PBT’s Tuesday night NBA winners/losers: Welcome back Damian Lillard, we missed you

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Every night the NBA can be a cold hard reality — there are winners, there are losers. It’s the nature of the game. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to bring you the best and worst of the NBA each week night. Here’s what you missed while reading about Game of Thrones’ Mountain

source:  Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Welcome back Damian Lillard, we missed you. If you hadn’t heard, Lillard was off to an ugly start this season, shooting just 26.8 percent and just 31.8 percent from three (where over half his shots were coming from). The old Lillard showed up on Tuesday night with the Cavaliers in town. He had a game-high 27 points on 13 shots, he hit 5-of-10 from three (he was just 1-of-3 inside the arc), and he was attacking getting to the line 10 times. Lillard also dished out seven assists and pulled down six boards. Lillard led a Blazers team that brought it against a rather passive and unimpressive Cavaliers team (after a hot start, anyway) — Robin Lopez exploited Anderson Varejao all night. This was the kind of quality win the Blazers needed after a rough first week, and they really needed Lillard back. They got it.

source:  LeBron James. Guys have off nights, it happens. And LeBron certainly had an off night, he’s not going to shoot 1-of-6 in the paint often. What is more troubling is seeming passivity from the best player in the world — he was 0-of-4 in second half, while Dion Waiters had nine shots (hitting three), Kyrie Irving had 10 (hitting two), and even Tristan Thompson had five shots off the bench (hitting two). Coach David Blatt tried to cover LeBron and say as a team they need to do a better job of getting him shots. That’s true. And LeBron can be unselfish to a fault, plus he’s a guy trying to fill on holes on the team (the versatility of his game lets him do that). But come on, this is the best player in the league and he has to be more aggressive, demand the ball and be willing to just take over at times. The Heat didn’t really find their groove until Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh sacrificed their game to let LeBron be the focal point. The Cavaliers aren’t there yet mentally and it shows. And that’s not even getting into the defensive issues….

source:  Gerald Green. He came off the bench and sparked the Suns with 26 points on 19 shots, as Phoenix flexed its offensive muscle against the Lakers’ “defense” and picked up a nice road win. But that’s not why Gerald Green is listed here as a winner, it’s for this, the dunk of the night.

source:  Houston Rockets. And the train keeps a rollin’ all night long… the Rockets improve to 5-0 with their best win of the season, knocking off a quality Miami team 108-91. James Harden was just one rebound short of a triple double (25 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds) while Dwight Howard had 26 points (on 16 shots) an 10 rebounds. Trevor Ariza hit three keys three late to spark an 18-5 run and seal the win. Tip your hat to them, the Rockets are playing well.

source:  Byron Scott. So how’s that Game 7 intensity coming? The Lakers are 0-5 now and the man seems to use the words “better defense” 100 times a day, but the simple fact is the Lakers defense this season is 9.5 points per 100 possessions worse than last season under Mike D’Antoni (hat tip Zach Harper for that). Yes, it’s small sample size theater so far this season, but still this is ugly. His words aren’t cutting it. Here’s the thing that isn’t discussed much in LA: Scott’s Cavaliers teams were bottom five in defense and when Mike Brown (much ridiculed by Lakers fans) came in the next year Cleveland’s defense improved 1.7 points per 100 possessions, jumping them up fairly close to the league average. Scott’s teams haven’t defended for years, and looking at this roster it’s hard to see where he’s going to suddenly coax good defense out of it.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.