MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

Report: Spurs ‘giving off signals’ they won’t trade Kawhi Leonard yet

Associated Press
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Last summer, LaMarcus Aldridge told Gregg Popovich he wasn’t happy and wanted to be traded out of San Antonio. The result was a “come to Jesus” meeting between the two.

“I was very candid with him. I told him, ‘you get me a talent like Kevin Durant and I’ll drive you to the airport. I’ll pack your bags, I’ll drive you there, I’ll get you on the plane and I’ll get you seated,’” Popovich said with a smile. “And he laughed at that. But short of that, I’m your best buddy, because you’re here for another year and you’re not going nowhere. Because we’re not going to get, for you, talent-wise what we would want. So let’s figure this thing out.”

They did figure it out. Popovich and Aldridge talked fit and offensive style, with the coach coming to the realization he needed to adapt, too. The result is Aldridge having an All-NBA level season.

But you think because Kawhi Leonard — a more talented player entering his prime — is not on the sidelines for the playoffs Popovich and R.C. Buford are going to trade him?

Things are not good right now between Leonard and the Spurs, there is no communication going on and there is a standoff. Leonard is with his people working out in New York, the Spurs are trying to win a game against the Warriors in the playoffs. However, trading Leonard is another level. The Spurs aren’t there yet, as Marc Stein of the New York Times reported in his weekly newsletter.

One well-placed insider who has closely monitored this situation told me recently that the Spurs continue to give off signals behind the scenes that they won’t trade Leonard.

Will the Spurs get there?

Yes, Popovich sat down with Aldridge last summer and hashed things out, but this case feels different, as Tim Bontemps points out at the Washington Post.

The most important difference, though, is that Popovich met with Aldridge and was able to hash out everything last summer, laying the foundation for a bounceback all-star season. There is a reason that Popovich repeatedly refers to Leonard as “Leonard and his group,” a reference to a group now led by agent Mitch Frankel and Leonard’s uncle, Dennis Robertson.

It is unclear if Leonard and Popovich can even have that same kind of meeting, or if things between Leonard’s camp and the Spurs have grown so fractious that it’s past that point. Even if Leonard and Popovich can have such a meeting, could it create the same result?

Without that happening, it seems impossible to think this ends any other way than with Leonard being traded this summer. Just like Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins before him, the supermax has become a zero-sum game for teams. If they are willing to offer it to a player, they do, and the player signs it (see: James Harden and John Wall). If they are not, they don’t, and the player gets traded (see: Butler and Cousins).

That is the ultimate test in this case, the designated player max extension — which would ultimately lock Leonard in for six years at around a total of $219 million.

Come July 1 (or soon after), do the Spurs feel confident enough in their relationship with Leonard and the health of his quadriceps tendon to put the offer on the table? If so, he will sign it.

If not, then a trade becomes a legitimate discussion. And there are 29 teams that would be interested — the Spurs would get a quality package of players/picks in return.

But the Spurs are not there yet.

Stephen Curry, Warriors lead NBA in merchandise sales. Again.

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Fans still love them some Stephen Curry. And the Golden State Warriors. For the past two seasons, when it came to player jerseys sales, Curry has been on top of the list of players. His Warriors have been the top seller of team merchandise.

That did not change this past season.

The NBA released the Top 15 players in jersey sales this season, and some familiar names were at the top.

Top 15 Most Popular NBA Jerseys:
1. Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)
2. LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
3. Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors)
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
5. Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics)
6. Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
7. Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks)
8. Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
9. James Harden (Houston Rockets)
10. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)
11. Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs)
12. Lonzo Ball (Los Angeles Lakers)
13. Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
14. Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors)
15. Jimmy Butler (Minnesota Timberwolves)

The top three remained the same as last year, but Antetokounmpo leapt up to fourth from ninth as his popularity continues to skyrocket. Irving moved up a spot with his move to Boston. Porzingis and Leonard remained in the top 10 despite injuries on the court limiting their play. Lonzo being above Lillard just seems wrong on a gut level, but that’s the world we live in.

As for team merchandise, which is now made by Nike:

Top 10 Most Popular Team Merchandise:
1. Golden State Warriors
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Philadelphia 76ers
4. Los Angeles Lakers
5. Boston Celtics
6. Milwaukee Bucks
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
8. New York Knicks
9. Chicago Bulls
10. Houston Rockets

If LeBron is on the move again this summer, it will shake up the team rankings considerably.

Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

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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
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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