Associated Press

Three Things to Watch in Playoffs Friday: Can Pacers, Heat, or Clippers force a Game 7

1 Comment

Indiana, Miami, and the L.A. Clippers are playing for their playoff lives tonight — can any of them force a Game 7 on Sunday? Here’s what to watch for if they are going to:

1) Can the Pacers survive a couple of minutes when Paul George gets some rest? Paul George played 41:05 in Game 6, taking short rests at the start of the second and fourth quarters. That turned out to be too much — the Pacers were -18 in those 6:55 George got a blow. During his rest at the start of the fourth, Toronto started a 21-2 run that turned their 13-point deficit into a lead. The Pacers scored just one bucket in the first 9:30 of the fourth quarter. It wasn’t just George out to start the fourth as George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Myles Turner joined him in watching the start of the team’s downfall while sitting — Frank Vogel trusted a bench that has been good to him all season, and it let him down. Check out these numbers from Game 5: Rodney Stuckey 1-of-10 (and a turnover right in front of a taunting Drake), C.J. Miles 2-of-8, and Ty Lawson was virtually nonexistent. The bench must do better for the Pacers.

Don’t expect much trust of that bench — or George to get much rest — in Game 6. This is a game the Pacers can win, but they will need more offensive balance as DeMarre Carroll continues to be physical with George. Hill, shooting 57 percent in the series, needs to be a catalyst for a little more balance in the offense. Defensively, the Pacers need to slow the Raptors successful “small” lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and Bismack Biyombo — that group got stops and scored driving the lane to spark the fourth quarter run. The Raptors have struggled in closeout games recently, and the Pacers are feisty, but Indiana needs to get another big lead and not let up. They don’t want this to come down to a late Solomon Hill three again.

2) Can Miami knock down enough jumpers against Charlotte to survive another day? Forget the last play of Game 5 and if Dwyane Wade was fouled or not. It’s moot. The real question is Miami’s shooting, and sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words (from Jesus Gomez at SB Nation):

Heat shot chart

After Nicolas Batum was injured and forced to sit, Hornets’ coach Steve Clifford doubled down on his defensive strategy, went big and decided to pack the paint on defense — cut off Dwyane Wade or Goran Dragic slashing into the lane, or Hassan Whiteside on the roll, make the Heat players beat them with jump shots. It’s worked. Miami’s offense has gone stagnant. Look at the scoring at the rim the last three games — Miami is shooting less than 50 percent at the rim. Miami has been an inconsistent team on the road all season and if they don’t find a way to stop the penetration of Kemba Walker (he’s getting to his spots on the floor) and Jeremy Lin, and if they don’t hit a few jumpers, the Miami players will be golfing with Ray Allen by this weekend.

3) Can Clippers get one game-changing, series-saving night from Jamal Crawford? Or Jeff Green? Or anyone? Injuries have swung this series, with the Clippers looking like Memphis West — they need someone to step up with a big night to extend their season. Anyone. That is not going to be Paul Pierce — I know he and Doc Rivers have a history, but the game has passed Pierce by and in 2016 he should not be getting many if any playoff minutes (Rivers needs to start Wesley Johnson or someone else). Usually, I’d say look for a big J.J. Redick night, but with his heel injury his is just not moving the same way, and that has been an issue for the Clippers all series because he is central to their halfcourt offense. One little combination to watch for Los Angeles: Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich had real chemistry this season and showed a little in Game 5, Rivers needs to play them together and let them find a groove.

However, with the comfort of home, expect to see more of the fourth quarter Damian Lillard— who had 16 points for Portland in that frame, part of a 37-point quarter when the Blazers pulled away in Game 5. The Clippers reserves held their own for three quarters in Game 5, but the added minutes and responsibilities wore them down physically and mentally by the fourth, and Portland just got stronger. It’s hard to see how the Clippers win this game without someone just going off in heroic fashion for a night.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

Getty
1 Comment

The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

Associated Press
Leave a comment

The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
2 Comments

James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
3 Comments

Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.