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Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals

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Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.

Really, they were all about the 3-point line.

In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.

While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?

How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?

Right.

D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.

Boy, was that wrong.

D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.

Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.

Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.

It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.

Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.

The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.

In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.

Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.