Ryan Anderson

Associated Press

Rockets destroy LeBron James, disconnected Cavs 120-88

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Chris Paul had 22 points and 11 assists, Ryan Anderson added 21 points and the Houston Rockets became the latest team to thump Cleveland on national TV, beating the disconnected Cavaliers 120-88 on Saturday night.

James Harden only scored 16 — 15 below his league-leading average — but Houston rolled to its fourth straight win and improved to 11-2 since Jan. 8.

Meanwhile, the Cavs’ downward spiral accelerated.

Since losing at Golden State on Christmas, LeBron James and his teammates are 0-8 in network broadcasts and have been embarrassed in several matchups against quality teams. They lost by 28 at Minnesota, 34 in Toronto, 24 at home to Oklahoma City and 32 to the Rockets, who toyed with the defending Eastern Conference champs.

James finished with just 11 points and didn’t play in the fourth quarter as the Rockets were too far ahead. Isaiah Thomas scored 12 for Cleveland.

The Cavs played their second game without injured All-Star forward Kevin Love, who could be out two months with a broken left hand suffered earlier this week.

Love’s injury hurts, obviously, but there are far bigger issues with a Cleveland team that has lost 12 of 18 and appears to be tearing apart at the seams.

With the Rockets up 35 in the third quarter, the Cavs didn’t even bother to huddle during a timeout. Thomas and J.R. Smith sat at the middle of the scorer’s table while James and other players wandered near the bench area as coach Tyronn Lue and his staff tried to figure what to do next.

The Cavs actually did a decent job on Harden, who recorded the first 60-point triple-double earlier in the week against Orlando. Harden went just 5 of 14 from the field.

Down 26 at halftime, James and the Cavs walked off the floor hearing boos from Cleveland fans who have grown tired of their lack of defense, chemistry and commitment.

With the trade deadline on Thursday, Cleveland might need to make a major move to have any chance of getting back to its fourth straight Finals. This group isn’t getting it done.

Lue said it would be a “team challenge” to slow down Harden.

“‘You have to show him different looks,” Lue said before the game. “I just don’t think you can let a great player get comfortable showing him the same kind of defensive schemes. You’ve got to mix it up to keep him off balance, just try to make him make field goals and not free throws.”

Early on, Cleveland tried several players on Harden, but Paul did the damage. He made three 3-pointers in the first quarter, helping ignite the Rockets and push them to a 14-point lead.

Houston opened the second quarter with three more 3s – the Rockets started 8 of 12 behind the arc – and when Anderson drained another 3-pointer, the Rockets’ lead had swelled to 48-23.

 

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”

Three Things to Know: Did Durant foul LeBron? Probably, but that’s not why Cavs lost.

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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) Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on a late drive? Twice? Probably, but that’s not why Cleveland lost. First things first: This was no NBA Finals preview on Christmas Day when Cleveland traveled to Golden State. Not because these two teams will not meet again in the Finals — I would put the odds at a little better than 50/50 they do — but because both will be different teams come June. The Cavaliers will have Isaiah Thomas starting at the point, and Stephen Curry will be opposite him, that alone changes a lot of dynamics and we’re not even getting into trades, players’ shifting roles, and more.

What we did get on Christmas Day was a great show — a 99-92 Warriors win that ended in controversy that consumed Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the broadcast, not to mention NBA Twitter.

Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on his drives to the rim late? On this play he did if you ask me.

Shockingly, LeBron said he was fouled after the game, Kevin Durant said no.

I have a long-running belief about controversial calls at the end of games: If a team puts itself in that position, it has to live with referee mistakes. Don’t want that play to matter? Then be better before and take it out of the officials’ hands. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, not this day). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. The Cavs lack of depth and the fact they have guys on this roster who can be exploited in a playoff series was evident. Frankly, Cleveland lost because right now the Warriors are the better team. LeBron almost changed that, because he’s LeBron, but it wasn’t enough.

There were interesting takeaways from this game, especially looking ahead to a potential NBA Finals rematch (for a fourth straight year). First, Jae Crowder did a respectable job guarding Durant for much of the game. Yes, KD had 25 points on 19 shots, but he’s one of the great scorers the game has ever seen, he’s going to get his. This was manageable for Cleveland. Crowder made him work for his buckets. Crowder has been a disappointment to start the season, but in recent weeks has looked healthier and rounded into form (not so coincidentally when the Cavs went on a winning streak). Having Crowder on Durant opens up a lot of other defensive options for the Cavs.

Also interesting was Steve Kerr going small from the opening tip, starting rookie Jordan Bell opposite Kevin Love and sitting Zaza Pachulia. We will see more variations of this as things heat up for Golden State.

If this is the NBA Finals matchup again, we are going to have an entertaining series. One with controversy.

2) Thunder make a statement in beating Rockets, but the bigger question is what has happened to Houston’s defense? How long have we been saying “once Oklahoma City gets it together…”

Looks like they have. Five straight wins now, the latest came over the Rockets on Christmas Day, 112-107 against Houston. Russell Westbrook had 31 points and 11 assists, and it felt like a coming out party as the big three (Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony) combined for 75 points. As a team, OKC shot 54.4 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. Andre Roberson was crucial down the stretch making big plays. The Thunder earned this win with their play late.

Houston has lost three in a row, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three losses, the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. What has fueled the Rockets rise to look like a legit threat to the Warriors is not just an elite offense — on pace to be the best in NBA history in points scored per possession — but the fact the defense was top 10 in the league (currently eighth). They have done a good job on the glass, not fouling, and putting weaker defenders (Ryan Anderson, James Harden) in positions to mitigate the damage. But the last three games the Rockets have been a mess defensively, and that’s what they have to clean up to turn this thing around.

3) Sixers show they are all about Joel Embiid, get win over Knicks. This was a quality win for a Sixers team that had been stumbling. Going into Madison Square Garden on Christmas and beating the Knicks is no simple task, and this showed the team can win (even when Ben Simmons is just okay, 8 points on 8 shots).

What this game really showed is now much Philadelphia relies on Joel Embiid. When Embiid was on the court Christmas Day, Philadelphia outscored New York 90-65. They won 105-98 in a close game. Embiid was a force at both ends: he defended well and protected the paint with three blocks, hit a couple of threes, and was the one Sixer consistently attacking and getting to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds.

Philly shoots itself in the foot with turnovers every game (they lead the league in turnovers by a wide margin) and did it again late on Christmas, with three straight turnovers at one point when they should have put the game away. They let the Knicks hang around.

All that played out Monday, too. The game also was close because of a big night from Enes Kanter, who was a beast inside with 31 points and 22 rebounds — 11 offensive.

The Knicks are currently the eighth seed in the East (tied with Miami for that spot), but they need to now start winning on the road to keep it. New York has had 21 home games and is 15-6 there, but just 12 road games where they are 2-10. Stan Van Gundy conspiracies aside,  this is a team that needs to start winning on the road, or they will be home for the playoffs. Again.

Report: Rockets plan to re-sign Chris Paul, “hunt” LeBron James this summer

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Right now, the Houston Rockets are on Golden State’s doorstep, wanting to walk inside and steal the title of “best team in the NBA.” The Rockets have a better record (by one fewer loss), and if you strip garbage time out of the equation (as Cleaning the Glass does with its stats), the Rockets have a better net rating (+12.3 points per 100 possessions to +11.6). The Rockets have the best offense in the NBA and are a top seven defense (top six without garbage time). Can Houston knock off the Warriors in a seven-game series? I’m not convinced (if both teams are healthy), but they have the best shot of anyone in the Association. The Western Conference Finals will be knock-down, drag out.

And GM Daryl Morey isn’t done.

The Rockets are going to go after LeBron James this summer, something rumored before and confirmed by Zach Lowe of ESPN.

They are underdogs, maybe big ones, but Morey has long promised that he will go for it if he thinks Houston has even a 5 percent chance of winning a ring. He will hunt likely LeBron this summer, per league sources, and hopes to sign Paul to another long-term deal. With Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza headed toward free agency, just bringing this group back could vault Houston well into the luxury tax. Tilman Fertitta, the team’s new owner, has said he would pay the tax to preserve a contender.

James Harden, Chris Paul, and LeBron James wearing the same color jersey? Now that’s a superteam.

There are ways to make this work financially, especially if the Rockets can offload Ryan Anderson (he has played well for Houston this season, but at $20 million a year for two more years he’s overpaid for his role).

Then the question becomes, does LeBron want to go to Houston? He may look around the league and think staying in Cleveland is his best bet. However, if winning more titles is the most important thing, as he and his agent have said, than a super-team in Houston is the best route.

Then what it really comes down to is what Lowe mentions in the final paragraph: How much of a stomach does new owner Tilman Fertitta have for the luxury tax? Because LeBron isn’t taking less than the max, and CP3 likely will not either, so there is going to be a big bill to pay for winning. One that could get steeper as time goes on, those stars salaries go up, and the repeater tax kicks in. Owners all say they will pay the tax to win, but how much tax and for how long?

Bottom line, LeBron to the Rockets is on the table.

Banana Boat plans: Carmelo Anthony wanted to team with Chris Paul, LeBron in Houston

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The Knicks plans to trade Carmelo Anthony dragged out deep into the summer offseason — much farther than Anthony or the Knicks wanted them to. The reason? Anthony had a no trade clause and was insistent on going to Houston or nowhere. The Rockets were interested, but only if they could send Ryan Anderson out (he was owed $60 million over three years coming into this season) and other players, and the Knicks didn’t want him. Third teams were engaged, but no deal was done.

Anthony, through it all, expected the pieces to come together — and thought he, Chris Paul, and James Harden would team up this season, then be joined by LeBron James next season, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

He’d been talking to friends about teaming up with Chris Paul and, eventually, LeBron James in Houston and how the Rockets could match up with the defending champion Golden State Warriors. He went as far as to detail individual matchups between that hypothetical Rockets team and the Warriors, surmising that he and the Rockets could take out the Warriors. For most of the offseason, Anthony was confident that the Knicks and Rockets would get a deal together.

They couldn’t.

Eventually, the Knicks new front office — Steve Mills and Scott Perry — came to Anthony with a plan to go to the Thunder, and that came together. That big three got off to a rough start this season, and while the offense is still a lot of “you take a turn, now you take a turn” they are starting to find more of a groove and winning games.

Rumors of the Rockets chasing LeBron this summer refuse to die, although to pull it off would require not only moving Anderson but Eric Gordon and a lot more of the team’s depth (especially if LeBron isn’t giving any discounts, the best way to make this work is for LeBron to do what CP3 did last year, opt into the last year of his current contract for a trade). But it’s not likely — and unless Anthony wants to opt out of $28 million to play for the minimum, he’s not joining them.

I think LeBron and Wade in Cleveland are as close to Team Banana Boat as we are going to get.