Rockets play much better, but Thunder escape with the win for a 2-0 series lead

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After dropping Game 1 of their first round playoff series to the top seeded Thunder by 29 points, there weren’t many who believed the Rockets would be able to compete for more than short stretches the rest of the series.

But thanks to some key adjustments, Houston gave the Thunder all they could handle in Game 2, and erased all of a 15-point fourth quarter deficit before ultimately falling 105-102.

Rockets head coach Kevin McHale knew he had to match the Thunder’s speed after the way the first game unfolded, so he went small and inserted first year reserve point guard Patrick Beverley into the starting lineup in place of his usual starting big man, Greg Smith.

The move worked to perfection. Not only did Beverley produce by contributing 16 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists in 41 minutes, but he got under the skin of Russell Westbrook at times when battling him defensively. Two early fouls on Westbrook had him sitting on the bench after playing less than six first quarter minutes, but Kevin Durant took over without issue as he poured in 15 points in the game’s first 12 minutes.

Westbrook came back with a vengeance in the second, and put in one of those electric stretches he’s become known for. Westbrook had 11 in the period in under seven and a half minutes.

While Durant and Westbrook were doing their collective thing, Harden was doing his for the Rockets. He barreled into the paint on seemingly every possession, and got to the free throw line for 20 attempts. Harden finished with a game high 36 points (albeit on just 9-of-24 shooting), to go along with 11 rebounds and six assists.

This was an exciting game that stayed tight in the first half, and then gave way to wild swings by both teams in the second.

Oklahoma City ran its lead to 11 midway through the third period, once Beverley headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. Jeremy Lin was unavailable in the second half due to a shoulder contusion, so Aaron Brooks got the call in the third when Beverley was forced to sit out.

The Thunder briefly took control to start the fourth thanks to a couple of threes from Kevin Martin and one from Westbrook that saw the lead reach 15 points with under nine and a half minutes remaining. The Rockets then went to a zone defense, and everything changed.

Houston went on a monster of a run while the Thunder struggled to deal with the zone by taking too many long twos and threes, instead of moving the ball and trying to attack the center of it. The Rockets put together a 21-2 stretch, capped off by a three-pointer from Carlos Delfino that gave them a four-point lead with 3:37 remaining.

But Durant responded. He blocked Chandler Parsons inside, then drained a three a couple of possessions later that put the Thunder back ahead, before driving to draw the defense and making a great kick-out pass to Thabo Sefolosha, who drained the open three that sealed it for OKC.

The Rockets got just about everything they wanted in this one statistically, except for one glaring omission. Houston killed the Thunder on the glass, outrebounding them 57-40. Thy won the battle of points in the paint with a 50-30 advantage, and outscored them 27-15 in second chance points.

But the Rockets were a dreadful 10-35 from three-point distance, good for just 28.6 percent. They got plenty of open looks, but simply couldn’t knock them down, and it’s a shame considering that the team was second in the league behind only the Knicks in three-pointers made per game, and finished eighth in the league in three-point shooting percentage.

Houston may be able to carry some momentum with them from this one back home for Games 3 and 4, and now it will be Thunder head coach Scott Brooks’ turn to make the adjustments. The Thunder won’t likely struggle as much against the zone again (they were plenty successful against it at times during the regular season), and they’ll have to find a way to close better on the Rockets shooters, while not allowing Harden to get into the paint so easily where he draws the bulk of the fouls that give him those free throw opportunities.

The status of Jeremy Lin moving forward will obviously be a concern for the Rockets, and will have a big impact on whether or not they can put up a fight similar to the one we saw in Game 2 once the series shifts to Houston.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.