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).

NBA owners wanted tampering crackdown, reportedly now concerned about privacy, effectiveness

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As we wrote when the details came out about owners pushing a crackdown on tampering around the NBA and increased fines, it’s one thing to talk tough and something else entirely to enforce those rules. The devil is always in the details.

This week NBA owners are descending upon New York for the annual preseason Board of Governors meetings, and they are wrestling with those devils, reports Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN. Specifically, should the league be able to monitor a team’s communications with other teams and agents?

In conversations with numerous league officials, team owners, general managers and agents, there’s some uncertainty about the means the NBA might use to investigate alleged rules violations. Atop those concerns for team officials are what league sources insist was Commissioner Adam Silver toughest decision in bringing new rules to a vote: An annual, random auditing of five teams’ communications with rival front offices and player agents…

Pre-June 30 discussions between teams and agents would migrate away from text messages and emails if the league gets the right to audit five teams per year at random. That one clause will likely engender a lot of discussion today and Friday, league sources say. Teams are curious: what would an audit entail? How much access would the league get to the cell phones of GMs and governors? What happens if they go looking for tampering and find other information of interest — intel on players and coaches, financial plans, one off-color joke?…

“I don’t think he should have any right to get into my phone,” one GM told ESPN. “I wish my owner would vote no, but I doubt he will. You’ll only make yourself a target for investigation if you do.”

What the proposed new rules do is increase fines and say Silver has the right to take away draft picks if a team is caught tampering (a power he already has, but one teams fear more than fines), and add the audits. Those audits mean teams would have to keep texts and emails with agents for at least a year. Silver also wants teams to do a little self-policing — of themselves, to act more like partners in one big business. The goal is to build an NBA culture without much tampering. Good luck with that.

Silver is too politically savvy to bring this proposal forward if he didn’t have the votes lined up, something Wojnarowski and Lowe note. It’s going to get approved, something primarily driven by small and medium market teams who see themselves as just trying to level the playing field. (Even though plenty of them tamper, too.)

However, just like now, only teams to slow on figuring out how to cover their tracks will get caught.

There are plenty of means of communication with an agent, for example, that are not texts/emails and can easily disappear from existence (WhatsApp, for example, but teams may not even use that). There also is always simply using a human intermediary to deliver a message or ask a question, something that could not easily be traced. It’s not that difficult to cover your tracks electronically, either.

The other question out there: What will be the unintended consequences of this move? Any major policy decision — in basketball, in politics, in life — has consequences nobody saw coming at the time, this move will too. And small market owners will likely complain about that, too.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.