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 DeMar DeRozan score 40 as Raptors beat Heat, 101-84 (VIDEO)

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MIAMI (AP) DeMar DeRozan scored 40 points, marking the first time he’s had that many in consecutive games, and the Toronto Raptors pulled off their 19th double-digit comeback of the season to beat the Miami Heat 101-84 on Thursday night.

DeRozan shot 14 for 25 from the field and 12 for 13 from the line. He needed 38 shots to score 42 against Chicago on Tuesday.

Norman Powell scored 14 and Delon Wright added 13 for Toronto, which never led until midway through the third quarter. The Raptors allowed 33 points in the first quarter, then held Miami to 35 points over the next 27 minutes.

Playing with 13 stitches in his right hand, Hassan Whiteside scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Miami. Rodney McGruder and Goran Dragic each had 13 points for the Heat, with Dragic shooting just 5 for 18.

He wasn’t the only Miami player to struggle. The Heat shot only 39 percent, 26 percent from 3-point range. The 84 points tied for Miami’s second-lowest total of the season, and was the first time the Heat failed to reach 90 at home.

The Raptors trailed by 15 points early and eventually led by as many as 17 – a 32-point turnaround. No one in the NBA has been better at pulling off big comebacks than the Raptors, who have come from behind six times since the All-Star break alone.

“It talks about toughness, heart,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Our give-a-crap level is pretty high, and it’s one of those things where when you count us out, we find a way. My thing is just find five men who are going to play hard.”

Neither team moved in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Toronto (43-29) remained in the No. 4 spot, pulling within a half-game of No. 3 Washington. Miami (35-37) stayed No. 8, now just a game ahead of No. 9 Chicago and No. 10 Detroit.

TIP-INS

Raptors: DeRozan has two 20-plus-point halves against Miami this season. He had 22 in the second half on Nov. 4, and 24 in the first half of this one. … P.J. Tucker started for Serge Ibaka, who served his one-game suspension for fighting Chicago’s Robin Lopez on Tuesday. … Toronto outrebounded Miami 51-36.

Heat: Wayne Ellington played, one day after the birth of his son. Wayne Ellington III arrived Monday afternoon. … Miami’s three second-quarter field goals were a season-low for any quarter. The previous low was four, done four times. … McGruder reached double figures for only the second time in his last 14 games.

DEROZAN HISTORY

DeRozan became the second player in Toronto history to have a season where he scored 32 or more points at least 20 times. He was an 11-year-old when it last happened – Vince Carter had 28 of those games in 2000-01.

WAITERS UPDATE

Heat guard Dion Waiters missed his third game with a sprained left ankle, and remains in a walking boot. There’s still no timetable for his return, but the Heat said the swelling in his ankle continues to decrease.

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Dallas on Saturday. It’s the second time this month Toronto faces Miami and Dallas consecutively.

Heat: Visit Boston on Sunday. Miami is 0-3 against Boston this season, losing by eight, 10 and three points.

JJ Barea goes after Blake Griffin, earns Flagrant 2 and ejection (VIDEO)

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Dallas Mavericks guard JJ Barea didn’t like that Los Angeles Clippers big man was coming to set a screen on him, so he slapped his hand away. Griffin then retaliated with an elbow — which may or may not have connected — and that kicked off a row between the two players that resulted in Barea claiming a Flagrant 2 and an ejection.

It came during the third quarter with Barea at the top of the key and both Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on either side of him.

Here’s how the play looked from multiple angles:

Curious that Griffin wasn’t assessed a foul at all given his own handsy nature. After the game referee Bill Spooner responded to pool reporters by saying that Barea was ejected for his contract above the throat. Meanwhile, Spooner also said that whether Griffin flopped or not was irrelevant.

“It has nothing to do with the merits of the play,” said Spooner.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks beat the Clippers, 97-95.

Spurs honor Richard Overton, the oldest living U.S. veteran at Military Appreciation Night

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San Antonio is a military town, and on Thursday night against the Memphis Grizzlies the Spurs held a Military Appreciation Night. The team donned their camouflage uniforms, then held court for a very special guest: Richard Overton.

Mr. Overton is the oldest living U.S. veteran at age 110. He was in the Pacific theater during WWII and served in the Army with the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion.

The team honored Mr. Overton during the game, and he received a standing ovation during a timeout.

Via Twitter:

Plus, Mr. Overton got to hang with the Spurs dancers:

Pretty neat of the team to do.

James Harden has been fouled on 3-pointers more than any single NBA team

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Houston Rockets star James Harden is a leading candidate for the 2017 NBA MVP, and for good reason. The Arizona State product has been exceedingly efficient, unburdened by Dwight Howard clogging the lane and fueled by a Mike D’Antoni offense that treats the ball like it’s radioactive.

But Harden has a new claim to add to his statistically-important season. He has been fouled more times on 3-point shots than any team in the NBA.

Not player. Any team.

This revelation is the result of some serious digging by ESPN’s Chris Herring. In an article published to 538, Herring outlined the situation in great detail. It’s worth reading in full, but the shocker comes here:

Harden has drawn a whopping 108 shooting fouls from distance this year with 11 games left to play. For context, consider that, outside of the Rockets, no team has garnered more than 73 of those calls.

If you subtract Harden’s numbers from the rest of the league’s, the average NBA player has drawn fouls on 1.6 percent of his 3-pointers this season, according to BigDataBall, which tracks the league’s play-by-play logs. Harden is drawing 3-point shooting fouls at a 16.7 percent clip, or more than 10 times as often.

Herring’s article goes into how Harden draws the contact (hint: he’s the one initiating it) and why he’s so good at it. Just like on his drives, Herring says Harden uses his arms to his advantage. It’s best to read 538’s article so you can see the visual cues on how Harden does it, but it’s suffice to say it’s impressive.

The immediate discussion here is whether Harden is “gaming” the system by adding this to his already foul-reliant arsenal. The answer is absolutely he is, and that’s why he’s one of the top MVP candidates this season.

Change the rules or change how officials respond to the game. Until then, James Harden is a basketball wizard.