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Chris Paul’s game-winning miss helps Rockets end Blazers’ 13-game streak

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Tuesday night at Moda Center was electric. It was a game of switches, both between opposing big men on the pick-and-roll and as the lead batted between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

It was all we could have asked for between two of the best teams in the NBA.

The Blazers were aided by a hot start from Al-Farouq Aminu from beyond the arc. The defensive stalwart hit four threes in the first quarter alone for Portland as the Blazers took a four point lead into the second period. Houston, accustomed to playing in Rip City when their arena is at its loudest, wasn’t phased by the atmosphere.

James Harden went off — he finished with 42 points and seven assists — and looked unstoppable. At one point, after nailing a 3-pointer in the first half, Harden turned around and gave the Portland sideline a look. The leading MVP candidate was there to play, and the rain of boos that came down from the 300 level at the Moda only fueled his fire.

On the other side of the court, Portland’s star point guard seemed just off of center. Perhaps it was anticipating the soon-to-be birth of his child or just the stress that comes with upholding a 13-game winning streak, but Damian Lillard‘s aim was poor and he wasn’t as large a factor as he’s been all winter. In fact, both Lillard and C.J. McCollum were quiet on the night. McCollum, the other half of the second-highest scoring duo since the All-Star Break, had just eight points on a night where he shot 4-of-15 from the field.

But the story of these two teams, and why they remain top playoff contenders, is their defense. That showed all night, with the margin between the two staying razor thin until the final seconds. The Blazers’ strategy was to force switches, often getting Moe Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, or Evan Turner on smaller Rockets players while hoping to either attack the basket or swing the ball after the Rockets’ excellent help defense reacted.

Houston countered brilliantly, often guarding Nurkic with either Luc Mbah a Moute or PJ Tucker as they forced the issue of small ball on Portland. Much of the game rode on the offensive decision-making from Blazers in the post or the ability of the Rockets guards to burn past the likes of Nurkic and Ed Davis off the switch.

Chris Paul was the other factor for Houston — no shock as he loves going against Lillard — especially from beyond the 3-point line. Five of Paul’s six made field goals were from beyond the arc, and he dismantled slower Portland defenders as he snaked, shaked, and flailed his way around pick-and-rolls.

Despite the close play, Houston appeared to have struck a defiant blow when Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:55 to go, giving the Rockets a nine-point lead. But Portland rallied, with Lillard quickly drawing a three-shot foul to push the Blazers closer. Portland scored twice more in quick succession, and they were once again within striking distance for the win.

The game came down to a final Houston possession with five seconds left as Paul missed long on a floater in the middle of the lane. Miraculously, the ball hit off the back of the iron, out of reach of any Blazers rebounder (although a crafty hold by Paul on Aminu certainly helped).

Houston recovered the rebound, and closed against a heated rival.

Meanwhile the story for both teams at the end of the game was clear: both are for real.

The Rockets, leaders of the West even before the Golden State Warriors were bitten by the injury bug, showed they could come into a hostile environment against a team that badly wanted to win in Portland. Houston’s resolve was clear; while the Blazers never looked unfocused, the Rockets felt like the senior team and the leadership from Harden and Paul was a preview for what we should expect come playoff time. That’s big, especially when you consider Paul’s playoff demons and the hovering expectation that the Warriors are somehow going to come charging back and blow everyone out come spring.

For the Blazers, the sadness of the 13-game streak will linger but for a moment. Portland, who was essentially a .500 team until Christmas, looked like they were ready for showtime. Many of the Blazers’ players, including Nurkic, Aminu, and Harkless, have struggled with inconsistency all season long. But as they took on the Rockets, all three were the ones keeping Portland in it when Lillard and McCollum struggled. I had my doubts about the Blazers perhaps longer than most, but even in defeat Portland’s showing against Houston makes them look like a solid favorite in any first round playoff series they draw, and not just because of seeding.

Houston beat the Blazers, 115-111.

Let’s do this again sometime soon. Say, in mid-May?

Here’s a first look at Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan in new jerseys, via NBA 2K

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Kawhi Leonard is a member of the Toronto Raptors now. There’s no way of getting around it. Even with rumors swirling about whether or not he will be happy in Canada, the truth is that we have already seen some embrace of Leonard in the six.

Likewise, DeMar DeRozan is a member of the San Antonio Spurs whether he likes it or not. Now, each have been seen for the first time in their new jerseys.

The only catch? It’s via a video game.

2K Games decided to tweet out new rendered images of both players in their respective jerseys. To be honest, I don’t think they look all that bad.

Via Twitter:

It’s going to feel a bit like a real life franchise mode of NBA 2K19 when we see these guys on the court in their new kits next season. But eventually we will get used to it, much in the way we will no doubt get used to LeBron James in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey or Tony Parker in a Charlotte Hornets jersey.

We’re going to have the matchup between the Raptors and the Spurs circled on our calendar next year. That is, if Leonard ends up playing in it. There still might be some doubts in that department.

Another LeBron James mural vandalized in Los Angeles

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Most of Los Angeles β€” and the vast majority of Lakers fans β€” are fired up that LeBron James is coming to Los Angeles. They see a return to glory for the franchise (well, once they get the rest of the roster right… sorry Lance Stephenson).

However, there is a segment β€” particularly the die-hard Kobe fans β€” who are having trouble assimilating to the new reality.

So when an artist did a LeBron James mural near Venice in Los Angeles recently β€” a really well-done tribute β€” it was quickly vandalized. Then eventually covered up.

This week another artist did another impressive LeBron/Lakers mural β€” this one with LeBron looking up at the Lakers’ legends β€” and once again, it was vandalized.

I’m not shocked by any of this, but it is depressing. If you’re vandalizing art, you are a cowardly buffoon.

There’s no way to really know the motivation behind the second attack, although the smart money is on it being the same as the first one β€” a few people think they are protecting the Lakers’ brand by not welcoming the best player on the planet to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years. It’s incredibly flawed logic, but frankly flawed logic has become trendy in recent years, it can get you elected to all kinds of offices.

Credit real Lakers fans who showed up to help fix this.

AP Source: Thunder trading Dakari Johnson to Orlando

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) β€” The Oklahoma City Thunder are trading reserve center Dakari Johnson to the Orlando Magic.

A person with knowledge of the details confirmed the move to The Associated Press on Friday. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

Yahoo Sports, which first reported the deal, said Oklahoma City will get guard Rodney Purvis in the deal. Purvis averaged 6.0 points and 1.7 rebounds in 16 appearances for the Magic last season. The Orlando Sentinel said the Thunder also sent cash to the Magic.

Johnson played 31 games last season for the Thunder with six starts. He averaged 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per game. The 7-footer averaged 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in 10 games for the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate, last season.

Center Alex Len reportedly reaches contract deal with Atlanta

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Five years ago, the Phoenix Suns had just drafted Alex Len at No. 5 overall and thought he would be the big man in the middle the team would build around. It didn’t work out that way, he never averaged double figures in either scoring or rebounding for a season. While Len has said he thought he was not used correctly, and there has been plenty of change and inconsistency in Phoenix, he never grabbed hold of the top job, either.

When the Suns drafted Deandre Ayton No. 1 last June, there was no chance they were bringing back Len next season. The unrestricted free agent is headed to Atlanta instead, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Free-agent center Alex Len has agreed to a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Len received interest from several teams in recent days before finalizing an agreement with the Hawks on Saturday.

Len is not going to space the floor, 73 percent of his shots came at the rim last season, but he’s become an efficient finisher there. He is good as a roll man, will work off the ball, and can post guys up on offense. He’s also strong on the offensive glass and gets points via putbacks. His game is not that of a modern NBA center, but he’s become efficient at what he does.

Len is going to have to earn his minutes in the ATL, rebuilding team or not there is some quality along the front line. John Collins, who made the All-Rookie team last season and was one of the standouts of Summer League, will start up front, possibly at the four with Dewayne Dedmon at the five. The just-drafted Omari Spellman showed potential at Summer League and could be the backup four, which means Len gets the backup center minutes.

Len is getting his new chance on a team that can give him some run, we’ll see if a change of scenery is what he needed.