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.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.