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.

Pistons present themselves as Eastern Conference heavyweights with Dwane Casey

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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DETROIT – Pistons spokesman Mark Barnhill, introducing new coach Dwane Casey, said he tucked his notes for today’s press conference into his jacket pocket. Then, as he pulled them out, he discovered an old Pistons playoff ticket in the same pocket.

“It’s a bit of an omen and a bit of a challenge,” Barnhill said.

The ticket was for the Pistons’ best playoff performance in a decade.

“No pressure,” Casey said.

Actually, really, no pressure.

Detroit lost by only two points in Game 4 of the 2016 first round, getting swept by the Cavaliers in the game Barnhill referred to. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in the last 10 years and reached the postseason only twice in that span. A two-point loss was their best result.

They’re starving for only moderate success. The 59 wins and second-round loss that got Casey fired by the Raptors? That’d be a dream season in Detroit. Even just making the playoffs next year would be welcomed.

“Our time is now,” Casey said. “…The talent level on the roster is there.”

It better be.

The Pistons are too close to the luxury-tax line to use most of the mid-level exception. They surrendered their first-round pick in the Blake Griffin trade. They’re left with only the No. 42 pick in the second round.

“Whatever player we get, that would be great. But we don’t need another one,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said. “Like, we’re good. That’s why Dwane is here.”

That and $35 million.

The Pistons presented Casey with a favorable contract, a front-office head he knows (more on that later) and a solid roster. Detroit is probably better off trying to win now, because the alternative would be even trickier to pull off. With so many highly paid players stained by losing, the Pistons can’t easily switch paths and rebuild. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are close enough to their primes that the present should be the priority, even if this team maxes at pretty good.

Yet, Detroit’s brass couldn’t help but raise expectations even further.

“We have three very – we have a great roster – but very special players,” Gores said of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson.

That’s an overstatement. Besides, how much noise can Detroit make with the Celtics and 76ers rising the Raptors still hanging around?

“I feel very comfortable that we’ll have a product that will compete with the teams that you just said,” Gores’ advisor, Ed Stefanski, said. “We have to win games, as Tom said. But you don’t usually get to an organization and have three core guys like we have.”

Again, they’re talking about Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.

Griffin hasn’t made an All-Star team in three years, a drought players rarely escape. Drummond is a borderline All-Star in the East (and a tough fit with Griffin). Jackson has only once even sniffed the All-Star discussion.

Casey also praised those three – and Detroit’s last three first-round picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. Johnson particularly drew attention from Casey, whose Raptors got swept by LeBron James‘ Cavaliers the last two years and lost the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history to Cleveland the previous year.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, what happened to Toronto in the playoffs? ‘Well, I said, ‘It’s about matchups,'” Casey said. “And Stanley Johnson is the best match up for 23 in Cleveland that there is, physically.”

Maybe Casey, with his strong record of player development, will help Johnson eventually compete at those high levels.

“We’re not developing,” Casey said. “We’re not two or three years away. We want to win right now.”

The Pistons are so confident in their current roster, they haven’t even hired a general manager or equivalent. For now, Stefanski – advisor to the owner with the title of “senior executive” – is running the show. It sounds as if that could continue for a while.

“We could make Ed GM tomorrow,” Gores said. “That’s easy. If you guys want a title, that’s kind of easy.

“That’s not the point. The point is we’re building an organization, not around one person, but around what our vision is.”

Stefanski said, no matter how the front office is assembled, Casey will report to him. And Stefanski will report to Gores.

After giving Stan Van Gundy massive control, the Pistons are dispersing power.

Casey is a good coach, and he’ll help. Stefanski has plenty to prove as a front-office head. Gores is still learning as an owner, a failed experiment (keeping Joe Dumars) and unfulfilling tenure (Van Gundy’s) behind him. The roster is solid, though unexciting, when healthy.

They’re now all in it together, awaiting a chance to deliver. Considering how modest external expectations are, maybe they will.

But as the Pistons overstate their standing, it gets harder to take them seriously.

PBT Extra: Dwight Howard traded to Brooklyn, does anybody win?

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Dwight Howard is on the move. Again. Leaving a wake of unhappy teammates behind him. Again.

The trade can’t be consummated until the NBA free agent moratorium ends on July 6, but a deal has been struck where Charlotte sends Howard to Brooklyn for Timofey Mozgov, two second-round picks, and cash.

I don’t love this trade for the Nets — it’s going to get awkward with Howard being asked to come off the bench behind Jarrett Allen (and he should come off the bench). But it frees up an extra $17 million for the Nets in the summer of 2019 as they start to reshape their roster.

The Hornets get away from the luxury tax with this move but tie up their cap space next year with Mozgov still getting paid off the contract former-Laker-now-Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak gave him years ago. It was a short-term move that isn’t great for the long term. Unless Kemba Walker wanted Howard gone and the Hornets want to re-sign their point guard. A lot of unanswered questions still about this team.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard directly told Gregg Popovich he wanted to leave Spurs

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Kawhi Leonard and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich met in San Diego yesterday.

How did the discussion go? Reports have been mixed about even the nature of the meeting, let alone a resolution from either side.

But here’s an update with a reportedly direct conclusion.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

From what my sources told me, Kawhi Leonard met with Gregg Popovich face-to-face, looked him dead in his face and told him “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in San Antonio any longer.”

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers, last week. There was some hope Popovich could mend the relationship, but that seems to running thin. There is so much bitterness between both sides.

The next question: What do the Spurs do about it?

Do they keep trying to ease tension with the 26-year-old superstar? Do they trade him? If so, when? Before or during the draft?

No matter what Leonard told Popovich yesterday, San Antonio has big decisions to make and soon. Leonard firmly stating a desire to leave would be clarifying, but it’d hardly make this situation easy to handle.

Brendan Haywood: Former Hornets teammates ‘sick and tired’ of Dwight Howard’s act

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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It has become an annual tradition – Dwight Howard getting traded then his former teammates celebrating his exit.

It happened with the Hawks last year. Now, it’s happening with the Hornets, who sent Howard to the Nets.

Brendan Haywood, via Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Now retired, Haywood played with current Hornets Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist his final season. He also knows many other players throughout the league.

Howard went to Charlotte and declared himself team leader – despite the presence of Walker, the franchise player. Howard’s immaturity and ego have rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way for years.

But at least this is progress. Howard’s time with the Magic, Lakers and Rockets devolved into interpersonal strife well before he left those teams.