Did win over Lakers break Rockets out of their defensive slump?

12 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Over the course of the season, the Rockets have the fifth best defense in the NBA, allowing opponents to shoot 44.3 percent and score 99.6 points per 100 possession.

But that defense has gone AWOL of late — in the Rockets last five games they had allowed their opponents to shoot 48.2 percent and score 107.4 points per 100 possessions, both 25th in the NBA during that stretch. The Rockets went 3-2 in those games, but the defensive struggles were a bad omen.

“We went through a period where we had a lot of break downs defensively,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “But our guys worked on it, we had good, hard practices, and one thing that’s nice about this team is they get better at what you work on.”

They looked better defensively against the Lakers Sunday — they held Los Angeles to 15 points in the first quarter, and 36 in the first half as the Rockets cruised to a 99-87 win that was never really in doubt from early on. Los Angeles shot 43 percent and had an offensive rating of 88.8 points per 100 possessions on the night. All of that without Dwight Howard in the lineup (sprained ankle).

“I thought our defense was pretty solid for the most part,” McHale said. “We made them work for stuff. And I thought that our defense had been slacking, I’d say the last few weeks. We’ve been working at it, and I thought the last few nights it’s been getting better.”

The obvious answer for why it looked better Sunday is that the Lakers — especially now without Kobe Bryant — are an unfocused disaster on offense. They lack quality shot creators or anyone you have to fear.

Of course, the Rockets saw it as something more than that, as a springboard for themselves to get back to their identity. And when you asked any Rockets’ player about the improved defense they used some variant of the word “focus,” adding they had to do it more consistently.

“It’s definitely getting there,” James Harden said of the defense. “I think we’re locking in a little bit more. We still have a long way to go, but we’re definitely on the right path…

“It’s focus. We are more than capable of being the best team in the league, but we have to focus on defense every single night.”

What the Rockets focus on well is to contest three pointers, teams are shooting just 31.3 percent from beyond the arc on Houston this season, second best in the Association. The Lakers were 1-of-13 from three in the game.

That was one of the points of emphasis this season from assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the rising assistant coach who is the coach in charge of the defense and who helped turn that ship around — something especially impressive because this team lost quality defenders in Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons over the summer, then have been without Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley for extended periods this season.

“Concentration more than anything else,” McHale said of why the defense improved Sunday night on the road. “It just seemed (in previous games) like we were not up, we didn’t stay in our coverages, and we had a lot of small mistakes. Whenever you have a lot of small mistakes, a lot of them are mental mistakes. I’m not sure what causes it. I don’t think it was fatigue, but we didn’t play well for a while. We’re getting it back.”

Sometimes when things aren’t working you need an easy one just to get your confidence back and get back in a rhythm. The Rockets got that with the Lakers Sunday. But the reprieve is short lived because next up on Wednesday is a real test: Dallas. The Mavericks are the second best offense in the NBA this season. After that comes games against the scrappy Celtics and Pistons.

Every team has lapses and slip ups over the marathon of 82 games. They key is to not let that linger and develop into bad habits. The problem needs to be rectified quickly.

We’ll see soon if the Rockets have ended their defensive slump, or if they have a lot more work to do.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

0 Comments

Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

0 Comments

Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

0 Comments

John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

0 Comments

Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”