Rockets’ GM Morey: There are at least three teams better than us

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Expectations are high around the Rockets. They made big strides last season getting James Harden in the fold, playing an exciting up-tempo brand of basketball, winning 45 games and getting into the playoffs.

Then they went out and got Dwight Howard.

The talk in Houston is of a title — this team is a contender now. But team GM Darryl Morey tried to tamp down those expectations in a recent radio interview (as transcribed by CBSHouston, hat tip to Eye on Basketball).

Morey said the Rockets are not yet at the top of the mountain.

“I think there are probably at least three teams better than us if not more,” Morey said about the chances of winning a championship this season. “Until you’re going into a season felling like you are the top one or two I think it’s, and we haven’t really accomplished anything, I think it’s hard to talk about ‘hey we’re one of the favorites to win the championship.’ But I do think we go in with a chance, where as we haven’t in the last few years.”

What teams? The Heat, Thunder and Spurs are the obvious calls and the radio interviewer threw those out.

“I think those three, I would say going in for sure are better than us, and they’ve definitely proven more,” Morey said of the last three teams to appear in an NBA Finals. “I think the Bulls and the Pacers they’re very good as well this year. I am hoping we are in the mix with them, maybe equal quality.”

I’d throw the Clippers and Nets in that next tier with the Bulls and Pacers, personally.

I see this as a melding year for the Rockets — there are a lot of different styles and personalities that have to come together and make this all work. Those teams ahead of them on the list have had a few years to figure out exactly who they are and how the pieces fit together (and their GMs have tweaked those pieces), the Rockets are just starting that process.

For example, Howard pushed back against Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo, pick-and-roll heavy offense in Los Angeles, but the Rockets played at a faster tempo (with 7 percent more of their offense coming in transition) and were just as pick-and-roll heavy as the Lakers last season. Then there is the question of how Howard and Omer Asik work together. Plus, is Howard fully healthy and playing like his Orlando self again? Getting together defensive rotations takes time, also. The list goes on and on.

Houston will be good, but how good this season remains to be seen. They could be a team that starts to find more of its stride after the All-Star break.

However with all that talent on the roster, the expectations are going to hang over this team like the Sword of Damocles. Have fun with that.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn shoves Russell Westbrook, scuffle breaks out (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.

Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.

While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.

There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.

• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).

Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…

Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.

• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.

• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.

Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.

• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.

A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.

James Harden scores 47, including sinking dagger into Jazz (VIDEO)

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Utah and Houston met in a battle of the disappointing early season Western teams — predicted by most to finish 2/3 in the West, they came into the night 10th and 13th — and in the tight West these kinds of games matter.

So James Harden turned it up a notch.

The reigning MVP looked every bit that guys scoring 47 points and adding six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in what was a Houston win, 102-97. It was Harden that sank the dagger into Utah.

That’s four wins in a row for Houston as they try to climb out of the hole they dug themselves early this season.

Taj Gibson helps defend drive with one shoe on, one shoe in his hand (VIDEO)

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In the first quarter Monday night, Timberwolves veteran Taj Gibson was working in the post on the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica, Gibson got the bucket but lost his shoe.

He picked it up, ran to the other end with one shoe in hand, and then defended a Bjelica drive well enough that Karl-Anthony Towns would come over and get the block on the play.

Somehow, Tom Thibodeau is going to get credit for this new defensive style.