PBT First-Round Playoff Previews: Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks

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SEASON RECORDS

Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
Mavericks: 50-32 (seventh place in Western Conference)
Houston won the regular season series 3-1.

KEY INJURIES

Rockets: Patrick Beverley (wrist) hopes to return from surgery during this series, but that is far from a lock. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels injured his wrist in the final game of the season, there is speculation it is broken and he will be out for the postseason.

Mavericks: Chandler Parsons is recovering from a knee injury, has been playing one-on-one and could return this series. You can be sure he wants to play his former team.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS

Mavericks: 107.2 points scored per 100 possessions (5th in NBA); 103.7 points allowed per 100 possessions (18th in NBA).
Rockets: 104.2 points scored per 100 possessions (12th in NBA); 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions (6th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can James Harden be an efficient scorer in the playoffs? Harden is an MVP candidate because not only does he put up points — 27.4 points per game, second best in the NBA — but he did it with a true shooting percentage of .605. He shoots 37.5 percent from three; he is gifted at pressuring defenders and drawing fouls, then hitting his free throws. However, that efficiency has gone away come the playoffs the past couple seasons when defenses really focused on him in Houston — his true shooting percentage last season was .519 in the playoffs, below the league average that season. Will that happen again? Dallas did a relatively good job containing him in their meetings this season, the problem for the Mavericks is they couldn’t then slow the other Rockets.

2) Does the Rajon Rondo trade finally start to pay off for Dallas? This trade has not worked out for Dallas, or Rondo, like either side had hoped. When Rondo is on the court, the Mavs defense is marginally better than when he sits, but the offense drops five points per 100 possessions. His lack of shooting has killed the Mavs spacing. Plus, since coming to Dallas Rondo has turned the ball over on 22.6 percent of the possessions he uses — better than one in five trips down the court. That said, “Playoff Rondo” is a thing, he thrives on the bigger stage. The Mavs are going to need that Rondo in this series.

3) Can Dallas keep Houston’s big men off the offensive glass? This quietly could be a key to the series. Dallas grabs 72.2 percent of their defensive rebound opportunities, an unimpressive 29th in the league. Houston, on the other hand, grabs 26.8 percent of their missed shots as an offensive rebound, seventh best in the NBA. It’s not hard to envision how this plays out: Harden barrels down the lane and draws Tyson Chandler and pretty much every other Mavs defender, Harden misses his shot under that pressure but nobody is left to box out Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones, who get the putback dunk. If Dallas can’t keep Houston from getting second chance opportunities this is going to be a very difficult series for them.

PREDICTION

This is the best rivalry in the first round — these teams don’t like each other and don’t hide it. It’s Dwight Howard choosing Houston over Dallas as a free agent and Mark Cuban calling it a mistake in judgment. It’s Chandler Parsons leaving Houston to sign with Dallas and the world finds out on Instagram. It’s Parsons calling downtown Houston “dirty.” It’s Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey taking shots at each other through the media. This is going to be fun.

This was the matchup Dallas most wanted, they match up better against Houston than they did San Antonio or the LA Clippers. Slowing Dirk Nowitzki is a nightmare for everyone and Houston is no exception. Monta Ellis is going to get his (at least in a couple games). And yet, it will not be enough — this is going to be a hard-fought, competitive series, but I’ll take the Rockets in seven.

Watch Joel Embiid’s game-winning dunk lead 76ers past Cavaliers 98-97

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The shots weren’t falling for the Philadelphia 76ers, so they clamped down on defense.

Joel Embiid scored 27 points, including the go-ahead dunk with 13.2 seconds remaining, and Philadelphia held Cleveland without a point for the final 3 1/2 minutes in a 98-97 win over the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.

Josh Richardson added 17 points and Ben Simmons had 15 for Philadelphia, which won despite missing 30 of 38 3-point attempts. Tobias Harris missed all 11 of his 3-point tries.

“You better guard if you’re not going to make shots,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “We knew if we were going to do anything, we had to play defense – and defense we played.”

Jordan Clarkson and Kevin Love each had 20 points to pace Cleveland. Collin Sexton added 18 points and Tristan Thompson had 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers trailed for most of the contest, but took advantage of Philadelphia’s poor shooting in the fourth quarter, going up by as many as five points on three occasions.

“We gave them life and were in a fistfight,” Brown said. “You can just feel it. We had a chance to discourage them and we didn’t. Certainly a hard-fought game and we’re lucky to get away with it.”

Cleveland led 97-92 with 3:34 remaining after Sexton’s driving layup, but the Cavaliers wouldn’t score again. Harris pulled Philadelphia within 97-94 with a follow layup and then hit a 17-footer on the ensuing possession to make it a one-point game with 1:42 left.

Cleveland had chances to build the lead after that, but Love missed a close-range shot before a shot-clock violation on the Cavaliers’ next possession.

“I think our defense was pretty OK,” Embiid said. “We just didn’t make shots.”

The 76ers were having their own trouble scoring with Richardson and Embiid failing to convert on consecutive possessions.

After a timeout with 26.6 seconds left, Brown called a high-percentage play with Harris finding Embiid close to the basket. Embiid slammed it home to give the 76ers their first lead, 98-97, since early in the fourth quarter.

“It was a great play-call by coach and we did the rest,” Embiid said.

Cleveland had a chance to win it, but Love’s 3-point attempt from the top of the key rimmed out.

“Kevin is a great shooter, not a good shooter,” Cleveland coach John Beilein said. “He took his time but just didn’t nail it. It’s one of many looks I’ll take at that time.”

 

Warriors two-way guard Damion Lee breaks bone in right hand

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Yet another member of the Golden State Warriors is injured, with two-way guard Damion Lee now out because of a broken right hand.

The injury occurred during Golden State’s 122-108 home loss to the Jazz on Monday night. Lee underwent an MRI exam Tuesday morning that revealed a nondisplaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal. The team said he will be reevaluated in two weeks.

“Hopefully just a few weeks,” coach Steve Kerr said before the team flew to Los Angeles, where the Warriors play the Lakers on Wednesday night.

Lee joins a long list of injured players on the depleted Warriors, who are 2-9 following five straight trips to the NBA Finals.

Stephen Curry had surgery on his broken left hand, which he injured Oct. 30, and will need another procedure next month to have pins removed. He said Monday that he expects to be playing again come spring.

The two-time MVP joins Klay Thompson, who is recovering from a July 2 surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Thompson could miss the entire season.

Kevon Looney, who is dealing with a nerve issue that has kept him out since a brief appearance in the season opener, is going through more extensive workouts but is still not ready to return, while guard Jacob Evans III is still dealing with a strained inner thigh muscle and also will miss Wednesday’s game. Kerr said he is likely still at least a couple of weeks from playing again.

Backup center Omari Spellman was listed as doubtful to face the Lakers because of a sprained left ankle and already sat out Monday’s loss to the Jazz.

Kerr, who took over coaching the Warriors in 2014-15 and immediately won an NBA championship, has never had this short a bench with so few healthy bodies to mix and match rotations.

“We’ll just see how it plays out,” Kerr said. “We’ll figure out who’s ready to go and we’ll go from there. It’s challenging. It’s been kind of the theme so far. It’s not exactly ideal but it’s the reality. You don’t spend a whole lot of time lamenting anything. You just keep going.”

Bulls big man Cristiano Felicio out 4-8 weeks with broken wrist

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This is not going to impact the Bulls’ rotations — Cristiano Felicio has yet to touch the court for the Bulls this season — but it’s a setback for a player trying to prove he belongs in the NBA.

Felicio fractured his wrist during the Bulls practice Monday and will be out at least a month, reports K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

Cristiano Felicio, who has yet to land on the active roster this season, broke his right wrist after falling in Monday’s practice, according to coach Jim Boylen. The Bulls’ coach said Felicio will miss four to eight weeks with the injury.

“We had the X-ray. It did not show up on the X-ray. Then we had the CT scan and it showed up on the CT scan,” Boylen said. “We’re going to do an MRI (Wednesday) just to let them give us a little more certainty on maybe how much separation there is in there and how much time it will be.”

The Bulls gambled on Felicio a couple of years ago and signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract. That roll of the dice has come up snake eyes so far, with Felicio playing a limited role the first two seasons — and this season no role at all.

It is expected the Bulls will try to use Felicio’s salary in any trade packages they put together closer to the deadline, this injury would not impact that.

Asked about getting stabbed in back, Chris Paul says trade from Rockets

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Chris Paul has gotten traded three times in his career.

New Orleans sent him to the Clippers – but only after David Stern nixed a deal with the Lakers – in 2011. In 2017, Paul engineered a trade to the Rockets by opting in. Then, in an unprecedented star swap, Houston dealt Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook last summer.

Paul recently discussed trades with comedian Kevin Hart.

Hart:

Why is it always such a crazy time when it comes to these trades and whether they’re happening. You’ve been part of some big conversations. Is it at a point where it’s just business, or is it becoming personal?

Paul:

Every situation is different. But the team is going to do whatever they want to do. They’ll tell you one thing and do a smooth nother thing.

Hart:

That’s the business side.

Paul:

Exactly.

Hart:

Do you feel like there’s been times where, “Damn, that’s a little eye-opening. I got stabbed in the back”?

Paul:

Absolutely. This last situation was one of them. The GM there in Houston, he don’t owe me nothing. You know what I mean? He may tell me one thing but do another thing. But you just understand that that’s what it is.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is an easy target right now. Many people around the NBA resent him tweeting support for Hong Kong protesters (who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms) and costing the league significant revenue in China.

But, in this case, Morey brought it upon himself. He said in June he wouldn’t trade Paul then did so, anyway.

Maybe that was to protect Paul’s feelings if he stayed in Houston. In that case, Morey could tell Paul he believed in him all along. There’d be no way to know Morey was fibbing. Now that Paul is gone, Paul being upset is someone else’s problem. It’s a common tactic by executives.

Paul reportedly requested a trade from the Rockets, but he denied it. I don’t necessarily believe Paul. There was plenty of evidence of tension between him and Harden. It’d be pretty conniving to request a trade then throw Morey under the bus for making the trade.

But Paul’s denial of a trade request is on the record. So is Morey’s declaration that he wouldn’t trade Paul.

Morey must own that.