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.

Bucks, 76ers, other teams practicing with “4 point line” to improve spacing instincts

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Space is the name of the game in the modern NBA.

Milwaukee is thriving in part because of the addition of three-point bomber Brook Lopez (still weird to type that) and a coach in Mike Budenholzer who encourages his players to shoot from deep, opening up the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drive the lane.

How Budenholzer reinforces that spacing — adding a four-point line on the practice floor and color-coding parts of the court — is part of a fascinating story by ESPN’s Malika Andrews on how coaches are “gamifying” practices to get through to players. The 76ers, Hawks, Nets, Bulls, and Bucks are the teams we know are using a four-point line in practice right now.

To explain how the Hawks’ 4-point line — which is painted onto the floor 5 feet beyond the regular 3-point line — helps his team, [Atlanta Hawks coach Paul] Pierce walks onto the court to physically demonstrate. The condensed version of Pierce’s 36-minute explanation, which is punctuated by wild gesticulation, is this: “Spacing changes the whole game.”

Atlanta targeted Young out of Oklahoma in the 2018 draft lottery, with hopes of building an offense around his long-range shooting and passing skills. Because Young is willing and able to shoot off the dribble from well beyond the 3-point arc, defenders are forced to step out to defend him almost as soon as he crosses half court. Although he already had that range before he joined the Hawks, Young acknowledges that not everybody has the natural instinct to pull up from that deep, so it helps to have a visual reminder…

Lloyd not only wants Young to shoot from the 4-point line but to make plays from there, too. Expanding the floor outward, in turn, creates space in the paint for big men such as second-year breakout John Collins. If a guard like Young can initiate a play from behind the 4-point line, defenses are forced to cover more ground and, eventually, make difficult choices and compromises.

While Young is struggling with those deep shots this season — 24.1 percent from three — the principle is still valid, and just his and the Hawks’ willingness to shoot from there has stretched defenses (they just don’t have the talent and experience yet to exploit those defenses properly). It’s what Stephen Curry brings naturally to the Warriors (that team has the talent and experience yet to exploit defenses).

It’s not just the four-point line. In Philadelphia, the corner-three spot on the court is a different color, a reminder to players they want to be and shoot from there. In Milwaukee, there are five taped-off boxes on the court, each about the size a person takes up standing there, a reminder of where Budenholzer wants players to be in a five-out offense.

For young players raised on computer learning and video games, the color coding — what Brett Brown called “gamification” of the court — works as reminders. Ones that, ideally, carry over into games themselves.

Don’t forget, Boston reportedly “hawking” Anthony Davis, too

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If Anthony Davis hits the trade market — and that’s still an “if” because the Pelicans are pushing to win now, they are active on the trade market, and they will put a $235 million guaranteed contract in front of him next July, $40 million more than anyone else can offer — there’s been a lot of talk about how the Lakers are poised to pounce.

But don’t sleep on Boston — GM Danny Ainge has eyed Davis for a while and the Celtics have a lot of assets to throw in a deal. Something Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on the Woj&Lowe NBA trade season broadcast special recently.

“Boston has been hawking Anthony Davis for years. They always hoped that it would be—whether it’s the end of this season or the beginning of next before the trade deadline—that they would gather up all those assets, all those picks Danny Ainge has, young players, and they’d be the team to be able to get Anthony Davis.

“But now you have L.A., and if they get shut out in free agency, they’re going to have to take all their young players to try to use them to get Anthony Davis.”

If Davis becomes available, the Celtics and Lakers will be at the front of a very long line.

Boston would throw their best assets in a trade for Davis — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and draft picks — that may be more interesting to New Orleans than Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. (Boston could have four first-round picks in next June’s draft, but trading them is complicated because the draft is weeks before July 1 when the Pelicans make their offer to Davis, it’s possible to delay signing the rookies to keep them tradable but that’s not the norm; also if the Clippers miss the playoffs this year then Boston has their 2020 pick lottery protected).

Also, know that other teams are going to jump in with offers, the way Oklahoma City did with Paul George and Toronto did with Kawhi Leonard. New Orleans is obligated to get the best trade for New Orleans, not to send Davis somewhere he wants to go. If another team comes in with an over-the-top offer the Pelicans may jump at it.

Right now, NBA GMs are just watching what is happening with Davis like hawks. Or, maybe more accurately, vultures.

Not so fast: Austin Rivers reportedly will not sign in Memphis, other teams interested

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Austin Rivers is a below-average guard (his 7.1 PER this season is well below his 10.4 career average, and that was already troublingly low) and certainly was not the most popular guy in the Clippers’ locker room, but for a team in desperate need of guard depth, they could do worse. Especially for a minimum contract the rest of this season.

Which is why the rumors of Rivers to Memphis after he clears waivers from the Suns made some sense (Rivers was traded to Phoenix from Washington in the Trevor Ariza deal). Mike Conley is a borderline All-Star but behind him the Grizzlies are giving Shelvin Mack, MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden, and others regular run. Maybe Rivers could help.

But…

Rivers will not be signing in Memphis, reports the well connected Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian.

Contrary to today’s reports, a source with knowledge of the negotiation tells The Daily Memphian that while the Grizzlies considered the matter, the team is not signing Rivers. Unlike on Friday night, when early reporting seemed to reveal some internal confusion among the NBA teams involved in a proposed transaction, this seems merely to be a case of a premature report.

Even The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who first broke the news, has backed off.

There is not a huge demand for Rivers’ services, but some team in need of depth will role the dice.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse fined $15k for criticizing refs on behalf of Kawhi Leonard

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After the Raptors lost to the Nuggets on Sunday, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said:

“You can’t tell me that one of the best players in the league takes 100 hits and shoots four free throws, and they handed him two for charity at the end,” Nurse said in a two-part rant that will earn him a fine from the league office. “So he was going to have two free throws for the game with all the physical hits and holding and driving and chucking and doubling and slapping and reaching and all the stuff. It’s been going on all year. I do not understand why they are letting everyone play one of the best players in the league so physically. I do not understand it.

“Tonight was a very severe case of a guy who was playing great, taking it to the rim and just getting absolutely held, grabbed, poked, slapped, hit and everything. And they refused to call any of it. It’s unbelievable to me. Unbelievable to me. It’s ridiculous. The guy is one of the best players in the league and he doesn’t complain, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that, and they just turn their head and go the other way. It’s been going on all year.”

Predictably…

NBA release:

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been fined $15,000 for public criticism of the officiating, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

This obviously doesn’t come close to putting the Raptors over the top for Leonard in free agency next summer. Los Angeles teams are still favored. But this bodes well for Toronto re-signing Leonard.

Not only did Nurse endear himself to Leonard, the coach might even help Leonard get a more favorable whistle going forward. If that happens, it’ll make the Raptors more likely to win and therefore more likely to keep Leonard.