Last Weekend of Hope: Western Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Western Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki has aged about as well as any star of his ilk can. Jason Kidd actually shot better from the arc. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have a full training camp of work with the team to get adjusted. And Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones are legit. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t finally crack their way back into the Conference Finals. And once there, with the Mavericks size, speed, and talent, they’ll just need to get two games at Staples to have a shot. This can be done. It’s got to happen sometime, right?

Denver Nuggets: Sure Carmelo’s thinking about leaving. But when we bust out to a big start, he’ll change his mind. He has to. This is the team that drafted him. He’s not like LeBron. And we have a much better team, with Chauncey, KMart, Nene, and Lawson. We were in the Conference Finals two years ago! How could you leave a team like this for a lottery team? This team underwent a series of disasters it couldn’t have predicted last year, but it also played the Lakers tight. All it’s got to do is stay focused. And when Melo signs the extension, they can do just that.

Golden State Warriors: Cohan’s gone. Theyhave the best sophomore player in the league in Stephen Curry. Monta Ellis is ready to stop being a problem. They got David Lee and a new head coach that wants the team to actually play defense. There’s no way this team isn’t considerably better than last year’s. It’s nearly physically impossible. Better talent, better coaching, better ownership. Things finally look up in the Bay.

Houston Rockets: 24 minutes a game. There’s absolutely no reason this team can’t stay healthy with Yao only playing 24 minutes a game. They’re deep. They’re versatile. They’re extremely well coached and now have some offensive firepower. This team was painfully close to taking out the Lakers two years ago, but all of a sudden with a better team they’re also-rans? In Morey everyone should trust. All the team needs is for a series of things not to go wrong. That can’t be that hard to avoid. Sure, Yao’s injury-prone. But that’s why the minute limit exists. And it will get this team to the playoffs where there isn’t a team that matches up with them.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin.

Los Angeles Lakers: Count the rings, y’all. Count the rings.

Memphis Grizzlies: The team might have a bench! With Xavier Henry, Tony Allen, and an improved Sam Young, if the team can just hold leads on nights when all the starters aren’t on fire, it’s possible they could sneak into the playoffs. They overpaid for Rudy Gay, but he’s also the franchise star. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league and Lionel Hollins is a decided advantage. With a fast-break team that got wins over a lot of playoff squads last year, why can’t they take a step forward and win a playoff series?

Minnesota Timberwolves: The media just hates us. And David Kahn. They’re just too simple to see the truth. This team is primed for a breakout. They say Kevin Love is such a terrific talent, but the Timberwolves won’t use him despite trading Jefferson to make room for him.They say Michael Beasley is such a waste, but he tore up the preseason. They say they overpaid for Darko but then talk about the lack of legitimate centers in the league. If the media would get over themselves, they’d see that Wes Johnson is  a star in the making, Kevin Love is already a star, the team has better depth, and all this before Rubio comes. But after this season, there’s no way he’ll stay away. Then the media will see how great Kahn’s plan is.

New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul’s back, so the Hornets have Chris Paul, to go along with David West, Okafor, Thornton, and now Bayless. The Hornets almost made the playoffs without CP3 playing. How good will they be with him on board, and a better wing in Ariza. It’s time for everyone to remember how great CP3 is. Now if we could only get the team sold…

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sorry! Can’t talk right now! We’re having a party over how great our team and its future is for the next four years! PS Kevin Durant is the MVP!

Phoenix Suns: Okay, losing Amar’e is going to hurt. But hurt enough to lose a playoff spot? Did the Suns lose Steve Nash, too? Oh, no, they didn’t. They’ll be fine. The team won last year with slightly decent defense and a tougher brand of offense. Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will help in their positions and the team is still deep enough to win as long as Nash is healthy. Never count out Steve Nash.

Portland Trailblazers: Pritchard’s gone, but Cho looks great so far. Freak injuries were the only things that delayed progress last season. And Greg Oden will be a franchise player. He just has bad luck. And bad luck passes. When he gets healthy, he’ll become the All-Star he was before the injury. Brandon Roy will bounce back, the back court depth has improved and been cleaned up. There’s been every indication that the team will only improve this season, and with Nate McMillan at the helm, they can survive until everyone gets healthy. The team isn’t a young squad anymore, but it’s deep and versatile. And all it needs is a few things to go its way, for once. That’s go to happen sometime.

Sacramento Kings: Looks like Thunder. Feels like Thunder. Loaded like Thunder. Why can’t the Kings make a huge leap with two superstars they drafted? Tyreke Evans is the best sophomore in the league, the team is coming together, DeMarcus Cousins will be a beast, and they have some depth to go along with the talent. There’s no reason this team can’t make a push for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: Greatness doesn’t age. It endures. A healthy team and this is the Western Conference Finals. A few things go right and the Spurs are in the playoffs. Is there any question that this team can’t compete with the Lakers in a seven game series? One more ring for Timmy. Something to keep Parker home. The Blair Bear. Jefferson’s fitting in. James Anderson was another steal. Pop’s got one more ring in him. Duncan needs one to put him ahead of Shaq once and for all. The window hasn’t closed, and the youth on this team could prop it open just long enough to steal gold.

Utah Jazz: Lost Carlos Boozer. Added Al Jefferson. Lost Kyle Korver. Added Raja Bell. Lost Ronnie Brewer. Added Gordon Hayward. This is the definition of a reloaded team, and one that may be better than the one last season. The team has faced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs. But anything can happen in sports. That has to be how it is. What’s the point, otherwise?

Report: Danuel House apologized to Rockets before leaving bubble

Rockets forward Danuel House
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Rockets forward Danuel House left the bubble after the NBA determined he “had a guest” – reportedly a female coronavirus tester – “in his hotel room over multiple hours on September 8 who was not authorized to be on campus.”

House reportedly maintained his innocence.

At least to NBA investigators.

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

From what I understand, House apologized to the entire team before exiting the bubble.

I wonder what exactly House apologized for. An apology isn’t necessarily an admission of wrongdoing. But this at least implies he came clean in the end.

Houston missed House, who had been playing very well off the bench. The Rockets split the first two games of their second-round series against the Lakers then dropped three straight without him.

Was that slide all because of House’s absence? No. Would Houston have beaten the Lakers with House? Probably not.

But the Rockets had a chance at a championship this year, and their odds shrunk sans House. With James Harden, Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker aging, these opportunities won’t keep coming around forever.

House – who has two more seasons left on his contract – might need to regain trust of this team. He’s not good enough to get preferential treatment. Role players must do their part to fit in.

Anthony Davis on sprained ankle: “Rolled it pretty bad… I’ll be fine”

anthony davis ankle
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Anthony Davis has been the best Laker throughout the playoffs, particularly in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. Davis averaged 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and the Los Angeles Lakers are outscoring the Nuggets by seven points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the floor.

Behind the play of Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and now just have to do what the Jazz and Clippers couldn’t: Get one more win.

Which might be harder to do after Davis rolled his ankle midway through the fourth quarter Thursday night.

Davis stayed in the game after that, but could it impact him in Game 5?

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Laker coach Fran Vogel noted that with ankles it is often the next day when there is a sense of the severity.

“We’ll see how it responds overnight, responds to treatment,” Vogel said. “Yeah, there’s always concern with an injury like that. It was good for him to play through it, but we’ll see how he responds overnight.”

With the Lakers just one win from the NBA Finals, if Anthony Davis can walk he will play on Saturday in Game 5. The Lakers want to close this series out, they have seen what happens to teas that let the Nuggets hang around.

 

LeBron James speaks more on Breonna Taylor, power of Black women

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The decision not to prosecute the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor in her home has frustrated and angered NBA players. A number of them have spoken out, including Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, who played his college ball in Louisville, Taylor’s home town.

LeBron James also has spoken out, saying the walls of Taylor’s neighbors got more justice than she did.

Asked about it after the Lakers Game 4 win on Thursday, LeBron spoke about justice.

LeBron also had taken to social media to talk about the challenges Black women face.

When asked about that Tweet after Thursday’s game, James was more than willing to open up on the topic.

“You just look at the history of America and the disrespect that Black women have gotten for the last 400 years. You can’t turn a blind eye to that,” James said. “When I look at my household and see my daughter, who is five on her way to six, my wife and my mom, rest in peace my grandmother, so many Black women have done so many things for me. Seeing the sacrifices they made, especially my mom when I was growing up. They were disrespected along the way and it’s still like that today.

“In the case of Breonna Taylor’s case, it’s just shown once again that the walls of the neighbor is more important than her life.

“So not only did I want to acknowledge all the queens in this world, all the Black queens in this world, but the ones in my life, the personal ones, too. I just kind of had a moment yesterday. I mean, I have a lot of moments, but felt like it was important to let Black women know that you’re not alone. No matter the disrespect or what they may feel, don’t stop. Because that’s exactly what they want you guys to do. They want you guys to stop. They want you guys not to be as powerful as you guys are, not as strong as you guys are, as determined as you guys are. They want you all to be at bay. They want you to accept what’s going on. For sure, I won’t allow that.”

Powerful words from LeBron, who once again is using his platform to speak for a lot of others with these sentiments.

Second chance points, clutch LeBron defense earns Lakers win to go up 3-1 on Denver

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It’s a simple and obvious truth about any basketball game: The team that shoots better usually wins.

The Denver Nuggets shot 50.6% in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, including 10-of-28 from three (leading to a true shooting percentage of 62%). The Los Angeles Lakers shot 47.5% overall and 10-of-30 from three (a true shooting percentage of 59.7%). The Nuggets shot better Thursday night.

However, the better shooting team does not win when it gets crushed in another key area.

The Lakers grabbed the offensive rebound on 40.4% of their missed shots — including at three critical possessions in crunch time — and scored 25 second-chance points to Denver having six. Combine that with an aggressive and attacking LeBron James and Anthony Davis getting to the free-throw line 28 times — Denver as a team had 23 free throw attempts — and LeBron playing fantastic defense down the stretch on Jamal Murray, and a team can overcome a shooting deficit.

The result was the Lakers holding off a resilient Denver team to win 114-108, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. Game 5 is Saturday night.

While the Nuggets came back from 3-1 down on the Jazz and Clippers, this series feels different — Denver may have run out of miracles. The way the Lakers closed out this game showed why the Lakers will not go the ways of Jazz and Clippers.

Once again, Davis was the best Laker on the floor, scoring 34 points on 10-of-15 shooting plus playing strong defense (his light rebounding numbers, five in this game, are overblown because the Lakers as a team are rebounding well).

But there are two key reasons the won the Lakers the game — two critical reasons they were able to hold off a Denver comeback when the Jazz and Clippers faltered in similar situations:

• The Lakers were dominant on the offensive glass, as mentioned above. They got a second chance on four out of 10 missed shots (the league average is about 26-27% of missed shots become offensive rebounds). Dwight Howard was doing it early, Davis was doing it late (plus Rajon Rondo had a critical one), but the Lakers getting a second chance to score and run off some clock down the stretch changed the game.

• LeBron James asked to guard Jamal Murray down the stretch — in the final five minutes of the game Murray was 0-of-3 shooting.

“LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it…” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said postgame. “Nothing was really working in terms of trying to slow him down until ‘Bron took that assignment.”

Vogel isn’t kidding. Murray was torching the Lakers, getting into the lane, and finding a way to finish — including maybe the best layup of the playoffs so far.

Murray finished with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, but LeBron held him mostly in check down the stretch (Murray did hit four free throws).

LeBron also had a strong game despite his jumper not falling because he hunted mismatches, throwing the Denver defense into a scramble, plus LeBron commands a double team when he gets the ball at the elbow or on the block and that opens things up.

Another key for Los Angeles was a great first half from Dwight Howard, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds in the first half while keeping the ball out of Jokic’s hands. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 13 points.

Davis rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter, limped around on it, stayed in the game and made some plays down the stretch. A slowed Davis would be a reason for concern for the Lakers.

“My ankle feels fine,” Davis said postgame. “I’ve got tonight, tomorrow, before the game to get it back to where it is, but it’s good enough to play. I rolled it pretty bad, but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

If Denver is going to shock the world, it needs to keep Paul Millsap and his defense on the floor more, then the Nuggets need Gary Harris and other bench players to step up with big moments.

The Nuggets also need to find a way to slow LeBron and Davis. There may not be an answer to that question.