AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

2 Comments

James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Mike D’Antoni: Not winning title wouldn’t diminish Rockets’ accomplishments

Getty Images
6 Comments

James Harden has twice finished second for Most Valuable Player, and he’ll win the award this year. Chris Paul was the best point guard between Magic Johnson and Stephen Curry. Mike D’Antoni won 62, 54, 61 and 55 games with the Suns, and he has twice won Coach of the Year.

But neither of the Rockets’ two biggest stars nor their coach have won a championship.

They look primed to change that this season. Houston (65-17) had the NBA’s best record by six games. Curry is out injured, and the Warriors struggled for weeks until a Game 1 win over the Spurs. The Cavaliers look even more out of sorts. The Raptors have faltered annually in the playoffs. Celtics star Kyrie Irving is out for the rest of the season. The 76ers, led by Ben Simmons and, once he gets healthy, Joel Embiid, are young. No other team won even 50 games year.

As Harden said of the Rockets, “This is the year. For sure.”

But D’Antoni isn’t putting all his eggs in that basket.

D’Antoni, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

“I read something the other day [that said] sure James Harden should be the MVP, sure Chris Paul and James have been great, sure they set a franchise record [for wins by] about six games’ worth, but they’ll ultimately be judged by if they win a championship or not,” D’Antoni said before pausing. “Really? It doesn’t diminish what these guys have done.”

“So how I celebrate is I enjoy every freaking day I go into the locker room with these guys and go on the court and all the games we’ve won and all the trips we’ve made back from games on the road back [as] winners, that’s what’s enjoyable,” D’Antoni said. “Now obviously, we would love to celebrate it with a championship, everybody would.

“But it doesn’t diminish Steve Nash and how good he was for three or four years [with the Suns] in this league. I just don’t buy into that. I don’t buy it is all about the rings because there are a lot of guys that got rings that can’t play a lick. They happened to be on the bench with some great players, so I don’t buy into that totally.”

What a reasonable perspective.

THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO TIME FOR THAT RIGHT NOW.

Unhealthy obsessions tend to be rewarded in the playoffs. Listen to former greats brag about how they put their families aside this time of year. When some players have a maniacal focus, matching it might be the only way to keep up – whether you like it or not.

If the Rockets don’t win a title, the narrative will be about their lack of a championship mentality. D’Antoni’s comments will only fuel it.

That’s somewhat fair. Not winning a title diminished Nash’s career. It’d diminish Paul’s and Harden’s, too. It has been a hole on D’Antoni’s résumé.

But a lack of a ring shouldn’t completely nullify their other accomplishments. It’s one way to judge players and coaches. It shouldn’t be the only way, which is what I think D’Antoni is getting at.

The timing of his comments – just before the postseason – raises a few eyebrows.

Still, I’d bet on Paul and Harden being more emotionally invested in winning a championship this year. D’Antoni could balance that and help keep his team from putting too much pressure on itself.

That’s at least the positive spin until Houston loses, and everyone bashes D’Antoni for saying this.

Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

Getty Images
6 Comments

To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.

Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.

• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).

Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.

We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.

It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.

If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.

Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)

Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.

• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?

However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.

LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).

It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.

• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.

The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.

Simmons lets the Sixers do that.

Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.

Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.

Put the brakes on all that.

Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.

Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?

Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.

If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.

• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.

However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.

In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.

How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.

James Harden scores 44 points as Rockets beat Wolves 104-101

AP
3 Comments

HOUSTON (AP) James Harden scored 44 points and powered a big fourth-quarter run that allowed the Houston Rockets to outlast the Minnesota Timberwolves 104-101 on Sunday night in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series.

Minnesota scored four straight points to get within 3 with about 30 seconds left. Chris Paul added two free throws after that for Houston, but a tip-in by Karl-Anthony Towns got Minnesota back within 3. After a bad pass by Paul gave the Timberwolves a chance to tie it with 1.5 seconds left, Jimmy Butler‘s shot was short.

The Timberwolves had a one-point lead with about seven minutes left when Houston used a 9-0 run, with the last seven points from Harden, to make it 94-86 with about four minutes to go. Harden, who also had a steal in that span, capped the run with a 3-pointer that prompted Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau to call a timeout.

Jeff Teague ended Minnesota’s scoring drought with two free throws after the timeout and added a 3-point play after a basket by Harden. Harden made another shot to give him 11 straight points for Houston before another basket by Teague.

Harden got Capela in on the scoring after that, finding him for an alley-oop that pushed the lead to 101-93 with less than three minutes left.

The top-seeded Rockets had their hands full with the No. 8 Timberwolves on a night where Houston made just 10 of 37 3-pointers. Harden made 7 of 12 3-pointers, but Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon and Paul combined to make just 3 of their 22 tries.

Houston kept All-Star big man Towns in check, limiting him to just eight points after he’d averaged 21.3 in leading the Wolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004. Andrew Wiggins scored 18 points to lead Minnesota.

The Wolves scored the first nine points of the second half to take a 56-54 lead. Tucker made a 3 for the Rockets after that, but Minnesota used a 6-1 spurt, with 3s from Wiggins and Teague, to go back on top 62-58.

The Rockets had managed just six points in the quarter when Gerald Green made a basket with to cut the lead to 1 with about five minutes left in the third. Derrick Rose added a bucket seconds later, but Houston scored six straight points after that to put Houston up 68-65. Harden got things going when he made a 3-pointer while being fouled by Rose and also made the free throw.

Minnesota led by a basket after a jump shot by Towns with about two minutes left in the quarter. Harden took over after that, scoring the last six points of the quarter to leave Houston up 76-72 entering the fourth.

Harden hit a 3-pointer before making a driving layup he was fouled on by Gorgui Dieng. Harden flexed each bicep twice while peering down at the muscles after the shot before making the free throw.

The Rockets swept the regular-season series 4-0, winning by an average of 15.8 points a game and it looked like this one might be another blowout early as the Rockets raced out to a 17-6 lead behind 10 early points from Clint Capela. But the Timberwolves got going after that and had tied it up by late in the first quarter.

The Rockets led 54-47 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Butler, who led the team by averaging 22.2 points in the regular season, finished with 13 points. … The Wolves made 8 of 23 3-point attempts. … Towns had 12 rebounds and two assists.

Rockets: Ryan Anderson missed the game with a sprained left ankle. Coach Mike D’Antoni said there was a chance he could return for Game 2, but that he would know more in the next couple of days. … Capela had 20 points and 10 rebounds at halftime, but was limited in the second half and added just four more points and two rebounds.

UP NEXT

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Houston.

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

Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals

AP Photo
3 Comments

Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.

Really, they were all about the 3-point line.

In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.

While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?

How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?

Right.

D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.

Boy, was that wrong.

D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.

Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.

Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.

It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.

Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.

The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.

In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.

Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.