Earth to Houston: LaMarcus Aldridge is a problem. Is Howard the answer?

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Earth to Houston: LaMarcus Aldridge is a problem.

That bit of information is obvious to the most junior of fans, but Kevin McHale and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard have yet to get the memo.

Howard finished ninth in this year’s DPOY voting and probably deserved to finish somewhere in that ballpark.  But he and McHale have yet to embrace the challenge that Aldridge presents by allowing Howard to put those defensive skills to work.

Out of 80 possessions we tracked in Game 2, Howard was called upon to defend Aldridge just 25 times. Most of the remaining defensive possessions went to Omer Asik, who clocked in at 51 assignments, with the remaining four going to Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons. About a third of Asik’s covers happened with Howard off the floor, and Asik dominated the fourth quarter covers.

Make no mistake, hitting 18-of-28 shots in Game 2 it didn’t matter who was covering Aldridge – he was torching them. He beat Howard on 5-of-6 challenges and the only thing that saved Asik was a series of eight consecutive misses by Aldridge – though the tape would show it had less to do with Asik than it did the fact that mere mortals can’t make every shot. Prior to that Asik gave up points or fouls on 9-of-10 chances against Portland’s big man.

Any way you slice it, with Aldridge averaging just under 45 points per game so far and setting records for his fast start, something has to change. Kevin McHale would prefer to keep Howard on Robin Lopez in order to protect the defensive glass, and a close second to that is keeping Howard out of foul trouble. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and being down 2-0 heading into Portland tonight would fall into that bucket.

On the other end of the floor, the Rockets have spent considerable time using Howard against Lopez on offense, and true to season-long form that has been productive for them. But in Game 2 the Rockets’ pair of wings in James Harden (6-of-19 FGs) and Chandler Parsons (5-of-15 FGs) didn’t get many easy looks as a result of it. While Howard’s offensive game has improved this season, it’s still not to the point where it consistently makes players around him better. Taking a page out of everybody’s book against the big man, the Blazers are more than willing to let Howard beat them if it means that threes aren’t raining on their heads.

Playoff adjustments usually determine the winner in a closely-matched series. If Howard is the defensive player many folks say he is, it goes without saying that the Rockets need to go all-in with the superstar assignment. Aldridge isn’t going to continue shooting at his current high-volume 60 percent from the field, but one more big game tonight and the series is all-but over.

Even though Howard is facing-up Lopez at will, the Rockets would be wise to open up the game plan by unleashing Harden and Parsons with high pick-and-roll action, since both guys are having a hard time getting penetration against sturdy defenders Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum. If Howard is the defensive player folks make him out to be, he should be both willing and able to make his matchup with Aldridge a wash. With Patrick Beverley effectively slowing down Damian Lillard, and Howard theoretically doing the same to Aldridge, the rest of the Rockets’ pieces should be able to outscore their Portland counterparts.

But Houston has it backwards right now, saving Howard for offense when he is needed on defense. It begs the question of whether or not McHale believes he can answer the call against Aldridge. If he can’t, it may be time to re-evaluate where he stands in the league’s defensive pecking order.

Russell Westbrook on Rockets laughing at Andre Roberson missing free throws: ‘Probably the guys that don’t play’

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The Rockets bench made a big production when an intentionally fouled Andre Roberson kept missing free throws in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Rockets yesterday.

Russell Westbrook stuck up for his teammate.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Westbrook:

I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it at all. Probably the guys that don’t play, probably over there the ones laughing, if I had to guess.

Good guess. It appears Montrezl Harrell and Bobby Brown – whose only playing time this series came late in Houston’s blowout Game 1 win – led the jeers.

But the most important thing for the Thunder is Roberson making his free throws. They need him on the court to defend James Harden, which exposes him to hacking. If Westbrook deflecting attention onto the Rockets’ benchwarmers helps Roberson at the line, great. But if not, the Rockets will keep having reasons to laugh.

Magic Johnson winks at bringing Paul George to Lakers

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Paul George-to-the-Lakers rumors have swirled for a while.

New Lakers president Magic Johnson will only fuel them.

Asked how he’d interact with the Pacers star to avoid tampering if they ran into each other, Johnson said on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

In explaining how he’d avoid tampering, Johnson probably tampered. Accidental tampering appears to be his specialty.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement says team employees can’t permissibly “induce, persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any Player who is under contract to, or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by, any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services or negotiate or contract for such services.” But the league arbitrarily enforces tampering, so who knows whether he’ll be punished?

Johnson almost certainly could have gotten away with the hypothetical conversation he laid out. But going on television and describing it — even as fantasy, even not directly to George — could constitute tampering in itself,

If Johnson helps attract George to Los Angeles, it’d well be worth it. At least he’s trying something.

Report: Austin Rivers returning for Clippers-Jazz Game 5

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There have been bigger injuries in the Clippers-Jazz first-round series: Blake Griffin‘s toe, Rudy Gobert‘s knee and Gordon Hayward‘s stomach.

But Clippers guard Austin Rivers has yet to play due to a strained hamstring.

It sounds as if that will change tomorrow.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This is neither as big a deal as the Clippers will make it out to be nor as meaningless as Rivers’ many detractors will claim.

The 6-foot-4 Rivers will provide an important defensive upgrade on the perimeter. The Clippers haven’t successfully hidden Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, allowing Utah too many quality looks. Here how the Jazz have shot when defended by each, per NBA.com:

  • Crawford: 18-of-36 (50%), including 7-of-17 on 3-pointers (41%)
  • Felton: 13-of-24 (54%), including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers (63%)

Rivers needn’t be great to help behind Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

Rockets bench hams it up over Andre Roberson missed free throw (video)

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Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.

Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.

It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.