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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.

Craig Sager and his flashy suits return to All-Star weekend

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TORONTO (AP) — The All-Star game in New York was a little less colorful last year.

Craig Sager, the TNT sideline reporter known for wearing flashy suits, missed the NBA’s annual midseason gala for the first time since he started doing them in 1988. Another bout with the leukemia he’s been battling for the last few years resurfaced, and Sager was forced to sit out while undergoing more treatments.

Sager considers the All-Star festivities the most important weekend of the season for him, and so it pained him to have to watch on television while receiving his treatments.

“It was hard for me not to be there, but I had to address my health,” Sager said. “To be able to get that in remission and be able to go through this year, it’s going to be extra special for me. I’ve really been looking forward to this a long time.”

That’s right. Sager is back for All-Star weekend in Toronto this year.

He spent the week leading up to it in Houston receiving his monthly treatment, which included a blood transfusion, to make sure he was healthy enough for the trip. Once he arrived in Canada, he was easy to spot.

“I just saw him,” Spurs coach and longtime foil Gregg Popovich said after the Western Conference team practiced on Saturday. “His suit spoke to me. It blinded me for a second.”

It’s been an emotional run for Sager, the longtime fixture at NBA games. He has needed two bone marrow transplants and still has to make those treks to Houston once a month. He has returned to the sideline for games this season and is feeling so well that he was scheduled to do both the Saturday night activities that include the 3-point shootout and the dunk contest as well as the game on Sunday.

“I feel great. Got my weight back. Got my strength back,” Sager said. “I’m back to playing golf.”

Two of his youngest children – daughter Riley and son Ryan – will be with him on the court this weekend serving as a ball boy and ball girl.

And of course, Sager will do a round with Popovich on television during a quarter break on Sunday. The two have turned the sideline interview into a passion play,

“He’s been an iconic figure in the NBA. He does a great job,” Popovich said. “His sense of humor is obvious. we have a lot of fun going back and forth with that. To have him back where he belongs, obviously we’re happy for him and his health. But for the league it’s great too, because he’s a fixture that everybody enjoys.”

Sager called the support he has received from Commissioner Adam Silver, coaches, players and fans “humbling” and said he was looking forward to coming back to his favorite event of the season.

“It’s been very uplifting, very therapeutic,” Sager said. “Very supportive on their part. That really has been very helpful to me, my treatment and my drive to get back.”

Kevin Hart, Draymond Green get in All-Star Saturday three-point shootout

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TORONTO — This is going to come up in the Golden State locker room.

Right before Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry put on a three-point shooting exhibition, actor/comedian/self-promotor Kevin Hart came out and challenged Draymond Green to a shooting contest. Green was ready to go. They did the three-point shooting contest, and Green put up a total of 12 (which would have been dead last in the actual three-point contest, for the record).

Then Hart stepped up — and tied him with 12 points.

Steve Kerr, if you’re ever looking for a lineup to go REALLY small….

Other All-Stars pay tribute to Kobe Bryant’s legacy

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TORONTO — This is Kobe Bryant‘s weekend.

In what will be his final All-Star Game, he has been an absolute rock star in Toronto — huge ovations, huge crowds (of fans and media), and cameras trained on him everywhere he goes. The weekend has been a celebration of one of the game’s all-time greats and a storied career.

Over the course of the weekend, nearly every other All-Star has been asked about Kobe and the impact he’s had both on the game and on the players, personally. For many of them, this is personal, the younger NBA players grew up idolizing him. Here are a sampling of their responses.

James Harden (Houston Rockets):
“He’s been my idol growing up, my basketball idol. Like I said, just watching him play meant everything to me. So this is his last year, and he’s going to retire, and there’s going to be no more Kobe Bryant playing basketball, it’s kind of sad. It’s kind of sad about that, but at some point he had to go.”

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors):
“He’s the Michael Jordan of our era. He’s the most competitive player we’ve played against, and the thing he’s done throughout his career and the things he’s done to change the game, to motivate the players is unbelievable.”

Chris Bosh (Miami Heat):
“Kobe, this is his weekend. I know he probably would never say that or admit that, but, yeah, he’s one of the iconic players of this — greatest iconic players this league has ever had. He’s had such an imprint on our childhood. I know he had an imprint on my childhood. And then I was in that mix where I was a kid, and then I was trying to figure it out in the NBA, and next thing you know you’re competing against him. So, it’s been crazy.”

DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors):
“I grew up watching the Lakers. I grew up watching him his whole career and getting a chance to have a relationship with him and kind of, you know, patterned my game after him so to speak, so definitely speaks volumes.”

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder):
“Me growing up in Los Angeles and being able to see Kobe, obviously he’s one of the greatest players to play the game. It was a true honor to be able to learn from him. It’s a great experience to be able to learn different things from him, not just on the floor but off the floor as well and very different experiences.”

Tyrone Lue (Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers):
“When I first got there (playing for the Lakers) he was still young. He was Kobe, but he hadn’t been a starter yet. And that third year of his career, that was my first year, Rick Fox went down, and he stepped in and took a starting role. But just seeing the film he watched all the time, the players he was talking about, the Oscar Robertsons, Michael Jordans, the Magics, he knew from day one who he wanted to be like. He knew that to be the best, you had to work hard. That’s what he did every single day. Not one day did I see him take off.”

Paul George (Indiana Pacers):
“He was just fearless. He’s a champion. To get to where you want to get to, you have to put the work in. His work ethic is one thing that he has. That’s the reason why he’s so great.”

Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks):
“The only thing I can remember is him always beating us when I was at Utah in the playoffs. We always had to try to overcome the Lakers and Kobe Bryant and just could never do it.”

John Wall (Washington Wizards):
“Basically, the Michael Jordan of our era is what I see with all of his dedication to the game, his competitive drive. He’s one of those guys that always wants the ball in a tough situation. No matter the circumstances, he believes in himself, no matter what.”

Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic):
“I watched Kobe growing up and watched him in the All-Star Game. The impact he’s had on my basketball game and in my life and so many other people, it’s really big. It’s astronomical. That’s Kobe. That’s the man.”

Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors):
“He’s meant so much to the game. Growing up in the era that I did, Kobe was that guy. So to play in an All-Star Game with him, I mean, that’s special. I grew up a Kobe fan, so it’s something that’s really special.”

C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers):
“He’s had a huge impact (on me). Obviously for us, he was the Michael Jordan of our era, a guy we watched. He emulated Michael. He had a lot of the same fadeaways, sticking out his tongue, winning championships. Just a sense of self to understand exactly what it takes to be successful. So for us, he was a guy I looked up to. His work ethic, his understanding and he knew how to bounce back from losses and shooting air balls in the playoffs as a rookie to hitting game winners.”

Watch it again: Epic dunk contest duel between Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon

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TORONTO — I am always hesitant to say a player/team/situation is one of the best of ever because the history of the NBA is filled with greats. We tend to overstate how good something current can be.  That said…

That was one of the best dunk contests ever.

Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon put on a show for the ages. Gordon had the best dunks of the night (in my opinion), but LaVine is consistently amazing, every dunk he does is flat out ridiculous.

Officially, LaVine won. In reality, we all won. Enjoy watching it one more time.