The Extra Pass: Rockets foul up three and it works out…barely

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Game after game, Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale has had to sit back and watch teams use intentional fouls to their advantage.

Against the New York Knicks on Thursday night, he turned the tables.

After dealing with the “Hack-A-Howard” once again, the Rockets were lucky enough to hold on to a three-point lead with five seconds left, thanks in large part to Carmelo Anthony’s mistake of intentionally fouling Howard under two minutes.

Despite the painful error, Anthony was all set to have a chance to tie the game with five seconds left. All he had to do was hit a three.

But as soon as Anthony received the ball and his chance for redemption, James Harden shoved him. Then he swiped at him. Then he swiped at him again.

The whistle blew, and Anthony flung up a desperate heave. Splash. Good.

Visions of Larry Johnson danced in Knicks’ fans heads, but it wasn’t to be. The foul was on the ground, and now Anthony was charged with a much more difficult task of turning two free throws into three points.

Coaches typically don’t tell their players to foul in that situation. According to a study that spanned from 2005-2008, teams decided to foul just 27 times out of a possible 287 chances when up three with less than 10 seconds on the clock.

According to that same study, teams that didn’t foul won 91.9 percent of the games. Teams that did foul? 88.9 percent. While it seems like fouling gives a team a clear advantage in that situation, it also opens the door for a lot of wackiness, which we very nearly witnessed in New York.

Still, it’s important to remember that each situation is unique. Going up against a player like Anthony in that situation, who can get his shot off over anyone, is a little scarier than, say, defending anyone from the Memphis Grizzlies in a similar spot.

The time and timeout situation matters as well. The less time on the clock, the less chances that there will be possessions added on to the game. If a team is without timeouts, the inability to advance the ball on a future possession is a huge bonus.

Aside from Harden playing patty-cake instead of wrapping Anthony up, it was perfect execution. Anthony caught the ball with his back to the basket, which should trigger a foul in that situation every time, and the Knicks had no timeouts remaining and no ferocious offensive rebounders to create problems on the box out for Houston.

Anthony actually ended up making both free throws — the second on accident. On the other end, Harden hit both of his, and now the Knicks were forced to depend on a half-court buzzer-beater instead of a three-pointer from a player who made 157 of them last season.

Introducing so many variables can make coaches nervous, especially since if it backfires, the heat comes down on them instead of the players. If you don’t foul, and the opposing play nails a 3? The player gets the accolades, and the coach gets very little criticism, if any at all.

It’s a risky move for that reason alone, but it also requires a lot of trust in your players, both to foul correctly, box out, and inbound the ball or make free throws if time permits.

Some may think the Rockets got lucky, that leaving a decision to the ref, on the road, against a star player, was foolish. But at least in this instance, fortune favored the bold.

—DJ Foster

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Rockets 109, Knicks 106: Carmelo Anthony gave it his all — 45 points, 10 rebounds and he almost got a four-point play at the end that might have changed everything — but in the end he couldn’t overcome the lack interior defense that the Rockets were able to exploit. No, it wasn’t Dwight Howard who did the exploiting — he got outplayed by Andrea Bargnani. Seriously. At both ends. Rather it was James Harden (36 points), Chandler Parsons (22) and Jeremy Lin (21, nine of those in the fourth quarter) that ended up being too much for New York. The Knicks are 3-5 on the season and you know James Dolan is stewing.

Warriors 116, Thunder 115: This game was just fun. Pure entertainment. Not a lot of defense but who wants to watch that over threes and dunks? Golden State’s Klay Thompson was 6-of-9 from three on his way to 27 points, while teammate Stephen Curry was 4-of-8 on his way to 20. However it was all almost for naught as the Thunder overcame a 14-point deficit to take the late lead thanks to a dramatic Russell Westbrook deep three (he finished with 31 in his best game since his return). Then Andre Iguodala hit a leaning jumper as the buzzer sounded and the Warriors got the win.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.

Bulls’ Paul Zipser has surgery to repair broken left foot

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CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Bulls forward Paul Zipser has had surgery to repair a broken left foot.

The team said Friday the operation was performed in his native Germany. The Bulls gave no timetable for his recovery.

Zipser averaged 4.0 points in 54 appearances before sitting out the final nine games last season.