Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets Game 4: Three things to watch from Houston

9 Comments

The questions remaining in the Western Conference Finals aren’t about what Golden State can do — we’ve seen that. They are the better team. There’s no doubt they can close out the series.

The questions are all for Houston. They have fought hard and lost two games, then been dominated in another. The Rockets are down 3-0 but at home for Game 4 Monday night with one more chance to show their resolve and answer some of the myriad of questions the Warriors pose for them.

With that, we’ll focus on Houston heading into Game 4: Here are three things to watch from the Rockets.

1) How much fight does Houston have left? After Game 4 against the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs, I was in the Rockets’ locker room and thought they looked defeated. Houston was down 3-1, and after a couple tough losses they looked like players in other playoff locker rooms I’ve seen, ones where the team came out the next game and rolled over to accept their fate. But that’s not these Rockets. Houston has been the most resilient team in the NBA this season. Injuries forced changing lineups all season and would have devastated a lot of teams, yet the Rockets kept on winning — 56 games, all the way to the two seed in the West. Against the Clippers, they battled back to take the series. The question here isn’t can Houston battle back to take this series from the Golden State — it can’t — but will it come out with that fight and spirit and take Game 4? I expect they will show that resolve.

2) Expect an aggressive, attacking James Harden — but will Dwight Howard join him? In Game 3 the Warriors switched up their defense on Harden. Instead of a steady diet of Klay Thompson, the primary defender became Harrison Barnes, with his length, and the physicality of Andre Iguodala mixed in with Thompson for stretches. It threw Harden off, he shot just 3-of-16 on his way to 17 points. Harden has not gotten to the line at his regular clip this series. He was fantastic in the first two games of the series but he did it mostly by hitting challenging shots — like step-back jumpers — in the midrange. That was not a formula for long-term success. With their season on the line in front of his home fans, expect Harden to be cooking — expect him to be aggressive, attack, make plays and draw fouls. He will not go quietly into that good night. Another question tied to this: Will Harden and Dwight Howard finally start to play well off each other. As Tom Haberstroh brilliantly pointed out at ESPN, The Rockets’ two best players still play next to each other not with each other. They have the potential to be a devastating force together, but will they finally start to take some advantage of that?

3) Will the Rockets finally defend Stephen Curry well? Through three games in this series, 34 of Stephen Curry’s 62 shots have been uncontested. That’s 54.8 percent of his looks (including 10 of 19 in Game 3). We’re talking about the best shooter in the game, the one guy on the Warriors you can’t lose track of, the guy you have to help on, and more than half of his shots are not contested (according to the NBA’s Sports VU camera data). While we can quibble with the numbers, the fact is Jason Terry and other Rockets defenders lose Curry off the ball far too often. The Rockets have struggled with Curry on the pick-and-roll, and when a big is switched onto him Curry feasts. When he beats the first line of defense — which he will do, he’s good — too often the help isn’t reading the play correctly. Curry is also a gifted passer, and even when the Rockets play him correctly one of the many shooters on the Warriors roster gets a little space and the ball seems to find him. That said, you still have to start slowing Golden State by slowing Curry. He’s is not going to be stopped, but a team can make his job difficult — Mike Conley did it for the Grizzlies, spending the series in Curry’s jersey. If the Rockets want to get some stops, it has to start with slowing Curry down. Maybe that means slowing the pace down a little, but the problem is that doesn’t play to the Rockets’ strengths.

Report: 76ers happy with GM Elton Brand, who’s drawing Knicks interest

76ers owner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Knicks are reportedly interested in hiring 76ers general manager Elton Brand.

In New York, Brand would work under new Knicks president Leon Rose. Brand holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. So, Brand would likely go to New York only if fired by the 76ers.

Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

A team source on Wednesday confirmed Brand is under contract beyond this season and said the organization is very happy with his work since being named GM in 2018. The source cited Brand’s leadership and strong working relationships with players, agents, and executives around the league.

The 76ers are so pleased with Brand… someone said so without under the cloak of anonymity. If he wants to back Brand, 76ers owner Josh Harris can do so publicly. Otherwise, this is so weak.

Teams generally express support toward employees while the employees are still working for the team – whether or not the employees actually hold approval. A key way to tell whether the support is genuine? Check the source. Harris doesn’t want to look like a hypocrite. If he endorses Brand now then fires him soon, Harris would look silly. With this sourcing, nobody would get egg on his or her face if Brand gets ousted, because we don’t know the source.

I bet Brand does have good relationships with everyone. He has long connected well with others.

But his roster-building has fallen flat.

Inertia will probably keep him in his job. Philadelphia overachieving in the playoffs (whatever form they take) – certainly possible – would make that an easier call. It’s just difficult to build an affirmative case for Brand as a team’s lead executive.

Report: No chance of traditional NBA playoffs this season

NBA playoffs
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA playoffs have a familiar format – four rounds, best-of-seven series, games in front of fans at home arenas.

But the coronavirus, which has forced the NBA into an indefinite stoppage and disrupted life around the world, makes that untenable. Don’t expect the league to wait until that’s workable, either.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

At this point, several team and league officials told SI.com, any chance of a traditional postseason is out.

A shortened playoffs in Las Vegas is gaining momentum. It’d allow the NBA, hemorrhaging money, to draw revenue sooner. A reduced postseason would also minimize disruption to future seasons.

But even that comes with major complications, especially containing coronavirus from undermining the entire operation. It could be a long time until its safe to hold games, even in a centralized location without fans.

It could be so long… a traditional playoffs could be back on the table. Though I find that unlikely, I’m still not convince people have a proper understanding of how lengthy this hiatus could be.

Everyone wants to finish the season. The playoffs are the NBA’s most lucrative time, and it feels right to crown a champion.

So, it’s good the focus is on alternative formats. It’d be naïve to expect business as usual when the NBA resumes.

Who should be drafted No. 1? Podcast talking NBC Sports mock NBA Draft.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Should Anthony Edwards be the No. 1 pick?

Or James Wiseman? How would Obi Toppin fit with the Warriors?

More importantly, how is anyone preparing for a draft when nobody knows when it will take place?

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports — who just completed his mock draft — joins me to discuss what they know and don’t know about the 2020 NBA Draft, starting with having no idea when it will take place. We discuss Obi Toppin, Lonzo Ball, sleepers to watch, and everything in between in a draft preview podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Bucks hoping to complete title pursuit after coronavirus stoppage

Milwaukee Bucks
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks remain confident the coronavirus pandemic won’t put a permanent halt to the season and that they’ll get to resume chasing their first league title in nearly half a century.

The Bucks had a league-best 53-12 record when play was suspended three weeks ago. With Giannis Antetokounmpo having a potential second straight MVP season, the Bucks seemed poised to make a run at the title that has eluded this franchise since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led them to an NBA championship in 1971.

Bucks general manager Jon Horst thinks they will get that opportunity.

“We believe that we’re going to play,” Horst said Wednesday in a conference call. “Everything that we’re doing every day in our communications, in our preparations, everything we talk about is being prepared to play at some point, finish out the season and have a resumption.”

That’s why Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has spent part of this hiatus making sure the Bucks don’t lose their edge whenever they do get back on the floor.

He’s been studying the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets — the Bucks’ two most likely first-round playoff foes — as well as other Eastern Conference teams Milwaukee could see later in the postseason. He’s tried to learn from his experiences as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach during the NBA’s most recent work stoppages.

“One of my reference points with the coaching staff has been lockouts,” Budenholzer said. “Sometimes when you come out of a lockout, things have been kind of slow, you haven’t been able to maybe do your normal routines and preparation, and things happen really fast. Whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker.”

His instructions to his players have focused on conditioning while understanding they might not have as much time to spend working on their basketball skills.

“I think that we feel that there are things they can continue to do as far as continuing to stay strong, continuing to maintain a conditioning level and really just put a lot of time and effort and energy into their bodies,” Budenholzer said.

After blowing a 2-0 lead to the eventual league champion Toronto Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Milwaukee appeared to have all the elements in place to make a serious championship run this year before the pandemic struck.

The Bucks had just returned from a winless three-game trip west when the hiatus occurred, but that was the first time they had lost as many as two straight contests all season.

Despite their optimism and their confidence that league officials will do what’s best for the safety of everyone, the Bucks realize that play might not resume. However, Budenholzer said they aren’t thinking about what impact canceling the season might have.

“If for some reason this season is not played or there’s nothing to look forward to or to complete, I’ll process it then,” Budenholzer said. “I would add that I don’t think it’s being totally head-in-the-sand. I think hopefully watching news, listening to the commissioner, listening to whether it be Tony Fauci or Dr. (Deborah) Birx or whoever it is, it does feel like there is I think some realistic hope and belief that we will get through this.

“I know that there are some negatives, some less optimistic modeling, but literally all we think about is we are going to play and we want to be the best team when we do play so how do we prepare for that, how do we get better? It’s a great way to get through this.”