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NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: 42-40. They were average on offense, average on defense and had an average record — which is actually pretty impressive considering they had no stars to carry them. This was a good squad of role players waiting for a leader.

Head Coach: Rick Adelman, who missed the playoffs last season for just the third time as a coach. That’s impressive.

Key Departures: Trevor Ariza, who left as part of the four-team deal that brought Coutney Lee in to Houston. Ariza went from being a cog in the Lakers machine to a key player in the Rockets offense — and with that increased usage on offense came far less efficient — his True Shooting percentage dropped from .544 in Los Angeles to .488 in Houston. Not everyone is suited to be the guy creating the offense — Ariza could do that well on the break but not in the half-court roles Houston had for him.

Key Additions: Yao Ming is back. Limited in minutes, not moving as well as he did before missing a year due to foot surgery (particularly laterally). But he is still a 7’6” guy with touch on the midrange who can defend the rim with insanely long arms. Even 80 percent of Yao makes the Rockets a much better team… if he can just stay healthy.

The Rockets also locked up Luis Scola, who reminded us at the FIBA World Championships that he is dang good and gets overlooked. Other guys in the door are Courtney Lee and Yao’s backup Brad Miller. Houston also drafted Patrick Paterson, who seems to fit their mold.

Best case scenario: Yao Ming stays healthy and as the season moves on plays more and more minutes, becoming more and more his old self. Then by the playoffs everything is clicking and they are serious threat to the Lakers.

For that to happen: It really is all about Yao.

Sure, there are other things that have to happen. Aaron Brooks has to continue as a catalyst for the Rockets inside-out offense and has to continue to play up to his Most Improved Player status. Kevin Martin needs to be the wing scorer and three-point threat this team needs to stretch the floor. Scola and Shane Battier need to continue to do their thing efficiently. Kyle Lowry needs to lead a change-of-pace second unit that runs and puts up points.

Basically — the Rockets need to play like they did last year, but with Yao now as the leader.

On defense the once formidable Rockets took a hit because after Yao this is not a big team and they lacked someone who could protect the rim. Last season the Rockets allowed teams to shoot 62.7 percent at the rim (eighth worst in the league) and get 28.1 shots per game there (sixth worst in the league). Yao has to change that, force teams to shoot from the outside more, miss more when they do get in the lane. That allows guys like Battier to be more dangerous and aggressive out on the wings.

The Rockets need to keep the flow in the offense and work inside out with Yao — who is a fantastic passer, so it should work. Yao also should help the Rockets on the boards, another area they needed to improve last season.

The question is, can Yao do all this now? After a year off for major foot surgery at age 30?

More likely the Rockets will: Be better, but Yao will be a step slow from his old self, and with that the Rockets will be a step behind their ultimate goals. They will end up like a lot of teams in the West, good but not quite good enough to best the Lakers.

And the risk of injury to the Rockets seems higher than a lot of teams. Yao and Martin have very thick doctors files.

But also know this — a healthy Rockets might be the Lakers toughest matchup in the West. A reasonably healthy Yao stymies Bynum, Battier can slow Kobe, the Lakers are susceptible to quick penetrating point guards like Brooks. Remember that two seasons ago the Rockets took the Lakers seven games (the series where Yao injured his foot). If one team in the West can upset a fairly healthy Lakers squad, it might well be a healthy Rockets squad.

Prediction: 48-34, one of the bottom couple seeds in the West. And we may get to see my theory about them matching up well with the Lakers early on.

Roy Hibbert passes ball into hoop, reacts with perfect facial expression (video)

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The Hornets did so much right in their 107-85 win over the Trail Blazers, even a bad pass went through the hoop.

Roy Hibbert reacted fantastically to blunder/basket (blasket?).

Dario Saric blocks back-to-back Raptors dunk attempts (video)

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Norman Powell – get out of here.

Jared Sullinger – get out of here.

Dario Saric blocked consecutive dunk attempts in the 76ers’ 94-89 win over the Raptors. Philadelphia has won seven of nine and looks suddenly revitalized.

The best part of all this? Saric’s teammates’ reactions – though the actual blocks were pretty great themselves.

Kyle Korver regrets missing after fantastic LeBron James pass: ‘That would have been on his lifetime highlight reel’ (video)

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Kyle Korver feels mostly moved in. Off the floor, that is.

The newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers still has some adjusting to do before he feels completely at home with the NBA champions, who have struggled of late.

“Every day it gets better and better,” he said.

One of Korver’s biggest adjustments is learning to play with LeBron James, one of the game’s most gifted passers. Korver regretted missing a 3-pointer in Golden State after James nearly fell before feeding him in the corner.

“Oh my gosh,” Korver said. “I told him that was my bad missing that shot. That would have been on his lifetime highlight reel. That was an incredible pass.

“I thought the play was kinda broken, and he was trying to pick it up. He whipped it around behind his back right at my head, and I was like, ‘Wow, I have the ball and I’m open.’ I hesitated, and I missed the shot.

“That’s what he creates. He’s got an incredible feel for the game. It’s good to be on the other side of the ball with him.”

Acquired earlier this month in a trade with Atlanta, Korver practiced with the Cavs for the first time in Ohio on Wednesday as the team regrouped from the longest road trip of the season – a coast-to-coast odyssey – that ended with an embarrassing 126-91 blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors, who sent a message in January they hope resonates in June.

While Korver, one of the NBA’s most lethal 3-point shooters has felt welcomed by his new teammates, he’s still trying to fit in with them on the court. Cleveland is just 1-3 since Korver arrived and the team’s struggles are at least loosely linked to them trying to incorporate him into the offense.

Although it wasn’t intentional, the Cavs found themselves forcing passes to Korver, who went 2 for 10 from the field and missed his first five 3-pointers in his first two games. He found his range against Sacramento and Golden State, going 11 of 20 (7 of 14 on 3s) and providing a glimpse of Cleveland’s potential when they get back to full strength.

“The more time we spend together, the better chemistry we’re going to have,” Korver said. “A lot of what my game is, is based on chemistry. Getting a good feel for the guys, me getting a feel for them, them getting a feel for me and how I play. Every day gets a little better.”

Cleveland went just 3-3 on its trip, which began in Brooklyn and concluded in the Bay Area, where the Cavs were thumped by the rival Warriors in their first visit to Oracle Arena since winning Game 7 of last year’s finals there.

The game included another run-in between James and Golden State’s Draymond Green, who was called for a Flagrant 1 foul after he collided with Cleveland’s superstar. The two have scrapped before as Green was suspended from Game 5 in the finals for hitting James in the groin.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue felt Green was putting the champs on notice with his hard foul.

“Was it a statement? I think so,” Lue said. “He didn’t want to let LeBron get in the open court and get a dunk or layup and he took a hard foul. He wanted to try to send a message to our team.”

Following the lopsided loss, there was a typical overreaction by some Cleveland fans and media members, who were quick to question all the Cavs recent issues as if they had just dropped their 10th straight game and not just four of their past seven.

Lue said trying to integrate Korver, whose role will change again when J.R. Smith returns from a thumb injury later this season, was a challenge on the trip.

A few days of practice – and a home matchup on Saturday against San Antonio – will either help the Cavs find their rhythm or expose more flaws.

Lue was asked if his team has enough playmakers.

“You can’t make a trade every day,” he said. “We acquired Kyle Korver and we’ve got to be patient for other pieces we need, but, we’re still a good team, we’re still the champs and we got to play like that.”

 

The Cavs are just 1-3 since Korver joined them, but he’s confident better days are ahead.

“I see where we’re going,” he said. “I see how it’s all going to come together. No one around here is panicking.”

Kevin Durant: Playing Thunder ‘never going to be a regular game for me’

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors is guarded by Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on November 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant‘s first game against the Thunder featured a clever Russell Westbrook costume, emotion-laden dunks and Enes Kanter trash talk.

Durant isn’t hiding from the meaningfulness of the sequel.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“It’s never going to be a regular game for me,” Durant told ESPN in advance of his second go-around with OKC. “I’m just going to play. There’s nothing serious. We got the first one out the way, and we’re just going to play the next game.”

“I’m sure it will [be emotional],” Durant said. “It’s people I’ve been with for so long and to see them again, yeah, they’ll be some emotions. But I’ve still got a job to do.”

This game will always spark both nostalgia and competiveness. It’s a lot to process while playing elite basketball.

We’ll see whether Durant, who lit up the overmatched Thunder earlier this season, is up to the challenge.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the game’s location.