<span class="vcard">Kurt Helin</span>

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Reports: Kevin McHale gets three year, $13 million extension to coach Rockets

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Kevin McHale earned this.

After a fast start to the season for the Rockets the franchise has decided to give the Hall-of-Fame player a three year extension as coach, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by other sources.

The three-year deal is worth nearly $13 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. McHale had been in the final season of his original three-year contract and completed an agreement on a new deal on Wednesday morning, sources said.

He entered this season as a lame duck in the last year of his contract on a seat that was getting warm — management wanted to see a step forward yet over the summer the team lost quality NBA rotation players in Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. GM Daryl Morey had gone big game hunting in free agency (Chris Bosh in particular) and missed and now on paper the Rockets seemed poised to take a step back.

But McHale has got them playing defense — they are giving up just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA and 5.6 points per 100 better than last season. Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff deserves a lot of credit for that defensive growth.

That defense has propelled them to a 20-7 record despite not having Dwight Howard for extended stretches. The Rockets have added some of the depth they lost by bringing in Corey Brewer from Minnesota in a trade. The Rockets are also considered the frontrunners to land Josh Smith as a free agent once he clears waivers (5 p.m. ET Dec. 24, although a decision isn’t expected on where he plays next for a few days).

McHale is one of the good guys around the league, quick with great stories from his legendary Celtics days, and he generally is upbeat (for a coach). But he showed this year he knows what to do on the bench, and he’s now been rewarded for it.

Reports: Josh Smith agrees to sign with Rockets once he clears waivers

Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons
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Houston has been the front-runner to land Josh Smith for a few good reasons. First, Smith and Dwight Howard have a strong relationship. Second, they could offer more money than the minimum (they had the bi-annual exception at just over $2 million a season. And they have minutes — starting power forward Terrence Jones is out right now, and even when Jones returns Smith could (and reportedly was told would) start.

All that was good enough to convince Smith — he has chosen Houston, something first reported by Adrain Wojnarowski at Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by other reports.

Smith had wanted to be on a contender and while other teams came calling the fit and the fact that the Rockets are 20-7 and have James Harden playing at an MVP level was enough.

This is a low-risk gamble by the Rockets — it’s not costing them much and if it doesn’t work they have the depth to cover for him once Jones gets healthy. This move, along with the recent trade for Corey Brewer, could add some quality depth to a Rockets team that has to be considered potential contenders in the West. Of course, the problem in the West is six or seven other teams can legitimately make that same claim. For the Rockets these moves are seen as a leg up in a conference with no margin for error.

The question is what Smith will they get? How much of his recent struggles were about the challenging fit and situation in Detroit? This is a guy with a below league average PER not just this season but the last two.

Look at it this way: Detroit just convinced its owner to eat $27 million just to dump Smith and walk away. That is not something you do if you think the guy has anything left in the tank of value.

Look at Smith’s shot chart for this season.

source:

That is a lot of red. Stan Van Gundy weaned Smith off his addiction for ill-advised threes, but the problem was he wasn’t making the shots closer to the basket that used to be where he had value. Smith is just now missing from everywhere. Maybe he plays better, maybe he shoots better in Houston, but I want to see it before I believe it.

That said, he’s a defensive upgrade, he can grab boards and should be able to pitch in. If it doesn’t work out, this is just $2 million next year and both Jones and Donatas Motiejunas can eat up the minutes if Smith doesn’t work out.

Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao tears Achilles, done for season

Minnesota Timberwolves v Cleveland Cavaliers
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This sucks.

Cleveland’s starting center Anderson Varejao tore his Achilles tendon in the third quarter of a Cavaliers win over Minnesota, something first reported by Brian Windhorst of ESPN and since confirmed by multiple other outlets.

This is what the Cavaliers feared after the injury happened. Varejao was averaging 10 points a game on 55 percent shooting, plus he grabbed six rebounds a game. He’s often the big setting the pick for LeBron James out high, those two have a strong chemistry.

Varejao landed awkwardly after going up near the basket Tuesday night and immediately went to the ground, where he stayed for several minutes with his teammates around him. He was eventually carried back to the locker room unable to put any weight on his leg, and was seen leaving the arena on crutches an in a boot.

For the 32-year-old Varejao, this will be a very difficult injury to come back from. It could spell the end of his NBA career.

It’s also going to be rough on Cleveland on the court. In the short term expect the Cavaliers to start Tristan Thompson, who has played well of late, in what is a smaller lineup. The only other option right now is to give Brendan Haywood minutes — he has barely seen the court this season (four total minutes in the last seven games) and is really more contract trade bait than player to the Cavs. There is Louis Amundson on the bench, too.

Which means expect the Cavaliers to really step up their efforts to trade for a big man. They have been working the phones all season going down the ladder of potential trade partners, including guys like Timofey Mozgov in Denver, Kosta Koufos in Memphis, and now Brandan Wright in Boston. All to no avail.

That needs to change soon now. The Cavaliers defense already struggled without rim protection in the paint, and while Varejao’s numbers were not great this season — the team is 5 points per 100 possessions better when he was off the court — he was still by far their best option.

Miami Heat fans were hurt when LeBron left, they may let him hear it. Somewhat.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Cleveland Cavaliers
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Miami fans were hurt when LeBron James left.

When LeBron chose the Heat in 2010 it wasn’t just bitter Clevelanders that turned on him and burned his jerseys — although Northeast Ohio did it with more venom — but the entire nation or sports fans called out LeBron for perceived betrayal. He handled the exit about as poorly as one could with the televised “Decision” followed by a pep rally in Miami and that turned off much of the country. LeBron’s popularity plummeted (at least at first, until the titles rolled in).

And Heat fans had his back the entire time. They were the people in his corner. They cheered him loudly at games… well, once they got there and got seated. They embraced him in the community. They shared in the four trips to the Finals in four years and two NBA titles. They celebrated with him.

Then he bolted them, too.

So yes, Heat fans are feeling betrayed — and LeBron’s going to hear a little of that on Christmas Day when his Cleveland Cavaliers come to downtown Miami for a game broadcast on ABC (5 ET).

Dwyane Wade may not want it but there will be boos — but they will be mixed with cheers. Unlike his return to Cleveland there will not be that kind of raw negative emotion overwhelming the arena. Part of it is a different culture in Miami, a more laid back lifestyle, one where the sun, the beach, the beautiful people and spicy food provide another identity for the city so theirs is not so wrapped up in the fate of sports teams. Plus, Heat fans do feel appreciative for the years they had from LeBron. For the banners hanging in AmericanAirlines Arena (near the retired Dan Marino jersey… seriously).

But LeBron is going to remind them on Christmas just what they are missing.

Miami has struggled this season to a 13-16 record (still good enough for the seven seed in the East). The Heat have dropped three of their last four and that includes an ugly loss to the Sixers Tuesday where they gave up a 23-point lead. Through it all the Heat have battled injuries including losing Josh McRoberts for the season, and with that their space-and-pace offense has been pedestrian (103 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the NBA).

But the big problem in Miami has been the defense, ranked 25th in the league surrendering 106.3 points per 100 possessions. Eric Spoelstra still has them playing an aggressive, pressuring style on that end and they are third best in the league in forcing turnovers (16.8 percent of opponent possessions end that way) but they lack the athletes and discipline to cover for when that goes wrong now, and teams are getting good looks. The Heat are 28th in the league in opponent eFG% at 52.6 percent.

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Once again the Heat will be without Chris Bosh, who is suffering from a calf strain and had hoped to be back by this game but Heat coach Eric Spoelstra ruled him out on Wednesday at practice.

That’s a blow. Bosh is averaging 21.6 points a game and the Heat offense improves 3.4 points per 100 when he is on the court. They really needed him because Miami will be without Anderson Varejao, who suffered a torn Achilles and is done for the season. Tristan Thompson will start but Miami’s defense is weak, particularly in the paint. Miami just doesn’t have the size to exploit it.

However, the bigger problem for the Heat in this game comes back to defense. They are going to learn what so many of their opponents learned the four previous seasons — you just can’t contain LeBron.

The Heat have a solid wing defender in Luol Deng but he will be overmatched against LeBron. More and more in recent games David Blatt has put the ball in LeBron’s hands as a defacto point guard and the Cavaliers offense has thrived because of it — despite the rough start the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season, scoring 108.5 points per 100 possessions. LeBron makes good decisions and the Heat are scoring 113.3 points per 100 when their big three are on the court together.

That improved supporting cast is part of the reason LeBron returned to Miami — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are each matchup nightmares. Love is getting more touches in the post (expect to see that early in the game in particular) but is still dangerous from three. The at the point some combination of Norris Cole/Shabazz Napier/Mario Chalmers has to stay with Irving, a gifted penetrator who also can shoot from distance.

There was a Miami Heat team we saw the opening weeks of the season that looked like it could be a threat to a team like Cleveland, but that version of the Heat has been AWOL for a while now. Maybe the return of Bosh to the lineup and the emotion of the moment can reawaken that squad and make this game interesting. I expect it can for the first half or so.

But at some point Cleveland is going to shift into a gear Miami just doesn’t have.

That should look familiar to Heat fans.

And remind them what they are missing this season.

How much did Damian Lillard’s game tying shot Tuesday look like series winner vs. Rockets? A lot. (VIDEO)

Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook
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Damn. That is almost a mirror image.

The shot on the left is Portland’s Damian Lillard’s series-clinching shot last playoffs to beat and eliminate the Rockets. The shot on the right was his game-tying three Tuesday night that forced overtime as the Blazers beat the Thunder.

Same play, same spot, same result.

Hat tip to Mike Prada for the Vine.