Rockets’ shoddy defense has Clippers in command of series

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LOS ANGELES — In a pivotal Game 3 Friday night, 54.2 percent of the Clippers shots were open ones. Uncontested. Clean looks.

Due to a combination of lineups and effort, too often the Rockets couldn’t or wouldn’t get a defender in the way of the shooter. (For comparison, less than 40 percent of the Rockets’ shots were uncontested.)

It’s been a problem all series — and it’s going to end this series quickly if the Rockets don’t fix it.

Through three games against the Clippers, the Houston Rockets have allowed 110.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s terrible. It’s 10.1 worse than Houston gave up in the regular season, when the team was sixth in the league defensively. That 110.6 is one point worse than the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves gave up on the season.

It’s not just this series; the Rockets didn’t defend the Mavericks well either in the first round. Throughout the playoffs, they have allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions. It’s just in the first round they could outscore Dallas.

The Clipper offense is carving up Rockets — particularly in transition. But honestly just about all the time they can get the shots they want — Jason Terry cannot hang with J.J. Redick, and pairing Terry and James Harden has been a defensive disaster. Harden is showing the habits of his old, poor defense self (after a season where he put out a good effort on that end of the court). Terrence Jones has missed assignments. There are more problems — too many for Dwight Howard to clean up (he’s played well). This is more than missing Patrick Beverley (the Rockets’ defense was statistically better with him on the bench during the regular season). The Rockets’ defense is the main reason the Clippers are ahead two games to one and appear in total control of this second round series.

“We’ve had one good defensive half so far,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said after Friday night’s Game 3 loss. “That was the second half of the second game. But other than that we haven’t gotten anything.”

And the Clippers have gotten pretty much everything they wanted.

That successful half the Rockets had came with Trevor Ariza fronting Blake Griffin in the post with help (usually Dwight Howard) behind to kill the lob. It was a good strategy, but the Clippers didn’t show any counters Wednesday night, often keeping the ball on one side of the court.

That changed in Game 3 Friday. Chris Paul is not one to let the ball stick on one side. The Rockets rarely went to the small lineup out of that fear. Then when Clippers players got looks they knocked them down — Austin Rivers and J.J. Redick were a combined 8-of-12 from three.

Houston counts on stops to get themselves out in transition and to get some easy buckets before the defense sets. That did not happen much at all Friday night — the Rockets went against set defenses all night long and did okay, but not great, scoring against them.

On the other side, Houston’s poor offensive choices at times have fueled easy Clippers buckets going the other way because the Rockets have been so bad in transition defense. That was especially true in the ugliest defensive stretch of the series for Houston, the Clippers’ 23-0 run later in the third quarter when Los Angeles blew the game open.

“We didn’t play much defense at that point,” McHale said. “They made a few shots on us, we had a couple turnovers during that stretch, and you know they were running, we weren’t getting back. We played very poorly during that stretch, needless to say….

“Our turnovers, they ran off it, and you know, we did not. We did not do a good job of handling the pressure., all the things that came out with that little bit of a run. We just let go of the rope, and they piled on us.”

That has to be the most concerning thing Kevin McHale — when punched in the mouth, the Rockets folded. They let go of the rope. They showed no heart. Use whatever cliche you want for the Rockets’ becoming demoralized and rolling over once the Clippers get going. That’s not how McHale played in his Celtics days, but his Rockets’ have different leadership in the locker room than those legendary teams.

If the Clippers jump out to an early lead in Game 4, what happens to Houston?

But even the early lead may not matter. If the Rockets don’t figure out how to get consistent stops — and that will not be easy against the best regular season offense in the NBA — this series will be over sooner rather than later.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers
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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.

NBA plans for 2023-24 include in-season tournament (if approved)

2022 NBA Finals - NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Press Conference
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The NBA is planning for the inaugural version of its in-season tournament – should it become reality – to begin early next season, according to a memo sent to teams.

If the tournament is approved, 80 regular-season games for each team would be announced in August, with two more games set to be scheduled depending on which eight teams make the tournament’s knockout stage. Those games would be added in-season to the schedule.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has pushed for the past several years for the in-season event to be added. Talks have gone on about it since at least 2016, and in 2019 the league even created a proposal in which teams would play eight divisional games in the group stage, followed by quarterfinals for the top eight clubs and then semifinals and finals at a neutral site in December.

That evidently remains the footprint. Teams, in Wednesday’s memo, were told to plan for tournament quarterfinal games in early December 2023 – again, the caveat being that the event has yet to be approved.

“It’s something that I remain excited about,” Silver said in September. “I think it continues to be an opportunity within the current footprint of our season to create some more meaningful games, games of consequence, during an otherwise long regular season. … I think fans might really ultimately enjoy another competition during the season, some sort of cup competition. Certainly not rising to the level of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, yet something else significant to play for.”

Silver has often compared the notion of an in-season tournament to what is commonly seen in European soccer.

“It’s all about fan interest,” Denver coach Michael Malone said Wednesday night. “I know they do this a lot in soccer around the world, these in-season tournaments. I don’t know how it’s going to work, the details of it. But if it’s good for the game and the league supports it, obviously all 30 teams and all 30 head coaches will be on board as well. ”

The scheduling process for next season starts with teams telling the league what dates their home arena is available. The NBA wants that list by Dec. 9; the process continues for the next several months.

Wednesday’s memo included clarity on several key dates for the 2023-24 season. Training camps will begin on Tuesday, Oct. 3 for most teams, except those participating in overseas preseason games; they can open camp on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The season begins Oct. 24 and ends April 14, 2024. The play-in tournament will be April 16-19, 2024, and that means that season’s playoffs would begin on April 20.