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.

 

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.