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5 Up, 5 Down: The Rockets are who we thought they were (and so is Portland)

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

I’m not going to pretend the Houston Rockets shouldn’t be afraid of the Golden State Warriors. But this weird, lurking feeling that the Warriors are going to make this wild surge back and dethrone the “pretending” Rockets? It’s just flat out wrong. It’s been wrong all season, and Mike D’Antoni is probably going to win the NBA Coach of the Year for figuring out how to pair two of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history. Maybe he learned something the first time around with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant?

Houston’s win over the Blazers was incredible, exciting, and electric. While the game was in doubt for the No. 1 team in the Western Conference throughout the game, the way they closed was confidence-inspiring. The Rockets aren’t just a team with legitimate scorers, they are a defensive hassle. D’Antoni’s gameplan led to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combining for just 28 points on 32 shots. Tuesday night, we learned that the Rockets are who we thought they were. That also applies to Portland, but not in the way that you might think.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Is this the year for the Toronto Raptors?

There are a lot of times we’ve wondered this, collectively, out loud. Usually right before a playoff game in which LeBron James disembowels Toronto right in front of us. I get it, it’s a touchy thing to broach. Still, the Raptors are playing in a way we’ve never seen them do before, and it’s not been all about DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valanciunas looks trustworthy, Kyle Lowry is having another career year (it feels like his third or fourth one) and guys like Pascal Siakam are contributing.

Despite what folks in Toronto are telling themselves, pretty much everyone in the NBA is talking about the Raptors and for once that doesn’t feel like the thing that’s going to tip them over the edge. Their lead over both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers feels wholly earned and un-precarious. And if the Cavaliers can’t straighten themselves out with Kevin Love back and if the Celtics aren’t going to play with a full roster, I think we’d all rather see the Raptors in the Finals.

This LeBron Dunk

It’s just … *chef’s kiss*

The makeup of the NBA’s best teams

This is a complete Shower Thought but it hit me the other day that we have had the benefit of a lot of teams around the league being good this year that maybe have not always been top-of-mind for casual NBA fans. Toronto, Indiana, Portland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans. Heck, even Cleveland before LeBron came around was likely a blind spot for folks on the West Coast. That the league isn’t dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks in this decade is more of a gift that we realize, I think. Plus, you know those teams will eventually be back, so get it while it lasts. Well, maybe not the Knicks but you get the idea.

The Blazers, the Rockets, and the end of a winning streak

The Blazers finally lost a game, and in doing so solidified their position as the favorites in any first round playoff series they find themselves in come spring. Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless were all dazzling on a night in which Portland’s 13-game winning streak came to an end.

Houston looked great, naturally, but the Blazers didn’t shy away from the spotlight for a single moment even with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum coming up short during Tuesday night’s big battle royale. I’ve been a doubter for longer than most when it comes to Portland, and they didn’t seem out of place at all against the league’s best team. Blazers fans should feel more secure even after their loss. They can hang, which is more than we could say about them when they sorted themselves out over the New Year.

This insane “LeBron to Portland” billboard

Look, if you thought it was a longshot that this billboard was going to actually get put up, you were dead wrong. Some Blazers fans who run a popular culture brand in Portland wanted to put up a billboard — mostly as a joke — to entice LeBron James to come to Rip City. They started a Go Fund Me, and despite starting slow have now gained momentum and have more than $6,800 to do what they will with it.

Not only have they made their goal, but they’ve blasted past it with the help of sponsors. They are now looking at other options, including a second billboard in Cleveland or transit ads, according to the Oregonian.

This was an inevitability. LeBron to Portland? Not so much.

5 Down

Dwane Casey got ejected even though he didn’t do anything

The battle between the NBPA and NBRA, apparently, rages on. It wasn’t helped when Raptors coach Dwane Casey was ejected from a game for a comment he didn’t even make. A fan behind him said something, which an official mistakenly attributed to Casey.

The entire end of that Raptors-Thunder game was a cluster and Casey getting tossed really was the icing on the cake. Like I’ve said before, look for big announcements this summer regarding officiating as a way for the league, the NBRA, or both to save face and get some viewer confidence back in the grey shirts.

Ty Lue is out with an illness

The Cavaliers are a reality show that any cable network would love to syndicate. But, if you can peel back the curtain for a minute, you can humanize these guys in a way that isn’t so much fun to poke and prod throughout the course of a championship-hopeful NBA season. Lue, much like Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, is having some serious health issues and no doubt the stress of the season has to be contributing factor.

Hope he gets well soon.

This whole dinosaur thing with Jordan Clarkson

Let’s get a little meta for a second.

First, both Kyrie Irving and Jordan Clarkson have said patently insane things on Channing Frye‘s podcast that nobody should believe. Are all NBA players secretly hiding easily-debunked opinions that can be disproved with 7th grade Earth Science? Maybe, but there’s another common component here and it’s Frye.

Here’s a conspiracy theory of my own: All these crazy quotes are simply Frye orchestrating listens for his podcast. The only other alternative is to suggest that a lot of NBA players sincerely believe things that no good organizational base — whether they be the public school system or the financial managers, agents, and business managers hired by players — should let these guys think. Someone is failing these dudes if they believe these things in earnest.

I’ve got my eye on you, Channing.

The reading guy

This guy was reading during Spurs-Warriors this week. Was he reading Proust? Or “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? No. He was reading a book because a movie was really popular this year.

Step your reading game up, bro. Give your ticket away to someone who is going to watch the in-game entertainment. I’m pretty sure those stunt teams don’t even make minimum wage, the least you could do is look up at them during a timeout.

Players Only has got to go

I have an honest question, free of snark that I genuinely need answered: Who asked for this? Team broadcast crews are, sometimes to their detriment, already oversaturated with former NBA talent that often seem ill-equipped to handle the job. Many former players, looking to stay close to the game, get slotted into the booth for their former teams, usually as color commentators without much training or an interesting perspective to offer. There’s already been a slow creep of NBA dudes moving into the booth, and the idea of “Players Only” almost seems redundant at this point.

The mark of a good commentator differs between the play-by-play and color guys, but there should be baseline of performance that often isn’t met. Just because a guy played in the league — or because he’s gregarious — doesn’t mean he can communicate the ins and outs of the modern NBA, or even know what’s relevant when calling a game. I’m not sure what the answer is, although shows like ESPN’s “The Jump” and NBATV’s “The Starters” seem to suggest a mix of experienced broadcasters, polished players, and knowledgeable writers would be a good mix.

Because they’re all on one broadcast where a few shine and the majority fail expectations, the “Players Only” broadcasts are an embarrassing highlight of the fact that too many guys aren’t ready for a national spot in the booth. Twitter hates it. Reddit hates it. They’ve got to get rid of it.

Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday will play reduced minutes rest of season

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The Anthony Davis Saga with the New Orleans Pelicans has been one of the oddest, most missed managed trade request in recent NBA history. And that’s including whatever happened with Kawhi Leonard last season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Davis made himself one of the focal points of NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte after leaving at halftime of the final Pelicans game before the break. Davis has issued several statements since then, including a bit of a meltdown at Saturday practice availability in North Carolina.

Of course it’s just a matter of time before Davis plays for another team, but we will have to wait until summer for that to happen. In the meantime, both sides are at sort of an impasse with Davis clearly not wanting to play in New Orleans anymore. The Pelicans, naturally, don’t want their asset to become injured and therefore reduced in value.

But Davis is going to play, and according to the team and interim general manager Danny Ferry, both Davis and Jrue Holiday‘s minutes will be reduced from here on out.

Via Twitter:

This makes sense sort of no matter what. New Orleans is no longer a playoff bubble team, and so a reduction in minutes for their top stars this season makes sense anyway.

Hopefully we don’t have to hear much about this moving forward. If we can get through the rest of the year without dealing with more weird Anthony Davis talk, I think we will be better for it.

Meanwhile, let the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks try to gather up their best offers to snake him away from the Los Angeles Lakers. No doubt something crazy will happen this summer with Davis just given how it’s already gone so far.

Paul George says he talked to Nike about his shoes after Zion Williamson injury (VIDEO)

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The basketball community lost its collective mind on Wednesday night when Duke Blue Devils star Zion Williamson was injured after blowing out a pair of Nike basketball shoes in a rivalry game against the University of North Carolina.

Williamson’s injury was such that shares of Nike actually fell come Thursday. Meanwhile, the debate about whether Williamson should continue to play for free in the NCAA raged on all day.

Of course Williamson was wearing Paul George‘s signature shoe when he experienced the blowout, which apparently prompted the Oklahoma City Thunder star to contact Nike about it.

Via Twitter:

George’s shoes are very popular across basketball, and he told reporters that this had never happened to his knowledge.

I do wonder if players will be more reticent to wear one of the more popular shoes in the NBA. Then again, Williamson is a freak of nature in of himself so it’s not likely that the forces created by his power would be exerted by a normal player in the league.

Zion Williamson’s sprained knee became bad day for Nike

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When presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson went to the ground, his knee twisting, early in Duke’s game against North Carolina Wednesday night, the basketball world collectively gasped.

Former President Barack Obama was there and quickly recognized the problem:

It did, unquestionably. The  6-foot-7, 284 pound Williamson was wearing the  PG 2.5 PEs (the Paul George signature line of Nikes), and when he made a hard cut the shoe gave out and Williamson went to the ground in a heap. The television cameras closed in on the busted Nike.

That’s not good press.

Fortunately, Williams suffered only a mild, Grade 1 knee sprain, and is day-to-day.

Nike released a statement to multiple media outlets that said, “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

Nike stock dropped one percent on Thursday, although that level of fluctuation is not serious.

Bottom line, if this remains an isolated incident, Nike’s reputation — and position as the dominant force in basketball shoes — is not in danger. Fans and players will forgive one random incident. Have it happen again to a high-profile player and… Nike doesn’t want to find out.

 

Marcus Smart on today’s NBA: “Everything’s become real cute… Everybody’s scared to get hit”

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“I think it’s wonderful what we’re seeing in the league right now, some of the rules changes we’ve made in the last few years that really focus on skill-based playing. I’d like to think that young people around the world are able to look at this game and say, I can be as great as my desire to dedicate myself to this game, especially when it comes to shooting and ball handling. I get it, you can’t dream about being seven feet tall, but you can dream about having ball-handling skills like Steph Curry.”

That was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver All-Star weekend in Charlotte, and television ratings and overall interest in the league back him up — NBA ratings have been largely rising for years, both on the local and national level. Fans seem to gravitate towards fast-paced, entertaining teams and games.

But not everybody loves it. Charles Barkley can lead the “get off my lawn crowd.” However, there is a role for throwback players in the game. Guys who would have thrived in the 1990s, or the 1960s. Boston’s Marcus Smart is one of those guys — he told Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report he wishes there was more physicality in the league.

“Back in the ’60s, ’70s, my mindset and the way I play would be perfect. They play like that every game,” Smart says…

“That’s just what it is! Exactly!” he says, a smile breaking through. “I think we kind of lost that in today’s game. Everything’s become real cute. Everybody’s scared to go to the rim. Everybody’s scared to get hit. Everybody’s scared to touch.

“I thrive on the contact. Contact is in my nature.”

The NBA has always had to strike a balance between physicality and allowing skill to flourish. Right now the pendulum has swung well over to the skill side, and some fans romantically recall 1990s basketball when the pendulum was on the other side. They think of Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson and remember the era fondly through the haze of time. Of course, what that time obscured were the slogs of games with scoring in the 80s and maybe 90s, they forget how hard it could be to watch Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers clutch and grab their way to a slow, tedious, and coach-controlled four quarters. The 90s were not filled with the beautiful game.

But in any era, a guy like Smart has real value because he’s a good basketball player. Plain and simple. Just one who would like to be allowed to be a little more physical.