Eric Gordon

Westbrook, Harden, Leonard MVP top three as NBA announces award finalists

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We are not going to know who is MVP — or any other NBA award winner, outside of the All-NBA Team — before the June 26 award ceremony. That’s after the Finals, and after the Draft.

But we do know who the top three finalists are in the major individual categories, those were announced on Friday on TNT. Here are all the finalists (listed in no particular order).

Most Valuable Player
Kawhi Leonard
James Harden
Russell Westbrook

Defensive Player of the Year
Draymond Green
Kawhi Leonard
Rudy Gobert

Rookie of the Year
Joel Embiid
Dario Saric
Malcolm Brogdon

Sixth Man of the Year
Andre Iguodala
Eric Gordon
Lou Williams

Coach of the Year
Erik Spoelstra
Mike D’Antoni
Gregg Popovich

Most Improved Player
Rudy Gobert
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Nikola Jokic

Remember, the votes were turned in before the playoffs started.

I don’t see any real surprises in there. Certainly not with MVP where Westbrook/Harden/Leonard will be the top three vote getters, with LeBron James fourth, then a pretty wide open race for fifth. Some people will argue LeBron was snubbed, but while he had a strong regular season his Cavaliers took the month of March basically off, particularly on defense, and in a close race that matters.

On down the list, those likely are the top three vote-getters in each category, and while you can try to make a case for people outside this group to be included (was Isaiah Thomas one of the most improved? Scotty Brooks for Coach of the Year?) there are no shockers in there.

Drake will host the NBA’s first ever awards ceremony on June 26, shown live on TNT from New York City. I doubt they do it, but the NBA should treat this like the Golden Globes, with big round tables and flowing alcohol for the nominees and others in the audience. It would make a more lively show.

Without Kawhi Leonard, Spurs blast James Harden and the Rockets in Game 6

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I don’t know what’s wrong with the Houston Rockets, but it’s probably not good.

The San Antonio Spurs demolished Houston in Game 6 on Thursday, 114-75, all without Kawhi Leonard, who sat out with an ankle injury. LaMarcus Aldridge finally looked alive, scoring 34 points to go along with 12 rebounds. James Harden, a game removed from notching a triple-double, had just 10 points while adding seven assists and a whopping six turnovers.

Houston looked lacking all game, with a real separation occurring in the second quarter. The Rockets scored just 18 points in the second period, unable to score from 3-point range.

In fact, the Rockets made just 13 of the 40 3-pointers they took, a stark contrast to their 22-of-50 explosion from Game 1.

Perhaps most perplexing was Harden’s effort, who at times seemed active but unable to judge timing and distance on his drives and passes. The Rockets star led the game in turnovers — he had just one less than San Antonio had as a team — and many of them came on odd decisions and ill-timed passes.

Harden’s example seemed to lead the way for the Rockets, who in a line failed to produce an active offensive night. Trevor Ariza led the way in scoring for Houston with 20 points, and Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson were all held to single-digit scoring totals.

Getting the nod in place for Leonard for San Antonio was Jonathon Simmons, who scored 18 points in his first-ever NBA playoff start. Simmons dropped 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, adding four assists. Dejounte Murray was a standout off the bench with 11 points for the Spurs.

The game was never really close, and the way Houston ended their season had to be disappointing for Rockets fans considering how incredible they were to watch over the course of the year. The Spurs, meanwhile, appear to be the Spurs.

San Antonio heads to yet another Western Conference Finals — this time to take on the Golden State Warriors — in the most Spurs way possible, beating an MVP candidate by 39 points without their best player on the floor.

Meanwhile, Houston will have to regroup and figure out why their world class offense stalled against a team without Leonard even on the floor.

Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is on Sunday in Oakland.

With Nene out, Rockets will start Eric Gordon, make Ryan Anderson backup center

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Mike D’Antoni’s default move in the face of adversity is to go smaller.

So with Nene out for the rest of the playoffs and his rotations thrown off, the Houston Rockets’ coach is taking Eric Gordon off the bench and starting him in Game 5 against San Antonio. Ryan Anderson will lose his starting spot and become the backup center.

What Popovich is doing for Game 5 is moving Patty Mills into the starting lineup. Dejounte Murray played about as well as could be expected once Tony Parker went out, but this move was destined to happen.

I like starting Gordon for Houston. D’Antoni started the second half of Game 4 with that lineup — Patrick Beverly, James Harden, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capella — and it was +14 in a little over six minutes of court time. D’Antoni experimented with some Ryan Anderson at center lineups and combined they were +1. Overall, going smaller made it hard for the Spurs to go with what had worked for them, keeping Pau Gasol in the paint under the basket to take away drives, allowing the other defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter.

The moves comes with risks, too. For one, James Harden will have to take on either Pau Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge (because they don’t want to take Trevor Ariza off of Kawhi Leonard). Look for the Spurs to try to exploit that matchup.

Then there is the foul risk, as D’Antoni told Jonathan Feigin of the Houston Chronicle.

“The biggest thing, if Clint would get in (foul) trouble, or you get quick fouls on somebody, you don’t really have (off the bench) what we want to get to,” D’Antoni said of the decision to bring Anderson off the bench.

Despite the risks, this is the way the Rockets have to go. It allows them to run, and if the threes are falling it will force Gregg Popovich to match the small lineups, something he has the players to do but has been loath to do.

 

It was raining threes again and Rockets blow past Spurs 125-104, even series 2-2

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Coach Mike D’Antoni’s formula for Houston to win in this series is pretty simple: The pace has to be up, the threes have to fall, and the role players — particularly off the bench — have to step up with big games.

Game 4 saw the Houston back to running and gunning. The Rockets hit 19 threes on 44.2 percent shooting from deep, ( well above the 30.8 percent they shot in Game 3). All those threes falling forced the Spurs to extend their defense, then the Rockets started putting the ball on the floor and blowing by them in what felt like a layup line at points.

And the Rockets got help for James Harden. Ryan Anderson had 13 points (up from 2 in the previous game), and the Houston bench had 50 points, well ahead of the 10 last game. Eric Gordon led the way with 22.

The result of all this was a 125-104 win for the Rockets at home, evening the series at 2-2 heading back to San Antonio for Game 5 Tuesday.

“Several guys stepped up tonight,” James Harden said after a 28 point, 12 assist night (eight of the 12 dimes were for threes). “Ryan, Lou, Eric, Trevor, Pat, and if we’re going to have a chance at this series they’re going to have to make plays, and they did tonight.”

The Rockets did all this without Nene, who suffered a groin injury two minutes in and could not play. His status for the rest of the series is up in the air.

Patrick Beverley was the inspiration for Houston, on the day he lost his grandfather he played fantastic ball, scored 10 points and that included hitting the first three of the night.

“As always, he’s probably the heart and soul, the guy, he’s just incredible,” D’Antoni said postgame.

“So much adversity through his life that he’s had to go through to get to this point,” Harden added. “He’s just a fighter.”

The real story of this game was pace — the Rockets were running again, and the Spurs again got sucked into playing fast for stretches. They also didn’t slow the Rockets transition game.

“For us, our Bible begins with transition defense, and if it’s not there we’re just not ready to go,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “If you’d seen the clips of our transition D you would have traded all the players and fired me at the end of the game. It was that bad. But they were that intense, they were that focused and professional, and we were not.”

One key to the pace this series has been rebounding. The Rockets had been killed on the offensive glass the last couple games and that slowed down their attack. The Spurs grabbed the offensive board on 32.8 percent of their missed shots in Game 3, but in Game 4 that fell to 24 percent, which allowed the Rockets to get out and run more.

With that pace and space, the shots fell — the Rockets even shot 62 percent on the shots contested by the Spurs (according to NBA.com). In addition to Harden’s 28 points and Gordon’s 22, Trevor Ariza had 16, and Lou Williams pitched in 13 off the bench.

Jonathon Simmons led the Spurs 1ith 17 points off the bench and he played well. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge combined for 32 points on 27 shots. They will need to play better at home if the Spurs are to take control of this series again.

More importantly, the Spurs will need to control the pace of Game 5 to get that crucial win.

Spurs control pace, get 26 from LaMarcus Aldridge, beat Rockets to take 2-1 series lead

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Going home to Houston, with Tony Parker out for the series, there was pressure and expectations on the Rockets to take control of their series against the Spurs on Friday night.

Instead, it was the Spurs who seemed in control.

The game was slower than the Rockets need (100 possessions total, it was 105 in Game 1), they shot 12-of-39 from three (30.8 percent), the role players that killed the Spurs in Game 1 were again quiet, and Houston has yet to find a good adjustment for dealing with Pau Gasol hanging back in the paint on defense. The Rockets scored just 92 points, a season low.

Meanwhile, the Spurs did Spurs-like things. They were patient on offense, and that led to LaMarcus Aldridge getting 26 points, matching Kawhi Leonard’s number. Defensively, Leonard and the scheme made life hard on James Harden, but more importantly, the Spurs stayed home on shooters and made it difficult for him to get others involved. Then, of course, the Spurs executed brilliantly down the stretch.

The result was a 103-92 win by the Spurs in Houston, giving the Spurs a 2-1 lead in the series. Game 4 is Sunday in Houston.

“I don’t know what they’ve done any different, they haven’t done anything different,” Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni said after the game. “They beat us three times in the regular season that way…

“Nothing they did should have bothered us, we just didn’t play good.”

James Harden put up 43 points, but he needs help getting buckets. If the Rockets are going to bounce back and even the series Sunday, they need their shooters to step up — Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Nene combined to shoot 6-of-36. As a team, non-Harden Rockets shot 18-of-60.

On top of all that, the Rockets started to lose their composure and just bark at officials. Both Harden and Patrick Beverley picked up technicals for complaining about calls.

The Spurs have been able to get away with Gasol and Aldridge on the floor, two bigs against Houston, and you wonder if D’Antoni will double down on his strategy and go smaller with Ryan Anderson at the five for stretches. That’s not to say Clint Capella has played poorly, he had 12 points and 16 rebounds, but the Rockets need to shake something up.

And they need to respond to pressure.

Game 5 becomes almost must-win for Houston — go down 3-1 and this series is over. Houston has to get back to playing fast and free, and they’ve just got to knock down their threes.