Did James Harden not resting during season come back to bite him in playoffs?

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This was James Harden speaking back in late March, when he was making a push for MVP and saying playing every day mattered in that chase:

“For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there… For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

And if Mike D’Antoni approached him about sitting out a game for rest.

“Mike knows not to come at me with that.”

This was James Harden Thursday night in a Game 6, win-or-go-home playoff game: 2-of-11 from the floor for 10 points, almost as many turnovers as assists (7 to 6), and he looked like the slowest guy on the court — because he was the slowest guy on the court.

Harden looked exhausted. Out of gas. Like he did at the end of Game 5 before.

When you look back at the push for Harden to be the MVP, is it a coincidence he didn’t get rested during the season and it cost him late?

Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni — who in the past has said he was not a fan of resting players during the regular season — said Friday he’d have to reconsider his position. Via Tim MacMahon at ESPN.

D’Antoni, describing himself as “shell-shocked” the day after Houston’s season ended with a 39-point home loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6, acknowledged after Friday’s exit interviews that fatigue could have factored into Harden’s poor finish.

“All great players think they can do everything,” D’Antoni said. “Maybe he does need to take a game off here and there. ‘Hey, you’re nicked up a little bit, don’t play, maybe.’ Something to talk about, but that’s also his greatness, too. So it’s hard. It’s very delicate.

Gregg Popovich, the coach who bested D’Antoni in the last round (again), has been at the forefront of resting players during the season to have them at their peak for the playoffs. The brilliant Tom Haberstroh at ESPN broke down the numbers in a piece saying Harden needs to get more rest.

Before winning the 2014 Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard ranked 138th in minutes played during the regular season. Andre Iguodala spent the regular season coming off the bench before nabbing the 2015 Finals MVP. Before his brilliant 2016 Finals manifesto, LeBron James enjoyed 19 extra days off in the playoffs as a result of sweeping early-round opponents, while the Warriors labored through injuries and a grueling seven-game marathon against the OKC Thunder. Let’s also not forget the Warriors decided to chase 73 wins that season instead of resting down the stretch…

The Rockets could point to a Nene injury as an excuse (against the Spurs this year), but that strains credibility when you consider the Spurs played without starters Tony Parker and Leonard in Game 6. The Spurs’ reserves stepped up to the challenge because Popovich asked them to step up eight times before in the regular season when he sat Leonard….

Russell Westbrook and Harden’s MVP cases were often buttressed by their visceral opposition to DNP-Rests and yet both flamed out in the postseason in spectacular fashion. Westbrook shot 38.8 percent on 30.4 field goal attempts while turning the ball over six times per game in his first-round exit. Harden missed 45 3-pointers in six games against a Spurs team that collectively ran five more miles on the floor than the Rockets did in the series, according to player-tracking data. With little burst left, Westbrook and Harden were reduced to chucking from deep. The pair shot 27.3 percent on 3s on a combined 20.6 attempts per game in the postseason, whereas those figures were 34.5 percent and 16.4, respectively, in the regular season.

The player tracking data that comes from wearables that a lot of teams use in practice show the same things. Basically, all the data shows that rested players perform better and are less likely to get injured. There is no doubt about that.

Which remains an issue for the NBA, who has fans paying big money for seats — and broadcast partners paying bigger money to show the games — only to see the top players sit out. It’s not good optics. The league will start a week earlier next year and the NBA will try to space out games a little more, but if the schedule is at 82 games there’s only so much that can be done (and it’s hard to imagine the number of games being reduced just because of the potential financial issues). There is no easy answer here. (And spare me the “back in the day guys didn’t rest” crap, as former player turned agent B.J. Armstrong said on a PBT Podcast, if they had the data then that teams do now guys would have rested.)

All of which means, expect James Harden to get a few games off next regular season.

 

Three Things to Know: Paul George returns to Indiana, gets bailed out by OKC defense

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Paul George returns to Indiana, gets booed, and gets win… thanks to Thunder defense. Russell Westbrook got his triple-double (10 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists). Paul George got some measure of satisfaction with a win on a night he returned to Indiana and was booed mercilessly by the Pacer faithful.

But George didn’t earn them this win, at least on the offensive end. This was a typical Thunder win because it was their elite defense bailing out an unimpressive offense. Again. The Thunder’s big trio of Westbrook, George, and Carmelo Anthony remained in an offensive funk they cannot shoot their way out of, going a combined 10-of-45 from the floor Wednesday, or 22.2 percent.

What the Thunder can fall back on is their defense — second best in the NBA this season (100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). Indiana came into the game with a top-10 offense and OKC held them in check. The Pacers scored 7.7 points per 100 less than they have averaged for the season. Victor Oladipo, who had been destroying teams for a week, shot 9-of-26 on the night with George as the primary defender on him most of the game. However, Oladipo did lead a charge from 11 down with just more than 5 minutes to go to make it a game late. Then came the big play of the game: Down three with 10 seconds to go, the Pacers tried to get the ball to Oladipo, but it was George who tipped and stole the inbounds pass, followed by hit two free throws after being fouled, to ice the game.

The Thunder got a huge performance from Steven Adams, who had 23 points but more importantly nine offensive rebounds — Oklahoma City grabbed the offensive board and got a second chance on 35.4 percent of their missed shots, and that was the difference in this game.

This didn’t feel like a game where the Thunder turned any corners, but it’s a win on the road and the Thunder will take that without asking any questions.

2) Rockets have yet to lose since Chris Paul returned, win streak reaches 11 after beating Charlotte. It’s not as simple as “Chris Paul came back and Houston can’t lose.” First off, they were winning a lot before he came back. Second, if you’re going to credit something credit the Houston defense, which has been the best in the NBA over the last 11 games (allowing 100.5 points per 100 possessions).

That said, Chris Paul dropped 31 points and 11 assists on Charlotte, torched the Hornet defense, and did it effortlessly as always.

It’s this simple: Houston is a legit contender and the team best poised to knock off Golden State this postseason. How they match up with the Warriors in a series is a question left for late May. We’re a long way from there. But that big question is not going to be answered until then, and the Rockets have answered all the other ones thrown at them so far.

3) Gordon Hayward got his boot off. Celtics’ fans fever dreams of Gordon Hayward returning from his horrific dislocated ankle injury in time for the playoffs — giving Boston a better shot at dethroning LeBron James and the Cavaliers — got a boost on Wednesday.

Hayward is out of his walking boot.

Not to put a damper on those dreams (well, kind of actually) Hayward himself said if things don’t progress he will be back in the boot, and there remains no official timetable for his return. Hayward, his agent, and the Celtics have all said not to expect him back this season… but if you’re a dreaming Celtics fan that just sounds like a PR statement, a managing of expectations so butts are covered if he’s not back.

Hayward is reportedly working hard on his rehab. He talked to Kobe Bryant and Paul George early in the process, guys who know about bouncing back from injury, and both told him to go at rehab hard every day like it was preparing for a game. Do everything the doctors and trainers say. There would be good days, bad days, but work the process. By all accounts, Hayward is doing just that.

And that still doesn’t mean he will be back for these playoffs. We all saw that injury, right? If he’s not back this season, nobody should blink. That was nasty. But he is out of his boot and walking normally, and that’s a good sign because what everyone wants to see is him back on the court. Whenever it happens.

Thunder pick up Paul George in his return to Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George made a winning return to Indiana, hitting the clinching free throws with 10.7 seconds left in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 100-95 victory over the Pacers on Wednesday night.

Steven Adams had 23 points and 13 rebounds and Russell Westbrook finished with 10 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists in his ninth triple-double this season. The Thunder have won two straight on the road.

Victor Oladipo led the Pacers with 19 points and Bojan Bogdanovic scored 15. Indiana had a chance to tie the score after getting the ball back with 15.2 seconds left, but George got a steal then hit a couple free throws.

The Pacers’ winning streak ended at four.

But the highly anticipated matchup between George and Oladipo, the key components in last summer’s blockbuster trade, didn’t go as expected.

George was booed loudly during introductions and every time he touched the ball. Fans only cheered for George when he was called for a foul or made a mistake and it seemed to take a toll on the four-time All-Star. He finished 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting, had two rebounds and four turnovers.

Oladipo, the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week, didn’t have a typical night either. He was 9 of 26 with five rebounds and six assists.

The result: Both teams struggled.

Indiana led 27-22 after one but gave the lead right back by allowing Oklahoma City to start the second quarter on a 9-0 spurt.

After the Pacers answered with a 9-0 run, the Thunder closed the half on a 9-3 spurt to make it 51-46.

The trend continued in the second half.

Indiana charged back to take a 63-59 lead before the Thunder used an 11-2 run to pull out to a 73-69 lead going into the fourth.

Oklahoma City extended the lead to 92-81 with 5:16 to go but only scored six points the rest of the way. That was just enough to hold on.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Oklahoma City is 4-10 on the road. … Oklahoma City got its first series split with the Pacers since 2012-13. … Oklahoma City had 17 offensive rebounds and was 13 of 29 on 3-pointers.

Pacers: Thaddeus Young had 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals. … Made 11 3s but fell to 14-3 when making 10 or more 3-pointers in a game this season. … Center Myles Turner had three blocks, his 12th game this season with three or more. … Former Colts coach Tony Dungy attended the game. He’s in town for Thursday night’s NFL game between the Colts and Broncos.

ALL-STAR DAY

The Pacers got a win before they even took the floor.

A little less than three hours before tip, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Indiana would host the 2021 All-Star Game. It will be the first time the Pacers have hosted the marquee event since 1985.

The move comes seven months after Larry Bird hand-delivered the formal proposal at the league’s New York headquarters in an IndyCar.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Faces Philadelphia on Friday, trying to improve to 17-1 in the series since moving to Oklahoma City.

Pacers: Host Detroit on Friday, seeking a seventh straight home win in the series.

 

Rockets’ Clint Capela on Warriors: ‘I expect to beat them’

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During the 2014-15 season, Rockets star James Harden said the Warriors “ain’t even that good.”

Golden State went on to reach the last three NBA Finals, twice beating Houston in the playoffs, and win two championships.

The Rockets have since re-tooled around Harden, Chris Paul and several quality role players and are in first place. Houston looks like the biggest threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference.

Rockets center Clint Capela on the Warriors, via Dave Schilling of Bleacher Report:

“I expect to beat them,” Capela says.

That’s a fine sentiment. Saying it publicly is another matter. Not even Harden did that a couple years ago. He was recorded during a pregame team huddle.

There’s a fine line between self-fulfilling confidence and providing bulletin-board material to the opponent. There’s already some animosity between the teams stemming from the Stephen Curry-Harden MVP race in 2015, and it has bubbled since. No matter how harmless Capela’s remark might have been intended to be, it’ll be met contentiously in the Bay Area.

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Victor Oladipo

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Oklahoma City traded for Victor Oladipo out of Orlando to be their third scorer, behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It didn’t exactly work out that way, Durant bolted town and when Westbrook went off Oladipo was looking for a place to fit in.

That place turned out to be the Pacers.

Oladipo has been playing like an All-Star this season with Indiana, and last week he was key in snapping Cleveland’s 13 game win streak, then turned around and dropped 47 points on Denver. For the week he averaged 35.7 points a game, shot 45.7 percent from three, plus grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game.

That will get you named the PBT Extra Player of the Week.