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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.

WNBA team rehearses ring ceremony at practice of team it beat in Finals

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The NBA does petty very, very, very, very, very, very, very well.

The WNBA is trying to give the NBA a run for its money.

The Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks have met in the last two WNBA Finals, the Lynx winning last year and the Sparks winning the year before. Minnesota hosted Los Angeles in the season opener Sunday, and the Lynx unveiled their banner and presented players with rings.

Before that, while the Sparks were practicing in Minnesota, the Lynx played their video for the event.

Holly Rowe of ESPN:

The Sparks beat the Lynx on Sunday, but I don’t think that’s enough to override Minnesota’s power move.

Kobe Bryant on Kanye West’s comments: “What the hell are you talking about?”

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Kanye West, the President Trump backing hip-hop star, drew a lot of backlash for his comments on TMZ:

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” 

Mentally, maybe in some cases. But more so physically, with guns and whips and attack dogs and a whole lot more weapons that were all on one side. Nobody chooses slavery.

Tuesday, Kobe Bryant surprised a group of about 300 high school students at WE RISE — a 10-day pop-up festival dedicated to sparking a movement for change in the mental health system — in Downtown Los Angeles. One of the students asked him about Kanye’s comments. Kobe is not down.

“I’m sure (I feel) the same way everybody else here in this room feels. What the hell are you talking about? I think that was my reaction as is everybody else’s reaction….

“The thing about our country is that you have the right to say whatever it is that you want to say…that’s the beautiful thing about living in a democracy. I think, for him, he’s one of these entertainers that’s always in a constant state of growth, he’s always challenging … himself, doing a lot of questioning internally himself…so I just take it for what it is and completely disagree.”

If I need to explain to you why Kobe is in the right here, you need to take a basic American history course again.

Good on Kobe for his comments. More importantly, good on Kobe for taking the time to promote mental health awareness.

“It’s easy for us as people to kind of ignore the emotional side of it,  especially when it comes to things that deal with negativity, things that deal with insecurity, things that deal with fear,” Kobe said. “It’s very easy to take the fear and just push it down, try to act like it doesn’t exist. The reason why it starts with imagination is because you first must imagine the life that you want to have. You must first imagine what it is you dream of becoming.”

Kobe did that, and now he’s got an Oscar. Oh, and a few basketball awards, too.

PBT Extra: LeBron, Cavaliers even series but Celtics far from dead

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If you want to make the case that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the driver’s seat of the Eastern Conference Finals after sweeping two games at home, you’re in a good space. It’s a best-of-three and Cleveland has the best player on the planet on their side.

However, I still like the Celtics to hold on and win in seven.

I get into it in this PBT Extra, but the Celtics looked like a team that figured things out in the final three quarters of Game 4 (they just couldn’t make up for a disastrous first quarter), and they still have two games at home.

Either way, this feels like a series going the distance.

Did the Warriors deal Rockets a knockout blow in Western Conference finals?

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 (!) in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Sunday.

Biggest playoff win in Golden State franchise history.

Biggest playoff loss in Houston franchise history.

Biggest playoff loss ever handed to any team as good as the 65-17 Rockets.

“At the end of the day, it’s one win,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “It doesn’t matter if you win by 40 or if you win by one.”

Maybe it matters more than Green is letting on.

Golden State was the 17th team to -win a playoff game by more than 40 points. Of the previous 16, 15 – including the last 14 – won the series:

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The only exception came in my favorite playoff series of all-time, the best-of-three 1956 Western Division semifinals:

  • Game 1: St. Louis Hawks 116, Minneapolis Lakers 115
  • Game 2: Minneapolis Lakers 133, St. Louis Hawks 75
  • Game 3: St. Louis Hawks 116, Minneapolis Lakers 115

So, teams to win a playoff game by more than 40 are 15-0 in best-of-seven or best-of-five series. Will the Rockets buck the trend?

They can make adjustments. Maybe Houston’s strong regular season – better than any above blown-out team’s – indicates a rare capability to recover from this. Andre Iguodala‘s injury hurts Golden State. Teams sometimes make historic comebacks from blowouts, including against the Warriors.

But that Golden State ran toppled the Rockets so decisively in Game 3 suggests the Warriors are hitting a gear Houston won’t keep up with.