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).

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.