Five things Houston must do to defeat Golden State

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Houston has a chance — it can beat Golden State.

This is the best team the Warriors have faced in the Kevin Durant era — a team built by Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey with knocking off the Warriors in mind. It’s not just adding a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul to the backcourt with James Harden that made them better, it’s adding switchable defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to the mix so they have the wings to better match up with Golden State. It’s the style of play, the role players, the entire package that works for Houston.

It all led to 65 wins and home court advantage for the Rockets — but now the real test starts in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. Best of seven between the two best teams in the NBA.

Here are five things the Rockets must do to win the series.

1) Find a way to slow Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry and his shooting is the fire that fuels the Warriors, with Klay Thompson creating sparks of his own. Draymond Green is the match, the accelerant that gets that fire started. Those guys can do it by themselves — they won a title before Durant got to town.

However, Durant is the X-factor, the single hardest player to account for and slow on Golden State. The reason is he can simply hit any shot — teams think they force Durant into tough shots (say a 17-foot fadeaway) and he just eats their lunch and buries it. He is as good a pure scorer as the game has, and with his height/length and high release, he is almost impossible to block or contest well.

The Rockets have to find a way — they can’t let KD just take over games. That starts before he gets the shot up — Durant’s handles are good but that’s the place to challenge him, try to get steals and don’t let him get to his spots on the floor. After that be physical with him, body him, get into him, don’t let him get comfortable. Do all that and Durant is still going to get some buckets, but the Rockets defenders — and there will be multiple of them, including Tucker and Clint Capela — have to make him work hard for those and be less efficient. If Durant goes off, the Rockets will struggle to keep up.

2) Clint Capela has to be a monster. So far in these playoffs, the young Rockets’ center has outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. It has been the Clint Capela coming out party, extending upon what he did all regular season long. Capela is crucial to this team’s success, and the Rockets are 50-5 in games where Harden, Paul, and Capela all play for a reason.

Golden State presents a different test. Caplea will destroy Kevon Looney if Steve Kerr starts that way, but the real test is when the Warriors go small to the “Hamptons’ five” lineups with Green at center — Capela will have to defend on the perimeter, handle Durant, and be able to stay on the floor. A lot of good bigs can’t be used against the Warriors small lineups, Capela has the athleticism and ability to cover on the perimeter to stay on the floor when the small lineups get rolling. He has to do that. The Rockets need his rim protection and what he can do on the short-roll after setting the pick (because the Warriors will, at times, trap Harden and Paul to make them give up the ball). For the Rockets to win this series, Capela has to outplay Green and every other big the Warriors throw out there.

3) Isolate and attack Curry with Harden and CP3. The biggest misunderstanding about these Rockets is that they are a classic Mike D’Antoni seven-seconds-or-less team. They are not. These Rockets were 14th in the NBA in pace during the regular season and have played even slower in the playoffs so far. More accurately, in the regular season, 20.3 percent of the Warriors possessions started in transition (highest percentage in the NBA), while the Rockets were at 15.8 percent (11th in the league). Which brings us to another note about this series — if the tempo is up and it’s a track meet, advantage Warriors.

What these Rockets do better than any other team is hunt out mismatches and exploit them. They use picks to force defensive switches to the matchup they want, then the Rockets attack that mismatch in isolation (or directly off that pick). In this series they are going to go at Curry hard — he is the weakest defensive link on that team. Curry has welcomed this challenge — and the Warriors have seen it before. Plenty. They have ways to “hide” Curry and keep him out of these situations, and also to help and cover for him. Curry is a better defender than people give him credit for, but if his knee injury is still limiting his lateral movement he can be vulnerable in space. The Rockets are going to go at him.

Conversely, another thing to watch — the Warriors will do the exact same thing to Harden in the halfcourt. Whichever player/team can defend better when the opponent works to isolate the weakest link will have a huge advantage.

4) It has to rain threes — every game. This is obvious but it has to be mentioned — the Rockets need to not only take but make their threes. More than 15 a game (their regular season average). Houston had 18 made threes (and shot 46 percent from deep) in their close-out win against the Jazz. However, the Rockets won Game 4 in that series with just 10 made threes and shooting 26 percent from three — they are not going to hold the Warriors to just 87 points and win that way. The game the Rockets lost to the Jazz they made only nine threes. They can’t run hot-and-cold from deep in this series, they don’t have that margin for error anymore. The Rockets need to win at least a couple of games this series just because they are ridiculously hot from three as a team. However, any nights they go cold they will lose, the Warriors are just too good.

5) James Harden and Chris Paul both must be on. In that closeout game against the Jazz, the headlines were about CP3 going off — 41 points, eight made threes, 10 assists. He was dominant. He had to be — Harden was off with 18 points on 22 shots, 1-of-7 from three, and almost as many turnovers as assists. Against most teams that is a luxury the Rockets have with their depth — a lousy night by one star can be made up for by a hot one from the other.

Not anymore. Against the Warriors and their depth and versatility, the Rockets need both stars to play well every game. No more off nights, no hitting the wall, no nights of frustration or it will cost the team a game. The Rockets’ two best players have to step up on the biggest stage.

The Rockets can beat the Warriors, but their margin for error is almost nil. They have to have their stars playing at their peak, Clint Capela owning the paint, and for the threes to fall. All things that can happen. The Rockets can win this series. However, it will take the best version of themselves to do that, and we’ll see if they can summon that enough in a seven-game series.

Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid is having fun again, which was bad news for Boston

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Joel Embiid is having fun again, which was bad news for Boston. This is how special a player Joel Embiid is: After dropping 22 and 10 on Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets on Tuesday night in a Sixers win, Shaq and Charles Barkley (on TNT’s Inside the NBA) ripped Embiid for not being dominant enough.

This is how special a player Joel Embiid was Thursday night: Boston’s Enes Kanter had probably his best game as a Celtics’ big man, and he couldn’t even slow Embiid, who had 38 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists. Embiid was the best player on the floor and was having fun in a 115-109 Philadelphia win on the road.

Shaq and Barkley are right to a degree, and Embiid even admitted as much after the game — he can be more dominant than he has shown this season. “Maybe. I do think they are right. I do need to be more aggressive. Look to impose myself. Look to dominate,” Embiid said, via Noah Levine at NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I think the whole season I haven’t done that and you can see the ways it’s affecting my efficiency and my stats. I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominate. I get what they are saying. I think they are right and I gotta make a change.”

Of course, Shaq won his rings when he didn’t have to be that dominant every night because he had someone else who could step up and take over (Kobe, Dwyane Wade). Nobody is sure who that would be on the Sixers. Tobias Harris stepped up with 23 points in this game, but Ben Simmons just has not been the guy the Sixers need. He finished the night with 7 points on 2-of-6 shooting. Josh Richardson seems to have more pick-and-roll chemistry with Embiid than Simmons. Still, Simmons makes a few plays every game that shows what he can be.

Philly also won this game because their defense was impressive in the second half. Their length bothered Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who shot a combined 8-of-27.

When the Sixers defend like they did in the second half, and when Embiid is dominant like he was, Philadelphia looks like the second-best team in the East and a threat to Milwaukee. We just haven’t seen it consistently this season.

Boston has now lost back-to-back games to good East teams — Indiana and Philadelphia — and while it’s just December and far too early to panic, it also shows why Boston may want to be active around the trade deadline if they can find a good deal (but stop with the Kevin Love talk, that’s not happening).

2) Former NBA Commissioner David Stern suffers brain hemorrhage, has to undergo emergency surgery. David Stern collapsed at a Manhattan restaurant on Thursday and was raced to a hospital where he underwent emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage. That means bleeding in or around the brain, and that is as bad and life-threatening as it sounds.

The NBA released this statement.

“NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage earlier today for which he underwent emergency surgery.  Our thoughts and prayers are with David and his family.”

The reaction around the NBA was immediate.

Stern, 77, took over as NBA commissioner back when Finals games were shown on tape delay after midnight on major networks. Stern came along at the right time — first the Magic/Bird era and rivalry, then Michael Jordan — but he understood what an opportunity this was for the league and changed how it marketed itself, it became a league of stars. That remains to this day. He grew the NBA into one of the most dominant sports leagues on the planet.

Our thoughts are with him and his family.

3) Luka Doncic muy impresionante in Mexico City. There were “M-V-P! M-V-P!” chants in the Arena Ciudad de Mexico Thursday night — Mexico City loves Luka Doncic.

Doesn’t everyone right now?

Doncic did everything right Thursday, from addressing the crowd pregame in fluent Spanish (he played for Real Madrid in Spain before coming to the NBA) to dropping a 41-point triple-double on the Pistons to get the Mavericks another win, 122-111. Doncic finished the night with 41 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists.

Seth Curry added 30 as the Pistons found out just how good that Dallas offense is. Kristaps Porzingis scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and got Andre Drummond’s attention.

Dallas is 17-7 on the season and looks like a team that could have home court for the first round of the playoffs.

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern undergoes emergency surgery following brain hemorrhage

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Let’s hope this is not as serious as it sounds.

David Stern, the man at the helm of the NBA through its explosion of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, collapsed in a New York restaurant Thursday and had to be rushed to a local hospital, where brain surgery was required.

Here is the NBA’s statement on the matter.

“NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage earlier today for which he underwent emergency surgery.  Our thoughts and prayers are with David and his family.”

The call to NYFD came in around 2 p.m., and he was taken from a restaurant straight to the hospital, according to reports.

Stern, 77, was a strong-willed leader when the NBA needed a direction. When he took over NBA Finals games were shown on tape delay after midnight on major networks. Stern oversaw the growth in the league’s popularity through the Magic/Bird era of the 1980s and into the Michael Jordan era of the 1990s. He grew the game and the league not only within domestic borders but internationally, branding the NBA as the best basketball played on the planet.

Our thoughts are with him and his family, hoping for a speedy recovery.

Glen “Big Baby” Davis pleads no contest to assault outside L.A. nightclub

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former NBA player Ronald Glen Davis avoided jail time after pleading no contest to a charge that he attacked a man outside a Los Angeles-area nightclub last year, prosecutors said Thursday.

Davis, 33, was accused of throwing the victim into a wall during an altercation in West Hollywood on April 8, 2018.

He entered his plea Wednesday to one felony count of battery with serious bodily injury, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said.

As part of a plea agreement, Davis is required to complete 320 hours of community labor over the next year. If he meets that condition and breaks no other laws, the battery count will be reduced to a misdemeanor, prosecutors said.

Davis also paid $104,479 in restitution.

Known by the nickname “Big Baby,” Davis played for the Boston Celtics, the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Clippers. Since retiring from the NBA he played in the Big3, where his team the Power won the 2018 title.

Another report Knicks president Steve Mills is on hot seat

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We’ve discussed these reports before, and they shouldn’t be a surprise:

Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry are on the hot seat and could be removed after the season. This time the report comes from the well-connected Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

Several members of the organization said this week that they fully expect Mills will be replaced as team president at the end of the season — if not sooner — unless the club somehow turns things around…

A source said last week that Mills and Perry are under significant pressure following the firing of head coach David Fizdale. If Mills is let go the Knicks will likely turn their attention to Toronto exec Masai Ujiri. Sam Presti also has fans within the organization. If Mills was let go in season, the expectation is that Perry would take over for the remainder of the year.

On head coaching front, we can add that Jason Kidd and Mark Jackson have support within the organization.

Let’s leave the head coaching rumors alone for now, because whoever is the guy with the hammer in the front office next summer is the guy who should make that call.

Two things should concern Knicks fans here.

First, the report states Mills likely is replaced “unless the club somehow turns things around.” There is a long and storied list of horrific trades made by POBOs/GMs desperate to save their jobs. The kind of moves that ties the hands of whoever comes in next for years. If owner James Dolan is serious about bringing in someone with a track record of success — and giving them complete and total authority — then Dolan can’t let Mills start making desperation trades at the deadline to try and save his job. If interim coach Mike Miller can start winning with this roster as is, that’s different (and highly unlikely), but don’t let Mills mess up the future to marginally improve the present.

Second is this question: Will Mills be re-assigned to a new position with the Knicks — so Dolan keeps his man in the building — or is he shown the door? That will be the tell about the future of the Knicks. Phil Jackson, the executive with the most power in the past couple of decades for the Knicks, was not allowed to remove Mills (among other times he was handcuffed in making changes). Not having that power is why at least one big-name candidate told NBC Sports he stepped back during the last team president hiring process. There is zero chance Ujiri or Presti or any other candidate with options takes the job if Mills just gets shuffled around again.

It’s the Knicks and James Dolan, predict what will happen at your own risk.