Howard, Houston pass first test with win over Miami

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Houston passed the first test.

The Rockets NBA’s have the best record since Jan. 1 (19-6 coming into Tuesday night) but a lot of that came against soft competition. That was the easy part, the next couple weeks come a series of tests against the league’s best — from that we’ll get a better sense of just how legitimate this Rockets team is. (Technically you could say they didn’t pass the first test, losing to the Clippers last week.)

They looked legit on Tuesday — they attacked mismatches, got balanced offense and never trailed to the Miami Heat on their way to a 106-103 victory at home.

Miami was on the second night of a back-to-back and it showed at points. LeBron James looked like a guy who had expended 61 points of energy the night before and had 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting, plus he went scoreless in the fourth quarter.

To add to his painful night, late in the game he got hit in the face (there were some reports that LeBron re-broke his nose but that has been shot down by the team). It was on a play late where, down three with 13 seconds left the Heat were trying to defend with pressure and force a turnover. They did, James Harden threw an ill-advised pass down court to Howard, LeBron went up for the steal and in so got an inadvertent elbow from Howard in the face.

Immediately after that he tried to take a game-tying step-back three with the broken nose — on the switch Dwight Howard was on him but that worked for Houston because LeBron needed a three and Howard is mobile enough and long enough that he could contest anything. The shot missed.

Miami’s problem wasn’t LeBron. He also saw doubles but when he passed out guys were not knocking down shots. Chris Bosh was 1-of-5 on the night and just seemed to coast through the game. The only guy to really step up was Michael Beasley, who had 24 off the bench.

Houston went right at the two weaknesses of the Miami, getting points out of their center and point guards.

Howard had another strong game — 22 points on 13 shots, plus 16 rebounds. He was also 6-of-8 from the free throw line, pretty much negating the hack-a-Howard idea.

At the point Patrick Beverly had 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting, hitting 5-of-8 from three (he struggled shooting once he ventured inside the arc). He also was his pesky self on defense all night, even harassing (and annoying) LeBron at points. James Harden had 21; Terrence Jones added 19 points and 12 boards.

What the Rockets really had was balance — all five starters scored in double digits. The Rockets shot 51.3 percent on one of the better defensive teams in the NBA (when they want to be). Houston attacked with 33 shots at the rim but they were also 7-of-11 from the midrange as everything seemed to fall for them.

Starting Friday the Rockets schedule is: Indiana, Portland, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago, at Miami. That’s a heck of a challenge.

But the Rockets passed the first test.

Watch Lonzo Ball dodge relentless stream of LeBron James questions (video)

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Shortly before the draft, Lonzo Ball was asked in a televised interview to pitch LeBron James on joining the Lakers – and did.

A couple months and a tampering investigation into the Lakers later, Ball learned his lesson.

Sports Illustrated:

Rohan Nadkarni’s questions were all in good fun, and he couldn’t trick Ball into tampering, anyway. The NBA has essentially decided it won’t punish players for tampering with each other.

Ask Ball an honest LeBron question, and he’ll give an honest answer.

Report: People close to LeBron James ‘fairly confident’ Dwyane Wade will join Cavaliers

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Will the Bulls and Dwyane Wade reach a buyout?

Apparently, not only do people close to LeBron James believe it’ll happen, they have a read on Wade’s destination.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

As of right now, people close to James are fairly confident that, at some point this year, Dwyane Wade is going to end up on the Cavs.

Earlier in the podcast, Vardon even listed the only five people he believes reports should source as close to LeBron:

  • LeBron
  • Rich Paul
  • Maverick Carter
  • Savanah James
  • Adam Mendelsohn

So, that something about the proximity of this information to LeBron. Given Wade’s friendship with LeBron, Vardon’s sources could have inside information on Wade’s plan.

But hold your horses on Wade to Cleveland.

Though they could buy him out sooner, the Bulls are incentivized to keep Wade past the trade deadline. His $23.8 million expiring contract could prove useful in a trade. If no trade comes up and Chicago is out of the playoff race, as expected, a buyout would make far more sense. Now, eliminating that trade chip and sticking a large amount of dead salary on the books would be problematic for the Bulls – unless Wade cuts them a big discount. He doesn’t sound inclined to do that.

Even if Wade gets bought out, he has been rumored to follow LeBron to Cleveland for years. It obviously hasn’t happened yet. Wade’s friendship with LeBron is the primary lure – but it also might push Wade to signal a desire to team up while he can’t commit then go a different direction when push comes to shove. It can be hard to tell friends no.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Wade ends up with the Cavaliers. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is just wishful thinking by people close to LeBron.

Clippers’ Jerry West: ‘I did not want to leave’ Warriors

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A report emerged last spring that Jerry West was nearing a deal to stay with the Warriors as a consultant. Instead, he took the same job with the Clippers.

West, via Tim Kawakami of The Athletic, via NBC Sports Bay Area:

“Frankly it was very sad, OK? It really was. A place where I thought that if I was going to work another year or if somebody wanted me to work another year, I thought I could contribute; I did not want to leave. I did not want to leave. I was very happy there.

But those things happen sometimes. Obviously to be around a bunch of players that were as together as any I’ve seen and I think more importantly the talent that was on that team and to see the joy. There’s a lot of joy there. I think those are the kind of environments where people really prosper.”

“It was time for me to leave. I’m in Los Angeles again. For me, I’ll have a chance to go in the office a little bit and watch some of the people that have been hired, to watch our coaches coach. I’ve often said I’ve done some crazy things in my life because of the timing and maybe the timing was right.”

The Clippers’ appeal appeared to be their salary offer – reportedly $4 million-$5 million annually. And maybe that factored.

But it sure sounds as if there’s more to the story.

With Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, Celtics continue ascent – just not as steeply as hoped

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Celtics landed the No. 1 pick and signed the top free agent to change teams.

Given that, it feels like their offseason should have gone better.

Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are nice, and I won’t lose sight of that here. But…

Boston traded down from the top pick to No. 3 to draft Tatum. Count me among those who believed there was a significant drop from Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball to the next tier – and the tier after that.

The extra first-rounder the Celtics acquired has also only lost value since the trade.

It’d convey from the Lakers if they pick 2-5 next year. But they added two players, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, better than they were expected to get. Los Angeles looks less likely to stumble into a top-five pick – especially without incentive to tank.

If not the Lakers’ pick this season, Boston will get the higher of Sacramento’s and Philadelphia’s 2019 first-rounders (or lower if one is No. 1). The Kings signed a couple veterans, George Hill and Zach Randolph, to help them in 2018-19. Sacramento’s young players will be more developed by then, and mirroring the Lakers this year, there’s no incentive to tank. (Philadelphia is also on the rise, but the Celtics probably already knew that.)

There’s still a chance Boston winds up with a high pick – or even wins the trade with a middling additional selection. Tatum, as the Celtics have claimed, might be a better prospect than Fultz outright.

I originally thought the trade was about fair. Developments swing the pendulum away from Boston, though perhaps I’m overly colored by my relatively dim evaluation of Tatum. (I expected the Celtics to draft Josh Jackson when the trade was made.)

Boston’s next big move, signing Hayward, also comes with a major caveat. To get Hayward, the Celtics had to downgrade from Avery Bradley to Marcus Morris.

The reasons are clear: Bradley is earning $8,808,989 in the final season of his contract. Morris is locked up for two more seasons at $5 million and $5,375,000.

Not only was that salary difference essential for clearing max cap space now, Bradley will enter unrestricted free agency with Isaiah Thomas next summer. The raises necessary to re-sign both likely would’ve pushed the Celtics higher into the luxury tax than they’re willing to go. Thomas and Morris should be affordable.

Morris is a fine player, but it looks like he’s caught between better combo forwards (Hayward and Jae Crowder) and higher-upside/younger combo forwards (Jaylen Brown and Tatum). How much will Morris matter in Boston?

Bradley certainly did plenty, defending the better opposing guard so the undersized Thomas didn’t have to. Marcus Smart can handle some of that responsibility, but that cuts into the time he can play in relief of Thomas at point guard and the time he can defend forwards.

Getting Aron Baynes for the room exception was solid. He might even start for the Celtics, eating up minutes against big starting centers. I suspect Al Horford will play center in most pivotal minutes, though.

Signing Baynes was one of Boston’s several respectable moves – drafting Semi Ojeleye in the second round, signing 2016 first-rounders Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic and paying to take a flier on Shane Larkin.

But the real needle-movers were signing Hayward, a 27-year-old versatile star, and adding a highly touted talent in Tatum. Even in the less-flattering greater context, those are huge additions.

Offseason grade: A-