Rockets play much better, but Thunder escape with the win for a 2-0 series lead

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After dropping Game 1 of their first round playoff series to the top seeded Thunder by 29 points, there weren’t many who believed the Rockets would be able to compete for more than short stretches the rest of the series.

But thanks to some key adjustments, Houston gave the Thunder all they could handle in Game 2, and erased all of a 15-point fourth quarter deficit before ultimately falling 105-102.

Rockets head coach Kevin McHale knew he had to match the Thunder’s speed after the way the first game unfolded, so he went small and inserted first year reserve point guard Patrick Beverley into the starting lineup in place of his usual starting big man, Greg Smith.

The move worked to perfection. Not only did Beverley produce by contributing 16 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists in 41 minutes, but he got under the skin of Russell Westbrook at times when battling him defensively. Two early fouls on Westbrook had him sitting on the bench after playing less than six first quarter minutes, but Kevin Durant took over without issue as he poured in 15 points in the game’s first 12 minutes.

Westbrook came back with a vengeance in the second, and put in one of those electric stretches he’s become known for. Westbrook had 11 in the period in under seven and a half minutes.

While Durant and Westbrook were doing their collective thing, Harden was doing his for the Rockets. He barreled into the paint on seemingly every possession, and got to the free throw line for 20 attempts. Harden finished with a game high 36 points (albeit on just 9-of-24 shooting), to go along with 11 rebounds and six assists.

This was an exciting game that stayed tight in the first half, and then gave way to wild swings by both teams in the second.

Oklahoma City ran its lead to 11 midway through the third period, once Beverley headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. Jeremy Lin was unavailable in the second half due to a shoulder contusion, so Aaron Brooks got the call in the third when Beverley was forced to sit out.

The Thunder briefly took control to start the fourth thanks to a couple of threes from Kevin Martin and one from Westbrook that saw the lead reach 15 points with under nine and a half minutes remaining. The Rockets then went to a zone defense, and everything changed.

Houston went on a monster of a run while the Thunder struggled to deal with the zone by taking too many long twos and threes, instead of moving the ball and trying to attack the center of it. The Rockets put together a 21-2 stretch, capped off by a three-pointer from Carlos Delfino that gave them a four-point lead with 3:37 remaining.

But Durant responded. He blocked Chandler Parsons inside, then drained a three a couple of possessions later that put the Thunder back ahead, before driving to draw the defense and making a great kick-out pass to Thabo Sefolosha, who drained the open three that sealed it for OKC.

The Rockets got just about everything they wanted in this one statistically, except for one glaring omission. Houston killed the Thunder on the glass, outrebounding them 57-40. Thy won the battle of points in the paint with a 50-30 advantage, and outscored them 27-15 in second chance points.

But the Rockets were a dreadful 10-35 from three-point distance, good for just 28.6 percent. They got plenty of open looks, but simply couldn’t knock them down, and it’s a shame considering that the team was second in the league behind only the Knicks in three-pointers made per game, and finished eighth in the league in three-point shooting percentage.

Houston may be able to carry some momentum with them from this one back home for Games 3 and 4, and now it will be Thunder head coach Scott Brooks’ turn to make the adjustments. The Thunder won’t likely struggle as much against the zone again (they were plenty successful against it at times during the regular season), and they’ll have to find a way to close better on the Rockets shooters, while not allowing Harden to get into the paint so easily where he draws the bulk of the fouls that give him those free throw opportunities.

The status of Jeremy Lin moving forward will obviously be a concern for the Rockets, and will have a big impact on whether or not they can put up a fight similar to the one we saw in Game 2 once the series shifts to Houston.

Lakers president Magic Johnson: I get fined every time I talk about other players, but nobody else does

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Magic Johnson got the Lakers fined for tweets he sent while holding a ceremonial executive title. Once he started running the front office, his blinking at Paul George on national TV contributed to the Lakers getting fined again for tampering. Johnson’s praise of Giannis Antetokounmpo drew yet another tampering fine.

So, though he escaped punishment for his recent comments on 76ers guard Ben Simmons, Johnson refused to answer a question about Hornets guard Kemba Walker.

Carolina Blitz:

Johnson:

You know I can’t answer any questions about no players, because every time I do it, I get fined. But anybody else do it, they don’t get fined. So I’m going to stay away from that one.

I don’t blame Johnson for feeling that way.

Other teams’ owners, coaches and executives have repeatedly publicly discussed rival players without facing announced punishment.

To be fair, the NBA doesn’t reveal every fine. Bucks owner Marc Lasry reportedly just got fined for tampering, but the league never announced it. But, at minimum, there’s an inconsistency with how the NBA exposes Johnson’s transgressions.

Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last year there’s a spotlight on the Lakers due to prior tampering. That strikes me as unfair. The Lakers already paid for their prior violations and should now be held to the same standard as everyone else.

And for what it’s worth, I wish that standard allowed an all-time great point guard like Johnson to publicly share his thoughts on Kemba Walker.

In wake of Rudy Gobert snub, Jazz propose changing All-Star-selection process

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Jazz center Rudy Gobert and many in Utah were upset about him getting snubbed from the All-Star game.

Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey is doing something about it.

Lindsey on The Zone Sports Network:

This examination of the process is just long overdue, and Rudy frankly highlights this. So, therefore we would recommend the following things and measures to the league:

A: Form an All-Star-selection committee, by former players, by former NBA coaches, by former management, by former scouts, by former NBA media and using current, but unattached, analytic personnel to consult with that group. In our opinion, the committee should be rotated, share a little bit of the love. In our opinion, the committee should be paid for their time and expertise.

B: The selection process should be an ongoing education process. Head coaches don’t have time to get a weekly update on who’s doing well, even in raw per-game numbers and much less in advanced numbers on who’s impacting what. Their job is to organize their own group. So, let’s make this something where’s there’s an ongoing process of who’s having a good game, who’s having a good week, good month and driving winning as much as anything. So, that would be B.

C: There’s a committee. There’s a selection room. There’s a process. There’s a criteria. And the vote should be made public. Let’s open it up, a little bit like NCAA teams do now for the tournament. And I think you could monetize it. I think it’d be compelling TV. There’s no conflict of interest by the committee, because ex-coaches, ex-management people, ex-media – they’re hopefully voting their conscience and voting to the facts.

In our opinion, and point D, the criteria should be a combination of per-game stats, advanced stats, win-loss records, player decorum and player behavior. In our opinion, these measures should be of the highest-possible standards, both tangible and intangible.

Imagine a world where Lindsey’s committee was already in place. Now imagine that committee picked the same All-Stars this year – including Gobert getting snubbed – as in reality.

In that alternate universe, Lindsey might be proposing NBA coaches choose All-Star reserves. After all, who’d be more likely than coaches to reward a dominant defender and excellent screen-setter like Gobert?

Lindsey’s proposal is needlessly complicated. The current system gets some picks wrong, but it mostly works. Lindsey’s system would also get some picks wrong but mostly work. That’s just the inevitability of the setup. There will always be debate about the final spots on an All-Star roster.

The feasibility of Lindsey’s plan is also questionable. Who are these former coaches and former management without aspirations of re-entering the league? Who qualifies as former media in a world where it’s increasingly easy to remain somewhat involved? Are any of those people still connected enough to the game to make good choices?

Besides, everyone has biases. Even people removed from the game still have biases.

The NBA’s new voting system for choosing All-Star starters – 50% fans, 25% players, 25% media – has worked well. Maybe the simple solution is adding a coaches component and using that for reserves, too.

As front office looks toward free agency, starless Clippers winning now

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CHARLOTTE – The Clippers have no All-Stars here.

Not Danilo Gallinari. Not Montrezl Harrell. Not even Tobias Harris, who spent most of the season with L.A. before getting traded to the 76ers.

Heck, nobody who has played for the Clippers this season – including Gallinari, Harris and Lou Williams – has ever made an All-Star team.

No Clippers are participating in All-Star Saturday Night events, either. Their only representative here is rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Yet, the Clippers are an impressive 32-27.

“When you just have a bunch of guys that are selfless and just want to play for each other and just want to ultimately win,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “things like that happen.”

The Clippers are on pace for one of the best-ever records for a team with no past or present All-Stars. Here all the all-time leaders (counting only seasons with an All-Star game):

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The Clippers’ success is particularly surprising because this was supposed to be a transitional year for them.

They moved on historically quickly from the Chris PaulBlake Griffin-DeAndre Joran Lob City era. Everyone from the Clippers’ 2012-17 teams was gone before the season even began. Since the early 1950s, only these Clippers, the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely turned over their rosters within two seasons.

The Clippers have made no secret of their interest in Kawhi Leonard. They’re also reportedly pursuing Kevin Durant. Jimmy Butler could be in the mix.

“The front office and coaches and teammates are all competitive guys and want to be good for a long time,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Here’s the rub: Many of Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates might not be around for that ultimate goal.

To open a projected $57 million in cap space this summer,* the Clippers had to stock their roster with expiring contracts.

*Based on the Clippers renouncing all their free agents and not having a first-round pick. L.A. owes the Celtics a lottery-protected first-rounder.

Beverley will be a free agent this summer. So will Harris and likely Avery Bradley, who got dealt to the Grizzlies shortly before the trade deadline and has just $2 million of his $12.96 million salary next season guaranteed. So will Marcin Gortat, who got waived around the trade deadline.

Yet, these players put aside personal agendas to help a franchise that’s transparently looking past them. It’s a tribute to the players. It’s a tribute to Clippers coach Doc Rivers, too. This team has played hard and shown great camaraderie.

It won’t get easier even after moving Harris, L.A.’s top player this season who’s entering free agency. Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple and Wilson Chandler – acquired before the trade deadline – also have expiring contracts.

Don’t assume the Clippers will fall off now. They added solid vets who could fit this culture.

The Clippers’ identity – starless, transient – remains intact. The winning could, too.

It’s not that the Clippers got snubbed. I thought none deserved to be an All-Star.

That’s the beauty of this team.

Pelicans reportedly fire GM Dell Demps

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Dell Demps has been on the hot seat for a few years now, just scraping by while making short-term moves that appeared more about keeping his job and winning games now over planning for long-term success around Anthony Davis.

This season that all seemed to catch up with him — Davis demanded a trade and the Pelicans are well out of the playoff chase in the West.

That has cost Demps his job after nine seasons, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Frustration with Davis leaving the building is more the last straw that cost Demps his job rather than the sole firable offense. Demps has been on thin ice for a while, what happened Thursday was just enough for New Orleans to pull the trigger now rather than wait until after the season. But the sense around the league is this was coming no matter what.

If Demps had traded Davis to the Lakers at the deadline he would have been fired anyway. Also, sources have told me that it wasn’t Demps’ call, that ownership and upper management (the people above Demps) did not want the Laker trade and he couldn’t have pulled the trigger on the deal even if he wanted to. Ownership and upper management didn’t want to feel “bullied” into a deal.

It was thought by many around the league that there would be a housecleaning in New Orleans after the season and that the new GM, whoever he or she is, would be the one making the call on the trade and the direction the team takes next. The question is, will coach Alvin Gentry be out, too?

Expect the Pelicans to move reasonably quickly on finding a replacement, whether it is internal or external. They want someone in place to have a strategy for the team heading into the draft, a strategy that includes what to do about a Davis trade.