (8-8, 2-1) have sought improvement in a lot of areas since their 4-0 start devolved into a December of losses, and finally that improvement has surfaced at the defensive end. Beating a talented Huskies team and holding them to a dreadful shooting percentage clearly ranks as Cal’s best win of the season to date.

“We’ve gotten a lot better focusing on defense, just knowing that if our shots aren’t falling we’ll win with defense,” Bradley said. “That kind of proved tonight.”

The Bears travel to Los Angeles this week for meetings with USC on Thursday and UCLA on Sunday afternoon.

 

 

Cal Comes Around: Pac-12 home opening win over WSU, 73-66, ends frustrating stretch for the Bears

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–For the Cal Bears Thursday night everything went wrong, including the lead up. That included a week of practice that coach Mark Fox said was poor, a couple of players got injured, an uneven shootaround, then the start of the game against Washington State, in which the Bears found themselves doubled up, and trailing by 13.

Talk about making your opponent feel comfortable: in the game’s first 11 1/2 minutes, eight Cougars played, eight Cougars scored, and none took or needed more than three shots to get on the board. WSU led 26-13.

But as quickly as things went wrong, they went right: the Bears finished the half on a 25-5 run and never looked back. Cal’s first win in a month, on the critical occasion of the Pac-12 home opener, 73-66 over WSU, seemingly came out of nowhere.

“It took us a while to calm down, and also it took a while to get our defense to the level it needed to be,” Fox said. “And once we were able to stabilize we clawed out of the hole and played fairly stable the rest of the game.”

Matt Bradley led Cal with a career-best 26 points and 10 rebounds, including a three with less than a minute remaining, that increased Cal’s 69-66 lead to six points. Bradley had a different view of the week’s practices than did Fox, but no one could dispute that Cal’s offensive leader had struggled. Coming in Bradley had slumped, shooting just 38 percent from the field since December 1, and only 25 percent from three.

But against WSU, Bradley started early and finished the Cougars late, making 10 of 14 shots, and coming up with some smart decisions when faced with an array of double teams.

“These last couple of games have been pretty rough for me and my team,” Bradley said. “We’ve been trying to figure out here and there but we had a great week of practice.  The only thing, we said, ‘stay competitive, stay fighting hard, and stay tough.'”

“It’s not all on him,” Fox said of Bradley. “But you love the fact that the guy who’s arguably one of your best players is taking that much responsibility.”

Paris Austin contributed a season-best 17 points for the Bears, and Grant Anticevich added 12. Cal played without Juhwan Harris-Dyson and Jacobi Gordon due to injuries.

Washington State was led by C.J. Elleby with 22 points, and Noah Williams who had 16. Elleby is the son of Bill Elleby, who was a scoring guard for the Bears in the 90’s. The Cougars flamed out after their fast start, turning the ball over 22 times, and allowing 32 points in the paint. The Bears shot 55 percent in the first half, and 51 percent for the game.

Washington State, coming off an impressive, come-from-behind, home win over UCLA faces Stanford on Saturday. The Bears host Washington, who were surprised by Stanford’s closing run in Thursday’s loss.

 

 

Kings bounce back, Holmes hurt in ragged 111-98 win over the Warriors

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–“Wake your *ss up!”

Coach Steve Kerr’s profane directive hurled at referee Jason Goldenberg wasn’t prudent or appropriate, but it certainly fit like a glove in describing a sleepy night of basketball at Golden 1 Center on Monday night.

The Kings came in despondent, the victim of too many close losses, and left slightly less despondent, thanks to a 111-98 win over the Warriors that was stained by a potentially serious injury to Richaun Holmes.

De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield led Sacramento with 21 points apiece, and Trevor Ariza and Harrison Barnes each contributed 18 in a game the Kings led by 31 points in the third quarter only to see the Warriors erase more than half that lead before the final buzzer. Coach Luke Walton emptied his bench early, mindful of the Kings’ quick turnaround with a game against the Suns in Phoenix on Tuesday.

“We continued to do what we wanted to do offensively,” Walton said. “We got better and made some progress tonight.”

The win interrupted a stretch of nine losses in 10 games for the Kings, including Saturday’s two-point loss to the Pelicans in which the NBA admitted Derrick Favors should have been called for an offensive foul on the game’s final play for over aggressively setting a screen on the Kings’ Ariza that created a path for J.J. Reddick to get the basket for the game-winning layup.

Entering Monday’s game, the Kings had an NBA-worst 10 losses by five points or less.  The Warriors anemic shooting–almost from the outset–put an end to the Kings adding to that dubious total of close defeats.

The Warriors missed their first 15 3-point attempts, and scored just 40 points before the halftime break. That break was just minutes after Kerr went ballistic, frustrated with whistles that went in favor of the Kings on one end, and against the Warriors at the other. Kerr’s choice words got him tossed in short order. Ironically, Kerr opted to sit Draymond Green, after he was ejected in the Warriors’ home game on Saturday against Detroit, saying the veteran needed a mental break, caused by a draining season of losing following five straight trips to the Finals.

In getting ejected by Goldenberg, Kerr appeared to be needing that same break.

Ariza was the Kings’ catalyst early with three, first half dunks, and a pair of threes in the team’s burst that extended their lead to 15 early in the second quarter. Fox with his quickness, and Buddy Hield rediscovering his shooting stroke also put the Warriors at a disadvantage.  Then with the visitors already reeling, the Kings came up with eight made threes in the third quarter to extend the lead to 30.

“It was just to be aggressive, get to the basket, and just try to create, obviously make free throws,” Fox said.

The Kings played without Bogdan Bogdanovich, who was still suffering from the flu, and Marvin Bagley Jr., who continues to be out with a sprained foot.

Mike Bibby, the Kings’ standout point guard from the 2002 Sacramento team that reached the Western Conference finals attended the game and received a nice ovation from the crowd. Willie Cauley-Stein was greeted by a mixture of cheers and boos in his first game back in Sacramento after he signed with the Warriors in the off-season.

Holmes was injured in the third quarter, and left the court in visible pain while holding his shoulder. The 6’10” forward/center has proven to be indispensable for the Kings with his scoring and rebounding, and any prolonged absence would put the Kings in a tough spot. Holmes leads the Kings with 13 double-doubles and his constant presence has made Dewayne Dedmon expendable.

Marquese Chriss was waived following the game, a move the Warriors felt was necessary in order to free up a roster space for emerging guard Damion Lee, who is signed to a two-way contract that would limit his availability for the remainder of the season. The 22-year old Chriss is a Sacramento native, and was forced to greet his friends and family after the game following the news of his release.

 

No Shot: Bears’ offense disappears in lopsided Pac-12 opening loss at Stanford

By Morris Phillips

STANFORD, CA–The Stanford Cardinal aren’t physically imposing, blessed with great depth, foot speed or rebounding acumen, but they consistently carry themselves as a formidable defensive team.

So far–with non-conference play complete and the Pac-12 schedule in front of them–their portrayal of themselves holds weight. Stanford ranks 13th (out of 350) nationally, allowing just 58.8 points per game, while forcing opponents into 39 percent shooting from the floor.

On Thursday night at Maples Pavilion against rival Cal, Stanford posted even better numbers in their conference-opening 68-52 drubbing of the visiting Bears. Beyond the points allowed and Cal’s 30 percent shooting for the game, Stanford forced 18 turnovers leaving Cal literally in shambles.

“Our team has had an epidemic of turnovers throughout the year,” said coach Mark Fox. “It wasn’t just tonight, and that’s taking nothing away from Stanford, which has a very good defense. We have to get it fixed.”

Cal started fast, seeing results from their pressure defenses that propelled them to an early 7-2 lead. But as quickly as things came together, they fell apart, as Stanford responded with an 11-0 run and never trailed again.

Daejon Davis led Stanford with 20 points, Tyrell Terry added 14, and Bryce Wills 10, as the Cardinal carried through on their intention to attack the Bears in the paint. An early timeout seemed to get the Cardinal refocused.

“We were literally jacking 3’s and not being aggressive going to the basket,” Davis said.

For the second straight game Cal held the edge on the glass, outrebounding Stanford 41-30, but it mattered little once the Bears’ shots weren’t falling. Leading scorers Matt Bradley and Kareem South fared the worst, missing 18 of their combined 24 shots.

“That’s tough for our team to overcome because we just don’t have a lot of other firepower around (Bradley and South),” Fox said.

The Bears have lost 8 of 10 following their 4-0 start, and have yet to win away from Haas Pavilion. What’s worse was the Bears’ paltry point total. They’ve now matched their season-low in points (52) not once, but twice, also in losses to Santa Clara and Duke.

Cal hosts their Pac-12 home opener on Thursday against Washington State with Washington visiting Berkeley on Saturday.

 

 

 

Hibernate? No, More Like Dominate: Bears end season on high note, beat Illini 35-20 in Redbox Bowl

By Morris Phillips

SANTA CLARA, CA–The Illini moved the ball, but the Bears moved the needle, making the majority of the big plays in their 35-20 Redbox Bowl victory over Illinois on Monday at Levi’s Stadium.

The Bears captured their first Bowl victory since the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl win over Air Force, and won eight games in a season for the first time in the last four seasons. Most importantly, they seized momentum heading into what should be a promising 2020 season.

“We talked in the locker room about the 2020 team,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “The expectations should continue to rise. There’s no reason why we can’t expect more of ourselves.”

Cal could return as many as 18 starters in 2020, 10 of those on offense. Chase Garbers previewed the upcoming season with an outstanding performance against Illinois, completing 21 of 31 for 272 yards and four scores, and a rushing touchdown as well. The Bears went as Garbers did in 2019, and the month-long break leading up to Monday’s contest allowed the redshirt sophomore to be healthy and effective, as the Cal offense kept the pressure on Illinois throughout.

Garbers was named the game’s offensive MVP, another honor for the quarterback who scored the winning touchdown in the final minute that broke Cal’s lengthy losing streak to Stanford.

“We knew there would be a lot of opportunities out there,” Garbers said. “The receivers did a great job running the right routes and catching the ball. I just had to put the ball where it’s supposed to be.”

The key play of the game may have come with 25 seconds remaining before halftime, and Cal clinging to a 14-10 lead. On the previous, third down play, Garbers was stuffed at the three-yard line, setting up a fourth down decision.

The Bears elected to go for it, passing on a field goal attempt that could have established a seven-point, halftime lead. Instead, Garbers found Christopher Brown Jr. on a swing pass that put Cal up 11.

The vaunted Cal defense had struggled to that point, allowing scores on Illinois’ first two possessions. But the defense stiffened from that point, allowing just one score–a fourth quarter, Reggie Corbin touchdown run–in the second half with Cal ahead comfortably at that point, 35-13.

All-American linebacker Evan Weaver finished the game with nine tackles, falling short in his bid to break the NCAA record for tackles in a season. Weaver finished with 182, short of Texas Tech’s Lawrence Flugence’s total of 193 established in 2002.

The Bears were outgained in total yards 450-395, but they came up with the big plays, like Zeandae Johnson’s sack and strip of quarterback Brandon Peters that ended Illinois’ initial possession of the second half.  Brown contributed Cal’s lengthiest gainer, a 54-yard run in the first half, but Cal’s scoring plays were all executed in the red zone. Garbers threw touchdown passes covering just 2, 3, 4 and 6 yards.

“Our offensive staff did a great job putting a game plan together and trying to dial it up,” said Wilcox, giving a respectful nod to outgoing offensive coordinator, Beau Baldwin and offensive line coach, Steve Greatwood, who announced his retirement in the days leading up to the game. Baldwin previously was announced as the new head coach at Cal Poly.

The Bears open the 2020 season in Las Vegas against UNLV on August 29 in Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Raiders and the Rebels.

 

Winter Break Tutorial: Harvard schools Cal on the finer defensive points at Haas, wins 71-63

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Harvard visited Haas Pavilion on Sunday. It wasn’t supposed to be the educational experience for the Bears it turned out to be.

Chris Lewis scored 19 points, Christian Juzang had 14 as the Crimson compensated for the absence of leading scorer Bryce Aiken with a strong defensive effort in beating the Cal Bears, 71-63.

Harvard held Cal to 37 percent shooting in the first half, 35 percent for the game and never trailed. The visitors from the Ivy League led by 15 at one point in the second half and were never really threatened. Cal’s one statistical advantage–a 13-3 edge on the offensive glass–was merely a mirage. Often Cal missed shots, rebounded and missed again.

Tommy Amaker, the former Duke star and Harvard’s head coach, loved what he saw from his team defensively.

“Our defense is our calling card for our program,” Amaker said. “We’ve built our program around our defense. Our guys give great effort. We play a lot of players so we should be pretty fresh out there. I would love for us to be able to do that on one end and be a little more efficient on the other end. That’s the goal. But certainly was pleased with the team defensive effort that we gave.”

If losing as a Power 5 to an Ivy League opponent wasn’t disconcerting enough, the Crimson did it in a very un-Ivy League manner. They blocked shots. Harvard turned back 11 Cal shots, seven by their starting posts, 6’8″ Mason Forbes and the 6’9″ Lewis.

Aiken, averaging a team-leading 16.7 ppg, was in a walking boot before the game. Amaker didn’t divulge many details regarding his injury, but he was a surprise scratch. Cal was unaware of Aiken’s unavailability until the opening tap.

The Bears have lost seven of nine after a 4-0 start, and now look to their Pac-12 opener at Stanford on Thursday with the conference’s only losing record (6-7) at this juncture. Eight of the 12 members have lost either twice or three times, including Stanford (11-2). Cal is trying to avoid a third, consecutive season in the Pac-12’s basement.

Defense has been a major issue with the Bears, and it was again Sunday. Harvard shot 57 percent before halftime to jump to 34-24 lead at the break. The offense was absence as mentioned, especially from leading scorer Matt Bradley, who missed 10 of his 14 shots, including all six of 3-point attempts.

“We don’t have a ton of guys who are consistent scorers and so the focus of the defense is going to be geared towards certainly Matt. And he’s going to have to really work to move without the ball, and learn to be more efficient,” head coach Mark Fox explained.

“He’s learning how to play the role of a lead role player, and he’s having to do that on the fly. And there’s a lot that comes with that.”

Bradley led Cal with 15 points. Kareem South added 13, and Grant Anticevich had 12.

Harvard cut Cal off at the point of attack as well. Starting point guard Paris Austin and his backup Joel Brown were a combined 2 of 12 shooting, and compiled just five assists.

Cal opens Pac-12 play with three of their first five on the road with a trip to Los Angeles following a homestand against the Washington schools. Given the Bears’ desire to jump out of the conference basement, their conference home opener against the WSU Cougars is an opportunity not to be missed.

Why? When you’re struggling, you don’t run across too many, beatable opponents. That’s Cal’s reality at the moment.

 

Cal’s Comfort Zone: Bears at home in the Redbox Bowl in more ways than one

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–Last year the Cal Bears played awful and were the brunt of jokes. This year, they seem to have the hang of this bowl season thing. Team captain Jake Curhan showed as much, by setting ground rules for the Redbox Bowl press conference at the outset.

“Before we begin real quick: Nikko, Cam and I are really excited to join our teammates on Alcatraz, so respectfully we’re going to be pretty efficient with our answers, and we would appreciate the same from you guys. Thanks.”

A year ago in Phoenix at the Cheez-It Bowl, the Bears were one-half of a turnover fest, throwing five interceptions in a 10-7 overtime loss to TCU that left the Chase Field crowd and the television audience shaking their collective heads. The Horned Frogs kicked in four interceptions of their own in a game that no one wanted to win–in regulation–leaving the decision to an overtime period that brought out social media trolls in droves.

This bowl season, the Bears are in their backyard, playing good football coming in, and looking healthy for Monday’s kickoff at Levi’s Stadium against Big Ten opponent Illinois. A matchup of Cal’s vaunted defense against a team that lost it last two while scoring just 10 points in each game seems favorable.

Coach Justin Wilcox knows turnovers can’t litter the landscape at Levi’s. Illinois (6-6) thrives on them, using seven turnovers to upset Wisconsin and win at Michigan State in their two marquee wins.

“You go into a game playing with great ball security. So we want to play with really, good habits,” Wilcox said. “Possessions will be a premium in this game.”

Wilcox lifted Garbers after throwing his third interception against TCU. That put the ball in Chase Forrest’s hands, and he threw two more picks, including the most damaging one in overtime. Forrest was thrust into the fire, seeing his first, significant time in his five-year Berkeley career. This season, Garbers is in control, throwing just three picks in 184 pass attempts. More importantly, Garbers has rounded into a winner, posting a 6-0 record this year and 12-2 in his career when he starts and finishes the game.

Besides a healthy Garbers, the Bears (7-5) have regained their health and depth on the offensive line, and they figure to cover for their one significant, personnel omission, injured safety Ashtyn Davis, by utilizing their secondary depth, the team’s most impressive unit.

Wilcox said Elijah Hicks will see time at safety against Illinois, with the possibility that corner Cameron Bynum will also see time there as well.

Illinois received good news on the injury front when quarterback Brandon Peters was cleared for action after suffering a concussion against Iowa, which forced the Michigan transfer to miss the Illini’s season-ending loss to Northwestern. Of course, Peters will have his hands full dealing with Cal’s All-American linebacker Evan Weaver and fellow linebacker Cameron Goode, who is coming off two of the most impressive outings of his Cal career.

“His body’s changed, as you probably noticed he gained 25-30 pounds. I think that helped him to be to sustain the season and be able to withstand the rigors of a full season. He’s worked hard at that. And I still think Cam’s best football is front of him. He’s a talented kid,” Wilcox said of Goode.

 

Another Night in Sacramento: Rockets race to big lead, then hold on to beat the Kings, 113-104

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–You know the story: since the Kings’ last playoff appearance in the spring of 2006, they’ve accumulated 13 losing seasons, run through 10 coaches, two arenas and finished last in the Pacific Division five times.

But that’s just the surface. Below the surface–or below .500–the Kings’ story gains greater focus. Eliminating the first 10 games of each of the last 14 seasons, including the current one–a sample size of 956 games–the Kings have held a winning record just 66 times.

That’s a winning record 6.9 percent of the time in 13 plus seasons. The most significant Kings’ won-loss record since 2006? March 6 when the Kings were 33-32. They lost three of their next four games and haven’t been over .500 since.

51 of the 66 occasions with a winning record happened last season under coach Dave Joerger, but the occurrence wasn’t treated as an upswing. Joerger was fired by GM Vlade Divac after the season.

So Monday was business as usual: a new Kings’ coach, Luke Walton, a losing record, and a tough loss–113-104 to the Houston Rockets–at home. The Kings have dropped four straight, and are just 12-13 since their 0-5 start to the season that foreshadowed continued playoff irrelevance.

By one measure, the Kings put themselves in harm’s way on Monday by beating the Rockets 119-118 at the buzzer on Nemanja Bjelica’s 3-pointer December 9 in Houston. Since then the Rockets have won six of seven and seen the one-two punch of James Harden and Russell Westbrook grow more cohesive. The pair came into Monday’s contest averaging 62 plus points per game. They scored 62 Monday after combining for just five points in a first quarter in which the Rockets exploded to a 37-21 lead.

After leading by 16 points after a quarter and 86-63 with 4:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Rockets made it interesting. Houston clanked through a 16-point fourth while seeing their lead paired to 102-96 at one point. But that’s as close as it got: the Rockets responded with a pair of Clint Capela free throws then Westbrook’s 3-pointer that increased the lead to 107-96 with 4:13 remaining.

The Rockets shot 3 for 17 in their uncharacteristic fourth quarter, but all three of the makes were 3-pointers.

“You get up 18, 20 points and you start doing things that you weren’t doing to gain the lead,” Harden said. “It happens.”

De’Aaron Fox led the Kings with 31 points, 19 of those in the fourth quarter. Fox didn’t get much help; starters Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield missed 12 of their combined 13 3-point attempts and finished with nine and 10 points, respectively. The Kings outrebounded the Rockets, 49-39, but couldn’t fully take advantage of Houston’s smallish lineups with Capela the only player over 6’6″ to see action.

Hield, the Kings’ leading scorer, was a spectator in the fourth quarter as the Kings mounted their comeback. Walton explained afterwards.

“It wasn’t a punishment at all. It was more, `Look, we’re a team and we’re trying to win out here and if these guys are going well, well then we keep rolling with them,'” Walton said.

Bogdan Bogdanovich missed his second straight game with a sore ankle. Harry Giles continues to be out, he’s missed the last 13 games for the Kings.

Capela contributed 15 points, 14 rebounds in 41 minutes on an admittedly sore right heel. Harden played 38 minutes with a brace on his knee that coach Mike D’Antoni revealed was bothersome. Still, the NBA’s leading scorer put up 34 points, five assists with Westbrook adding 28.

The Rockets conclude their road swing in San Francisco in a meeting with the Warriors on Christmas Day.

The Kings host the reeling Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.

 

 

 

 

Bears blow an opportunity for a brighter Christmas, lose to Boston College, 64-60 in the final minutes

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–Travel-weary Boston College afforded the Cal Bears a fast start. The Bears in turn kept the door open, and allowed the Eagles a chance to creep back into the contest.

In the end, it wasn’t an even swap.

BC made the adjustments in their offensive attack, got nastier on the glass, and pulled out a much-needed 64-60 win over Cal at the Chase Center on Saturday. The meeting of struggling Power 5 conference teams went to the visitors from the East Coast and they couldn’t have been happier.

“In the second half, we played smarter,” Boston College coach Jim Christian said.

The Bears have dropped six of eight after a 4-0 start to the season. Christian and his Eagles won their fourth straight after losing five of six. Both teams craved a win, but Boston College kept the mistakes to a minimum down the stretch.

“I thought we were just settling for threes,” Christian said. “We were taking the first three available to start the game. We hit a couple early, which sometimes is a bad thing. In the second half we played really smart.”

Cal led by 12 early, then they went scoreless for the final seven minutes plus of the half, and saw their lead sliced to three at the break. They seemed to take control again leading 48-37 with 11:43 remaining. But their points in the paint, and transition opportunities slowed, and BC quietly creeped back in.

“You can’t play 34 or 36 minutes,” Coach Mark Fox admitted. “You have to play a great segment of quality minutes, and tonight we didn’t do that.”

Fox cited six missed free throws in the opening 20 minutes as a major factor in the loss. Those misses kept Cal from extending their double-digit lead, according to Fox, and that factored heavily into BC’s initial comeback.

Neither team accomplished anything of note from distance. Both teams missed eight of nine 3-point attempts before the half. Cal controlled the paint, getting strong, offensive games from Andre Kelly and Lars Thiemann. The 7’0″ center Thiemann enjoyed his best game in a Cal uniform eight points, nine rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench. But Cal’s turnover count mounted (11 of their 16 turnovers came after halftime) and their shot selection deteriorated.

“I should have made sure we finished this game out–as captain and one of our leaders. That didn’t happen tonight. Obviously, I’m frustrated with myself,” said Matt Bradley, who led the Bears 21 points, but missed six of his seven attempts from distance.

The Bears now turn their attention towards their final non-conference contest against Harvard on December 29. Cal is trying to avoid a third, consecutive last place finish in the Pac-12, and they’ve now become the first conference school to lose six times this season.

Meanwhile, the conference continues to trend upward despite the top three programs–Arizona, Washington and Oregon–all losing to highly-regarded Gonzaga. While Cal has six losses, seven other Pac-12 schools have lost just once or twice, including Stanford, who won the opening contest of the Al Attles Classic against San Diego 62-59. The Cardinal are 11-1, their best start to a season in a decade.

CHRISTIAN’S ROUGH WEEK: BC coach Jim Christian hobbled up and down his team’s sideline on crutches with a pained look on his face, the aftermath of ankle microfracture surgery he had on Monday in Boston.

Christian conceded the cross-country flight to San Francisco was painful. He anticipated the flight back also will be agonizing.

The former Cornell coach retained his sense of humor however when explaining what led to the surgery.

“I injured my ankle in a dunk contest,” he said.