Rockets vs. Warriors Game 2: Five things to watch

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Houston and Golden State agree on one thing out of Game 1: Both know they can play better.

The Rockets saw the way they pounded the ball into the paint early, the way that put them ahead, and believe there is a blueprint for winning. They also need to get James Harden “playing downhill,” as Kevin McHale likes to say.

The Warriors see the impact of their small lineup, they know they can get more out of Klay Thompson, they feel they can defend better, they think they played their worst game of this series. This team does not lack for confidence.

What should we watch for in Game 2 Thursday night? Here are the five keys for Game 2.

1) Dwight Howard’s knee. There is no bigger story in this series; his status will have more of an impact on Game 2 than anything else. Howard has a sprained knee from when Josh Smith fell into it in Game 1, and Howard’s status is going to be a game-time decision Thursday night. Expect him to play, but if the version on the court is the limited Howard from the last three quarters of Game 1, it plays into the hands of the Warriors. We know that Golden State is going to go small with Draymond Green at the five for healthy stretches of Game 2. If Howard can’t punish Green inside, and get back fast enough in transition defense, he has to be on the bench.

2) How does Houston defend the Warriors’ small lineup? Golden State went with the small lineup for 16 minutes in Game 1 and were +18. Coach Steve Kerr is no dummy and said you can expect to see more of it going forward. The lineup that worked best in Game 1 had Green at the five to go with three guards in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston — it works because the Warriors don’t suffer a defensive drop-off with this group. Whether with Howard or Clint Capella in the paint, or some other method, the Rockets have to find a counter to this lineup.

3) Rocket defenders may want to stick with Stephen Curry. In Game 1, Jason Terry hit a three to tie the game, and then proceeded to do a little trash talking coming up the court. Vintage Terry. However, the next two defensive possessions Terry lost Curry off the ball and gave up open corner threes. Unfortunately for the Rockets, also vintage Terry. Both Terry and Pablo Prigioni lost Curry a few times off the ball — 13 of Curry’s 22 shots in Game 1 were uncontested (according to the NBA’s SportsVU camera data). That’s far too many. He may hit the contested ones anyway, but if you don’t make Curry work hard for his looks you will pay a price.

4) James Harden needs to get to the line more. James Harden got to the free throw line six times in Game 1 (he averages more than 10 a game). Credit the Warriors’ defense for some of that, but the Rockets need to get Harden rolling like a bowling ball down the lane — gathering fouls and getting buckets at the basket. If Howard can’t get the Rockets points in the paint, Harden must. Expect to see an aggressive and attacking Harden from the opening tip.

5) The Rockets need more threes. In the regular season, the Rockets attempted a league-high 32.7 threes a game. In the playoffs that dipped to 28. But in Game 1 the Rockets only took 22 threes, hitting eight. They were 3-of-12 above the break. Again, give the Warriors defense some credit, they have been good at thwarting threes all season and into the playoffs. That said, the Rockets have to take more and make more threes. They need the extra points to hang with the Warriors, plus that will open up the paint. Jason Terry was 1-of-4, he needs to shoot better from there, and if they can free up Trevor Ariza (4-of-5 in Game 1) for more looks all the better. Or they can just hope Josh Smith gets hot (he’ll take them anyway).

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.

Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen unapologetic about late-game timeouts in decided games

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Saturday night, Chicago was about to lose its eighth straight game, down 112-102 to Phoenix with 30.2 seconds remaining, when Bulls coach Jim Boylen called a timeout. Boylen extended a decided game, and the Bulls’ embarrassment at home, and it apparently did not sit well with Zach LaVine.

Why call the timeout? Here is what Boylen said postgame, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

“We were just trying to get a 3, execute an action we’ve been working on,” Boylen said. “I think their pressure on our inbounds hurt us all night. We had a hard time getting the ball into actions.”

Boylen sees a teaching moment. Whether the players are tuned into him and he can effectively teach anything at that point in the game is another question entirely, one Boylen does not care about. LaVine was asked about it postgame but just laughed it off as Boylen being Boylen, but noted that’s not a good time to make a point.

“That’s what he do, man,” LaVine said, laughing. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not the coach. He told me he likes working on things we do in practice and things like that. He’s the coach. He can call timeout if he wants to.

“I just wish we were in the game. We played a really good game throughout the game and then we lose control. It’s just frustrating. Obviously, you never know what can happen type thing. But you’re down by 10 with 30 seconds left, it’s tough to stay locked in at the end of that.”

This is far from the first time Boylen has called a late-game timeout in a decided game. Darnell Mayberry counted four times he has done it — in February.

This speaks to the tension within the Bulls organization, something that will make a rebuild even more challenging. Boylen has never been popular with the players — something that can be overcome to a degree if the team is winning, but the Bulls are 19-38 and have lost eight in a row. Evidence shows the players are not responding to the coach, but team president John Paxson LOVES Boylen’s old-school attitude and has his back.

Right now, any free agent of note is going to look at the team, its coach, and if they have good options, take a pass. The team needs to be built up internally, and it’s fair to question if the GarPax front office (which is far more Pax than Gar right now) and Boylen are up to that task. Especially if the players are tuning out the coach.