James Harden

The Extra Pass: Rockets foul up three and it works out…barely

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Game after game, Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale has had to sit back and watch teams use intentional fouls to their advantage.

Against the New York Knicks on Thursday night, he turned the tables.

After dealing with the “Hack-A-Howard” once again, the Rockets were lucky enough to hold on to a three-point lead with five seconds left, thanks in large part to Carmelo Anthony’s mistake of intentionally fouling Howard under two minutes.

Despite the painful error, Anthony was all set to have a chance to tie the game with five seconds left. All he had to do was hit a three.

But as soon as Anthony received the ball and his chance for redemption, James Harden shoved him. Then he swiped at him. Then he swiped at him again.

The whistle blew, and Anthony flung up a desperate heave. Splash. Good.

Visions of Larry Johnson danced in Knicks’ fans heads, but it wasn’t to be. The foul was on the ground, and now Anthony was charged with a much more difficult task of turning two free throws into three points.

Coaches typically don’t tell their players to foul in that situation. According to a study that spanned from 2005-2008, teams decided to foul just 27 times out of a possible 287 chances when up three with less than 10 seconds on the clock.

According to that same study, teams that didn’t foul won 91.9 percent of the games. Teams that did foul? 88.9 percent. While it seems like fouling gives a team a clear advantage in that situation, it also opens the door for a lot of wackiness, which we very nearly witnessed in New York.

Still, it’s important to remember that each situation is unique. Going up against a player like Anthony in that situation, who can get his shot off over anyone, is a little scarier than, say, defending anyone from the Memphis Grizzlies in a similar spot.

The time and timeout situation matters as well. The less time on the clock, the less chances that there will be possessions added on to the game. If a team is without timeouts, the inability to advance the ball on a future possession is a huge bonus.

Aside from Harden playing patty-cake instead of wrapping Anthony up, it was perfect execution. Anthony caught the ball with his back to the basket, which should trigger a foul in that situation every time, and the Knicks had no timeouts remaining and no ferocious offensive rebounders to create problems on the box out for Houston.

Anthony actually ended up making both free throws — the second on accident. On the other end, Harden hit both of his, and now the Knicks were forced to depend on a half-court buzzer-beater instead of a three-pointer from a player who made 157 of them last season.

Introducing so many variables can make coaches nervous, especially since if it backfires, the heat comes down on them instead of the players. If you don’t foul, and the opposing play nails a 3? The player gets the accolades, and the coach gets very little criticism, if any at all.

It’s a risky move for that reason alone, but it also requires a lot of trust in your players, both to foul correctly, box out, and inbound the ball or make free throws if time permits.

Some may think the Rockets got lucky, that leaving a decision to the ref, on the road, against a star player, was foolish. But at least in this instance, fortune favored the bold.

—DJ Foster

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Rockets 109, Knicks 106: Carmelo Anthony gave it his all — 45 points, 10 rebounds and he almost got a four-point play at the end that might have changed everything — but in the end he couldn’t overcome the lack interior defense that the Rockets were able to exploit. No, it wasn’t Dwight Howard who did the exploiting — he got outplayed by Andrea Bargnani. Seriously. At both ends. Rather it was James Harden (36 points), Chandler Parsons (22) and Jeremy Lin (21, nine of those in the fourth quarter) that ended up being too much for New York. The Knicks are 3-5 on the season and you know James Dolan is stewing.

Warriors 116, Thunder 115: This game was just fun. Pure entertainment. Not a lot of defense but who wants to watch that over threes and dunks? Golden State’s Klay Thompson was 6-of-9 from three on his way to 27 points, while teammate Stephen Curry was 4-of-8 on his way to 20. However it was all almost for naught as the Thunder overcame a 14-point deficit to take the late lead thanks to a dramatic Russell Westbrook deep three (he finished with 31 in his best game since his return). Then Andre Iguodala hit a leaning jumper as the buzzer sounded and the Warriors got the win.

Thunder get off to fast start, survive wild ending to win 98-97, even series with Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, center, scramble with San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, right, for a loose ball as time expires in the second half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. Oklahoma City won 98-97. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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When the playoffs are all over, and all the confetti has fallen at the parade celebrating the 2016 NBA champion, we are still going to be talking about this game. The Spurs and Warriors gave us everything — great shooting, leads and comebacks, and a wild, controversial ending.

What ultimately matters is the Thunder bounced back from a rough first game, were aggressive from the start and raced out to that early lead using their transition offense. Then a team that blew a lot of leads this season hung on through multiple Spurs comebacks and ultimately got a 98-97 win behind 29 points from Russell Westbrook and 28 from Kevin Durant (who played well at the four spot much of the night). The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Oklahoma City.

All the controversy at the end doesn’t change that fact, or that the Thunder did some things much better in Game 2.

The Thunder have had moments like this throughout the season, where they defended better, got transition points, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter (or someone else) would step up and make plays — but they didn’t sustain that high level of play for very long. They still won 55 games because Durant and Westbrook are talented, but we will see if they can sustain a “beat the Spurs” level of play for most of the next couple weeks.

San Antonio helped out by having their offense not as sharp, and just missing shots — the Spurs started 2-of-15 from the field and finished the game shooting just 26.1 percent from three. The missed shots allowed the Thunder to get out in transition more and get the easy buckets that fuel their offense.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about, this is:

Those final 13 seconds, when the Spurs were down 1 and the Thunder were trying to inbound the ball, is the topic of the day. The referees swallowed their whistles to the point that a rugby scrum broke out.

The most discussed part of the play was the inbound — Dion Waiters reaches across the boundary line to shove Manu Ginobili back, which is a clear foul and a change of possessions. Ginobili had stepped on the end line, which could have been ruled a technical but was not as egregious as Waiters’ blatant foul. There were a host of other fouls in those final seconds: Kawhi Leonard grabbing Westbrook’s jersey, a Spurs fan grabbing Steven Adams when he fell out of bounds and not letting him back in the play, and Ibaka hacking LaMarcus Aldridge in the final seconds.

But that’s not what decided the game. The Spurs made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of clean looks before that, things they needed at the end. Aldridge had 41 points, and Leonard added 12. However, Tim Duncan was 1-of-8, and Tony Parker was 3-of-9 — those guys are not the top offensive options anymore, but the Spurs need them to be efficient. The hustling Thunder defense had something to do with this, but that doesn’t change that the Spurs need more from these two key players.

The Thunder offense worked not because they shared the ball — as per usual, it happens only in spurts — but because Westbrook and Durant hit their shots, and because they got transition buckets.

If they can do that for a couple more games at home, they will be in command of this series. But it’s not going to be simple or easy.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.