Rockets don’t bring the energy, so Bulls bring the pain in securing a 24-point blowout victory

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The Rockets came into Thursday night’s contest in Chicago with the league’s best record since Jan. 1, a 23-7 mark that included a record of 15-3 over the team’s last 18 games.

But it’s difficult to bring the necessary energy on a nightly basis, and especially against a fiery Bulls team playing at home, not doing so is a recipe for disaster.

Houston struggled to get on track in the early going, and Chicago opened the third quarter on a 20-2 run to put this one away much more quickly than expected. The Bulls secured the 111-87 victory before the fourth quarter ever began, and while this performance was just one of 82 for a Rockets team that has been consistently elite, it does raise some questions about what might happen in a similar battle once the postseason begins.

If the shots aren’t falling, the defense has to dig in and ensure that the team’s principles are followed to perfection in limiting their opponent’s chances — at least until the offense can find its way back. In this one, Houston seemed to fold much too quickly under the pressure of the Bulls defense.

Mike Dunleavy took a nasty (but unintentional) elbow from Chandler Parsons in the first half that spilled plenty of blood and required 10 stitches to repair, but he returned in the third quarter to pour in 18 points in the period to help put the game out of reach.

Dwight Howard, clearly not all that inspired by his coach’s gameday remarks, finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in 29 minutes of action, but also turned the ball over seven times. James Harden added five more turnovers to the team total, while managing just eight points on 2-of-7 shooting in 27 minutes himself.

The Bulls will do this to you if you’re not fully prepared to match their intensity; if you are, however, they’re extremely beatable — just ask the Spurs about that, who got out to a lead of as many as 32 points just two nights earlier.

The Rockets, though, weren’t anywhere near the right mental state to deal with this Chicago team. It was evident during a lackluster the first quarter, and they seemed to give up completely once the second half began. That’s fine during the regular season, especially considering how great Houston has been since the first of the year. But it may serve as an internal warning of what could happen when the game slows down in the playoffs.

Damian Lillard “frustrated” with All-Star snubs

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It seemed pretty obvious to most: In picking the two All-Star starting guards in the Western Conference, you couldn’t go wrong with any combination of Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook (Curry and Harden got the nods).

When it comes time for the coaches to pick the reserves (announced next Tuesday) they will select Westbrook. However, Damian Lillard might not make that cut.

Lillard said he’s frustrated but resigned to not making the All-Star Game (he’s missed it the last three), he told ESPN.

“I’ve gotten frustrated just for the fact that it feels like I always got to be the fall guy and every other guy has been deserving,” Lillard tells ESPN. “In the past, the thing has been, ‘All right, my team has been 10 games under .500 or not in the playoffs,’ but every year we’ve found a way to be in the postseason, and this year I think we’re in much better position than we have been in the past two seasons that I didn’t make it. I think I’ve gotten over the emotional part of it the last few times that I didn’t make it. Now I’m kind of like expecting it to go that way, but I feel like I should be there.”

Lillard was not going to be a starter, and if you want to blame someone for that blame the fans who had him eighth (worse than players or media) — behind Lonzo Ball and Manu Ginobili.

“(Ball) plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most, if not the most, storied franchises in that big of a market,” Lillard explained to ESPN. “So, so many people are going to support him throughout that, and also with his dad and all the attention that’s been surrounding him since college. There’s a lot of people that follow him, so, that’s not really a surprise to me. The market size and what’s going on with his family, it’s no surprise really to me.”

Lillard deserves to be an All-Star — he’s averaging 25 points per game, plus he’s dishing out 6.5 assists per night, and his defense has improved.

Whether he makes it is another story. The Western Conference is STACKED. When the coaches pick the seven West reserves, they have to take two guards, three frontcourt players, then two wild-cards. Westbrook and Jimmy Butler are locks to get selected as All-Star Game reserves at the West. That leaves one or two of the wild-card slots for guards, and both Klay Thompson and Lou Williams have legitimate cases to make the team, too.

Lillard would be a snub. So will whichever one of those guards gets left off. There is just too much talent in the West.

 

Three Things to Know: All-Star starters named, who should be in reserve?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) All-Star Starters named, but the decisions much tougher with reserves. Not everybody took their jobs seriously (unless you think Semi Ojeleye, Cedi Osman, and Royce O'Neale earned starting All-Star slots). Not everybody liked the results — Damian Lillard felt snubbed.

Still, it was mostly the usual suspects and there were no surprises as the NBA All-Star Game starters were announced. They were picked by a vote of the fans (50 percent), players (25 percent), and selected media members (25 percent). Here’s the list.

Western Conference: Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Houston’s James Harden, and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Eastern Conference: Cleveland’s LeBron James, Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

Remember it is not East vs. West this year. LeBron and Curry, as the top vote-getters, will be the captains and select teammates in a playground-style draft, first from the starters listed above, then from a pool of reserves selected by the coaches to be announced next Tuesday. LeBron chooses first and what is Curry going to do when LeBron goes with Durant?

Picking those reserves is where someone will get snubbed — there is no way to pick just seven players per conference and not leave out deserving guys. Damian Lillard didn’t deserve to be an All-Star starter no matter what he thinks, but is he even an All-Star this year in the loaded West? There must be two backcourt, three frontcourt, and two wild-card selections for each conference. Here’s who I would pick:

Eastern Conference: Victor Oladipo, John Wall, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry. That leaves out Kevin Love, which was hard as he’s been very good after being pushed to center this season.

Western Conference: Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Klay Thompson, Lou Williams. This was brutal, leaving out Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, and Paul George completely, even though they fully deserve an All-Star slot. So much talent moved West this season that the conference is overloaded.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers win… over the Orlando Magic. By one point. After blowing a 22-point lead. “Right now we’re in Strugglesville,” is how LeBron put the Cavaliers right now. He’s right. Cleveland had lost four in a row and was 2-8 in their last 10 coming into this one, but Thursday night they were facing one of the flat-out worst teams in the NBA in Orlando, so easy win? Nope. It took a couple Isaiah Thomas free throws with 11 seconds left — then Elfrid Payton missing a contested layup with a couple of seconds left — to give the Cavaliers a 104-103 win.

Cleveland was up 22 in this one, but once again their defense isn’t good and when the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders they can be beaten by anyone. The Cavs shot 1-of-17 from three in the second half and were outscored by 16 in the third quarter, blowing another good first half effort.

There were bright spots for the Cavs. Derrick Rose returned to the lineup and after missing two months due to a sprained ankle, and he had nine points in 13 minutes on the court. And Isaiah Thomas had a strong night.

However, the play of the night — and maybe the assist of the season — went to LeBron.


3) James Harden returns, Rockets pick up win over Timberwolves.
The Houston Rockets picked up a quality win at home over a Minnesota Timberwolves squad that is playing good basketball — and that’s not really the big news out of this one.

James Harden was back and starting for the Rockets. He missed seven games with a strained hamstring and the Rockets went 4-3 without him, which is not bad but they were not the same dominant team. Harden had 10 points and seven assists in limited minutes, and he understandably showed a little rust. His return this fast is a boost for his MVP chances if he can return to form — he and LeBron have been neck-and-neck as the frontrunners for the award this season, and the injury gave LeBron the chance to take charge of the race, but instead the Cavaliers have stumbled badly of late. Harden has a chance to take hold of this race, something that does matter to him.

Finally having Harden and Chris Paul healthy moved Eric Gordon back to his sixth man role and he thrived, dropping 30.

Gordon would be the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year, but he started too many games due to injury (half of them, coming into this game). If Paul and Harden can stay on the court, Gordon could repeat as Sixth Man winner.

Elfrid Payton slams chasedown block on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is usually the guy handing out chasedown blocks. He’s famous for them, and has carted out his signature move in the biggest moments of his career.

He’s also not used to having his own shots blocked from behind, and certainly not by opposing point guards.

Enter Elfrid Payton.

During a play halfway through the first quarter against the Orlando Magic on Thursday, LeBron was on a drive to the hole with Elfrid trailing far behind.

Thanks to a pinch by two Magic defenders, LeBron had to try and use brute force a bit deeper in the paint than he wanted to.

That allowed Payton — running at full speed — to catch up and pin The King on the glass.

Cleveland still got the best of the Magic, as Isaiah Thomas hit a clutch free throw to win the game with 11 seconds left, 104-103.

All-Star Joel Embiid doesn’t need Rihanna: “On to the next one”

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For about as long as we can remember, Joel Embiid has famously thirsted after Rihanna on Twitter. Fans have tried to boost his standing with the singer, but it apparently that has not been enough.

In 2014, Embiid mentioned on social media that a “famous girl” — presumably Rihanna — told him to “Come back when you’re an All-Star.”

Well, today is that day.

Embiid is a starter out of the Eastern Conference, and on Thursday night he had his chance to speak to Rihanna (or whomever) via national TV on TNT.

Did Embiid decide to reach out to this famous person? Apparently he’s off it.

Via Twitter:

This is like that scene from Private Parts when Howard Stern hits No. 1 and he tells Paul Giamatti’s character to get lost.

Embiid had the chance to curve Rihanna (or whomever) and took it. Long live The Process.