Knicks not contenders with ‘Melo, but they have hope

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Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
Shawshank Redemption

Today the New York Knicks are not title contenders.

They got their man — Carmelo Anthony has been acquired to go with Amar’e Stoudemire. But they are still a long way away from the goal. The Knicks are probably still the sixth best team in the East, certainly no better than fourth. They are not putting fear in the hearts of the Celtics, Heat or Bulls.

But they have hope.

Generally, the team that wins the trade is the team that got the best player. There is no doubt the Knicks got the best player. Anthony, for all his flaws — defense, his love of shooting the contested long two pointer and more — is one of the game’s elite scorers. At the end of the day, the game is about putting the ball in the basket and only a handful of guys in the league can do that like Carmelo Anthony. He can drive, he can post, he can drop shots from beyond the arc. Few can create their own shot or one with a hand in their face like Anthony. He is an offensive force.

The hardest part of assembling a championship team is getting one of the few elite players in the league. The Knicks now have two of them. That is a core they can put the right pieces around to contend. And that is a reason for hope.

They are not contenders now because they gave up a lot to get ‘Melo. Not necessarily too much, they got more talent back certainly, but they gave up  players that are not just a dime a dozen. Yes, they got a quality point guard in Chauncey Billups, a veteran savvy one who knows how to win. But Billups is a poor fit for Mike D’Antoni’s running system. Billups is 34 and not so fleet of foot anymore. He has one year left on his deal after this and can be bought out after next season for $3.7 million (according to Sham Sport’s figures).

The Knicks are going to miss Danilo Gallinari. They will miss Wilson Chandler but they were going to have to renounce him this summer anyway to make room to sign Anthony as a free agent. Timofey Mozgov is a project that may develop into a rotation player but you don’t let him get in the way of a deal for a superstar.

Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.
Shawshank Redemption

The Knicks are not contenders and they are farther away from it still than many Knicks fans want to admit. Your starting five is Billups, Landry Fields, Melo, Stoudemire and probably Ronny Turiaf. With a very thin bench behind them. That’s good but not great, and there will be serious questions about how well they defend.

Those fans fully expect the Knicks to go get Dwight Howard or Chris Paul, either as a free agent in the summer of 2012 or in a trade or next season.  The kind of trade that looks a lot like the one ‘Melo just got where the team has to move him or risk him leaving as a free agent.

But the Knicks very well may not be able to get those guys. We don’t know what the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will look like, however you can bet that it will be much more restrictive than what we see now. The current salary cap is $57 million and you can bet that will go down. With Anthony and Stoudemire the Knicks will already have about than $40 million wrapped up in two players. If the salary cap drops to $50-$52 million, the Knicks would not be able to sign Paul or Howard to a max deal.

Then there could be a franchise tag — something some owners became more interested in as they watched Anthony force his way out of Denver — and that could keep Paul and Howard with their current teams.

Even aside the difficulty of getting one of those two, there is the challenge of filling out a roster on a tight budget — have you noticed the lack of depth in Miami? Where they spent their money on stars and had little for everyone else? It will be even tougher to spend with the new CBA and the Knicks will have to do a lot of it. The Knicks had some nice role players but they turned out to be the price for Anthony.

Knicks fans don’t care. They got their guy. The hope, the expectations of Knicks fans are about to go through the roof.

Those fans are going to learn some hard lessons about how far away this roster is right now. That hope they celebrate today could tear them apart in a few years.

For a few days though, the Knicks got their man. They should celebrate. Today is a day that hope should be celebrated in New York.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.