Three keys to Game 7 between Clippers, Rockets

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At the start of the week, if you had tried to tell everyone that the only second round playoff matchup to go seven would be the Clippers and Rockets, you would have been laughed off the Internet. The Clippers were up 3-1 and seemingly in control, while both Eastern Conference series seemed destined to drag out longer.

But the Rockets showed up and played desperate in Game 5 while the Clippers coasted. Then came an unforgettable and virtually unexplainable Game 6 — the Clippers were up 19 points with 2:30 left in the third quarter, then started to play a prevent defense and that lead went away. What the Rockets did late in that game is not sustainable — Blake Griffin was missing shots at the rim while Josh Smith was hitting step-back threes — but it doesn’t have to be, it just had to work for a short stretch.

That is true of Game 7 as well — neither team needs something that will work for over the long haul; they just need it to go right for one day. One game.

Here are three keys to watch in Game 7 Sunday.

1) Can the Clippers mentally bounce back from Game 6? This Clipper team has shown itself to be mentally tough — did you see Game 7 against the Spurs? Still, you have to ask this first question. The Clippers were on the verge of advancing to the franchise’s first-ever conference finals when they, to use the words of Blake Griffin, took their foot off the gas. Then when the game started to get close, they got tight. This team was understandably crushed after Game 6, and some teams don’t bounce back from that — I just don’t think this Clippers team is one of them. The extra day off between games helps, too. Expect to see the Clippers that put up a 19 point lead, not the version that gave it away.

2) Can DeAndre Jordan stay out of foul trouble? In this series, when DeAndre Jordan is on the court the Clippers allow 96.7 points per 100 possessions. When he is on the bench, the Clippers give up 118.2 points per 100 possessions. If you want to talk about what really got the Clippers in trouble in Game 5 in Houston, it was Jordan’s foul trouble allowing him to play only 1:50 of the second quarter (when the Rockets stretched out a lead). The Rockets have started to get James Harden back to playing his bowling ball style in recent games, playing downhill and rolling into the lane picking up points and drawing fouls. If Doc Rivers has to limit Jordan’s minutes, that’s bad news for Los Angeles. Although, one would hope in a Game 7 the referees would let the teams play a little.

3) Whose role players step up? For the Clippers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be just fine and put up numbers. The question is who is going to help them out as a third scorer. J.J. Redick has averaged 17 a game in this series but has gone missing for stretches, Jamal Crawford has been even more invisible. The Clippers need one of them — or Austin Rivers, or Jordan, or Matt Barnes or anybody — to be the third scorer. The Clippers have been the better team in the majority of this series, they just need to play like it Sunday. For 48 minutes.

For the Rockets, we saw in Game 6 that for a stretch this bench can make plays — their entire comeback was with James Harden riding the pine (and credit Kevin McHale for leaving him there, plenty of coaches would have gone back to him). No doubt Harden will be pivotal in Game 7, but he can’t do it alone. Whether it’s Smith or Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza, the Rockets need one more game where someone unexpected steps up and puts up numbers. It doesn’t have to be sustainable; it just has to work for one day and Houston can advance at home.

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”

 

LeBron James on boos Kyrie Irving faced: “It was nothing”

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LeBron James knows about being booed by Cleveland fans — there was more venom thrown his way upon his return to Cleveland after bolting for Miami than Jack Tatum at a Steelers’ or Patriots’ fans bar.

He heard the boos rained down upon Kyrie Irving, upon return to Cleveland after forcing his way off the Cavaliers, and LeBron shrugged. Here is a video of his comments.

“That was nothing. What do you want me to say? I’ve experienced big boos before. That was like a pat on the back. It could never… I love our fans to death. That was nothing.”

To be fair to Cavaliers fans, the gruesome Gordon Hayward injury sucked the air out of the building and made booing someone for changing teams seem petty. The energy in the building was understandably never the same after that.

But even before the injury, this wasn’t the same level of hatred that had been reserved for LeBron before in Cleveland. In part because LeBron handled his exit poorly (not that Irving was smooth, but there were no television shows to broadcast the decision) and LeBron was the native son seen as deserting his family. It was different.

Kyrie Irving had 22 points but, with LeBron guarding him, missed a three-pointer to tie the game, and the Cavaliers won 102-99.

NBA Three Things to Know: Gordon Hayward goes down, Warriors stumble

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, like a good Star Wars movie (so not “Phantom Menace”). Every morning we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. That starts with a wild opening night.

1) Celtics season turned upside down with traumatic Gordon Hayward injury. Just 5:15 into his first game as a Celtic, Gordon Hayward suffered as gruesome an injury as you will see on the basketball court — he landed awkwardly on an alley-oop attempt and his ankle was caught under him, ultimately twisting sideways in a way the foot was not meant to do. He suffered a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia and was instantly flown back to Boston for more evaluation and eventual surgery on the foot.

There is no timeline yet on his recovery, and while some reports out of Boston suggested a sixth-month window that could have him back for the playoffs, that seems optimistic. We don’t know what the doctors will decide, but the Celtics and their Big Kahuna Danny Ainge have always thought long term, about contending not this season but in future ones, and they are not going to rush Hayward back for this postseason. I wish him the best in his recovery, but I’d be surprised to see him this year.

With Hawyard down, the Celtics fought back in the second half Tuesday to make it a game against the Cavaliers, ultimately falling 102-99 (LeBron James had 29 points, 16 rebounds, 9 assists). What we saw in that game was likely what we will see a lot more of this season, a Celtics team that plays a lot like last season’s Celtics just with Kyrie Irving in the Isaiah Thomas role. Irving is going to have a heavy scoring load (22 points in this one) plus be the primary shot creator for others. He doesn’t have a good secondary playmaking option now. Irving’s teammates stepped up in this one, starting with Jaylen Brown who led the Celtics with 25 points.

Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum had 14 (he got the start with Marcus Smart still injured). Marcus Smart stepped up some off the bench but was 0-of-4 from three, and as a team the Celtics were 8-of-32 from three (25 percent). This team is still going to take a lot of threes for Brad Stevens, but they are going to make a lot fewer of them now (the nights those shots fall they will be dangerous, the nights they don’t they can lose to anyone). Bottom line: Kyrie Irving can create shots but will the other players knock those shots down consistently? I had this team as a low 50s win squad, this injury probably drops now by five games (at least). They will miss Hayward on both ends of the court.

2) Draymond Green leaves game and Warriors stumble without him, falling to Rockets. Golden State was already without Andre Iguodala, who sat the opener out with back issues, then in the third quarter and with the Warriors consistently holding a lead Draymond Green tweaked his knee coming down on a shot. He was diagnosed with a knee strain, and while it’s not serious — he was not on crutches after the game and is not going to miss much time — he did not return in the fourth quarter of this game.

Without him the Rockets surged — they outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth, they made plays down the stretch, and ultimately beat the Warriors 122-121. James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists, and he was making plays down the stretch, but the Rockets got a strong fourth quarter from Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute as well, each scoring seven points. The Rockets could not get stops, but they could score with the Warriors and that’s what they did.

The Warriors still almost won thanks to a Kevin Durant game-winner, except it was correctly waived off after review.

Of note for the Rockets, Chris Paul sat the final 4:30 of the game, he has been battling knee issues and wasn’t himself. Don’t be shocked if Mike D’Antoni gives him more time off.

For the Warriors, they got blown out by 29 last season on opening night (San Antonio), they are not going to read much into this loss (nor should they, but 82-0 is dead). What this does show is how much Green means to the team, he’s not their best player but may be their most important. It also shows how, once again, the teams that come back from the NBA’s annual excursion to China take a while to get their legs fully under them again.

3) The Bulls can’t even wait until the regular season to have things go very, very wrong. This was already going to ba a long season for Bulls fans. Yes, Chicago made a good move by ultimately committing to a plan and going all-in on a rebuild, but that doesn’t make the process pretty. The Bulls were going to lose a lot of games and probably be the worst team in the NBA. But they couldn’t wait until Thursday when the season starts for things to go wrong.

Bobby Portis sucker punched Nikola Mirotic, dropping the just re-signed player to the floor with a broken upper jaw and a concussion. According to multiple reports, this started out as a battle for position under the glass during a scrimmage, and that turned into a shoving match — nothing uncommon here so far, those happen all the time on teams. But after the players were separated Portis threw the cheap-shot punch and changed the start of the Bulls season. There are some reports Mirotic lunged at Portis before the punch and this was not a cheap shot, it depends on who you talk to. Not that it matters. The Bulls will likely treat it as one.

Mirotic will be out “weeks” I’ve been told. Portis might have been in line for the starting spot with Mirotic out but not now, he will be punished by the team, likely with a lengthy suspension. This will mean even more minutes for rookie Lauri Markkanen in Chicago.

Draymond Green goes down, Rockets rally to spoil Warriors ring night 122-121

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Draymond Green is not the best player on the Warriors. He’s third or fourth best, depending on what you think of him vs. Klay Thompson.

But Draymond Green is the most important Warrior — what they do defensively does not work without him (and their small ball playmaking suffers as well). Without him, the Warriors are not the same.

That was on full display Tuesday night in the season opener — the night the Warriors got their 31-diamond rings and the latest banner went up at Oracle Arena. Green tweaked his knee in the third quarter landing off a shot and did not play in the fourth, and that’s when the Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 to come from behind and steal a win, 122-121.

Green was diagnosed with a “knee strain” and was walking around after the game without a cast/boot/crutches, although with a slight limp according to reports. He said this is nothing serious, although don’t be shocked if the Warriors give him another game or two off to rest it.

Kevin Durant almost saved the day for Golden State with a baseline jumper as time expired — the referees called it good, but an official review showed the ball was still in his hands when the buzzer went off.

James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists to lead the Rockets. However, the real story was their revamped bench outplaying the Golden State bench — Eric Gordon looked like the sixth man of the year with 24 points, P.J. Tucker had 20 and shot 4-of-6 from three, and Luc Mbah a Moute added 14.

The Rockets made their final push with Chris Paul sitting on the bench. CP3 sat the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game, and the Rockets thrived with Gordon, Harden and an old-school (meaning, like last season) offense. After the game, coach Mike D’Antoni said that Paul was out there “playing on one leg” due to his knee problem, and Paul could miss more time.

Golden State was also without Andre Iguodala, who tweaked his back lifting weights over the weekend, according to coach Steve Kerr. Not having Green or Iguodala hurt the Warriors defense, especially against an elite offensive team.

Surprisingly, Nick Young led the Warriors with 23 points off the bench, hitting 6-of-7 from three. Stephen Curry added in 22, Kevin Durant scored 20 and Klay Thompson 16. However, in the fourth quarter the Warriors big three of Durant, Curry, and Thompson were 5-of-14 from the floor and 2-of-7 from three. Curry could not find the range.

Last season the Spurs blew the Warriors out by 29 on opening night, and the Warriors bounced back to win 67 games and the NBA title. Nobody should read too much into an opening night win. But for a Rockets team with dreams of challenging these Warriors in May, this is a good confidence boost to start the season.