Houston Rockets Introduce Dwight Howard

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: The Rockets began the year with the somewhat surprising trade for James Harden — surprising because of the Thunder’s choice to deal him so soon instead of pursuing a title with him in place for one more season. It was the right call on Houston’s part, as Harden immediately turned into the offensive star many believed he was capable of becoming.

It was enough to get the team to 45 wins and and eight seed in the West, although facing the Thunder in the first round, even after Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury, proved to be too tough, and the Rockets were eliminated in six games.

Signature highlight from last season: There was no one game or single play that defined the Rockets last season as much as the overall play of Harden did, so it seems appropriate to simply enjoy his top 10 plays from last season.

Key player changes: Unless you were living in a cave during the summer, you’re probably aware of a certain high-profile free agent center that chose to sign in Houston.

  • IN: Dwight Howard, signed to a five-year max contract in free agency. Omri Casspi, Marcus Camby, and Aaron Brooks were all signed to one-year guaranteed deals, and Ronnie Brewer was signed to a non-guaranteed deal for some depth defensively.
  • OUT: Thomas Robinson, essentially given away to the Blazers to create the cap space necessary to sign Howard. The headache known as Royce White was dealt to the Sixers, and Carlos Delfino signed with the Bucks in free agency.

Keys to the Rockets season:

1) Dwight Howard: The man who has been more about drama than bona fide basketball results over the past two seasons has a fresh start in Houston, and he’ll be expected to immediately begin earning that max contract the Rockets handed him this summer.

The good news is that by all accounts, Howard is healthy, and fully recovered from the back surgery that limited him over the first half of his ill-fated season in Los Angeles. The other positive is that while Howard is as high-profile an acquisition as possible, he doesn’t have to be “the man” in Houston — at least not offensively. That’s Harden’s role, so while Howard will have plenty of opportunity to score and will get plenty of touches both on the low block and in pick-and-roll situations, he won’t be relied upon as the primary offensive option.

All the Rockets need Howard to do is return to form as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who protects the rim, rebounds, and intimidates other teams from even thinking about coming inside. The Rockets were sixth in offensive efficiency last season, but 16th defensively. Howard’s presence should immediately change that.

2) James Harden: Harden was the focal point of the offense last season, and while the team has capable point guards in Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley (who are currently competing for the starting spot at that position), more often than not it was Harden who ended up with the ball in his hands creating for himself or for others. There will be an adjustment period with Howard now, not only because he will warrant a certain amount of touches, but also because his presence in the middle won’t leave as much space for Harden to do what he does best, which is getting to the basket.

There will be an adjustment period while Harden and the Rockets figure out the spacing and use both players’ talents to their advantage. How quickly it all comes together may partially determine just how many regular season wins are piled up in Houston.

3) The rest: Harden and Howard are monster talents at their respective positions, but how much production the team gets from everyone else is more likely to determine their ultimate postseason fate. Camby is a guy who could be of real value in the playoffs, and won’t be expected to be ready long before then.

Omer Asik will be interesting to watch, as he was initially unhappy with the Howard deal for fear his role would be diminished. It will be, despite head coach Kevin McHale vowing to try to play his two big men together, though most don’t believe that will work in anything more than very short stints against very specific matchups.

Guys like Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia, along with Chandler Parsons are going to need to contribute regularly for this team to get where it wants to go before the year is through.

Why you should watch: James Harden is one of the more entertaining offensive players in the game, and a healthy Howard is one of the best defensively.

Prediction: The West is stacked, but if Howard and Harden are able to figure it out then the Rockets should approach 60 wins, and be a top-three team in the West by the time the regular season is finished. It’s tough to see them getting to the Finals in their first year together, but a deep playoff run should not only be the goal, it should be expected.

Watch Stephen Curry’s late lockdown defense (video)

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Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant might not think much of Stephen Curry‘s defense – Durant gave a great and tremendously honest answer – but Curry was at his defensive best late in the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Thunder last night.

Curry locked up Durant multiple times. Also included in that clip: Curry’s rebound in traffic, because rebounding is a key part of defense.

The Draymond Green kicking controversy continued through Game 5

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after scoring against the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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We’ve shown you the video evidence beforeDraymond Green tries to sell calls by kicking. Despite the Flagrant 2 he picked up for one of those kicks that connected with Steven Adams‘ groin, he said he was never going to start playing “careful.”

He certainly didn’t in Game 5 — he got his foot up high not once but twice.

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As we said back when it happened, the league needs to come down harder on this next season — Green is far from the only player who does it, and the league can’t only call it a foul when it connects. The habit needs to be broken with all the players doing it.

Those kicks were not even the play were Green got a technical foul, his fifth of the playoffs (get to seven and you get an automatic one-game suspension).

Did Kevin Durant throw shade at Stephen Curry’s defense? Does Curry care?

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In the fourth quarter Thursday night, Stephen Curry came up big — on defense. He had a strip of a Kevin Durant shot as KD tried to bring the ball up for a shot, plus he had another steal. Curry is no lock down defender, but he made some plays.

After the game, Durant was asked if Curry is an underrated defender (video above). First, notice that Russell Westbrook laughs at the question — he hates giving opposing players compliments. Remember he said before the series Curry wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before. Durant stammered at first then tried to give a more diplomatic answer, but threw a little shade at Curry in the process.

“You know, he’s pretty good, but he doesn’t guard the best point guards. I think they do a good job of putting a couple guys on Russell, from Thompson to Iguodala, and Steph, they throw him in there sometimes. But he moves his feet pretty well, he’s good with his hands. But, you know, I like our matchup with him guarding Russ.”

As he should. I like the matchup of Westbrook vs. every other point guard in the league. Westbrook tore Curry up in Games 3 and 4.

Of course, Curry was asked about Durant’s comments when he came into the interview room, but he refused to take the bait.

“I got a great teammate that’s obviously a better defender on the perimeter. I like the challenge. I do my job the best I can”

He’s got a couple of teammates that are better defenders on the perimeter — Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Those guys are just busy with other players this series because the Thunder are deep and present a plethora of challenges.

This is all a tempest in a Conference Finals teapot. It wasn’t as big a deal as some in the media will try to make it out to be.

Curry is going to have to play defense and score better in Game 6 than his improved Game 5 play if the Warriors are coming back for one more game at Oracle Arena.

Tyronn Lue: ‘This is our Game 7’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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TORONTO (AP) To keep their season alive, the Toronto Raptors are counting on a home-court advantage that saved them before.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers moved within one win of their second straight NBA Finals on Wednesday night by routing Toronto 116-78 in Game 5, the fourth lopsided game in a series where both teams have struggled mightily on the road.

Paced by the resurgent Kevin Love with 25 points, and 23 apiece from James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs built a 43-point lead in the second half and demolished the Raptors. Toronto lost three games in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena by a combined 88 points.

Fortunately, the Raptors are back home in front of their own frenzied fans and will host Game 6 on Friday night in Air Canada Centre, where the Cavs are 0-4 this season and lost Games 3 and 4 in this series.

After going 32-9 at home during the regular season, Toronto is 8-2 on its floor in the playoffs, and pulled off a Game 7 wins over Indiana and Miami.

The Raptors need it to be home sweet home one more time.

“We’ve got to play the same way we played the two home games we’ve had so far,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said Thursday, a day after he was hounded by Cleveland’s guards and scored just 13 on 5 of 12 shooting. “That’s all we can do. Can’t worry about the road. We might not get a chance to go back on the road if we don’t play the right way tomorrow.”

Toronto was overmatched from the opening tap in Game 5, falling behind by 18 after one quarter, 31 at halftime and finishing with 18 turnovers, five by Lowry.

“They’re drastically bad when you’ve got LeBron coming at you,” Lowry said.

In an all-over-the-map postseason, an elimination game against Cleveland is about as drastically bad as things have been for the Raptors, who led 3-2 in each of the first two rounds. Even so, Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan didn’t seem too troubled after Thursday’s film session.

“I don’t know why we get so comfortable once we put ourselves in a tougher situation,” DeRozan said. “We’ve been doing it all year and we always bounce back. I think we just thrive off adversity.”

Cleveland’s home record was one win better than Toronto’s this season, and the Cavs are unbeaten in seven home playoff games since Game 6 of last year’s finals. While his team has struggled in Toronto, coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t want to have to put that streak on the line.

“We want to come in with the approach that this is our Game 7,” Lue said. “We’ve worked hard all season to get to this point, and we want to treat this next game as our Game 7.”

After Wednesday’s big win, Irving said the hostile atmosphere the Cavs encountered in Toronto made them “probably my first legitimate two road games that I’ve experienced in my playoff career.”

“Our communication, everything had to be a lot sharper,” Irving said of battling the noise in the North. “We took a lot that we had to learn from that game, including myself. Going into Game 6, I feel a little bit more prepared than I was going into Game 3 and 4 of knowing what to expect, what it’s going to be like.”

If there was any good news for the Raptors in Game 5, it was the return of center Jonas Valanciunas, out since May 7 with a sprained right ankle. Casey said Valanciunas, who scored nine points in 18 minutes Wednesday, could provide offensive versatility in Game 6.

“Getting the ball in the post will be a calming effect for us,” Casey said. “He’s got to be able to make it out of the double team, as the guards do. We looked at that today. He can quarterback out of the low post as well as score out of the low post, and it gives us a third option.”

Can home court advantage and a healthy Valanciunas prolong the deepest playoff run in Raptors history and help Toronto reach a third Game 7?

Casey hasn’t given up hope.

“We’ve been here before,” he said. “We’re here at home. We’ve played well here at home. We are playing against one of the best teams in the NBA right now. Our guys take solace from being at home, understanding we’ve been here before and we can bounce back from it. I have faith we will bounce back.”