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.

Warriors facing elimination but undaunted entering Game 6

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HOUSTON (AP) — If the Golden State Warriors are worried as they head into Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on the brink of elimination, they aren’t showing it.

“We have a chance to tie the series at home. That’s a pretty good position to be in,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We’ve got to win two basketball games and we’ve done that an awful lot, so we’re very confident.”

The defending champions trail Houston 3-2 in the best-of-seven series after consecutive wins by the Rockets, capped by Thursday night’s 98-94 victory. Now the series shifts to Oracle Arena, a place where the Warriors have lost just one time in their last 17 playoff games.

Stephen Curry said the Warriors are encouraged despite falling behind in the series because they believe both games could have gone their way and that a few simple corrections will get them back on track.

“We have an opportunity to re-establish ourselves at home, get a big win, keep ourselves alive, and then roll the dice into Game 7,” Curry said. “Not all is lost.”

Houston’s big win in Game 5 was tempered by a hamstring injury to star Chris Paul which will keep him out of Saturday’s game. It’s a major blow for a team which is looking to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in more than two decades.

The Rockets believe they can absorb this loss and don’t seem daunted by the setback, noting that they found ways to win in the regular season in many games where Paul sat out with injuries.

“I don’t have a doubt,” D’Antoni said. “They see the challenge … whether CP’s there or not, it’s a heck of a challenge, and they’re up to it. They’re looking forward to it.”

James Harden, who has struggled offensively in the last two games and went 0 for 11 on 3s in Game 5, rolled his eyes when asked if Paul’s injury puts more pressure on him.

“Pressure for what? It’s Game 6 of the Western Conference finals,” he said. “There is pressure on everybody.”

While that may be true, the onus is on Harden to step up and deliver an MVP-caliber performance if the Rockets hope to close out this series. Harden has had plenty of playoff disappointments in the last few years and embraces the chance to get Houston back into the finals.

“It’s an opportunity that a lot of people never had and probably won’t ever have,” he said. “It’s our job to go out there and have fun with it and do the same thing we’ve been doing. We want to take advantage of it.”

While the Rockets will be down a starter, the Warriors could get one back if Andre Iguodala can return on Saturday. The Warriors have missed the defensive presence of Iguodala who has missed the last two games with a bruised left knee.

Iguodala is listed on the injury report as questionable for Game 6 and Kerr said he didn’t have an update on his condition on Friday. But he did address what it would mean to Golden State if he’s healthy enough to go on Saturday.

“He’s a great player,” Kerr said. “He’s one of our keys, and we’ve missed him the last two games. But we can’t count on it. Injuries happen, and you’ve just got to play with whoever’s out there. So we’re hoping he’s back, and we’ll see what happens.”

Iguodala’s absence has been magnified in this series that has morphed into a defensive slugfest instead of the high-scoring shootout that most expected when it began. The Rockets take great pride in the fact that they’ve limited Golden State to less than 100 points in the last two games and think continuing to play great defense is the only way they’ll advance.

“It’s something we talked about building up all year,” Houston’s P.J. Tucker said. “To see our defense now be as good as it is, we still think it could be a lot better. We watched film, and honestly … we didn’t play great defense last night. Everybody will talk about how good a defense we played, but we really don’t feel like that. So just keep working and trying to get better.”

Kerr said the experience of his team, which is trying to reach the finals for the fourth straight year, will be valuable as the Warriors try and climb out of this hole and force Game 7. He referenced the conference finals in 2016 when they fell behind Oklahoma City 3-1 before winning the next three to take the series.

“We’ve been here before,” Kerr said. “We’ve faced elimination on the road before – this team has – a few years ago. We faced series deficits before. We’ve won all of those series. Our guys have the ultimate confidence that we can get it done this time, too.”

PBT Extra: Pressure falls on James Harden, Rockets’ bench with Chris Paul out

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Chris Paul is out for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals with a strained hamstring, and that almost certainly will sideline him for Game 7 as well.

That changes the feel of this series.

The Rockets still just have to win one of the next two games to advance to the NBA Finals, and one of those is at home. However, without CP3 a couple of things need to happen. James Harden needs to find his shooting stroke. Gerald Green and the Rockets’ bench needs to step up. And Houston has to keep defending the way they have the last two games.

It’s not going to be easy (especially on the road in Game 6), but the Rockets still have a real opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.