Thunder/Spurs Game 2: The rise of Westbrook, Harden

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I said going into this series Russell Westbrook was the key to Oklahoma City’s chances against the Spurs — he needs to attack off the pick-and-roll, get into the lane and finish. Or kick it out. But he needs to disrupt the Spurs defense and put a lot of points on the board in the half court.

James Harden has the same burden on him — he should be the guy setting up plays for the Thunder in the half court late in games. Yet Harden only had one possession where he controlled the ball in the last 10 minutes of Game 1 and that is just bad execution by the Thunder. Harden is their best playmaker.

Westbrook and Harden — more than Kevin Durant — are the keys to the Thunder getting the Game 2 win Tuesday and evening the Western Conference finals at a game a piece.

What Thunder fans learned the hard way in Game 1 is that the Spurs are a relentless offense — they keep attacking, keep pressuring, keep looking for lineups that work then they exploit it. In Game 1 the Spurs had success by going small in the fourth quarter, which allowed them to get their points in the paint thanks to a matchup that favored them. They had Manu Ginobili with 26 points, Tony Parker with 18 and they had balance.

There was a logical adjustment to the small ball for Scott Brooks — Serge Ibaka. But he didn’t go there. And he regrets it, as reported by the Expres-News.

“Every decision you make, if it doesn’t work out, you always say, ‘Why did you do that?’” Brooks said. “I’m with you on that. I wish I would have played Serge last night.”

The problem is if Ibaka does play the disciplined spurs will just move on to the next option that works. It is what they do.

Which is why the Thunder can’t have their offense go stagnant as it did in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Which brings us back to Westbrook and Harden.

Late in the game, Harden needs to be the playmaker for the Thunder. The ball needs to be in his hands because when it is Durant still gets his but so does everyone else. In Game 1 Durant was the guy with the ball, and the combination of good defense from Stephen Jackson and little off-ball movement stalled out the Thunder attack. It opened the door and Ginobili pulled the Spurs through it.

On the pick-and-roll, Westbrook simply cannot settle — he has to attack and get into the teeth of the defense. The same is true of Durant. In Game 1 the Thunder ball handler on the pick-and-roll hit just 10-of-28 shots, and that’s not good enough in this series. They are not playing the Lakers with Andrew Bynum’s long arms back there anymore, the Spurs don’t have that kind of back line. OKC has to get its points inside.

All this does not mean OKC should just try and run on the Spurs — San Antonio is more efficient in transition than the Thunder. Over the course of the season it’s true, and if this just because an up-and-down battle it doesn’t really favor the Thunder. There were 97 possessions last game, the Spurs won. As was pointed out in one Spurs preview, San Antonio has won 21 games in a row when the pace is above 94.

It’s not about just being fast, it’s about being smart.

And it’s about Westbrook and Harden.

Watch Stephen Curry drain shots from center-court logo during warmups like it’s nothing

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In case you need any kind of reminder that Stephen Curry is a flat-out ridiculous shooter — particularly during warm-ups, well, you’re in luck.

Check out this pregame video of Curry knocking down shots from the center-court logo at Oracle like it’s nothing.

The man changes the game. Even in warmups.

James Harden being out clouds latest Rockets-Warriors clash

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Houston Rockets have had the Golden State Warriors’ number this season. However, when the teams meet on Saturday, the Rockets will have to play without the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.

Houston guard James Harden is out due a cervical neck strain. Harden was bothered by soreness Thursday during the Rockets’ 111-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was seen receiving treatment to the neck and right shoulder during the contest.

The Rockets have used different means to beat the two-time defending champs in their first two head-to-heads since Golden State prevailed in a seven-game conference finals last May.

Houston held a Stephen Curry-less Warriors team to 86 points — Golden State’s lowest output of the season — and just 42 percent shooting in a 107-86 home win in November.

The Rockets then turned Harden loose in the January rematch at Golden State, watching him pour in 44 points — including a game-winning 3-pointer — in a 135-134 overtime thriller.

More than a month later, that game still weighs heavily on the mind of Curry, who countered Harden with 35 points of his own that night.

“They just made one more shot,” he noted to reporters after the Warriors Thursday win over the Sacramento Kings. “We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing. It’s going to be a dogfight … a defensive test for us.”

At the time of Curry’s statement, the extent of Harden’s injury had not been made public. The NBA’s leading scorer at 36.5 points per game, Harden was bothered by a left shoulder strain prior to the All-Star break but didn’t miss any contests. He has played in 55 of Houston’s 58 games as he missed three games early in the season due to a hamstring injury.

In the overtime win at Oakland, Harden complemented his 44 points with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for a triple-double.

While there was no triple-double against the Lakers, Harden did extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 32.

The Rockets lost their second in a row and fell to 33-25, a full 12 games below where they stood at this point last season. It’s gotten some analysts grumbling about the club’s style of play and reliance on Harden.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni labeled such talk “absurd” before the Thursday game.

“I don’t know if they watched last year,” he said of the naysayers. “Nobody else can do what he does. … If you’re a ball-stopper, usually you’re inefficient. He’s very efficient. So when the ball stops, it’s a good thing.”

The Rockets earned the home-court advantage over Golden State in last year’s playoffs by finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors during the regular season.

That almost surely won’t be the case should they meet again this postseason. The Warriors (42-16), with the best record in the West, have a nine-game advantage over Houston, currently in the No. 5 seed.

Golden State won for the 17th time in its past 19 games by surviving a late rally from the Kings on Thursday in a 125-123 home decision. Curry finished with 36 points, making 10 of his 16 3-point attempts.

Harden (276) and Curry (246) enter the game ranked first and second, respectively, in the NBA in 3-pointers made.

Harden also led the league last season with what was then a career-best 265.

Curry got the better of his rival in 3-pointers in last year’s playoff showdown, however, making 27 of 75 (36 percent) while Harden was harassed into 19 of 78 (24.4 percent).

Curry saved his best for last in the series, going 7 of 15 on 3-point tries in a 27-point effort in Golden State’s 101-92 win at Houston in Game 7. Harden went just 2-for-13 from long range on his 32-point night.

 

James Harden fined $25,000 for calling referee Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant’

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“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant. I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [Harden’s sixth foul, ending his night]. It’s just who he is on that floor.”

Houston’s James Harden knew the fine was coming before he even uttered those words following the Rockets loss to the Lakers Thursday night, in which Foster called two offensive fouls on Harden, one that limited his minutes early and another that set him up to eventually foul him out of the game.

Harden got what was expected on Saturday, the NBA fined him $25,000 for “public criticism of the officiating.”

Harden wasn’t alone in his frustration. Chris Paul fouled out and picked up a technical, and coach Mike D’Antoni picked up a technical as well.

For the game, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. This season in games Foster has officiated, the Rockets are 1-1.

The Rockets are not the only team to have frustrations with Foster, he has a reputation around the league for a short fuse that doesn’t let you question calls. LeBron James‘ Heat teams and others have felt how Harden does.

Lakers’ Lonzo Ball could be out longer due to bone bruise in ankle

Associated Press
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Lonzo Ball has missed the last 11 Laker games. In that time the team is 4-7 with a bottom 10 offense and defense, and they have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Granted, LeBron James was out for a number of those games as well, but even LeBron is talking about how much Ball is missed in the rotation.

The Lakers could be missing him a while longer.

While we are starting to approach the ballpark return date projected for Ball’s Grade 3 ankle sprain, he could miss more time due to a bone bruise in the ankle, reports Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

Ball moved quickly through the early stages of his rehab. He used crutches for about a week and wore a protective boot on his left ankle for less time than that.

Ball began running on an underwater treadmill two weeks ago and last week he began work on an antigravity treadmill, but was limited because of the bone bruise.

Ball injured his ankle back on January 19 and it looked bad when it happened.

The Lakers could use him as they make a push down the stretch to get into the playoffs — the Laker defense is 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Ball is on the court this season. The Lakers, 29-29, enter Saturday as the 10th seed in the West, three games back of the Clippers in the eighth seed and final playoff spot. The Sacramento Kings are also between the Lakers and the postseason — to get in the Lakers are going to need to go on a LeBron-led run. Ball would help with that, but it may be a little while longer before we see him on the court.