The Extra Pass: LeBron and Kobe miss each other once again, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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LOS ANGELES — The reason behind the NBA scheduling a Christmas Day marquee matchup between the Heat and the Lakers had nothing to do with the current fate of the respective franchises, and everything to do with potentially getting to see two of the game’s biggest stars competing in a rare head-to-head matchup.

A Finals rematch between Miami and San Antonio might have been more compelling in terms of how this season’s title might ultimately play out, but it’s hard to resist history by scheduling the game’s best player in LeBron James to face the best player of the previous generation in Kobe Bryant.

(It’s valid to argue that Tim Duncan was every bit as good as Bryant in the same era, but personally, I’ll take Kobe every day and twice on Christmas.)

Since LeBron and Kobe have played in separate conferences, the on-court meetings between two of the game’s all-time greats have perhaps been more rare than they should have been. The pair missed playing against one another yet again on Christmas Day, thanks to the recent knee bone fracture that has Bryant sidelined for up to six weeks.

“We understand how historic the franchise is, the Lakers, and what they mean to the league,” James said before his Heat took care of the Lakers on Wednesday. “You take the best player or the franchise player off their team, it speaks volumes. He’s meant so much to the league since he got here in ’96, and his five championships and the rest of his resume and what he’s been able to do for the league and his city, it means a lot. Especially games like today. In marquee games, you definitely want to have the best players out there, and it’s unfortunate that an injury will keep some guys out.”

Bryant and James going head-to-head will always be must-se TV, no matter the situation going on with the pair’s respective franchises. That’s why this matchup was featured in the prime slot on this holiday, one that marks the unofficial start to the NBA season for the majority of the league’s casual fans. But Bryant’s most recent injury prevented this particular meeting, no matter how benign it seemed when it initially took place.

“I was actually watching the game and I saw when it happened,” James said. “And I didn’t think he was going to return to that game. But he did, so I didn’t think too much more about it until I heard the news the next day. There’s a few guys in our league that can come back from anything, and obviously he’s one of them.”

Bryant met the L.A. media before the Christmas Day game tipped, and seemed as determined as ever to make it back. He seemed especially interested in seeing how his Lakers team would match up against the defending champs.

“This was a really big measuring stick,” Bryant said of the matchup against the Heat. “Because of their speed, their activity and their size. I was really looking forward to this game to be able to measure where I was physically, especially with the time frame I came back. I was really looking at this game to measure what I can do and what I can’t do.”

It wasn’t, however, meant to be. Just like the times when the two were so close to meeting on the game’s ultimate stage in the NBA Finals, circumstances intervened to prevent us from seeing one of the all-time great individual matchups.

“It definitely would have been great,” James said, when asked to consider what it would have been like to face Kobe in the Finals. “I think I wanted it, I think he wanted it. I didn’t do my part one year, lost to Orlando in the Conference Finals. So I didn’t do my part to meet him there, and I’m not quite sure what happened in ’07 with the Lakers, but I ended up facing San Antonio. It definitely would have been great to go against him in the Finals, but it never happened, and I don’t know whether it will happen or if it won’t. We’ll see.”

At this point, it would appear to be a long shot. James and the Heat are among the the league’s elite, while the Lakers (with or without Kobe) are merely treading water, hoping just to have a chance at a playoff berth while having no realistic expectations of coming anywhere close to the championship round in the immediate future.

Bryant’s injuries in this, his 18th professional season, have certainly played a part in that. But James, now at the height of his powers and playing in the midst of his prime, is focused on the present. And he isn’t willing to consider his NBA mortality just yet.

“The man above knows how much time he’s going to give me with this game,” James said. “Once he decides I don’t have any more time to give, then I’ll call it quits.”

—Brett Pollakoff

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I generally am not of huge fan of Reggie Miller the analyst but he summed up the mood on twitter after Blake Griffin got ejected for a second technical, when in both cases a Warriors player instigated a flagrant foul on him. No way Griffin should have been tossed (frankly the Andrew Bogut flagrant was really nothing, let alone Griffin’s Tech). It felt like the refs wanted to get control of a game that was in no way out of control. — Kurt Helin

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Bulls 95, Nets 78: Ugh, the Nets. This game was close for two and a half quarters, but when Deron Williams left in the third quarter after tweaking his ankle the Bulls went on a run and were soon up 23. Chicago had a balanced attack with six guys in double figures, led by Taj Gibson’s 20, but you couldn’t watch this game and think anything other than the Nets just are not playing with any real passion or fight right now. — KH

Thunder 123, Knicks 94: Carmelo Anthony was out and with that this game pretty much followed the form we all expected. Kevin Durant started the game 6-of-6 shooting, hitting step-back threes and finishing alley-oops, on his way to 29 points (and he got to rest the fourth). J.R. Smith had 20 points for the Knicks but needed 22 shots to get there, This loss was the worst home loss any team has suffered on Christmas Day in NBA history. — KH

Miami 101, Lakers 95: The banged-up Lakers were actually on top through much of the first half here, going on an 11-0 run and getting 10 first half points from Jodie Meeks. Eventually Miami responded — Chris Bosh had 13 points in the second quarter and the Heat pushed into the lead. LeBron James finished with 19 and Dwyane Wade 23… but the Heat could never fully shake the Lakers. Credit Nick Young and his 20 off the bench, but the Lakers stayed within 10 pretty much the whole way and made the Heat work for it. The Lakers get a nice moral victory, the Heat the actual win. — KH

Rockets 111, Spurs 98: Houston never trailed in this game — they scored the first 6 points, had a 13-0 run later in the first quarter and dropped 40 on the Spurs in the first quarter (Chandler Parsons had 13 of his 21 in the quarter to lead the way). But the spurs chipped away at it as they tend to do, Manu Ginobili being the big spark with 22 points. The Spurs got the Rockets lead down to 5 in the fourth, then James Harden came in and hit four straight shots, scoring 11 in a row and 16 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to squelch any Spurs comebacks. — KH

Warriors 105, Clippers 103: This game got a little feisty and featured a ridiculous ejection of Blake Griffin, but in the end the Warriors made plays to come from behind in this one. Klay Thompson had 23 points in this one plus a key block on Chris Paul late. David Lee added 23 and 13 rebounds. Chris Paul had 26 for the Clippers but a couple shots at the end to tie and just could not make the plays. Good win for a Warriors team trying to find its groove again. — KH

Chris Paul shimmied on Stephen Curry, and Curry is okay with that

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In Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Stephen Curry was feeling it and broke out the shimmy after draining a step-back three over James Harden.

In Game 5 Thursday night, Chris Paul hit a ridiculous three over Curry and returned the shimmy favor.

How did Stephen Curry feel about that? As your mom used to say, if you’re going to dish it out you had better be able to take it.

First, can we just admit neither Curry nor CP3 can shimmy like Antoine Walker?

The question for Paul and Curry is which one will be shimmying after Game 6 (especially considering CP3’s hamstring issue)?

Rockets have sucked Warriors into their style of game, then been better at it

Associated Press
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Through an 82-game regular season, the Golden State Warriors averaged 322.7 passes a game — the ball flew around the court with energy, found the open man and he buried the shot. For the season, 63.1 percent of the Warriors’ buckets were assisted. It was egalitarian. It was modern NBA basketball. It was “the beautiful game.”

The Houston Rockets, on the other hand, averaged 253.3 passes per game, fewest in the NBA. What they did lead the league in was isolation sets — 14.5 percent of their offense was the old-school style that the Warriors shunned. It worked for the Rockets, they scored an impressive 112 points per 100 possessions on those plays, but it looked more like a 1990s slog than a Mike D’Antoni offense.

In Game 5, the Warriors had 257 passes and 56 percent of their buckets were assisted (the first time that number got over 50 percent in a couple of games). In turn, isolations were the third most common kind of play the Warriors ran in the game (which was better than they did in Game 4, but still not who they normally are). Add in post-ups, which are essentially isolations just down on the block, and you get 25.7 percent of the Warriors plays in Game 5 being one-on-one.

The Warriors have been sucked into the Rockets’ game, and Houston is better at it.

The Rockets are up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals and in the last two games have been the better clutch team. The better fourth quarter team. The team imposing their style on the game when it matters. For years the versatility of the Warriors allowed them to win regardless of the style of play — slow it down and be physical, play fast and up-tempo, whatever teams tried to do — but not against these Rockets. Not in this throwback, isolation-heavy style.

If the Warriors can’t change that dynamic nothing else will matter, and they will be watching the Finals on television for the first time in four years.

For the Rockets, imposing their will and style starts with their defense. Since the first game of the season — which was against these Warriors back in October — the Rockets have switched everything on defense. It was assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik’s plan, his counter to the ball movement of Golden State and the many teams trying to emulate their style. Everybody in the NBA is switching more on defense, but nobody was doing it as much or with the gusto of the Rockets. For example, Utah switched a lot against Houston in the last playoff round, but with Rudy Gobert at center they tried to switch less with the big men, wisely preferring to keep Gobert back as a rim protector. That opened opportunities for the Rockets to attack.

Houston switched everything. All the time. Even when logic dictated they shouldn’t. Big man Clint Capela has the athleticism and instincts to guard on the perimeter, so they let him. Other teams try to tag out quickly from the mismatches switching can create (scram switches behind the play are trendy now), but the Rockets tend to live with the switch and just send help. What the Rockets became doing this all season is smooth and proficient with switching, and it has shown in this series.

Kevin Durant is supposed to be the counter to this — he is the Warriors best one-on-one player, and switch or no there is no good matchup to defend him. So the Warriors lean on him in these situations, they get him the rock a lot.

Durant had 10 isolations and six post-ups in Game 5 — 16 of his 29 plays were mano-a-mano contests. KD can excel at them, but as the Warriors start to slow it down and hunt out those mismatches they move the ball less, and they play into Rockets’ hands. They have slid into Houston’s style. Part of this was missing Andre Iguodala, both a good defender and a guy who keeps the ball moving on offense. Without him decisions change — there was a fourth-quarter play where Stephen Curry drove past his man, got into floater range, the Rockets brought help off the man from the corner, but now that is Kevon Looney, and Curry looked then decided to take the floater rather than make that pass to a non-shooter. Curry’s shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.

The Rockets have slowed the game down, muddied it up, and they are comfortable playing this way. The Rockets have thrived in this style despite the fact James Harden has struggled (Chris Paul has had a couple of big fourth quarters). The Warriors can beat 28 other teams four times in seven games playing this style, too, because they have the talent. Just not Houston. The Rockets have plenty of talent too, their bench guy Eric Gordon is knocking down seemingly every shot he takes, and this series is being played on their terms.

Houston is just better at this style.

Golden State is not dead in this series — they go home for Game 6 and are expected to get Iguodala back. More importantly, the health of Chris Paul and his hamstring are up in the air.

But the Warriors need to get back to being themselves — playing faster, sharing the ball (despite pressure), and using that to get the open threes or driving dunks they use to bury teams. It will not be easy — the Warriors played their game for stretches in Game 4 at home, but like a cheesy horror movie villain, these Rockets refuse to die. They are relentless, and they’re aggressive with their switching. The Rockets are incredibly good, and they know who they are. They have been themselves this series (just with more missed threes).

If the Warriors don’t get back to being themselves, if they keep trying to beat the Rockets at Houston’s game, they will be on vacation in Cabo before June for the first time in years.

Chris Paul injures right hamstring, status unclear for Game 6 vs. Warriors

AP
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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul played the part of the hero for the home team on Thursday night as Houston beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead.

Now, the question is whether Paul will be able to play in Game 6 on Saturday night.

After a game in which the Rockets were not particularly offensively impressive, Paul came up with some clutch baskets despite struggling overall. Paul got the better of the Golden State defense several times from beyond the arc, including one instance in which he gave a shoulder shimmy to Stephen Curry, allowing the Warriors guard a dose of his own medicine.

But Paul appeared to injure his right hamstring on a play with 51 seconds to go in fourth quarter as he was shooting a floater in the lane. After his shot, Paul remained on the ground and down at the Houston end of the floor as possession changed sides. Paul left the game some 30 seconds later, and was unable to finish the game.

The Rockets point guard had already been battling a right foot injury and had to get lots of treatment just to be able to play in Game 5. It’s not entirely surprising that Paul injured himself on his right side. A weakened link in the kinetic chain tends to force other muscles and joints to compensate for injured areas. When overused or improperly used, the chance for a new injury in another part of the kinetic chain — say, up the leg and into the hamstring — is entirely possible.

That seems like what happened to Paul on Thursday night, but we will have to wait for official word from the team before we know whether he will be playing on Saturday. Hamstring issues can the nagging and despite lots of treatment there is also the swelling that will occur when Paul has to fly to Oakland.

As expected, Chris Paul said he will be good to go (players are the worst at providing a timeline for their injuries).

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni says that Paul will be evaluated tomorrow and will be continuing to get treatment but he is not worried about someone being able to fill Paul’s shoes. That’s certainly the right thing to say for D’Antoni but we know how Game 6 might go if CP3 is unable to play.

Chris Paul plays the hero as Warriors devolve to iso ball in Game 5 loss

AP
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I personally thought a Western Conference Finals game couldn’t get any uglier after I watched Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Boy, was I wrong.

Thursday night’s Game 5 matchup between the Rockets and the Warriors two teams produced three heinous quarters of NBA playoff basketball, made even more unbearable by the fact that we know how good these two teams can be when they’re really humming.

Much as it was in Game 4 it was Houston’s defense that was on display, ironically forcing the Warriors to play much in the way the Rockets do when they lose. Golden State battled the shot clock with isolation ball much of the game, with Kevin Durant getting the ball at the top of the arc as some of the league’s top players — including a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry — widened the floor in a 1-4 flat set for the 7-foot wing.

To their credit, both Curry and Durant were in good shooting form through the first half but as the periods ground on they started to slow. Draymond Green was Draymond-y, scoring 12 points while grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds with four assists. Statistically, it’s hard to understand how the Warriors lost. Golden State shot better from the field, from the arc, and from the charity stripe. But their scoring was concentrated and their offense predictable at just the wrong moments.

Houston’s attack was nothing to shake a stick at, either. James Harden‘s scored just 19 points on 5-of-21 shooting, and as a unit the Rockets doled out 12 assists. Incessant switching and a tendency to hound the ball on defense allowed Houston to force a whopping 18 turnovers from Golden State. It was the most important statistic of the game for the Rockets, who scored 18 points on those turnovers despite being outpaced in 3-point shooting, points in the paint, and in fastbreak buckets.

Then, the fourth quarter happened. Everything changed, and as we are wont to do, the game felt much cleaner. Both teams had their energy up, they traded baskets, and the lead went back-and-forth.

Enter Chris Paul.

Houston’s point guard was the savior, scoring 20 points on a piddly 6-of-19 shooting performance. But Paul’s box score did not tell the tale of his impact on the game. Several times with the shot clock winding down, Paul came up with big beyond-the-arc buckets, at one point hitting one over Curry, giving him back a shoulder shimmy much the way the Warriors point guard did in Game 4.

Paul’s leadership pushed Houston forward, but his commitment during Game 5 might get overlooked after the Rockets point guard was forced to check out of the game after a play with 51 seconds remaining. On a floater in the lane, Paul appeared to hurt his right hamstring. Unable to play, Paul had to watch the final minute from the Houston bench, and his availability for Game 6 is currently up in the air.

It was ugly and it was gritty, but the Rockets beat Golden State on Thursday night, 98-94, to take Game 5 and a 3-2 series win as the Western Conference Finals heads back to Oakland.

Now, we look toward Game 6 in California on Saturday, May 26 at 6:00 PM PST.