James Harden, Rockets attack paint, beat Clippers to force Game 6

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The Clippers looked like they wanted a break. They have played every other day since April 22 — while other teams have had some healthy rests during the playoffs — and Los Angeles was counting on some time off. All they had to do was close out their series against the Rockets Tuesday, and they would have almost a week off to rest Chris Paul’s hamstring.

Instead, the Clippers started their vacation early, playing like a team that expected their opponent to roll over.

Meanwhile, the Rockets came out and played with desperation and passion. From the start, the Rockets were pounding the ball inside and defending with energy. James Harden was playing like an MVP candidate again.

“We attacked,” Rockets’ coach Kevin McHale said after the game. “We finally, we got to the basket, we got our points in the paint, we tried to attack. We finally played more like we tried to play throughout the year. We finally played downhill.”

The result was a 124-103 Houston win. That makes the series 3-2 Clippers, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 6 Thursday night.

The changes the Clippers need to make are less about Xs and Os and more about attitude, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.

“They just played harder, they were more focused,” Rivers said. “They played like they were the desperate team, we didn’t play very desperate tonight. So give them credit. I thought they took us out of all our stuff offensively.”

Harden was central to Houston’s attack, putting up 26 points (on 9-of-20 shooting), 11 rebounds, and 10 assists — a playoff triple-double. The Clippers tried to force the ball out of his hands, but he made the right read and hit passes to open guys all night.

All the Rockets were moving the ball and getting it inside, they shot 24-of-30 at the rim on the night and had 32 made shots in the paint on 68 percent shooting. They did a good job of getting the ball inside via the pass, not just dribble penetration. They also got DeAndre Jordan in early foul trouble, which helped open up the paint.

“We’re better when we play inside out, when we play downhill and attack,” McHale said. “We’re one of the better teams in the league at points in the paint and we just weren’t doing it.”

The Rockets came out as you’d expect from a team facing elimination, with the best energy and offense we had seen all series. Josh Smith was moved into the starting lineup in an effort to improve ball movement, and it worked. That said Clippers started 4-of-18 shooting and still were hanging around. The Rockets did a good job of getting the ball inside, they had 20 points in the paint in the first quarter, and Houston closed the quarter on 12-4 run. It was 27-22 Rockets after one.

In the second quarter the Clippers made their run and tied the game up at one point, and you started to wonder if this would turn out like the last couple games. However, the Rockets went on a 9-0 run to take a comfortable lead again before the half. The Rockets grabbed half of their missed shots as an offensive rebounds in the first half, and with the attacking style the Rockets were up 63-48.

This time around the Clippers were the team that could not get stops. Part of that was Jordan getting in foul trouble. With no Jordan to check him, Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds on the night.

Houston had a much more balanced attack — Trevor Ariza had 22 points, Corey Brewer added 15. It seemed everyone was making plays.

Meanwhile, the Clippers were the two man show. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combined for 52 points on 56.8 percent shooting. The rest of the Clippers shot 31.8 percent. Part of that was good defense, part of that was Los Angeles just missing shots.

The Rockets played their best game of the series. The question is can they do it on the road in Game 6. Or will we see a more focused Clipper team looking to end the series and get a little rest.

Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart will be Team USA captains in World Cup

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Team USA is just about ready to get underway for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. The United States beat Australia on Wednesday night in a tune-up game, 102-86.

Several big-name NBA players have dropped out of participating with the Team USA roster this summer, but it appears that things have solidified as we enter late August. To that end, we now have confirmation about who Team USA’s captains will be moving forward.

According to Kemba Walker, he and fellow Boston Celtics teammate Marcus Smart will be the captains for the international squad in this year’s World Cup.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“We have a bunch of guys who don’t mind being the underdogs,” Walker told reporters. “We are hungry, and we are going to go out there to try and win a gold medal…I take pride in being a leader and guys looking to me and I’m here to set the tempo and bring my experience and energy.”

This is a point of pride for Celtics fans, and Walker and Smart appear to be two excellent choices as captains of this young Team USA roster.

It’s not going to be easy for Team USA to win the World Cup. Leadership and camaraderie has often been the deciding factor in the USA’s performance in international play. The team rallied around a strong locker room after their poor performance in the 2004 Olympics, coming together to win the gold in the 2008 Beijing games.

Walker and Smart should provide leadership and calmness for a team that will have many challengers who view them as vulnerable.

Minnesota’s Gersson Rosas says Andrew Wiggins must be “main contributor” to T-wolves

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Last season in Minnesota — with Jimmy Butler torpedoing the team and ending the Tom Thibodeau era — was pretty much the figurative definition of a train wreck.

Out of that wreckage, the Timberwolves think they found some positives. Ryan Sunders was thrown into the fire as a young coach but bonded with Karl-Anthony Towns. Robert Covington sparked the defense before his injury. Josh Okogie emerged as a player. This summer the team drafted a player with a lot of potential in Jarrett Culver.

Minnesota also brought in the aggressive Gersson Rosas out of Houston to take over as team president and start reshaping the franchise into one that can live up to the promise of Towns’ potential. For that to start to happen, meaning a return to the playoffs, Rosas pointed to a couple of things needing to go right this season. First and foremost, they need more — and more consistency — out of Andrew Wiggins. Via Timberwolves writer/podcaster Dane Moore.

Most Timberwolves fans, and the rest of the league, have moved on from Wiggins, who has four years, $122 million left on his max contract. While he averaged 18.1 points per game last season, he doesn’t get those buckets efficiently nor consistently, and the result is an average/slightly below-average wing whose contract is an anchor on the franchise. We’ve learned no contract is untradable in the NBA, but this is as close to that line as it gets — the sweeteners Minnesota would have to throw in right now make a deal are prohibitive.

The only thing Minnesota can hope for is that in year six Wiggins takes some steps forward he did not take in the last five. Maybe continuity helps, but we’re all going to need to see it before we believe it.

The other thing Rosas said Minnesota needs: More consistent defense from Towns.

Saunders seemed to connect with Towns and got him to defend, and Covington played MIC linebacker calling out coverages and getting guys in position before his injury. Rosas said Covington would be good to go at the start of the season, if so that gives the Timberwolves real hope that the defense will improve.

Whether all of that will be enough to get them into the playoffs in a deep West is another question, but at least Minnesota seems to be moving in the right direction now.

President Donald Trump awarding Medal of Freedom to NBA star Bob Cousy

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WASHINGTON (AP) President Donald Trump is set to present basketball legend Bob Cousy (KOO’-zee) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is being handed out Thursday. It celebrates individuals with a wide range of achievements and is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The 91-year-old Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame member played for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1963. He won six league championships and the 1957 MVP title.

Cousy is also known for speaking out against racism. He was an ardent supporter of black teammates who faced discrimination during the civil rights movement.

Cousy will be the second person to receive the award this year from Trump. Golfer Tiger Woods received the honor in May.

Report: Shelly Sterling, members of Clippers organization heard Donald Sterling audio in advance and didn’t act

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In 2014, published audio of a racist rant by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling rocked the country.

It shouldn’t have. Sterling’s racism and sexism were well-established by then. But few cared. The audio poured gasoline on the fire and moved people to act. I wish it didn’t require that. But it did.

What if the audio didn’t become public through TMZ? Apparently, there might have been opportunity for another outcome.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The fact is Shelly and several people in the Clippers organization heard the recording and decided not to act on it or weren’t appalled enough to act on it. Maybe they didn’t understand how big a splash this tape could make.

It’s unclear when Shelly Sterling (Donald’s wife) and other members of the Clippers organization heard the audio. Maybe it was while TMZ was doing due diligence. If so, it was probably too late to change the course of history.

But perhaps it was when V. Stiviano – Donald’s girlfriend who made the original recording and was being sued by Shelly – was still the only one in possession of it. Stiviano was clearly upset with how things were going financially between her and the Sterlings. For the right price, maybe the audio would have gone away before becoming public.

I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. The world is better off knowing exactly who Donald Sterling is.

Yet, this leads to an incredible “what if?” What if the people who heard the audio in advance understood the magnitude, acted in Sterling’s best interest and paid to have the audio kept secret? Would Sterling still own the Clippers today?