AP

5 Up, 5 Down: The Rockets are who we thought they were (and so is Portland)

4 Comments

5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

I’m not going to pretend the Houston Rockets shouldn’t be afraid of the Golden State Warriors. But this weird, lurking feeling that the Warriors are going to make this wild surge back and dethrone the “pretending” Rockets? It’s just flat out wrong. It’s been wrong all season, and Mike D’Antoni is probably going to win the NBA Coach of the Year for figuring out how to pair two of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history. Maybe he learned something the first time around with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant?

Houston’s win over the Blazers was incredible, exciting, and electric. While the game was in doubt for the No. 1 team in the Western Conference throughout the game, the way they closed was confidence-inspiring. The Rockets aren’t just a team with legitimate scorers, they are a defensive hassle. D’Antoni’s gameplan led to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combining for just 28 points on 32 shots. Tuesday night, we learned that the Rockets are who we thought they were. That also applies to Portland, but not in the way that you might think.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Is this the year for the Toronto Raptors?

There are a lot of times we’ve wondered this, collectively, out loud. Usually right before a playoff game in which LeBron James disembowels Toronto right in front of us. I get it, it’s a touchy thing to broach. Still, the Raptors are playing in a way we’ve never seen them do before, and it’s not been all about DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valanciunas looks trustworthy, Kyle Lowry is having another career year (it feels like his third or fourth one) and guys like Pascal Siakam are contributing.

Despite what folks in Toronto are telling themselves, pretty much everyone in the NBA is talking about the Raptors and for once that doesn’t feel like the thing that’s going to tip them over the edge. Their lead over both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers feels wholly earned and un-precarious. And if the Cavaliers can’t straighten themselves out with Kevin Love back and if the Celtics aren’t going to play with a full roster, I think we’d all rather see the Raptors in the Finals.

This LeBron Dunk

It’s just … *chef’s kiss*

The makeup of the NBA’s best teams

This is a complete Shower Thought but it hit me the other day that we have had the benefit of a lot of teams around the league being good this year that maybe have not always been top-of-mind for casual NBA fans. Toronto, Indiana, Portland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans. Heck, even Cleveland before LeBron came around was likely a blind spot for folks on the West Coast. That the league isn’t dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks in this decade is more of a gift that we realize, I think. Plus, you know those teams will eventually be back, so get it while it lasts. Well, maybe not the Knicks but you get the idea.

The Blazers, the Rockets, and the end of a winning streak

The Blazers finally lost a game, and in doing so solidified their position as the favorites in any first round playoff series they find themselves in come spring. Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless were all dazzling on a night in which Portland’s 13-game winning streak came to an end.

Houston looked great, naturally, but the Blazers didn’t shy away from the spotlight for a single moment even with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum coming up short during Tuesday night’s big battle royale. I’ve been a doubter for longer than most when it comes to Portland, and they didn’t seem out of place at all against the league’s best team. Blazers fans should feel more secure even after their loss. They can hang, which is more than we could say about them when they sorted themselves out over the New Year.

This insane “LeBron to Portland” billboard

Look, if you thought it was a longshot that this billboard was going to actually get put up, you were dead wrong. Some Blazers fans who run a popular culture brand in Portland wanted to put up a billboard — mostly as a joke — to entice LeBron James to come to Rip City. They started a Go Fund Me, and despite starting slow have now gained momentum and have more than $6,800 to do what they will with it.

Not only have they made their goal, but they’ve blasted past it with the help of sponsors. They are now looking at other options, including a second billboard in Cleveland or transit ads, according to the Oregonian.

This was an inevitability. LeBron to Portland? Not so much.

5 Down

Dwane Casey got ejected even though he didn’t do anything

The battle between the NBPA and NBRA, apparently, rages on. It wasn’t helped when Raptors coach Dwane Casey was ejected from a game for a comment he didn’t even make. A fan behind him said something, which an official mistakenly attributed to Casey.

The entire end of that Raptors-Thunder game was a cluster and Casey getting tossed really was the icing on the cake. Like I’ve said before, look for big announcements this summer regarding officiating as a way for the league, the NBRA, or both to save face and get some viewer confidence back in the grey shirts.

Ty Lue is out with an illness

The Cavaliers are a reality show that any cable network would love to syndicate. But, if you can peel back the curtain for a minute, you can humanize these guys in a way that isn’t so much fun to poke and prod throughout the course of a championship-hopeful NBA season. Lue, much like Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, is having some serious health issues and no doubt the stress of the season has to be contributing factor.

Hope he gets well soon.

This whole dinosaur thing with Jordan Clarkson

Let’s get a little meta for a second.

First, both Kyrie Irving and Jordan Clarkson have said patently insane things on Channing Frye‘s podcast that nobody should believe. Are all NBA players secretly hiding easily-debunked opinions that can be disproved with 7th grade Earth Science? Maybe, but there’s another common component here and it’s Frye.

Here’s a conspiracy theory of my own: All these crazy quotes are simply Frye orchestrating listens for his podcast. The only other alternative is to suggest that a lot of NBA players sincerely believe things that no good organizational base — whether they be the public school system or the financial managers, agents, and business managers hired by players — should let these guys think. Someone is failing these dudes if they believe these things in earnest.

I’ve got my eye on you, Channing.

The reading guy

This guy was reading during Spurs-Warriors this week. Was he reading Proust? Or “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? No. He was reading a book because a movie was really popular this year.

Step your reading game up, bro. Give your ticket away to someone who is going to watch the in-game entertainment. I’m pretty sure those stunt teams don’t even make minimum wage, the least you could do is look up at them during a timeout.

Players Only has got to go

I have an honest question, free of snark that I genuinely need answered: Who asked for this? Team broadcast crews are, sometimes to their detriment, already oversaturated with former NBA talent that often seem ill-equipped to handle the job. Many former players, looking to stay close to the game, get slotted into the booth for their former teams, usually as color commentators without much training or an interesting perspective to offer. There’s already been a slow creep of NBA dudes moving into the booth, and the idea of “Players Only” almost seems redundant at this point.

The mark of a good commentator differs between the play-by-play and color guys, but there should be baseline of performance that often isn’t met. Just because a guy played in the league — or because he’s gregarious — doesn’t mean he can communicate the ins and outs of the modern NBA, or even know what’s relevant when calling a game. I’m not sure what the answer is, although shows like ESPN’s “The Jump” and NBATV’s “The Starters” seem to suggest a mix of experienced broadcasters, polished players, and knowledgeable writers would be a good mix.

Because they’re all on one broadcast where a few shine and the majority fail expectations, the “Players Only” broadcasts are an embarrassing highlight of the fact that too many guys aren’t ready for a national spot in the booth. Twitter hates it. Reddit hates it. They’ve got to get rid of it.

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

Associated Press
2 Comments

Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

A post shared by House of Highlights (@houseofhighlights) on

Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

Associated Press
8 Comments

Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

A post shared by House of Highlights (@houseofhighlights) on

Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

A post shared by House of Highlights (@houseofhighlights) on

Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

Associated Press
1 Comment

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”