The Inbounds: Houston, We Have A Solution

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Maybe no team will have the kind of predicted-win variance from fans and experts this season than the Houston Rockets. Some think that they’re going to be downright awful, a wretched mishmash of forwards and injured guards, built around a lack of size and no real starpower. Others think it’s entirely possible this team can swing for the playoffs. A young, versatile core with Jeremy Lin making the plays, a defense built around Omer Asik, and if even one of the three rookies breaks out, look out. They could massively exceed expectations or completely crash and burn into the ground prompting a full-scale re-reboot, and you wouldn’t really be surprised at either, nor would you be shocked at a good-not-great late lottery finish, typically referred to as the “Rockets” finish every year.

They’ve got four separate gambles going on. First, that Jeremy Lin is the player he was for two weeks in February and not the player he was, you know, any other time. That in the right system, with the confidence and what he learned about himself last year, he can be the kind of playmaking, odds-defying producer who set the league on fire. Second, that one of the rookies will work out. If Jeremy Lamb works out? Great. An athletic two-guard who can fill up the scoreboard and whose length on the perimeter provides the anchor of the defense on the edge. If it’s Terrence Jones, a relentless inside attacker with elite athleticism who can also step out and hit a few shots (probably more than he should take), a kind of Josh Smith 2.0 model? Neat. If it’s Royce White, a combo-forward who passes like Bird and leaps like LeBron, fantastic. Just one of them has to pull it off.

Three, that Kevin McHale’s defensive system can take the spare parts and make them into a unit. McHale struggled last year on several fronts. Scheme, execution, and most especially, player relations. Kevin Martin is in the doghouse, Luis Scola was given the amnesty heave-ho, and Kyle Lowry is inexplicably a Raptor. McHale has to take a team with Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, three rookies, Donatas Motiejunas, and Chandler Parsons, and get them to communicate, attack, and rotate.

It is not a small hill to climb.

And finally, the most likely gamble, and maybe the most important. That somewhere in this combination of guys is the ability to trade for a major player and that the other players will fit around him.

GM Daryl Morey has missed out on the stars. There’s just no getting around it. From Carmelo Anthony  to Chris Paul to Dwight Howard, he’s oh-fer since the end of the Yao Ming era in drawing a major player to Houston’s traffic jams. He’s constantly built the team ready to acquire and take on a star, and he’s managed to field competitive non-playoff teams without sacrificing payroll or draft picks. But the criticism of him is valid until he’s able to schmooze a big name to buy in, and be able to pull off the deal to acquire him.

He’s certainly got the tools. The Rockets can offer any team that has to ditch its best player a combination of Kevin Martin’s contract, extra draft picks, and young players, without cleaning out the cupboard. Especially if they need forwards.

Lord, can the Rockets offer forwards.

So if the Rockets can just find that situation that’s ripe, and there seems to be a superstar moving every year in this league now (and they’ve run out of big markets to move to), they can snag the guy. And they’ll have so much left over, they’ll be able to build right away. A team with a good center in either Asik or Motiejunas (neither of which are locks but it’s possible both could be retained in trade and that one would work out), a capable point guard in Lin, and the wings to fit around the player means that there’s no need to build up, no spending splurge needed like in New Jersey or Miami.

The bad news? They’re not the only one. The Sixers just got their guy in Andrew Bynum, so they’re off the list. But Denver, Utah, Phoenix, Cleveland all have similar situations and the ability to take on deals. It’s a stronger market now, and the Rockets have the most, but that doesn’t mean they have the most chances. Plus, that guy may never come available.

But the real key here is you have to do everything you can, and the Rockets have. If they can’t acquire a superstar despite having the most assets, and if none of the young players turn into legitimate stars, and their combination of players don’t gel, and they can’t lure free agents, then you know what? Everything has gone wrong that can go wrong, and that’s just the way it goes.

The ability for Houston to absorb a major contract and to still retain their ability to compete without major rebuilding should not be overstated. They don’t have players with set tendencies who need X or Z to succeed. All of their players are either young enough to be malleable, or their games fit snugly around an alpha scorer.

In short, the have the best archaeologists, the most resources, the finest scholars, and every mode of transportation available, including camels.

But the trick is still finding the Holy Grail.

Frustration rising within Mavericks, ‘We got to fight hard, play harder’

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If the postseason started today, the Dallas Mavericks would miss out — not just the playoffs but also the play-in.

The Mavericks fell to the No.11 seed in the West (tied with the Thunder for 10th) after an ugly loss Friday night to a tanking Hornets team playing without LaMelo Ball and on the second night of a back-to-back. The fans booed the Mavericks. What was Jason Kidd’s reaction? Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“We probably should have been booed in the first quarter,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said…. “The interest level [from players] wasn’t high,” Kidd said. “It was just disappointing.”

That was a little different than Kyrie Irving‘s reaction to the boos.

Then there is franchise cornerstone Luka Dončić, who sounded worn down, by the season and the losing in Dallas.

“We got to fight hard, play harder. That’s about it. We got to show we care and it starts with me first. I’ve just got to lead this team, being better, playing harder. It’s on me….

“I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes I don’t feel it’s me. I’m just being out there. I used to have really fun, smiling on court, but it’s just been so frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”

Look at seeds 5-10 in the West and you see teams that have struggled but have the elite talent and experience to be a postseason threat: The Phoenix Suns (Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant expected back next week), the Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry and the four-time champions), the Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis and maybe before the season ends LeBron James).

Should the Mavericks be in that class? On paper yes, they have clutch playoff performers of the past in Dončić and Irving, but an energy-less loss to Charlotte showed a team lacking the chemistry and fire right now that teams like the Lakers (beating the Thunder) and Warriors (beating the 76ers) showed on the same night.

The Mavericks feel like less of a playoff threat, especially with their defensive concerns. They don’t have long to turn things around — and get into the postseason.

Watch Anthony Davis score 37, spark Lakers to key win against Thunder

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Davis had 37 points and 14 rebounds, Dennis Schröder added 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and the Los Angeles Lakers got a vital victory for their playoff hopes, 116-111 over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

Lonnie Walker scored 20 points in an impressive return to the rotation for the Lakers, who won their third straight to move even with Minnesota in seventh place in the Western Conference standings despite the injury absences of LeBron James and D’Angelo Russell.

“It was a must-win game for us,” said Davis, who made 15 of his 21 shots. “We had to come out and get this game, and we came out offensive and defensively just playing extremely well. … We’ve got to .500, and now it’s time to get on the other side.”

With Davis leading the way on both ends of the court, Los Angeles (37-37) reached .500 for the first time this year. The Lakers started the season 2-10, but they’re 12-6 since the trade deadline with a rapidly cohering roster and the looming return of the NBA’s career scoring leader.

“This team is locked in and connected,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “The vibe and the spirit have been great. Guys are really trying to figure out how we can be better. That’s what you want. … Guys are competing because they know what they’re representing. They know the history of the franchise they’re representing.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey scored 27 points apiece for Oklahoma City, which lost for only the fourth time in 12 games down the stretch. The Thunder (36-38) dropped into a tie with Dallas for 10th in the West despite holding the Lakers to only 42 points in the second half after LA put up 41 in the first quarter alone.

“That’s a testament to our ability to scrap and hang in there,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “That’s how you want teams to score against you. All the things they got down the stretch are things we’re willing to live with. It’s hard to slow that down.”

Russell sat out with a sore right hip, joining James on the sideline at an important game for the Lakers’ playoff hopes. Los Angeles still improved to 8-5 during James’ latest injury absence.

Oklahoma City erased all of Los Angeles’ early 17-point lead when Gilgeous-Alexander’s jumper tied it at 102-102 with 5:25 to play. Davis responded with three points, and Walker hit a tiebreaking shot with 3:50 left.

Schröder replaced Russell in the starting lineup and had another standout game, including six points in the final 3:18 while the Lakers hung on. Walker got his most significant playing time since early March in Russell’s absence, and the former starter responded with four 3-pointers.

“I’ve just been in the gym, being positive and focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Walker said. “I love these guys, and I’m fortunate to play with them.”

Ham said Russell’s hip injury was “not too serious, but serious enough where we need to manage it.”

Gilgeous-Alexander played despite the Thunder being on the back end of consecutive games. The Thunder have been resting him in the second game of recent back-to-backs.

Joel Embiid scores 46 but 76ers still fall short against Poole, Warriors

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jordan Poole emerged as one of Golden State’s most dependable performers during the championship run last season.

He resembled that go-to guy once again Friday night when the Warriors needed everything he had, with the ever-reliable Draymond Green doing his thing, too.

“Opportunity,” Poole said of his stellar fourth quarter playing all 12 minutes.

Poole scored 33 points and swished a key 3-pointer with 1:18 to play off a pretty pass by Green, Stephen Curry added 29 points and eight rebounds, and the Golden State Warriors rallied past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers 120-112 on Friday night.

“Tonight something about it felt like last year in that playoff run when Jordan was just attacking and knocking down shots but also getting to the line just giving us an entirely different dimension offensively,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s when he’s at his best. I thought he really competed down the stretch defensively as well. He was magnificent tonight.”

Embiid checked back into the game with 8:26 left and scored 13 straight on the way to 46 points.

But the Warriors came back from 11 down for their ninth straight home win — and one of the most important yet as they fight for playoff positioning.

Green noted: “Nobody wants to be in that play-in, the play-in is dangerous.”

Curry dribbled the baseline and around Embiid for a go-ahead jumper with 2:20 to play. Klay Thompson tied it at 104 with 5:05 left, only for Embiid to drive straight down the key for a dunk. He did miss consecutive shots in crunch time, too.

Poole’s driving dunk with 8:27 left got Golden State back to 93-91 then Kevon Looney’s putback after Embiid blocked a layup try by Poole cut it to 102-101.

Embiid shot 13 for 23, made 19 of 22 free throws and had nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals. He helped Philadelphia take an 88-79 lead going into the fourth. He had his streak of scoring 30 or more points in a franchise-record 10 straight games snapped in Wednesday’s 116-91 win at Chicago but made up for it.

Golden State nemesis James Harden sat out with left Achilles soreness for the Sixers, who had won nine of 10 and 10 of 12.

Thompson added 21 points and six rebounds and Looney contributed six points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as the Warriors reached 30 home wins for the sixth time since 2014-15 and second in a row.

“You want to take care of home court as best as you can,” Poole said.

Green had 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds for Golden State, which had some momentum from two straight wins on the road following an 11-game skid away from Chase Center.

“I feel good. It’s that time of year you’ve got to turn everything up a notch,” Green said. “I love this time of year.”

Philadelphia, which had won the last two matchups, made 10 of 17 shots to start the game but missed its first eight 3-point tries before Georges Niang connected at the 8:06 mark of the second quarter.

Luka Dončić fined for money gesture toward referee after loss

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The Mavericks were livid about the officiating in their loss to the Warriors, particularly the miscommunication about a third-quarter out-of-bounds play that gave Golden State an uncontested bucket in what ended up being a two-point game.

Frustrated or not, everyone knew Luka Dončić crossed a line and would get fined when he made a gesture suggesting the referees were paid off.

Friday the NBA came down with a $35,000 fine for Dončić “for directing an inappropriate and unprofessional gesture toward a game official.” While that’s a steep price it could have been much worse — the referee did not give Dončić a technical foul at the time, which would have been his 16th and triggered a one-game suspension without pay.

Dončić wasn’t the only person fined by the league for snapping at the officials, Suns coach Monty Williams was fined $20,000 on Friday “for public criticism of the officiating.” Williams was frustrated after losing to the Lakers on a night where Los Angeles got to the line 46 times to Phoenix’s 20.

“Where do you see a game with 46 free throws for one team?” Williams said after the game. “That’s just not right. I don’t care how you slice it. It is happening to us too much. Other teams are reaching, other teams are hitting, and we’re not getting the same call, and I’m tired of it. It’s old… I’m over it. Been talking about the same thing for a while. Doesn’t matter what team it is.”

It doesn’t matter what team it is for a reason. First, the Suns do not draw a lot of fouls because they are not a team that puts a lot of pressure on the rim (especially without Kevin Durant), they settle for jump shots. Second, they have the highest foul rate in the league — they foul a lot. Those two things will lead to a free throw disparity nightly (they had players who could draw fouls, Mikal Bridges is doing it now in Brooklyn, but the Suns didn’t put the ball in his and ask him to attack as the Nets have, Phoenix used him as a shooter and cutter off the ball more often).

The tensions between players and referees feel ratcheted up this season, and these are just the latest examples.