James Harden’s great season for Rockets ends in embarrassing loss

6 Comments

HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden went up for a 3-pointer, changed his mind and tossed the ball between two teammates.

He drove for a layup before inexplicably throwing the ball into a sea of San Antonio Spurs.

After putting together an MVP-caliber year, the indelible images of Harden and the Houston Rockets will be the lowlights from a 39-point loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals to a San Antonio team playing without Kawhi Leonard and starting point guard Tony Parker.

And those images will linger for some time.

Harden, who didn’t even attempt a shot until midway through the second quarter, was 2 of 11 and finished with 10 points to tie a season low as the Rockets were embarrassed on their home court on Thursday night to end their season with a thud.

“I feel so sorry for him because he’s had an unbelievable – he’s had an historic year,” coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Most people outside the organization aren’t feeling sorry for the point guard, and were left scratching their heads at how such an elite player could perform so poorly in a game that mattered so much.

Harden wasn’t available on Friday, but took blame for the loss after the game. However, he had no answers as to what went so terribly wrong on Thursday night.

“It’s frustrating definitely,” he said. “Especially the way we were resilient all year long, fought through adversity. We’ve been really good at bouncing back … it hurts. It stings. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get better and we will.”

Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game – all career bests – in helping Houston to a 55-27 record and the third best record in the NBA a year after the Rockets squeaked into the playoffs an eighth seed. He had 22 triple-doubles in the regular season and became the first player in NBA history to have 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659) in a single season.

He displayed flashes of brilliance in the playoffs to be sure, but couldn’t deliver when the Rockets needed it most. Houston had a chance to tie Game 5 as overtime expired, but Harden’s shot was blocked from behind by Manu Ginobili.

The Spurs carried that momentum into Game 6 in Houston, and Harden didn’t respond. He was out of sorts from the start and the Rockets were all but out of the game by halftime.

Despite the uninspiring performance, general manager Daryl Morey said that Harden’s struggles on Thursday night shouldn’t negate what he accomplished this season.

“Obviously he had a tough game, but to me it’s a joke to get on him because we’re not where we are … without James,” Morey said. “The guy that’s hardest on James is James. Everyone’s disappointed, but he’s No. 1.”

A day after the game D’Antoni still didn’t have a clear explanation for the collapse. He still seemed stunned by what transpired and used the word “shell-shocked” three separate times on Friday. D’Antoni, who helped Houston to a 14-game improvement in his first season, believes the Rockets might have been worn down by dealing with a team that lacks a clear weakness to exploit.

“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s almost like mentally it just zapped us,” he said. “I think over the long haul when we didn’t win Game 5 we came back and we were just mentally at zero.”

For D’Antoni, being ousted by coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs is nothing new. D’Antoni is 0-5 in playoff series against the Spurs, with Popovich eliminating his Suns teams in 2005, 2007, 2008 and the Lakers in 2013 before this season’s loss.

“That’s the mountain we’ve got to climb,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think I’m the only team that’s lost to them. They’ve beaten everybody … but yeah, it hurts.”

The Rockets obviously need to improve in order to compete with the elite teams in the West, and D’Antoni had a few ideas about what needs to happen.

“We need to get better as a group,” he said. “We need to get better defensively. We need to add layers to the offense where it takes some of the load off of James.”

Harden is a leading MVP candidate, and could walk away with the award next month. But even bringing it to Houston for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon won it in 1994 is unlikely remove that terrible taste of how the season ended.

“We’ve got a whole summer … to put it behind us,” Harden said.

After the crushing ending, that might not even be enough time.

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

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

Getty Images
1 Comment

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

5 Comments

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’

Getty Images
7 Comments

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

1 Comment

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.