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Three Things to Know: Paul George returns to Indiana, gets bailed out by OKC defense

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Paul George returns to Indiana, gets booed, and gets win… thanks to Thunder defense. Russell Westbrook got his triple-double (10 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists). Paul George got some measure of satisfaction with a win on a night he returned to Indiana and was booed mercilessly by the Pacer faithful.

But George didn’t earn them this win, at least on the offensive end. This was a typical Thunder win because it was their elite defense bailing out an unimpressive offense. Again. The Thunder’s big trio of Westbrook, George, and Carmelo Anthony remained in an offensive funk they cannot shoot their way out of, going a combined 10-of-45 from the floor Wednesday, or 22.2 percent.

What the Thunder can fall back on is their defense — second best in the NBA this season (100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). Indiana came into the game with a top-10 offense and OKC held them in check. The Pacers scored 7.7 points per 100 less than they have averaged for the season. Victor Oladipo, who had been destroying teams for a week, shot 9-of-26 on the night with George as the primary defender on him most of the game. However, Oladipo did lead a charge from 11 down with just more than 5 minutes to go to make it a game late. Then came the big play of the game: Down three with 10 seconds to go, the Pacers tried to get the ball to Oladipo, but it was George who tipped and stole the inbounds pass, followed by hit two free throws after being fouled, to ice the game.

The Thunder got a huge performance from Steven Adams, who had 23 points but more importantly nine offensive rebounds — Oklahoma City grabbed the offensive board and got a second chance on 35.4 percent of their missed shots, and that was the difference in this game.

This didn’t feel like a game where the Thunder turned any corners, but it’s a win on the road and the Thunder will take that without asking any questions.

2) Rockets have yet to lose since Chris Paul returned, win streak reaches 11 after beating Charlotte. It’s not as simple as “Chris Paul came back and Houston can’t lose.” First off, they were winning a lot before he came back. Second, if you’re going to credit something credit the Houston defense, which has been the best in the NBA over the last 11 games (allowing 100.5 points per 100 possessions).

That said, Chris Paul dropped 31 points and 11 assists on Charlotte, torched the Hornet defense, and did it effortlessly as always.

It’s this simple: Houston is a legit contender and the team best poised to knock off Golden State this postseason. How they match up with the Warriors in a series is a question left for late May. We’re a long way from there. But that big question is not going to be answered until then, and the Rockets have answered all the other ones thrown at them so far.

3) Gordon Hayward got his boot off. Celtics’ fans fever dreams of Gordon Hayward returning from his horrific dislocated ankle injury in time for the playoffs — giving Boston a better shot at dethroning LeBron James and the Cavaliers — got a boost on Wednesday.

Hayward is out of his walking boot.

Not to put a damper on those dreams (well, kind of actually) Hayward himself said if things don’t progress he will be back in the boot, and there remains no official timetable for his return. Hayward, his agent, and the Celtics have all said not to expect him back this season… but if you’re a dreaming Celtics fan that just sounds like a PR statement, a managing of expectations so butts are covered if he’s not back.

Hayward is reportedly working hard on his rehab. He talked to Kobe Bryant and Paul George early in the process, guys who know about bouncing back from injury, and both told him to go at rehab hard every day like it was preparing for a game. Do everything the doctors and trainers say. There would be good days, bad days, but work the process. By all accounts, Hayward is doing just that.

And that still doesn’t mean he will be back for these playoffs. We all saw that injury, right? If he’s not back this season, nobody should blink. That was nasty. But he is out of his boot and walking normally, and that’s a good sign because what everyone wants to see is him back on the court. Whenever it happens.

Kyle Kuzma says Lonzo Ball hitting weight room hard this offseason

Associated Press
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It wasn’t just Lonzo Ball‘s awkward jumper that was a problem for him, so was his finishing around the rim — Ball shot less than 50 percent in the restricted area and 43.6 percent inside eight feet. In today’s NBA, he has to become more of a consistent scoring threat to open up his passing lanes.

Part of that is Ball getting physically stronger, something that also would help him avoid injuries and play in more than 52 games (what he did as a rookie). That part he is working on already, Kyle Kuzma told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Consistency in the weight room, that is the biggest thing,” Kuzma said on Tuesday of what he has seen out of Ball this offseason so far. “He has been in there pretty much every day I have been in here around this time. You can tell he is taking the weight room a lot more serious and that is going to help him by allowing him to recover faster and hopefully next year be on the court more because of that weight room.”

The Lakers are counting on the development of their young core — Ball, Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, etc. — as well as free agents they can attract this summer to lift them into the playoffs next season.

Magic Johnson told Ball this is going to be the most important summer of his life, that now he has to put in the work to take his body and game to the next level. To play like a No. 2 pick.

So far, so good.

Re-watch highlights from the final minutes of Houston’s series-tying win

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After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said his team ran out of gas, which is what led to their 3-of-18 fourth-quarter shooting and just 12 points. There’s some truth to that, particularly with Andre Iguodala out forcing other guys into the rotation and a heavier load on the stars.

But give the Rockets credit here.

Part of what wore down the Warriors was fantastic pressure defense from Houston that made Golden State really work on offense. As Golden State got tired, players settled for midrange jumpers, not getting to the rim much (three times in the quarter) and not having the legs under their threes (0-of-6 in the quarter).

Meanwhile, it wasn’t pretty, but James Harden and Chris Paul were making plays.

Check out those plays again in the video above — we finally got a good game in a series, we should savor that.

Steve Kerr on Warriors’ late possession vs. Rockets: “I wanted the timeout”

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The Houston Rockets leveled the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night by a margin of 95-92. The win for the Rockets was ugly, but it leveled the series at 2-2 heading back to Houston.

It was a close game down the stretch, and it looked like Golden State’s last chance to get the win was going to come on a possession with 11 seconds to go following a missed James Harden jumper.

The Warriors immediately turned up the floor and did not call a timeout. The resulting possession was messy, and it wound up ending on a difficult Klay Thompson turnaround jumper. Golden State would get another shot at a 3-pointer with half a second left thanks to a foul on Thompson’s miss, but many were still left wondering why Steve Kerr did not choose to call a timeout during the possession before.

Kerr addressed the decision after the game.

Via Twitter:

You sort of have to side with Kerr in principle, but if you’d seen the way the Warriors played the rest of that fourth quarter you would probably err on calling a timeout and letting them set something up. Curry was 1-of-8 in the fourth, Durant shot poorly most of the game, and Golden State scored 12 total points in the final period.

When you consider Curry got a look at a wide open 3-pointer in the corner with 0.5 seconds left on the clock when the Warriors did call a timeout on the next possession, it makes it look even worse.

In any case, Houston beat out Golden State in a close game and we’re headed back to Texas for Game 5 on Thursday.

Rockets survive gut punch from Warriors, even Western Conference Finals at 2-2

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The Houston Rockets can only win against the Golden State Warriors in one way: ugly.

During their Game 2 blowout against the defending champions, Houston’s 22-point victory was ugly for the Warriors. In Tuesday’s Game 4 win, it was ugly for the Rockets despite the 95-92 score in their favor.

Golden State came out of the gates hot, scoring the first 12 points of the game as it was clear that the Warriors were drawing off of the home crowd back in Oakland. Houston eventually settled, coming back with a massive 34-point second quarter. Mike D’Antoni, using an abbreviated rotation, found a way to up his team’s defense on the Warriors, clamping down on Golden State from the 3-point line.

The Rockets took a 53-46 lead into the half, and needed to brace for the coming changes from Steve Kerr’s squad.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors answered with a 34 point quarter of their own to open the second half. Golden State found their range from 3-point land as — guess who — Stephen Curry started to go nuclear. Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points but shot a woeful 37.5 percent from the field, started to slow even as he got open looks off jumpers above smaller defenders.

Then came the fourth quarter.

Houston remained resolute, and full of energy as PJ Tucker and Chris Paul jumped for loose balls and battled for rebounds. Meanwhile, Golden State appeared to slowly run out of gas. Steve Kerr said as much after the game, intimating that his own shortened lineup without Andre Iguodala could have played a role.

D’Antoni, who obviously had a game plan to better defend Durant, then focused his attention toward Curry. The Warriors point guard finished the game shooting 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter, including a miss on the final shot of the game.

Curry scored 28 points with six rebounds and two assists. Durant added 12 rebounds and three assists to his scoring total. Draymond Green contributed 11 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists.

For Houston it was Harden who led the way with 30 points, four rebounds, and four assists. Paul had 27 points to go with four assists and two rebounds. PJ Tucker, who scored just four points, grabbed a whopping 16 boards. Clint Capela was much the same, scoring eight points while grabbing 13 rebounds.

This season’s Western Conference fighters has been both puzzling and Expected. Well the variants of victory margin has been much greater than any of us anticipated for both sides, the fact that the coaches on each bench are trying to out dual each other each game Runs with the idea we have of some of the best playoff series in NBA history. In fact, the back-and-forth battle between two teams as they trade winds is perhaps what makes be later rounds of the NBA playoffs so worth watching.

Houston’s victory was gritty, and defensive, and not much to look at. True to his persona, after the final horn Rockets point guard Paul called it, “A fun game.”

While we finally got ourselves a close conference finals game out West, the question now turns to what the teams will do for Game 5 back in Houston. Will this series become more competitive? Or will Houston and Golden State continue the back-and-forth, big-margin victories we’ve seen thus far?

No matter what, there’s no doubt the Rockets will be trying to recapture the defensive aura they held in Game 4 as Golden State tries to find a way to break through it.