Rockets don’t bring the energy, so Bulls bring the pain in securing a 24-point blowout victory

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The Rockets came into Thursday night’s contest in Chicago with the league’s best record since Jan. 1, a 23-7 mark that included a record of 15-3 over the team’s last 18 games.

But it’s difficult to bring the necessary energy on a nightly basis, and especially against a fiery Bulls team playing at home, not doing so is a recipe for disaster.

Houston struggled to get on track in the early going, and Chicago opened the third quarter on a 20-2 run to put this one away much more quickly than expected. The Bulls secured the 111-87 victory before the fourth quarter ever began, and while this performance was just one of 82 for a Rockets team that has been consistently elite, it does raise some questions about what might happen in a similar battle once the postseason begins.

If the shots aren’t falling, the defense has to dig in and ensure that the team’s principles are followed to perfection in limiting their opponent’s chances — at least until the offense can find its way back. In this one, Houston seemed to fold much too quickly under the pressure of the Bulls defense.

Mike Dunleavy took a nasty (but unintentional) elbow from Chandler Parsons in the first half that spilled plenty of blood and required 10 stitches to repair, but he returned in the third quarter to pour in 18 points in the period to help put the game out of reach.

Dwight Howard, clearly not all that inspired by his coach’s gameday remarks, finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in 29 minutes of action, but also turned the ball over seven times. James Harden added five more turnovers to the team total, while managing just eight points on 2-of-7 shooting in 27 minutes himself.

The Bulls will do this to you if you’re not fully prepared to match their intensity; if you are, however, they’re extremely beatable — just ask the Spurs about that, who got out to a lead of as many as 32 points just two nights earlier.

The Rockets, though, weren’t anywhere near the right mental state to deal with this Chicago team. It was evident during a lackluster the first quarter, and they seemed to give up completely once the second half began. That’s fine during the regular season, especially considering how great Houston has been since the first of the year. But it may serve as an internal warning of what could happen when the game slows down in the playoffs.

New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: ‘I think I’m in the best place in the league’

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Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly finish fourth in Most Valuable Player voting this year, his age-23 season.

The last coach to take over a team with a player who already accomplished so much at such a young age – Del Harris (a familiar name in Milwaukee), who inherited reigning MVP Moses Malone with the Rockets in 1979. It’s just so rare for jobs coaching such a promising player top come open.

“I think I’m in the best place in the league,” new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said at his introductory press conference today.

Budenholzer had his pick of Milwaukee and Toronto, another highly successful team, especially for one seeking a new coach. But the Bucks offer Antetokounmpo and more modest expectations.

Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years. Budenholzer was asked today as much about delivering a division title as an NBA title.

Topping the Cavaliers, Pacers, Pistons and Bulls sounds much easier than surpassing the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and 76ers in coming years.

Not that Budenholzer, who reached the conference finals with the Hawks, is completely ducking big talk.

“We’re lucky to have a Giannis, who will do anything to win, and a Khris Middleton that will do anything to win,” Budenholzer said. “When you have your best players that are true competitors and that are truly unselfish and care more about the team than they do themselves, those are a couple of big, foundational blocks to winning championships and doing things that are special.”

The Bucks held the press conference at their still-under-construction new arena, the media wearing hard hats and orange vests:

But this isn’t a complete rebuild for Budenholzer.

Milwaukee has made the playoffs the last two seasons, including winning 44 games this year. Antetokounmpo is a superstar. Middleton is a borderline All-Star. Eric Bledsoe is a solid starter. Restricted free agent-to-be Jabari Parker is talented. The rotation is somewhat deep.

The Bucks just underachieved under former coach Jason Kidd (and never capitalized before him for more than a decade for other reasons).

Citing the potential of current players, Budenholzer said Milwaukee could become “elite” defensively. The Bucks are full of long and athletic players, and Budenholzer coached sound defenses in Atlanta. There’s only one reason to doubt him: Milwaukee finished just 17th in points allowed per possession this season.

But that’s a feature of this job, not a bug. The Bucks aren’t stuck with an inevitably bad defenders. They just underperformed. Budenholzer can nudge them ahead – and is positioned to receive outsized credit if he does.

“Working with the entire with the entire roster, with the front office, with ownership,” Budenholzer said, “I can’t wait to take us to the next level in Milwaukee.”

That next level isn’t that high, which is why Budenholzer is right.

Milwaukee is a great place for a coach to be.

Mike D’Antoni: Rockets ‘played soft’

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni:

We didn’t switch up into people, we didn’t box off. It’s just one thing led to another. Played soft, actually.

His stars agreed.

James Harden:

He’s right. We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be. We started off the game pretty solid, and then we let them gain some confidence to end the first quarter. You know, but just defensively they didn’t feel us and it showed tonight.

Chis Paul:

Coach is right. We’ve got to be better. I think, you know, we’ve got to come out more aggressive. We were letting them hit first, you know what I mean? They were running their screens and all that stuff like that. I mean, we know that we’re at our best when we’re in transition and not taking the ball out the net. And tonight we were taking the ball out the net. We had 19 turnovers. That’s uncharacteristic of us. We knew we were going to get a great game from them being back here at home, but we’ve got to be better Game 4.

That’s a harsh assessment – but at least somewhat warranted. The Rockets applied far too little defensive pressure, and they missed shots inside and committed turnovers as if they were rattled.

I don’t think the Rockets are soft. But they looked soft in the face of Golden State’s elite ability.

The Warriors pressure teams into mistakes and then exploit many of them. Play that doesn’t look soft against other opponents suddenly does against Golden State.

Houston can toughen up before Game 4 Tuesday. Acclimating to the Warriors’ high level of play, especially at home, could help. The Rockets are good enough to hang at this level.

But it certainly won’t be easy.

Klay Thompson on Stephen Curry’s profane outburst: ‘I hope Riley didn’t see it’

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Through halftime of Game 3, Stephen Curry was shooting 3-of-20 on 3-pointers in the Western Conference finals. The Rockets targeted him relentlessly while he was on defense. The Warriors had been outscored with him on the court.

For days, questions swirled.

Is Curry overrated? Is he too soft to withstand the pressure Houston was applying? Is he still injured?

Curry answered in an an emotional third quarter of Game 3: No, no, no. The Golden State superstar scored 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, including 2-of-2 on 3-pointers, in the period.

Along the way, he shimmied:

And after another made basket, he removed his mouthpiece and stayed behind the play to declare,”This is my f—ing house:”

That was quite a moment for Curry.

Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

So hyper-aware of it was Curry that had a ready response when asked about it after the Warriors laid a 126-85 beating on the Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

“I already know,” he said.

“I blacked out,” Curry explained, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. “I blacked out.”

People close to Curry didn’t miss it – nor did the many fans watching.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Klay Thompson:

That was funny. I hope Riley didn’t see it. It got Oracle pretty fired up. And that’s a rare occurrence. I’ve never really seen Steph – I’ve seen him, yeah, use that langue. But that’s what the playoffs brings out of you. So, don’t do that at home, kids. It’s just once in a while.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

His mother, Sonya Curry, was pleased with her son’s performance, but not with his mouth.

“She already sent me two home videos, showing me the clip and playing it back,” Curry told ESPN. “She was telling me how I need to wash my mouth out, saying to wash it out with soap. It’s a message I’ve heard before.”

It was Curry’s breakout game in this series, but he is a devout Christian and says he understands why he received such a scolding.

“She’s right,” Curry told ESPN. “I gotta do better. I can’t talk like that.”

Curry has cultivated such a wholesome image despite massive amounts of showboating and taunting on the court. If his previous boastful behavior didn’t turn off anyone, this incident probably won’t, either.

No matter how he’s marketed, Curry is an exceptionally intense competitor. That’s a huge part of what makes him a great player, and it’s not always polite when that side shines through.

I won’t start chiding Curry for playing with emotion and, gasp, swearing. I’d much rather appreciate his passion.

I’d also prefer if we appreciate similar passion from all players rather than applying a double standard.

Warriors-Rockets features one of biggest game-to-game swings in NBA playoff history

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In Game 2, the Rockets handed the Warriors their biggest playoff loss with Kevin Durant.

In Game 3, the Warriors earned their biggest playoff win and gave the Rockets their biggest playoff loss in each franchise’s history.

Quite the turnaround.

The 63-point swing from Houston’s 127-105 Game 2 win to Golden State’s 126-85 Game 3 win is one of the largest reversals in NBA playoff history.

It’s been a decade since the last larger game-to-game swing. The last series to have one as large as these Western Conference finals was the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cavaliers began their comeback against the Warriors after getting blown out in Games 1 and 2.

Here are the biggest game-to-game swings ever in the NBA playoffs:

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That’s a lot of momentum moving against the Rockets. Can they recover?