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Did Billy Donovan tell Mo Cheeks he “can’t play Kanter?” Sure looks like it.

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Enes Kanter came off the bench for the Thunder Sunday and played 16:29 minutes, scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds. That’s five minutes, six points and almost four rebounds off his average.

Kanter is a good offensive big man, but it’s no secret he gets exposed when he has to move his feet and make decisions on defense. Which is exactly what the Rockets started to do to him in the second half of Game 1. Not coincidentally, he was -7 in the half and played when the Thunder began to pull away.

It culminated in the play below — Kanter was yanked 17 seconds later — but check out Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s reaction and words to Mo Cheeks next to him.

Sure looks like he said, “I can’t play Kanter.”

To be fair, we can’t be 100 percent certain what Donovan said (you can be sure he’ll deny it). Also, he could have been referring to this specific bench matchup.

However, what he said is pretty accurate — Kanter’s defensive liabilities are the kinds of things teams hone in on in the playoffs. If Kanter is in, Houston is going to drag him into a pick-and-roll nearly every time down and make him defend it. And when he can’t Donovan will have to find another option, and he doesn’t have a good one.

Billy Donovan has an ace in this series in Russell Westbrook, but Mike D’Antoni has been dealt a much better hand to play. The Rockets have James Harden, but they also have real depth and versatility. They will use that to go at Kanter all series.

James Harden has 37 points; Rockets rout Thunder, Westbrook 118-87

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HOUSTON (AP) — Although James Harden is Houston’s undisputed star, he can’t top Russell Westbrook entirely on his own.

As is so often the case, Patrick Beverley was there for support Sunday night.

Harden scored 37 points to outshine Westbrook, and the Rockets pulled away in the third quarter and coasted to a 118-87 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

Harden had nine assists and seven rebounds, and Beverley, who had the unenviable task of guarding Westbrook, had a playoff career-best 21 points along with 10 rebounds.

Beverley’s performance was nothing new to Harden, who has had a front row seat to his work for years.

“That’s the reason we’re in the position we’re in,” Harden said. “He brings it every game. Whether his shot is falling or not, he brings that intensity, that resolve. He was just Pat tonight.”

The best-of-seven Western Conference series continues Wednesday night in Houston.

The third-seeded Rockets were up by 20 when Harden came off the bench with about seven minutes remaining. He went right to work – making two 3-pointers to power a 10-0 run and push the lead to 110-80 with 4 1/2 minutes left. Harden, who along with Westbrook is a front-runner for MVP, went to the bench, and both teams cleared their benches soon after that.

Westbrook had 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, but made just 6 of 23 shots and had nine turnovers for the sixth-seeded Thunder.

“We’ve got to do a better job starting with myself – got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball and making some shots,” Westbrook said.

Beverley refused to take credit for slowing Westbrook down.

“It was a team effort in just trying to show him a lot of bodies,” he said. “He’s one of the most explosive guards in this league, so we were just trying to make it tough on him.”

The Thunder trailed by 15 entering the fourth quarter, and six straight points by the Rockets extended the lead to 100-78 with about 7 1/2 minutes remaining. Lou Williams scored the first four points in that span, and Beverley found Clint Capela on an alley-oop dunk.

The Rockets scored the first five points of the second half to push their lead to 10 early in the third quarter. After a timeout, Oklahoma City scored the next eight points with 3s from Westbrook and Andre Roberson to cut it to 64-62 with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the quarter.

Houston scored the next nine points, capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Beverley to make it 73-64 midway through the period.

Beverley went to the bench soon after that to a huge ovation and a high five from Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, who watched the game from a courtside seat.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan raved about Beverley.

“He played a very, very good game,” Donavan said. “I thought he impacted the game way, way more with his energy, his effort, his hustle, his loose balls, his offensive rebounding, keeping balls alive. That’s where he really did a great job.”

Westbrook ended a scoring drought of almost 3 1/2 minutes for the Thunder with a layup, but Houston used an 8-2 spurt – highlighted by a 3 from Eric Gordon – to push the lead to 81-68 with just more than three minutes remaining in the third.

Harden made a pair of free throws to cap the third quarter and leave Houston up 89-74 entering the fourth.

For Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, it’s the first postseason win since April 27, 2008, with Phoenix. D’Antoni’s teams were swept in the first round in his last two trips to the playoffs in 2011 with the Knicks and 2013 with the Lakers.

Houston’s victory comes after the team went 3-1 in the regular season against the Thunder.

The Rockets led 59-54 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Roberson added 18 points with seven rebounds. … Oklahoma City, which led the NBA in rebounding in the regular season, was outrebounded 56-41. … Jerami Grant had 10 points.

Rockets: Capela missed a few minutes in the second quarter to receive three stitches in his lip. He had 14 points and seven rebounds. … Nene had 15 points. … Houston had 31 second-chance points to just four by the Thunder.

THEY SAID IT

Thunder center Steven Adams on Oklahoma City’s performance: “We were just trash on the reads, on the pick-and-rolls. We were just absolutely garbage. We just have to go back to the drawing board and figure it out before Game 2.”

PUTTING THE WIN IN PERSPECTIVE

D’Antoni wants to make sure that his team realizes it still has a lot of work to do despite its big win.

“All we did is defend our home court, and that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “It’s nice to play well and get the win because you have to, but this is just one little step … in the big scheme of things. I’m sure they’ll bounce back, and we’ve got to be ready to go.”

 

MVP favorites James Harden, Russell Westbrook in first-round showdown

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HOUSTON (AP) — While everyone must wait more than two months for the NBA’s MVP to be announced, the league will showcase the two front-runners for the honor in James Harden and Russell Westbrook when the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder open a first-round playoff series Sunday night.

“I think the league is very prosperous because we’ve got some great players that are doing things that I don’t think any fan has ever seen, or they have seen and they probably can’t remember it because it’s been so long,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Putting up unbelievable numbers, unbelievable seasons and some great story lines. It’s good for the NBA. It’s great for business.”

The Rockets had the third-best record in the NBA and are eyeing a deep playoff run in their first season under D’Antoni after being ousted in the first round by Golden State last year. Oklahoma City is in the unfamiliar role of underdog after reaching the Western Conference finals last season before also being eliminated by the Warriors.

Most expect either Harden or Westbrook to take home the MVP trophy on June 26 after both players had stellar regular seasons. Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game- all career bests – in helping Houston to a 55-27 record.

Harden had 22 triple-doubles and became the first player in NBA history to have 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659) in a single season.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double by scoring an NBA-best 31.6 points a game, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He set an NBA record for most triple-doubles with 42, allowing the Thunder to withstand the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency and secure the sixth seed.

Harden and Westbrook are former teammates in Oklahoma City and remain good friends, but neither seems drawn by the hype that this series is all about them. Harden cut off a reporter before he could finish his question about how the focus entering this series is on him and Westbrook.

“I don’t really care about the talks,” he said. “I just want to win.”

When prodded about what makes Westbrook so good, Harden provided some praise for the fellow point guard.

“Obviously he’s talented, really explosive (and) athletic,” Harden said. “He just goes out there and plays relentless.”

Westbrook acknowledged it will be “cool” to match up against his friend in this best-of-seven series.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “Something that we can talk about later on down the line. Definitely, it’s good.”

Some things to know about the Thunder-Rockets series.

GUARDING THE MVP

Houston’s Patrick Beverley and Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson have perhaps the toughest jobs in this series, as they’ll guard Westbrook and Harden. Both teams will certainly employ various tactics to slow down the other’s star, but Beverley and Roberson will be the first line of defense.

“Pat is probably the unsung hero,” D’Antoni said. “His edginess and what he has to do, he has to guard Westbrook … he is a big, big part of what we do.”

Beverley embraces the challenge.

“It’s going to be hard as hell,” he said. “He’s one of the most explosive point guards probably to ever play the game. But you know me. It will be fun.”

Roberson feels the same way about Harden.

“I definitely like a challenge, and I like to go against the best,” he said. “Go out there and prove we’re just as good, too.”

OKC’S REBOUNDING

The Rockets know a key to success will be limiting Oklahoma City’s rebounding. The Thunder led the league with 46.6 rebounds a game and tied for first by averaging 12.2 offensive boards.

D’Antoni has been drilling those numbers into his players’ heads for weeks, bringing it up repeatedly as soon as it looked like the Rockets would draw the Thunder in the first round.

“You’ve got to rebound,” D’Antoni said simply.

GORDON’S IMPACT

Eric Gordon is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists off the bench in his first season in Houston after five years with New Orleans. Gordon, who has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons, appeared in 75 games, which is the most since he played 78 as a rookie in 2008-09. Gordon ranked fourth in the NBA with a career-high 246 3-pointers, after he hadn’t made more than 141 in a year in the first eight seasons of his career.

He takes pride in being a spark off the bench.

“We’ve got some guys that can make an impact, so we just want to press the gas,” he said. “If our first unit gets the lead, we want to (extend) the lead even more.”

This will be just his second trip to the playoffs after he appeared in just one series with the Pelicans, in 2015.

 

Check out highlights of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s breakout 28-point game (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has been to the playoffs before, two seasons ago.

However, that felt like a different player on a different team, back then he was all potential, we saw flashes, but he was still figuring out how to put his game together.

Saturday was his breakout performance with 28 points in Milwaukee’s Game 1 upset win over Toronto, doing it on 13-of-18 shooting and also pulling down eight rebounds. We said before the series that finding someone who could guard him was going to be a challenge for Toronto, and it was for DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker and others. But so was the balance of the Bucks — five other Bucks players were in double figures. They did it with balance.

But this is still the Greek Freak’s team, and he is fun to watch.

Phil Jackson slammed by players’ union on one side, reported unhappy players on other

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Phil Jackson and the Knicks have turned the mundane ritual of NBA exit interviews into the latest round of drama, highlighting a franchise that can’t get out of its own way right now.

That the Knicks want to trade Carmelo Anthony this summer is as big a secret as there is drug use at the Coachella Music Festival. Anthony might be good with a move if the Knicks and he worked quietly to find a new home for him that worked for both sides — remember Anthony has a no-trade clause — but then  Jackson went tone deaf and said this.

“We have not been able to win with him on the court at this time, and I think that the direction of our team is that he is a player that would be better off somewhere else and using his talent somewhere where he can win or chase that championship.”

Anthony responded on Instagram, and Anthony’s nature in these situations is to dig in his heels, not run.

Then Michelle Roberts and the National Basketball Players’ Association (the players’ union) came out with this statement Saturday:

“We voiced with the Commissioner today our view on the inappropriate comments by Knicks President Phil Jackson. If players under contract cannot, under threat of league discipline, speak openly about their desire to be employed elsewhere, we expect management to adhere to the same standards. The door swings both ways when it comes to demonstrating loyalty and respect.”

She’s spot on. If NBA players get fined heavily for asking to be traded, then team executives should have the same restrictions. For Jackson to publicly suggest that Anthony should waive his no-trade clause – that Jackson gave him — merits discipline.

And that may not even be Jackson’s biggest problem.

Kristaps Porzingis skipped his exit interview due to his frustration with the front office and the dysfunction and direction of the team. He’s the team’s best player and the face of the franchise — and he’s far from the only player unhappy, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo Sports.

Porzingis isn’t alone. Players are privately fuming that they want no part of the organization’s summer slate of triangle offense regimen at the team’s suburban New York practice facility, league sources told The Vertical. In reality, there’s an open rebellion to the triangle – for the offense itself, and by extension, the discord and dysfunction that its implementation has burdened upon everyone….

Beyond moving Anthony out of town, Jackson sees the resolution of the franchise’s issues through the prism of an offense the coaches don’t want to teach and that the players don’t want to run.

“To Phil, the culture is the triangle,” a league source involved in the dynamic told The Vertical.

Even when Phil was winning rings in Los Angeles and Chicago, the culture was set not by the triangle but by the work ethic and drive of guys such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaq. People set a culture, not an offense. Jackson certainly understands that, but his ego seems wrapped up in proving the triangle can still win in the NBA.

Players talk. Agents talk. And all of this going on in New York is not going to help recruit free agents this summer. The Knicks can still get guys, but it’s going to be because they are offering more money than anyone else, not because players are eager to be a part of this organization right now.

If you have read this far and thought “Phil Jackson has to go” remember the final two years of his contract just got picked up. He’s not going anywhere.

Which means the drama is far from over around this team.