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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.

Blazers win 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League Championship vs. Lakers

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The Portland Trail Blazers are your 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League Champions. I want Multnomah County just to drink that in for a minute.

Tuesday night’s Final was not a close one, with the Trail Blazers in control of the game for most of the time. Portland jumped out to an early 31-19 lead, and were led by KJ McDaniels, who eventually took home the championship game’s MVP honors.

On the other side of the floor, it was Summer League MVP Josh Hart who had been ejected in the fourth quarter. Portland’s largest lead was 24 points, and it was surely a frustrating night for the young Lakers Squad.

Via Twitter:

McDaniels led the way for Portland, finishing with 17 points, seven rebounds, and one assist on 57 percent shooting from the field. The Blazers had six players in double figures, and helped shut down LA from 3-point range, forcing them to shoot just 3-of-21 from deep.

Hart scored 12 points for the Lakers, and Los Angeles had just three players in double figures. As a team, LA shot 39 percent from the field during the 18-point loss.

This Summer League playoff win doesn’t quite make up for the 2000 Western Conference Finals between these two rivals, But Blazers fans have to be happy that their team at least got a sniff of a deep playoff run.

No doubt they will be partying on SE Division tonight.

Lakers’ Josh Hart get ejected during Summer League Final (VIDEO)

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Josh Hart was the Las Vegas Summer League MVP for the Los Angeles Lakers. He scored a whopping 37 points during Monday night’s 2OT win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but apparently it was just too much of him to finish Tuesday’s Final against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Hart didn’t agree with an official’s decision — presumably on a no-call — late in the fourth quarter, and he had some choice words for the referee as the floor changed possession. The Lakers guard already had one technical foul from earlier in the game, so his second earned him an ejection. It was his second of Summer League.

That’s not necessarily a good look for Hart, although it’s not as though Summer League has a real impact on a player’s career in the long run.

Should Hart have been upset that he did not get a foul? Probably not, seeing as how he led with his elbow. No doubt Lakers brass will be more concerned by the fact that he was ejected from not one but two Summer League games during his MVP run.

Hart will have to get his emotions under control as we head into the regular season for Los Angeles.

The Trail Blazers beat the Lakers in the Final, 91-73, with KJ McDaniels taking home the championship game MVP honors.

Watch Collin Sexton try to intimidate Josh Hart with this weird sumo flex (VIDEO)

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Collin Sexton is presumably the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers after LeBron James decided to decamp his home state for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Along with Kevin Love, Sexton will be a player to watch over the coming season as the Cavaliers try to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, Sexton has already drawn some attention in Las Vegas Summer League for his performance, and not just as a point guard.

It appears that Sexton is a student of the theatrical arts as well.

Via Twitter:

It’s not really clear whether Sexton was able to intimidate Hart with his strange sumo flex. Although Hart didn’t score on that possession, he did score 37 points in a 2OT game which LA won. Hart was also named the Las Vegas Summer League MVP.

We will see whether Sexton decides to deploy this defensive strategy over the course of the regular season. I personally hope he does it every possession.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr receives contract extension

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has received a contract extension following the franchise’s repeat championship and third title in four years during his tenure.

Kerr and general manager Bob Myers, who are close friends and colleagues, said when the season ended that something would get done quickly once they began formal discussions. Kerr had one year remaining on his original $25 million, five-year contract. Details of the extension were not announced Tuesday.

“We’re excited to have Steve under contract and poised to lead our team for the next several years,” Myers said in a statement released by the team. “Under his guidance, we’ve been fortunate enough to win three NBA titles in four years and his ability to thrive in all facets of his job is certainly a primary reason for our success. He’s a terrific coach, but more importantly an incredible human being.”

The 52-year-old Kerr has said he hopes to coach at least another decade and perhaps 15 years. His Warriors swept LeBron James and Cleveland in the fourth straight NBA Finals matchups between the rivals.

Kerr stayed healthy and on the bench while continuing to deal with symptoms such as headaches and dizzy spells stemming from a pair of back surgeries following the 2015 title.

The Warriors marked themselves as a dynasty with their latest crown. They joined Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan and the Lakers’ trio of title runs fueled by George Mikan in the 1950s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the `80s, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearly 20 years ago as the only franchises in NBA history to capture three championships in four years.

Golden State captured the franchise’s first title in 40 years during 2014-15, with Kerr as a rookie head coach. Now, the Warriors are gearing up for one more season in Oracle Arena before opening their state-of-the-art Chase Center in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood in August 2019.

James offered a shoutout to Kerr during the finals.

“I could sit here and say today – `Listen, Golden State is a great team …’ – I didn’t even mention their head coach,” James said. “Their head coach is the one who kind of puts it all together, makes it all flow. To be able to put egos and the right position and spot on the floor where everybody feels good about the outcome and things of that nature – when it comes to team sports, that’s something that you would hope that you could be a part of.”

Kerr owns a 265-63 record (.808), guiding the Warriors to a record 73-win season in 2015-16 before a runner-up finish to the Cavaliers. His Warriors then went a record 16-1 during the 2017 postseason on the way to another title.

He was tested more as a coach this season, aside from his 43-game absence to begin the 2015-16 season when then-top assistant and current Lakers coach Luke Walton led the Warriors to a record 24-0 start and 39-4 mark before Kerr’s return to the bench.

Late in the regular season this year, Golden State lost seven of 10 during one noteworthy funk for a team that when healthy starts four All-Stars and can score in flurries with a pass-happy offense that racks up assists.

For weeks ahead of the 2018 playoffs, the Warriors hardly looked like that super team that dominated through the previous postseason. They lost their final regular-season game at Utah by 40 points.

Yet Kerr and his players insisted all along they would find another level when there was something bigger to play for.

Kerr was forced to use a mindboggling 27 different starting lineups to get through the regular season and wind up a No. 2 seed behind Houston, with the Western Conference finals marking the first time the Warriors had to open a series on the road since 2014.

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