Rockets’ James Harden, role players step up while Clippers roll over — Houston wins Game 7

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Sunday, it was just more of the formula that had won Houston 56 games this season: James Harden playing at an MVP level, good defensive effort, and role players stepping up when called.

For the Clippers, it was the culmination of the biggest collapse in franchise history. Which in the case of the Clippers is saying something.

From the opening tip the Clippers turned the ball over, missed their threes, and got little from their role players — they were just sloppy. From the opening tip the Rockets played with the energy of desperation, but also efficiency — they knocked down their open looks, and they defended the paint well.

“For the most part we stayed in attack mode,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “I thought James (Harden) was fantastic, 31 points, big free throws down the stretch. He got us going with some passes early.”

The result was a 113-100 Houston win in a Game 7 they led wire to wire.

Houston advances and will fly to the West Coast to face Golden State in the first game of the Western Conference Finals starting Tuesday night.

“I think finishing that first series, we kind of took this series slow in the beginning. It kind of bit us in the butt,” Harden said of the Rockets falling down 3-1 in the series before becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from that and advance in seven. “But we fought back, we fought three really hard games and we came away with the win.”

“We got destroyed,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “The 50-50 game (toss up plays), turnovers to start the game… I love my team, and I love the fact they wanted to win so bad that I thought, in my opinion, we almost couldn’t win… they all wanted to win so bad they tried to do it all on their own.”

James Harden had 31 points on 20 shots to lead the Rockets. But he had help: Trevor Ariza was 6-of-12 from three and had 22 points, Dwight Howard had 16 points and 15 rebounds, even Pablo Prigioni was making key steals and plays off the bench.

Harden was doing it from the outset — he came out in playmaker mode. It helped that the Clippers were sloppy and had seven turnovers in the first quarter — one just trying to inbound the ball after a Rockets’ make — plus hit just 1-of-7 from three in the first frame. Call that a Clippers’ hangover from Game 6, call it Game 7 nerves, call it the few expletives Doc Rivers did during a timeout, the fact is it left the Clippers stepped into a hole they could not climb out of the rest of the game.

Mostly because the Rockets’ wouldn’t let them out.

Harden was rolling downhill — as Kevin McHale likes to describe it — and had 12 first-half points on nine shots. Also, the Rockets hit 6-of-12 from three to start the game, knocking down the open looks Harden was generating.

While the Clippers weren’t getting stops, it was the offensive end that was there bigger problem. The game had a fast pace, 53 possessions in the first half, and the Clippers only gave up 1.06 points per possession, not a bad number. Problem is they scored only 0.87 per possession — they were 4-of-14 from three in the first half, 7-of-25 for the game. Remove Blake Griffin and Chris Paul from the equation and the Clippers were 9-of-27 from the field in the first half and 19-of-49 for the game (38.8 percent).

The Rockets led 56-46 at the half, and the Clippers were lucky it was that close.

Los Angeles opened the second half 4-of-4 shooting, quickly cutting the lead to three. But as they had all game to that point, the Rockets had an answer — a driving dunk by Harden and a Josh Smith three and it was up to eight again. The Rockets went on a 25-11 after the game got within three. Rockets make run at the end of third quarter behind Pablo Prigioni, who had a couple steals from Griffin to make quick points, plus he hit a three and got to the line. It was 85-68 with one quarter left and the Rockets were in total control of the game.

Part of this was the Clippers lack of depth and fatigue — they looked physically tired and mentally tired as the game wore on. They expended a lot of energy on those comebacks, and that finally caught up to them when the Rockets made their big push at the end of the third. The Clippers gave it their all in desperation late in the fourth, but for three games now had looked flat when it mattered most.

Chris Paul had 26 points and 10 assists, Blake Griffin had 27 points.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey deserves credit here for the win, too. His moves to bring in depth like Trevor Ariza and Prigioni paid off on the big stage. Doc Rivers the GM’s biggest signing last summer, Spencer Hawes — Rivers wanted him more than Paul Pierce — barely even play in Game 7.

There are going to be a lot of questions about the Clippers as they head into the summer.

The Rockets’ summer hasn’t started yet — they live to play another day.

 

Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

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Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.

Ben Simmons reverses course, withdraws from Australia’s Word Cup squad

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ben Simmons‘ new contract extension with the Philadelphia 76ers came with bad news for Australian basketball fans: The Melbourne-born NBA All-star won’t play for the Boomers at the World Cup.

Hours after Simmons and the 76ers agreed to a $170 million, five-year contract extension on Tuesday, Simmons said he preferred to spend time with his new teammates in September instead of travelling to China for the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup.

“I wanted to let everyone know that after consulting with my representation, I’ve made the difficult decision to forego playing in the World Cup in China,” Simmons said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we decided it was best that I use the time in September to return to Philadelphia to acquaint myself with my new teammates and prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Simmons had been selected for Australia’s World Cup squad and had earlier indicated he planned to play the tournament in China.

He now plans to play only for the Boomers in two exhibition games against the United States in Melbourne on Aug. 22 and 24 at a stadium that is expected to be sold out – 50,000 fans – for each game. He also said the Olympics next year in Tokyo remain on his schedule.

“I will still be heading back home to Australia to host my camps as well as train and play with the Boomers in the upcoming exhibition games,” Simmons said. “I’m really excited about the talent we have on the Boomers squad, especially moving closer to 2020 where I will be honored and humbled to represent my country on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

Simmons was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was the Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season. He has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in his two seasons.

Australia’s World Cup lineup is set to feature San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Joe Ingles of Utah Jazz, Phoenix center Aron Baynes, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Bogut, Detroit center-forward Thon Maker and Simmons’ 76ers teammate Jonah Bolden.

 

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

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When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.

Cameron Payne reportedly agrees to partially-guaranteed contract with Toronto

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Cameron Payne was the starting point guard at one point early in the season in Chicago (until Kris Dunn returned), it didn’t last long, and by the middle of the season he was waived. The Cavaliers picked him up in a limited role at the end of the season.

Payne played for Dallas at Summer League and needed to impress there to have a shot a roster spot for next season. He did, averaging 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting, and he had one 32-point game.

The Toronto Raptors will bring Payne and let him compete to be the third point guard, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Raptors have Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the point, there are not a lot of minutes to be had there. However, both men are in the final year of their contracts. Plus, he brings some pregame dancing that every team needs.

The Raptors now have 16 potential NBA contracts coming into training camp, which means there will be cuts. The fact Payne has a decent guarantee his first year means he’s going to get a real look.

Payne, the No. 14 pick of the Thunder back in 2015, has struggled to find a fit in the NBA. While his skill set should fit the modern game, he doesn’t quite shoot or distribute well enough to earn a coach’s trust. He will try to change that with Nick Nurse.