Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge ruining Dwight Howard’s chance at redemption

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With his feet held to the fire, Dwight Howard brought the heat.

It took only one playoff game with the Houston Rockets for Howard’s detractors to come out in full force. He lacked the maturity and focus to win in the postseason, they shouted from all directions. But if Howard thought he could escape the spotlight by bolting Los Angeles for Houston, he was sadly mistaken.

Right now, though, Howard and his Rockets have a bigger problem to escape – LaMarcus Aldridge.

Aldridge coolly dismantled the Rockets. Again.

The Trail Blazers forward scored 43 points with eight rebounds and three blocks in Portland’s 112-105 Game 2 win Wednesday.

In two games, Aldridge has 89 points, 26 rebounds and five blocks. More importantly, the Trail Blazers have two wins in Houston.

Teams that open a best-of-seven series with two road wins have won 15 of 18, including sweeping half of them. With Portland rolling, having won seven straight and 11 of 12 dating back to the regular season, this series could join the quick enders.

Howard has lost his last seven and 11 of 13 playoff games, and for him, the doubters will grow only louder. Not even ultra-focused and effective starts will save him.

“We have to play inside out, play their bigs and make it a long night for those guys,” Howard told Jonathan Feigen of Ultimate Rockets before the game. “I have to demand the ball, get it and go to work.”

And he did.

Howard made his first six shots to notch Houston’s first 13 points, outscored the Trail Blazers by himself through the game’s first four minutes and was singlehandedly matching his teammates’ combined scoring  as late as three minutes remaining in the first half.

By halftime, he had 25 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

His second-half production (seven points, six rebounds and two blocks) would be great for most players, but Howard isn’t most players. His physical talents lend themselves to the perception he should be more dominant – which a petty Shaquille O’Neal perpetuates during halftimes – and more is demanded of him.

Sometimes, that’s fair. Howard failed to pass out of double teams Wednesday, and his individual success remained isolated from team success. Howard’s teammates shot just 37 percent while he was on the court, and when he went cold (missing seven straight shots at one point), he still didn’t integrate his teammates well enough.

But sometimes, the demands on Howard reach unhealthy levels. He said he’d do more in Game 2, and he absolutely did. There are limits on what one player can contribute. Even if Howard didn’t perfectly parlay the attention he received into better looks for his teammates, James Harden (6-of-19 shooting) and Chandler Parsons (5-of-15 shooting) are certainly capable of doing more without their center’s help.

Not that anyone will forgive Howard for the shortcomings of his teammates. Howard’s playoff record is treated as his own although we all know postseason success requires a full team effort.

In a twist, Aldridge gets all the benefit of the doubt Howard doesn’t. Aldridge’s 46 points and 18 rebounds in a Game 1 victory gave him leeway Howard will never receive.

But Aldridge – who has never won a playoff series, let alone led a team to the NBA finals like Howard did the Magic – didn’t rest on his laurels.

He became the first player with consecutive 40-point playoff games since LeBron James in 2009 and just the second since Tracy McGrady in 2003.

Aldridge knifed through the Rockets’ defense off the ball and used expert footwork on the ball to create space, shooting 13-of-19 from mid-range.

aldridge shot chart 4-23-14

To be fair, Aldridge received help Howard didn’t.

Dorell Wright made 3-of-4 3-pointers and added a slick cutting dunk for 15 points on five shots. Damian Lillard shot just 3-for-14, but he got the line (10-of-12 on free throws) and kept the ball moving to the right spots (11 assists).

Howard vs. Aldridge was a tantalizingly fun matchup, and Rockets-Blazers is too. If not for a couple different breaks in an overtime game Sunday, the series could be tied 1-1. Heck, Houston wasn’t that far from winning Game 2.

But in Howard’s world, close doesn’t cut it. Only Aldridge’s.

Not that he needs the margin for error.

Nets’ Greivis Vasquez pulls out of Olympics for Venezuela

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11:  Greivis Vasquez #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks takes the court against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on November 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Bucks 103-102. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Venezuela is in its first Olympic basketball tournament in more than 20 years — they upset Canada and Argentina to win the FIBA Americas tournament last summer and earned the right to go to Rio.

But they are going to have to play there without the one NBA player on their roster. Greivis Vasquez, who had ankle surgery last December, announced he had to pull out, via the Nets.

If you want to know what this means for the Venezuelan team heading into Rio, well, they shot just 23.9 percent in an 80-45 loss to Team USA Friday night in Chicago — and that was by far the USA’s worst performance in the exhibition run-up to the Rio Games.

Vasquez should be getting decent minutes off the bench behind Jeremy Lin in Brooklyn this season. They need him healthy as the team tries to move from “god awful” to just plain “not good” next season.

Report: Monty Williams to accept role on Spurs coaching staff next season

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  Draymond Green #14 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team drives against assistant coach Monty Williams of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Another smart move by the Spurs.

Monty Williams is one of the better assistant coaches in the NBA right now, and he was available (remember he understandably left Oklahoma City last season after the tragic death of his wife). He’s part of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff with USA Basketball this summer — watch him in practices at age 44 and he’s a better defender plenty of players in the league — and he wanted to get back on the bench.

San Antonio has snapped him up, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Sources told ESPN that Williams — who left the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bench in February after the tragic death of his wife, Ingrid — has been urged by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to take as much of a role with the organization as he feels comfortable for the 2016-17 campaign.

The specifics of what role Williams would fill and how much time he could commit have not yet been determined, but sources say San Antonio has opened the door to either a coaching and player-development role or a front-office position (or a hybrid), depending on what he prefers.

One source close to Williams told ESPN that the 44-year-old “absolutely” intends to be a head coach in the league again after his expected stint with the Spurs. The source also said numerous teams, including Oklahoma City, have made similar offers to Williams for next season.

Williams will get another shot in the big chair down the line. In the short term, this is a smart move — nothing looks better on a resume than “Spurs” around the league right now.

Team USA has sing-along on plane leaving Chicago. Well, except for ‘Melo.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the United States Men's National Team looks on during player intro duction prior to playing the China Men's National Team in a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Team USA had their “Tiny Dancer” moment.

Like “Stillwater” in Almost Famous, Team USA’s Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving were leading a sing-along of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” on the team plane out of Chicago to Houston for the USA’s final exhibition game. Hat tip Alysha Tsuji who pulled the snapchats.

Everyone was loving it… except for Carmelo Anthony, according to DeMar DeRozan.

Melo ain't having it…😂

A video posted by DeMar DeRozan (@demar_derozan) on

Watch Kyle Lowry’s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler in USA win

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There were a lot of ugly things for Team USA in its exhibition win over Venezuela — the 4-of-25 shooting from three comes to mind. There was more, it was not a strong offensive performance from Team USA.

But like usual, we can overwhelm teams with athleticism, and that means wins and highlights. Like Kyle Lowry‘s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler.

Or DeMar DeRozan‘s late-game windmill dunk.