Rockets try to adjust to life without Nene, Spurs try to bounce back in Game 5

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The first four games of the Western Conference semifinal series between the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs have seen the best and worst of both teams, with each winning twice.

That’s why Game 5 of the best-of-seven series, set for Tuesday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, is so crucial.

Game 6 will be on Thursday in Houston, with a seventh and deciding game — if necessary — scheduled for Sunday in San Antonio.

The Rockets, who had looked lost in Game 2 on the road and Game 3 at home, stormed back to claim a 125-104 win in Game 4 on Sunday in Houston to tie the series.

Houston point guard and MVP candidate James Harden scored 28 points and dished out 12 assists in the win. The Rockets’ bench stepped up, getting 22 points from guards Eric Gordon and 13 from Lou Williams after the entire reserve unit scored just 10 points in their Game 3 loss.

It helped too that Houston canned 19 3-point shots in the victory Sunday, the second time in the series it had reached that number — the Rockets had a franchise-high 22 3-pointers in their Game 1 win in San Antonio.

“We did a great job of having patience with our drive-ins,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Drive, kick, drive, kick, instead of just throwing up a quick floater, which is kind of what San Antonio wants you to do. We were able to keep moving the ball, or keep moving our people and keep driving until we found the easier shot and it worked.”

After recording just four fast-break points in Game 3, the Rockets managed 13 in the first quarter alone in Game 4.

“Our defense was pretty defective,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Rockets reserve center Nene logged just two minutes before departing with an injury. The team announced on Monday that he would miss the rest of the postseason with a torn left adductor. Nene had averaged 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in 19.9 minutes during the playoffs before Sunday’s injury.

“Nene is a big part of what we do,” Harden said. “Guys have to step up. It’s an opportunity for guys who don’t play big minutes and for guys who haven’t really played and might get some opportunities. Whoever it is, we’ve got to try to fill that role.”

Reserve guard Jonathon Simmons tallied a team-high 17 points for the Spurs in Game 4 while forwards Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge scored 16 apiece and reserve guard Patty Mills added 10 points for San Antonio, which never led in the game.

“Houston made a few adjustments that we just couldn’t cope with them on the fly,” Mills said. “And it ended up leaving us (playing) soft and exposed our individual (defense), which they took the chances and just drove (on) us.”

Although San Antonio would potentially have two of the final three games on its home floor, Spurs venerable guard Manu Ginobili said the team needed to treat Tuesday’s contest like it was a Game 7, not a Game 5.

“We had a great opportunity (in Game 4) to go back to San Antonio up 3-1 and in a better situation,” Ginobili said. “Now it’s 2-2 and we have to go in knowing that every possession is a game-winning possession.”

Since moving to the AT&T Center in 2002, the Spurs are 81-28 (.743) in home playoff games, giving them the most such wins by any team in the league since that year.

Report: Kevin Love called out in emotional Cavaliers team meeting

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Having lost 8-of-11, a Cavaliers team meeting where the players got to vent seemed inevitable. There isn’t one person in that Cavaliers locker room that doesn’t deserve some blame for how things have turned.

However, Kevin Love apparently became the whipping boy.

From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Cleveland Cavaliers held a fiery team meeting in the practice facility locker room prior to Monday’s practice, during which several players challenged the legitimacy of Kevin Love’s illness that led him to leave Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City early and miss Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

Several players were pushing for the Cavaliers’ management and coaching staff to hold Love accountable for leaving the arena before the end of Saturday’s game, and then missing Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

The meeting was loud and intense, only calming down once Love spoke to those gathered in the room and explained himself, league sources said.

The more things change, the more things are always Kevin Love’s fault.

According to the report, the majority of the team seemed to accept Love’s explanation. Love left the Cavaliers ugly, nationally televised blowout at the hands of the Thunder in the first half and did not return due to what was described only as an illness. He did not stay around for the end of the game. I’m not about to speculate on how ill he was or was not, what matters is that his teammates were not buying it. When a team is losing finger-pointing is almost inevitable, and Love has gotten more than his fair share of it in Cleveland. At least he stood up for himself.

Team meetings may allow a pressure release in a locker room, but they almost never result in any kind of meaningful change. We’ll see what if anything changes in Cleveland.

Bucks GM on Jason Kidd firing: “This is a performance-based thing”

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Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six.

This season, expectations were high. Before the season there was talk from the team of a 50-win team (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the under/over at 47.5) that would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, hosting a playoff round. There was hope that the defense would improve, and with that the Bucks would look like a young team figuring it out.

They haven’t looked like that at all — they are 23-22 (with the point differential of a 20-25 team), and their defense is 25th in the NBA. Currently, they have just a one-game cushion for the final playoff slot in the East.

That cost coach Jason Kidd his job, first-year Bucks GM Jon Horst said Monday night at a press conference, as reported by Matt Velazquez at the Journal-Sentinel.

“At the end, this is a performance-based thing,” Horst said. “We believe in this team, we believe in our players and in the talents that they have. We’re looking forward at making playoff appearances in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade and hopefully winning a first-round series for the first time in over a decade. So we felt like at this time, this is the right decision to help this team get there.”

Around the league the move was not a total surprise, but the timing caught people off guard. Horst said it happened “relatively quickly” and explained:

“A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: ‘If something is inevitable, why wait?’ I think we came to the conclusion that this was the best thing for the future of the franchise and this was the time.”

Come this summer this will be the hottest coaching job available because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the potential of this roster. Names such as Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams have been mentioned, but the ultimate list will be longer. Honestly, a few coaches with jobs might rather have the Bucks job (although the challenges between the two owners there can make things uncomfortable at times).

“We have another game on Friday and between that time we have a plan that we’ll put in place that we’ll kind of layout for the rest of the season,” Horst said. “We’ll go into the summer and have an extensive coaching search with an opportunity to hopefully find a great coach for this organization of which (interim coach) Joe Prunty has every opportunity to be a part of based on what happens going forward.”

This is going to a rough adjustment for Antetokounmpo and some of the players, who respected and trusted Kidd. There’s a lot of pressure on Horst with this hire.

That doesn’t make it the wrong move — Horst did the right thing here. The Bucks were going to be moving on, they just did it sooner rather than later.

 

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.

Jason Kidd says Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to save his job minutes before firing

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The stagnant Milwaukee Bucks shook things up by firing head coach Jason Kidd  Monday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was not happy with the news. So much he called up Kidd and offered to help save his job, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo is understandably close to Kidd — he’s been the coach who helped transform the Greek Freak into an NBA superstar. Kidd is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a player, and as a coach had the vision to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands as a point guard. Antetokounmpo trusted Kidd.

However, the Bucks’ growth has been stagnant — this is a team where the players talked about being a 50-win, top-four team in the East with a strong defense, instead they are a team on the way to around .500, barely hanging onto a playoff spot, with the point differential of a team that wins 36 games. They are not taking a step forward, and the Bucks — with the approval of ownership, which was very close to Kidd at one time — approving the move.

There was nothing Antetokounmpo could have done. It’s life in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he has to like it.