NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last Season: Riding a deep roster and the creativity of a coaching staff and front office to cover up their weaknesses with in-season trades, the Rockets were in the playoff hunt into the season’s final days only to fall short and finish 9th in the West. They battled injury, illness, and the transition to new coach Kevin McHale in a lockout shortened season to be one of the surprise teams of the west.

Through it all they saw Goran Dragic elevate his game to the level of a really good starter, got contributions from several young players (Chandler Parsons became one of those guys basketball nerds love), and saw a patchwork front court anchored by Samuel Dalembert, Luis Scola, and Marcus Camby play big down the stretch. No, it wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs but they showed a ton of grit and were a league pass darling by the time the regular season closed.

Key Departures: You could argue that the Rockets lost their top two players from last season and four of their best five overall. Goran Dragic left for familiar stomping grounds in the desert, signing a free agent deal with the Suns. He takes with him scoring and play-making that carried the Rockets down the stretch. Luis Scola joins him in Phoenix after his amnestied contract was claimed on waivers. Scola is declining as a player but still a credible starter at a difficult to fill position. His craftiness will be missed. Kyle Lowry was traded to the Raptors for a future lottery pick after issuing an off-season ultimatum that asked for only one of him and head coach Kevin McHale to return. Losing Lowry was likely a necessity after his war of words with McHale, but he had an incredibly good contract and is coming into his own as a player. Courtney Lee and his heady all court game and good defense have moved on to help remake the Celtic’s wing rotation.

Key Additions: The Rockets have long been trying to rework their roster by signing or trading for a big name player that could anchor their franchise. They again struck out in getting one of the trade market’s big fish but did bring in a nice haul of young players that add to an already nice core.

In free agency, Darryl Morey took advantage of a poison pill loophole in the collective bargaining agreement to nab point guard prize Jeremy Lin and underrated big man/defensive ace Omer Asik. Both will be penciled in as starters and the hope is that Lin will anchor their offensive attack while Asik does the same for the D patrolling the back line.

In the draft the Rockets had three draft picks and used them all to select some intriguing talents. Swingman Jeremy Lamb joins big men Terrence Jones and Royce White as players that should see meaningful minutes this year. All three are rotation players but all come with questions. White is an especially intriguing prospect as he’s a player with lottery talent but an anxiety disorder that led to his draft stock suffering. If there’s a player to root for, it’s him.

Three Keys to the Rockets season:

1) Can such a young team find their bearings quickly enough to remain competitive?

The old adage is that you win with veterans in the NBA. The Rockets are likely going to learn that first hand this season as every projected starter not named Kevin Martin will be 26 or younger when the season starts. Kevin McHale will be doing a lot of teaching on the fly and he can only hope the lessons stick. If they do, the Rockets could surprise teams by coming at them with waves of youngsters who can really play. If they don’t, the Rockets could find themselves out of the playoff hunt early in the season for the first time in a while as the young players they rely on play like their ages.

2) Will Morey make a deal?

Kevin Martin is in the final year of a contract that will pay him nearly $13 million this season. The hope is that Martin’s deal can act as the salary ballast in a big trade with some of Houston’s high upside youngsters tossed in as sweetner. You have to believe that Morey is still looking for a big name player that can pair with Lin to anchor his team and that he’s willing to do what is necessary to make a deal. After the Chris Paul veto cost him Pau Gasol and the Magic decided they’d rather deal Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Morey is zero for two in franchise altering moves the past two seasons. With Martin’s deal set to fall off the books after the season this may be his last best chance to grab a high profile player via trade.

3) How good is Jeremy Lin?

This last question really is the most important one to the Rockets’ success for this season and beyond. Lin was amazing for the Knicks and showed that a combination of hard work and the right situation could lead to stardom. But his success in the Big Apple came in a relatively small sample size of games. The Rockets need a lasting dosage of Lin-sanity to avoid being one of the lesser teams in the conference this year. If he delivers, this team has a foundational pillar to build upon. If he’s not up to the task — he’s had an unsteady preseason so far– the Rockets’ hefty investment may end up biting them in the backside and send their season into a tailspin.

What Rockets fans should fear: The worst case scenario is that the Rockets can’t get a top flight player for a package centered around Martin but deal him anyway for a good but not great player who impacts their future cap flexibility. Meanwhile their young players show promise but prove mistake prone, and Jeremy Lin is good but not great, but the team plays hard and shows enough scrap to not be a cellar dweller in a competitive Western Conference. This would leave them with a mid-grade lottery pick in next year’s draft and the chance to draft another talented player who isn’t quite elite enough to be the type of difference maker that propels a franchise. In other words, the Rockets spin their wheels for another season and go into next year looking very much like the team they already are.

How it likely works out: The hodge-podge of young talent shows some promise but is ultimately a mixed bag. Jeremy Lin doesn’t quite reach the level he showed in New York but is good enough to not be a bust signing. The Rockets make a final push to trade Martin but don’t find an acceptable deal and let his contract fall off their books. The mostly young team plays hard and shows grit but that’s not enough to keep them close to the playoff hunt in a stacked Western Conference. The Rockets end up with a relatively high lottery pick and cap space next summer for them to try and finally rebuild.

Prediction: 27-55, 13th in the West and another lottery pick to try and package in a deal for whatever star is on the market next off-season (cough, James Harden, cough).

We meet again: Cavaliers, Raptors back together in postseason

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CLEVELAND (AP) We The North vs. We Are The Champions.

One round earlier than a year ago, Toronto and Cleveland are meeting again in the NBA playoffs.

On the way to winning their first title last season, LeBron James and the Cavs took care of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that was tied 2-2 before Cleveland won the final two games. The teams finished this season with identical 51-31 records and their history makes for an intriguing May matchup.

“They know us,” James said, “and we know them.”

After sweeping Indiana in the opening round, the Cavs will have waited a full week before Monday’s Game 1 tips off at Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland is 15-1 against conference opponents over the past three postseasons.

The down time gave James and his teammates a chance to recharge, heal some nagging bumps and bruises and prepare for a Toronto team that not only added Serge Ibaka (acquired from Orlando in February) and P.J. Tucker (acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline) this season, but is looking for revenge after having its season ended by Cleveland in 2016.

These Raptors don’t want that to happen again.

“We’ve got some fighters and scrappers,” coach Dwane Casey said after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in six games. “The guys are going to compete. We make it hard on ourselves sometime, but at the end of the day we’re going to go down swinging.”

They submitted last year in Game 6 at home, when James scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in Cleveland’s 113-87 win.

“He canceled Christmas,” Casey said earlier this season. “One of these days … one of these days.”

For the Raptors to knock off the Cavs, whose shaky defense still showed some significant holes against the Pacers, Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to be at their best.

“The two-headed monster,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.

DeRozan averaged 23.5 points per game in the opening round against the Bucks, and may need to bump that into the 30s for the Raptors to have a chance.

Toronto lost three of four against Cleveland this season with the only win coming in the season finale, when Lue rested James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Here are some other things to keep in mind as James takes another step toward a possible seventh straight trip to the Finals:

ROAD WARRIOR: James loves the road, where he has won at least one game in a record 27 consecutive playoff series.

The three-time champion revels in the discomfort of being booed and hated.

“Home cooking is great; love the home fans for 14 years,” he said. “But I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity. … It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”

Or in this case, all of Canada.

KYLE IS KEY: Lowry is back to full speed after missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds against the Bucks, but the Raptors will need more from him to dethrone the Cavs.

Lowry might be able to exploit Cleveland’s suspect perimeter defense and lack of a true rim protector by driving to the basket.

FREE-THROW WOES: After making a career-low 67 percent of his free throws in the regular season, James went only 22 of 38 (58 percent) from the line in the opening round.

None of his misses was too costly, but the pressure only intensifies from here with every make and every miss meaning more.

DEMAR THE STAR: DeRozan can get his shot off any place, any time. Like they did with Paul George in the first round, the Cavs are expected to focus their attention Toronto’s best player, harassing him with double teams to make him give up the ball.

“He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league right now, and he does a good job of getting to the free-throw line,” Lue said. “His mid-range jumper is automatic and he can also get to the basket where he’s very athletic. He’s a tough cover and we just want to make him make field goals and not free throws and make it hard on him.”

ON THE MOVE: James has been climbing various lists all season and he’s still rising. He enters the series 60 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.682) for the second place on the career postseason scoring list. Once he passes Mr. Sky Hook, next on the list is His Airness, Michael Jordan (5,987).

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Wizards’ Markieff Morris rolled his ankle so hard he “thought it was broke” (VIDEO)

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The Washington Wizards dropped Game 1 of their semi final round against the Boston Celtics on Sunday. A big part of that loss was the absence of Markieff Morris, who turned his ankle with just a few minutes to go in the first quarter.

Morris was shooting a jumper from the left elbow extended with Boston’s Al Horford contesting. Horford didn’t give Morris enough of a chance to land, and a foul was called.

The video of Morris’ ankle turning is pretty gross, especially if you’re a basketball player, so just be forewarned.

Via Twitter:

After the game Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he did not have an update on Morris’ status but that they would see how he was feeling on Monday.

Morris, meanwhile, said he initially thought he had broken his ankle.

Speaking to MassLive.com, Morris said as much:

“This was my worst one,” Morris said. “I kind of twist my ankles like this, that’s my injury, an ankle twist. But this was by far the worst one. I honestly thought it was broke. They got the swelling to go down a whole lot, but it almost was like the size of a softball.”

Game 2 of the series is in Boston on Tuesday.

Utah’s depth, 26 from Gordon Hayward lift Jazz to Game 7 win 104-91, eliminates Clippers

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This ended up being a series — and a Game 7 — about depth.

Without Blake Griffin, the Clippers depth was tested and faltered, particularly on the offensive end. The Clippers scored just 15 points in the third quarter of Game 7 as the Jazz took a comfortable lead. Los Angeles shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from three in Game 7. J.J. Redick was a non-factor. A Los Angeles offense that averaged 110.3 points per 100 possessions during the season was at 94.7 in Game 7 and 107.7 for the entire postseason

Utah, on the other hand, had their star center Rudy Gobert in foul trouble all game — he played 5 minutes in the first half, 13:26 for the game, and finished with just one point. Gordon Hayward, Utah’s leading scorer on the season, started the game 4-of-14 through three quarters (but played a strong fourth and finished with 26 points).

The difference was Utah got a huge Game 7 from Derrick Favors, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, that made up for what the Jazz lost with Gobert. George Hill added 17 points at the point for Utah, which had seven players in double figures. They found ways to get offense from sources other than their brightest stars.

Combine that depth with the fantastic defense the Jazz played all season and the result was an impressive 104-91 win in Game 7 on the road. Utah beat the Clippers three out of four games in Staples Center this series (and Los Angeles picked up one in Utah).

The win advances the Jazz to take on the Warriors starting Tuesday night in Oakland.

The game was also the final one in an amazing 19-year career for Paul Pierce. The Clipper forward said he would retire at the end of the season, and he is bound for the Hall of Fame.

However, this series was more about depth and how the teams handled adversity due to it.

Utah struggled with injuries all season — their preferred starting five played in just 13 games together in the regular season due to injuries. That led to guys learning new roles, learning how to adapt, and play in different combinations — all things that mattered against the Clippers and in Game 7.

“It was a battle, the whole series was a battle,” Gordon Hayward said after Game 7. “Tonight was no different. It was fun out there, though. Especially competing with my teammates, with what we’ve been through this year with injuries and everything, it’s just a great win for us.”

The Clippers lost one of their big three when Blake Griffin went down with a foot injury that required surgery. Los Angeles has a top-heavy (and expensive) roster that lacked the depth to make up for it or adjust to Griffin being out.

“Not having Blake is a major wound. Obviously, you take your best scorer, your second best rebounder, your second best passer off a team,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “But give Utah credit, they won this series.”

For the Clippers, the entire series became about Chris Paul needing to do everything — and he almost did. The Jazz were aggressive defensively trying to take the ball out of CP3’s hands Sunday, and he still had 13 points and 9 assists in Game 7, he pushed his team as far as he could, but he was 1-of-7 from three and the other Clippers shooters did not step up.

“They trapped him a lot, the same thing they did last game, to be honest,” Rivers said. “We just didn’t move the ball great as a whole group. I thought CP was great overall, he got a little tired, I thought a couple guys did… we just had such a short rotation it was very difficult. But I thought they did a great job trapping and I didn’t think we did a very good job of, after CP got rid of the ball, attacking back. I thought we lost our trust a little bit, we’d catch it and throw it back to CP instead of attacking.”

Paul was blunter in his assessment of himself.

“I’ve got to be better, especially in a Game 7 like this,” Paul said.

To be fair, Paul tweaked his ankle in the third quarter, and while he played through it he was never quite the same after.

This loss leads to an interesting offseason for the Clippers where Griffin and Paul are expected to opt out of their contracts and become free agents, joining J.J. Redick, Marreese Speights, and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Clippers are expected to bring back Paul on a five-year max contract, but this loss could be the one that has management thinking it’s time for something new — does Clipper owner Steve Ballmer want to foot the luxury tax bill that would come with one of the highest payrolls in the league to run this back?

“We’ve been reading our obituary for three months,” Rivers said.

For the Jazz, it’s just another step up the ladder for an improving young team. Now they get to test themselves against the best in the league, starting Tuesday night at Oracle.

Move over Charles Barkley: Giannis Antetokounmpo has the worst NBA golf swing (VIDEO)

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Look, nobody is expecting an NBA player of Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s length to have a pretty golf swing. He’s the kind of tall that I wonder if golf science is even able to make clubs long enough for him that are still mechanically sound.

But that didn’t stop the Milwaukee Bucks star from hitting the driving range recently, and boy is his swing bad. Like, Charles Barkley bad.

Watch at your own risk, it is not pretty.

Via Instagram:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka the Greek Freak, knows he should stick to basketball. 😂😬(via Snapchat/g_ante34)

A post shared by Golf Digest (@golfdigest) on

That’s cool, at least Antetokounmpo knows the deal.

That’s the thing about golf anyway. It’s not about how good you are, it’s about realizing at what level you suck at it.