ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: There were high expectations with James Harden and Dwight Howard being paired in Houston, and the Rockets were good, but not great. Which felt like a first step or a disappointment, depending on your point of view. Make no mistake, the Rockets were a good team — 54 wins, which tied them for the four seed in the West — but the team never really seemed to form an identity. While statistically Harden and Howard were good together (+9.3 per 100 possessions when on the court together) they seemed more to play next to each other than with each other. This all came to a head when the Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Portland Trail Blazers in about the most painful way possible. Again, the Rockets had a good team and a good season, but they need to hope it’s a first step.

Signature highlight from last season: There were some James Harden game winners and great blocks by Dwight Howard, but was there any play more fun than Patrick Beverley dunking on Chris Bosh’s head?

Key player changes: It was almost a monster off-season for the Rockets, GM Daryl Morey was going to move them into contender status by grabbing Chris Bosh out of Miami to make his own big three. And he came thisclose. But then Bosh took the big payday to stay put and all the moves Morey had made to clear out cap space became holes.

Gone is some key depth: Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, as well as Omri Casspi and Jordan Hamilton.

In their place comes Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, rookies Clint Capela and Nick Johnson, Ish Smith, Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, and Kostas Papanikolaou.

Keys to the Rockets season:

Depth behind their stars. James Harden and Dwight Howard are elite players, but that alone doesn’t win you games, especially come the playoffs. The Rockets lost quality role players this summer and some lesser known guys are going to have to really step up for the Rockets to even match last season’s success. Trevor Ariza got paid after a big season in Washington, can he put up similar numbers again? Donatas Motiejunas has to take on a bigger front court role. Jason Terry needs to show he still has some game left. And so on down the line, the Rockets need to find depth and rotations that can work when Harden and Howard sit.

Can they improve defensively? The Rockets offense was top five in the league last season, they put up plenty of points (although Howard/Harden need to reduce their turnovers), but their defense was pedestrian. They were 12th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Their defense didn’t really improve last season over the season before despite bringing in Howard to patrol the paint and glass. (Howard isn’t as explosive as he was back in Orlando but he’s still a very good rim protector.) They have Patrick Beverley out top, and Ariza should be a defensive upgrade over Parsons. Harden is Harden but says he’s going to work on being more focused on defense. This needs to be a team thing, not just one guy, and the scheme needs to fit the personnel. The bottom line is this is the end of the floor where improvement needs to happen.

Is Kevin McHale coaching for his job? This question circled around the Rockets during last season and this summer: Is Kevin McHale the right coach for this team? McHale is very well liked around the NBA and has done a good job as coach in Houston (they won 54 games last season, made the playoffs the year before when they probably shouldn’t have) but there are questions about his game planning and fit with this roster. Particularly the question is can he coach this team up defensively. Expectations are high and if this team doesn’t take a step forward this coming season there will be changes and coach is the most likely option (especially since this is the last year of McHale’s deal). Remember Howard can opt out in the summer of 2016 so the Rockets don’t want to take a step back, if they do they might give Howard a chance to have a say in picking a coach (something Howard didn’t feel he got in Los Angeles).

Why you should watch the Rockets: James Harden has taken a lot of criticism the past year, but the fact is he remains one of the best and most efficient scorers in the league. The man isn’t just a beard, he’s a legit No. 1 offensive option in this league and just fun to watch play.

Prediction: 50-32, which is still good but in the West nets you more like the 7 seed, which will net the Rockets another first round playoff exit. (That is unless Morey makes a big in season trade, however in season deals are a dying breed.) The expectations remain high around the Rockets and it’s hard to see how they meet them. Which means we could see far more changes next summer (and McHale back calling games for TNT).

Royce O’Neale agrees to four-year, $36 million contract extension to stay in Utah

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Royce O'Neale is a name casual NBA fans may not recognize.

However, GMs around the league recognize him is the kind of role player teams need to win. O’Neale is asked to guard the opposing team’s best wing player nightly, while on the other end of the court he’s shooting 44.3 percent from three. He’s become a critical part of Utah’s rotation.

So the Jazz have locked him up with a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Jazz — who have won 16-of-18 — just got Mike Conley back in the rotation, and have jumped up to a top-four seed in the West (as of this writing). Things are looking up, and also they have set themselves up well financially for the future.

Bigger bills are coming in Utah, in the summer of 2021 the Jazz will need to max out Donovan Mitchell with an extension plus re-sign Rudy Gobert. Which is why locking in a quality role player like O’Neale at a fair price now is a smart move.

Marcus Smart’s Celtics record 11 threes still not enough to beat Suns

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BOSTON — Devin Booker had 39 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and the Phoenix Suns overcame a franchise-record 11 3-pointers by Boston’s Marcus Smart and beat the Celtics 123-119 on Saturday night.

Smart shot 11 for 22 from 3-point range and finished with a career-best 37 points. His performance marked the first time in NBA history that a player made 11 or more 3-points in a losing effort, according to Stats.

Deandre Ayton had 26 points and 15 rebounds and Mikal Bridges added a career-best 26 points for the Suns, who have won four of their last five games.

Jayson Tatum scored 26 points and Gordon Hayward added 22 for Boston, which has lost three straight and six of eight.

Three years ago, Booker scored 70 points in a loss to the Celtics in TD Garden. He finished an assist shy of his first career triple-double.

The Celtics were missing two of their top three leading scorers – Kemba Walker (team-best 22.1 per game), out with left knee soreness, and Jaylen Brown (20.0), sidelined for the second straight game with a sprained right thumb.

Boston cut its deficit to 90-85 early in the fourth, but Dario Saric and Bridges answered with consecutive 3s. The Celtics had it down to 114-111 on Daniel Theis‘ breakaway dunk with about a minute left, but Bridges hit a jumper in the lane with 37 seconds to play.

Booker’s two free throws sealed it with 4.8 seconds left.

The Suns led 60-51 at halftime and answered – mainly behind Booker and Ayton – any surge by Boston. The lead never fell below seven in the quarter, with Booker scoring nine points and Ayton getting eight.

The loss of two key players showed for the Celtics in the first quarter when the Suns broke in front 26-10 before Boston’s bench helped spark a 15-0 run.

LeBron James gets ‘M-V-P’ chants in Houston

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Laker fans are everywhere.

Decades of stars and success — from Magic Johnson through Kobe Bryant — turned the Lakers into the biggest franchise brand in the NBA, the only thing that might rival it is LeBron James‘ brand. Combine those two and there seem to be loud, at points obnoxious, Lakers fans in every arena.

Case in point: LeBron James got “M-V-P” chants in Houston while the Lakers beat the Rockets.

LeBron called it humbling.

LeBron’s play this season — 25.5 points and a career-high 10.9 assists a game, playing his best defense in years and leading the Lakers to a West best 34-8 record — has him in the hunt for a fifth MVP award (although he’s not who we would vote for right now).

Expect to hear these chants in a lot more buildings this season.

Check out Stephen Curry the sideline reporter (VIDEO)

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Stephen Curry, the most overpaid sideline reporter in the NBA.”

That’s how Curry was introduced on the Warriors broadcast Saturday night as he took over some sideline reporting duties while still out after fracturing his hand four games into the season. What else has he got to do?

Above you can see the best of Curry’s reactions, or check out his walk-off interview with Eric Paschall:

I’d say he shouldn’t quit his day job, but that job also pays a little better.

By the way, the Warriors ended their losing streak with a 109-95 victory over Orlando. D'Angelo Russell led the way with 26 points.