Three keys to Game 7 between Clippers, Rockets

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At the start of the week, if you had tried to tell everyone that the only second round playoff matchup to go seven would be the Clippers and Rockets, you would have been laughed off the Internet. The Clippers were up 3-1 and seemingly in control, while both Eastern Conference series seemed destined to drag out longer.

But the Rockets showed up and played desperate in Game 5 while the Clippers coasted. Then came an unforgettable and virtually unexplainable Game 6 — the Clippers were up 19 points with 2:30 left in the third quarter, then started to play a prevent defense and that lead went away. What the Rockets did late in that game is not sustainable — Blake Griffin was missing shots at the rim while Josh Smith was hitting step-back threes — but it doesn’t have to be, it just had to work for a short stretch.

That is true of Game 7 as well — neither team needs something that will work for over the long haul; they just need it to go right for one day. One game.

Here are three keys to watch in Game 7 Sunday.

1) Can the Clippers mentally bounce back from Game 6? This Clipper team has shown itself to be mentally tough — did you see Game 7 against the Spurs? Still, you have to ask this first question. The Clippers were on the verge of advancing to the franchise’s first-ever conference finals when they, to use the words of Blake Griffin, took their foot off the gas. Then when the game started to get close, they got tight. This team was understandably crushed after Game 6, and some teams don’t bounce back from that — I just don’t think this Clippers team is one of them. The extra day off between games helps, too. Expect to see the Clippers that put up a 19 point lead, not the version that gave it away.

2) Can DeAndre Jordan stay out of foul trouble? In this series, when DeAndre Jordan is on the court the Clippers allow 96.7 points per 100 possessions. When he is on the bench, the Clippers give up 118.2 points per 100 possessions. If you want to talk about what really got the Clippers in trouble in Game 5 in Houston, it was Jordan’s foul trouble allowing him to play only 1:50 of the second quarter (when the Rockets stretched out a lead). The Rockets have started to get James Harden back to playing his bowling ball style in recent games, playing downhill and rolling into the lane picking up points and drawing fouls. If Doc Rivers has to limit Jordan’s minutes, that’s bad news for Los Angeles. Although, one would hope in a Game 7 the referees would let the teams play a little.

3) Whose role players step up? For the Clippers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be just fine and put up numbers. The question is who is going to help them out as a third scorer. J.J. Redick has averaged 17 a game in this series but has gone missing for stretches, Jamal Crawford has been even more invisible. The Clippers need one of them — or Austin Rivers, or Jordan, or Matt Barnes or anybody — to be the third scorer. The Clippers have been the better team in the majority of this series, they just need to play like it Sunday. For 48 minutes.

For the Rockets, we saw in Game 6 that for a stretch this bench can make plays — their entire comeback was with James Harden riding the pine (and credit Kevin McHale for leaving him there, plenty of coaches would have gone back to him). No doubt Harden will be pivotal in Game 7, but he can’t do it alone. Whether it’s Smith or Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza, the Rockets need one more game where someone unexpected steps up and puts up numbers. It doesn’t have to be sustainable; it just has to work for one day and Houston can advance at home.

Unstoppable Meyers Leonard drops 25 on Warriors in first half (VIDEO)

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Stephen Curry had an I-don’t-want-to-play-Game-5 kind of first half for Golden State, scoring 25 points and hitting 5-of-7 from three.

However, he was the second best player on the court because Meyers Leonard held that crown.

Yes, Meyers Leonard.

He had 25 points of his own on 10-of-12 shooting.

Fans broke out a “Mey-ers Leon-ard” chant.

All that had Portland up 69-65 at the half in a defense-optional Game 4 where it is win-or-go-home for the Trail Blazers.

Knicks Frank Ntilikina reportedly wants to be traded, switches agents

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When the Knicks acquired Emmanuel Mudiay last season — a player Denver just released outright — Mudiay instantly jumped past Frank Ntilikina on the point guard depth chart. Then, when the Knicks traded for Dennis Smith Jr. at the deadline (part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal), the future of Ntilikina in New York was thrown into uncertainty.

Ntilikina sees that, wants out, and is getting a new agent as well, reports Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina dropped CAA as his agency last season and planned to sign with French agent Bouna Ndiaye, the Daily News has learned.

Ntilikina, who was drafted eighth overall by Knicks in 2017, is on the trading block and desires a relocation, a source told the News. The Knicks declined offers to move Ntilikina at the trade deadline in February, acquired another point guard in Dennis Smith Jr., and Ntilikina quickly decided to change agents.

Ndiaye represents several French players in the NBA, including Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier.

The Knicks are expected to try to trade Ntilikina, either at the draft or next summer. Mostly other teams will view him as a way to save money — if teams do not pick up his 2020-21 option by Oct. 31 he comes off the books after this next season — but also Ntilikina played good defense and other teams may try to take a flier on him.

Andre Iguodala out for Game 4 against Portland with sore calf

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Andre Iguodala was limited in Game 3 in Portland, playing just 18 minutes Saturday night, none after he was taken out with 7:49 left in the third quarter. An MRI on his left calf Sunday came back clean, but he was questionable with leg tightness, officially. Call it a sore calf if you prefer.

Up 3-0 in the series, there was no reason to risk something worse in Game 4, so Iguodala is out, coach Steve Kerr announced pregame.

Alfonzo McKinnie will start in place of Iguodala.

Iguodala joins Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins on the Warriors bench for Game 4.

If there is a Game 5, it will be Wednesday night in the Bay Area.

With the NBA Finals not starting until May 30 — a week from this Thursday — the Warriors have plenty of time to rest and get their starters healed before taking on a serious challenger from the East (whether that is Milwaukee or Toronto). The Warriors have used their depth against Portland to help keep minutes down for their starters and Kerr will lean on that bench to close out the series in the next couple of games.

Report: Rockets, Mike D’Antoni talking contract extension

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Mike D’Antoni, the father of the seven seconds or less system that started a revolution of NBA style, has changed in recent years. In Houston, with James Harden at his peak and this specific roster around him, D’Antoni now coaches an isolation-heavy team that has pushed the NBA envelope in other ways, particularly in trusting the three ball.

D’Antoni fits with Daryl Morey, and the sides have started talking contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets and coach Mike D’Antoni have had preliminary discussions about the framework of a contract extension that would keep the two-time NBA Coach of the Year from entering the final year of his deal…

“I’ve let [general manager] Daryl [Morey] and [team owner] Tilman [Fertitta] know that I’m energized to keep coaching — and believe that I can continue to do this at a high level for at least another three years,” D’Antoni, 68, told ESPN on Sunday night.

“I want to be a part of a championship here.”

This is the smart move, he is a part of what has made the Rockets such a success in recent years.

The Rockets should look for roster upgrades this summer but they should not be blowing things up. The Rockets were the second best team in the NBA last season and may have been again by the playoffs this season (it depends on where you want to put Milwaukee and Toronto in that ranking, but the Rockets were in the mix). Houston’s problem has been a historic dynasty in Golden State, but that could look very different next season. If the Warriors take a step or two back, for whatever reasons, Houston is poised to pounce. They will be contenders.

D’Antoni is a part of that, and the Rockets need to keep one of the best coaches in the game in house.