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.

Report: Raptors would’ve fired Dwane Casey if they lost in first round

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 23:  Dwane Casey the head coach of the Toronto Raptors disagrees with an offical's call in the game against the Indiana Pacers during game four of the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 23, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.   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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri on Dwane Casey before the playoffs, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

If we don’t go past the first round, what’s going to happen? Coach Casey deserves to be the coach. He deserves to be our coach in the future.

Casey was coming off an impressive regular season. Toronto won a franchise-record 56 games, and Casey finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting.

But would the Raptors really keep him if they lost in the first round as the higher seed for the third straight year?

I know what Ujiri said. But it’s one thing to like Casey as a coach – I do – and another to watch another first-round upset unfold in front of your eyes. The experience of seeing four losses to the Pacers can change someone’s mind – and reportedly would’ve changed Ujiri’s.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Toronto might have been one gaffe by Pacers coach Frank Vogel in Game 5 away from bowing out in the first round again, a crusher that would have cost Casey his job, per several league sources.

Of course, the Raptors beat Indiana in seven games, slipped past the Heat in seven games and have beaten the Cavaliers twice in the Eastern Conference finals. That ought to preserve Casey’s job, even if Toronto is eliminated in Game 6 tonight.

The Raptors are at the point where they need a quality playoff coach. For the better part of three straight postseasons, Casey didn’t look like one. He still hasn’t come close to answering all the questions about him, but he has created enough doubt about his postseason proficiency.

Casey has done quality work transforming the Raptors. Unless they’re more certain he can’t get the deeper in the playoffs, they should keep him and give him a chance to try.

Billy Donovan: Warriors’ free-throw advantage over Thunder was ‘the difference in the game’

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Why did the Warriors beat the Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals last night?

Andrew Bogut‘s rim protection? Kevin Durant‘s and Russell Westbrook‘s teammates not doing enough? Stephen Curry‘s late defense?

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan:

The difference in the game was the fact that they went to the free-throw line 34 times.

The discrepancy tonight for free throws, for whatever reason, that was really, to me, the difference in the game.

Yes, Golden State shot 34 free throws to the Thunder’s 24 – and made 31 to the Thunder’s 20 – in a 120-111 win.

But nine of the Warriors’ attempts and makes came in the final 1:02, beginning with a curiously timed Donovan technical foul and then Oklahoma City intentionally fouling. The Thunder also hacked Bogut earlier in the fourth quarter, and he went 1-for-2 at the line. Remove those, and the free-throw attempts are 25-24.

It was a little surprising when Oklahoma City intentionally fouled Klay Thompson down nine with 55 seconds left. Trailing teams should generally begin fouling sooner than they do to increase variance, but most don’t. They usually defend in those situations, which makes me wonder about a deeper motivation.

Did Donovan, realizing the Thunder were going to lose anyway, get a technical foul then order intentional fouling sooner than usual so he could complain about the free-throw disparity and lobby for more favorable calls in Game 6?

Too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Game 5 against Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrate after a play against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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In the last 33 years, as far back as Basketball-Reference.com records go back, teammates have each scored at least 30 points while shooting less than 40% in a game three times:

  • Kevin Durant (40 points on 12-of-31 shooting) and Russell Westbrook (31 points on 11-of-28 shooting) in a Western Conference finals loss to the Warriors last night
  • Durant (30 points on 10-of-27 shooting) and Westbrook (30 points on 9-of-26 shooting) in a first-round loss to the Grizzlies in 2014
  • Durant (37 points on 7-of-20 shooting) and Westbrook (36 points on 10-of-26 shooting) in a regular-season loss to the Nuggets in 2013

Yes, every time it has happened, it has been Durant and Westbrook. And each time, the Thunder have lost.

Oklahoma City reverted back to this losing formula against Golden State in Game 5. The Thunder’s offense turned stale, the ball sticking with Durant and Westbrook as it had so many times in years prior – years that all ended short of a championship and with questions swirling about offensive creativity.

Simply, Thunder looked like the same old Thunder.

Durant and Westbrook scored 64% of Oklahoma City’s points, a mark they hadn’t hit since the season’s second game – a double-overtime win over the Magic in which Durant and Westbrook scored 18 of the Thunder’s 22 overtime points and were the only Oklahoma City players to play all of both extra periods.

Here are the percentage of the Thunder’s points scored by Durant and Westbrook in each playoff game:

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The Thunder have shown this isn’t a winning game plan for them. They’re 2-4 when Durant and Westbrook score at least 59% of their points, 6-7 when it’s between 54% and 59% and and 58-21 otherwise.

This is not to blame Durant and Westbrook. Though they might have hunted their own shot a little too often in Game 5, their teammates didn’t do nearly enough.

Oklahoma City’s other players scored a series-low 40 points – and 10 of those came on 4-of-4 shooting from Anthony Morrow, who had been out of the rotation. Dion Waiters – who, I believe, had been the biggest key for the Thunder going from very good in the regular season to elite in the playoffs – scored no points on 0-of-4 shooting in 27 minutes after averaging 10 points per game in the series’ first four contest. Enes Kanter, who had been an offensive positive, was an effective no-show, scoring one point in just six minutes because his defense made him mostly unplayable.

Durant and Westbrook are playing better than ever, but their supporting cast’s rise had been huge in these playoffs. The crew had been amazing relative to previous postseasons. Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson and the rest just didn’t sustain it in Game 5.

The second-lowest scoring output by the Thunder’s other players in this series came in Game 2, which Oklahoma City also lost. Here are the points by Durant’s and Westbrook’s teammates in each game of the Western Conference finals, Thunder wins in blue and losses in orange:

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Durant, via James Ham of CSN Bay Area:

“No,” Durant said emphatically when asked if he and Westbrook sometimes forget about the players around them. “That’s who we are, we’ve got to be aggressive. When they’re going in, you won’t say anything.”

“But we happened to miss some tonight,” Durant continued. “But we were aggressive. We were right there. We had an opportunity to win the basketball game. That’s what we we do. That’s how we play, like it or not.”

Durant and Westbrook should be aggressive, but it’s on their teammates to limit the stars’ attempts – to provide outlets when the defense hones in on Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder’s other players didn’t do that last night, so Durant and Westbrook forced shots.

This gives credence to the theory that role players don’t travel well. Perhaps, this will instantly change for Game 6 Saturday in Oklahoma City.

As great as Durant and Westbrook are, they need help. They’ll justifiably take the offensive burden when no other option presents itself, and it’s the lesser of two evils. But when games go that direction, there’s an inevitable conclusion: The Thunder usually lose.

Watch Stephen Curry’s late lockdown defense (video)

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Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant might not think much of Stephen Curry‘s defense – Durant gave a great and tremendously honest answer – but Curry was at his defensive best late in the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Thunder last night.

Curry locked up Durant multiple times. Also included in that clip: Curry’s rebound in traffic, because rebounding is a key part of defense.