PBT Western Conference Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

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SEASON RECORDS

Warriors: 67-15 (first place in Western Conference)
Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
(The Warriors swept season series 4-0 (and won every game by double digits.)

KEY INJURIES

Warriors: Marreese Speights will miss at least Game 1 with a calf injury and could well miss much more of the series.

Rockets: Patrick Beverley had wrist surgery and is out for the postseason. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels has a fractured elbow and will be out for this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (in first two rounds of playoffs)

Warriors: 107.4 points scored per 100 possessions (2nd in NBA); 98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (5th in NBA).
Rockets: 105.9 points scored per 100 possessions (6th in NBA); 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (12th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Who can defend the three ball? These are the No. 1 and 2 teams in the playoffs in made three pointers per game — sorry Phil Jackson, but the teams that lean heavily on the three are doing quite well this postseason. Both of these teams have the three pointer as a central part of their offense, and the defense that can better defend the arc will have taken a big step toward winning.

That favors the Warriors. During the regular season, the Warriors defended the three-point line well — they allowed 21.4 three point attempts a game (seventh fewest in the NBA) and their opponents shot 33.7 percent (fifth lowest). In the playoffs the Warriors have done even better — 17.5 shots allowed and a 29.4 shooting percentage. During the season, the Rockets allowed 22.8 threes a night (middle of the NBA pack) but teams shot a league-low 32.2 percent. In the playoffs, teams are still shooting 32 percent against the Rockets, but they are taking more shots, 27.6 per game (part of that is skewed by the shootouts with Dallas).

One other advantage for the Warriors: When Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or Draymond Green get chased off the arc, they can drive to the basket or pull up in the midrange and knock down shots. Harden can do that for the Rockets, but guys like Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, and Pablo Prigioni are far less versatile that way.

2) Can Klay Thompson slow James Harden? If James Harden wants to prove his point about the MVP race — that he deserved the honor because he did more for his team — he has the stage to do it. But it’s not going to be easy. Klay Thompson is a good man defender and he draws the primary assignment. Beyond that the Warriors will switch nearly every pick with another good defender, nobody helps and recovers as well as them defensively, and they have Andrew Bogut in the paint to clean up messes. It worked during the team’s regular season meetings — Harden shot 24.1 percent from three and had fewer shots in the restricted area (and more from the inefficient midrange) against the Warriors than he did on average. If Houston is going to win this series, Harden needs to be the MVP.

3) Dwight Howard has to be key for Houston’s offense. Dwight Howard had a good series against the Clippers, despite being matched up against the ultra-athletic DeAndre Jordan (who is a good defender). Howard needs to be more than good this series. Sure, Andrew Bogut is a quality defender, too, but not near the athlete Howard faced last round. Howard is going to be involved in a lot of pick-and-rolls with Harden, and he has to blow up the usually reliable Golden State defense. He needs to be aggressive and if he can get Bogut in foul trouble things will open up for Houston somewhat. Howard also needs to be fantastic defensively — move his feet to blow up pick-and-roll plays, plus defend the rim.

PREDICTION

Give the Rockets credit — they have made the plays when they’ve had to, their role players have stepped up, and they are playing their best basketball of the season. But this is a rough matchup for them. The Rockets have played at a faster pace than any other team in the playoffs, but now they face a team that will thrive at that tempo. Golden State is more diverse offensively and better defensively, plus they have depth and will not wilt as the series goes on. It’s been an impressive run by the Rockets, but this is where it ends. The Warriors in five.

Potential No. 1 pick James Wiseman suspended by NCAA 11 more games

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Starting on Jan. 12, James Wiseman can return to playing for the University of Memphis.

The NCAA — the self-appointed arbiters protecting the myth of amateurism — have investigated the fact that then high school coach Penny Hardaway, paid $11,500 to help Wiseman’s family move to Memphis. Hardaway, a graduate of Memphis, has since become the coach of the Tigers, and before that was considered a booster. That made helping Wiseman move an illegal benefit, and the NCAA has made its ruling to punish Wiseman for this.

Memphis reportedly plans to appeal the ruling. Wiseman had this reaction to the decision:

Here’s why fans of certain teams near the bottom of the standings — and the front offices of those teams — care: Wiseman has the potential to be elite.

He could be the top pick in next June’s draft and is a lock top-three selection. He is by far the best big man in a guard-heavy draft class coming up.

Wiseman was ranked 37th by the basketball writers here at NBC in our “50 Best Players in Five Years” project this past summer. Here is what College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster wrote about Wiseman for that project:

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens…

If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.

Wiseman also has worked on a face-up game and wants to add some Greek Freak like skills to his game. We’ll see how that goes, but his floor seems to be a very good NBA big man. A lot of teams could use that.

Rob Gronkowski, Venus Williams dance with Laker Girls (video)

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Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he doesn’t plan to play football this season.

How is he spending his time?

Dancing with the Laker Girls cheerleaders along with tennis legend Venus Williams. They put on quite a show. I’m sure comedians James Corden and Ian Karmel, mostly off camera, were also great.

But the most-impressive stoppage entertainment in Los Angeles last night? That might be Maxx.

Portland waives Pau Gasol as he tries to recover from foot surgery

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Portland signed Pau Gasol to a one-year contract this summer, hoping the aging Spaniard could help the team stay afloat while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from surgery on his leg.

It didn’t work out that way. Gasol suffered a foot injury that required surgery and he has yet to recover enough to get back on the court. Meanwhile, an injury to Zach Collins left Portland even more shorthanded up front. Wednesday, the Trail Blazers waived Gasol, something the player confirmed.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news and had more details.

Is this the end of Gasol’s Hall of Fame career? He’s 39 years old, and last season with the Bucks he looked like a shell of the All-NBA big man who joined forces with Kobe Bryant to win the Lakers a couple of titles. Injuries limited him to 30 games last season, he doesn’t move like he once did, and he averaged a career-low 3.9 points per game.

If so, one of the good guys of the NBA will be missed.

If not, if he can get healthy, some teams certainly would be interested in having him for depth and his locker room presence during a playoff run.

Report: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George to play first game together on Wednesday

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The way they tell it, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard wanted to play together on the Spurs in 2017.

They’ll finally share the court as teammates tonight.

The Clippers signed Leonard and traded for George this summer. But alternating injuries have prevented the forwards from playing together. That’ll change against the Celtics tonight.

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

George dominated three games without Leonard, scoring like crazy and hitting a game-winner against the Thunder. Leonard excelled before his knee injury.

It’s scary to imagine how Leonard and George will perform together.

Boston could provide a stiff first test. The Celtics have plenty of wings – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye – to throw at the Clippers stars.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an adjustment period for Leonard and George. They have similar styles, and that can create complications. But Leonard and George are so versatile and talented. I expect them to thrive together in the long run.

There’s certainly excitement surrounding tonight’s game, but it’s only one night in what should be a long season in L.A.