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.

Report: NBA asked Drake not to attend games in Oakland

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Emotions were running high during the NBA Finals among the fan bases: The Raptors were on their way to their first-ever title and their fans were loud even on the road; In Oakland, there was a part-owner of the team shoving Kyle Lowry.

Drake giving Nick Nurse a shoulder massage on the sidelines at Oracle would not have gone over well.

So the NBA encouraged Drake not to come to the games in Oakland, according to a report from TMZ.

The NBA reached out to Drake and asked him not to travel to Oakland for any of the NBA Finals games at Oracle Arena due to “security concerns,” multiple sources tell TMZ Sports.

We’re told the league expressed concern about potentially angry Warriors fans doing something stupid like taunting Drake or throwing stuff at him … which wouldn’t just put Drake at risk, but also other people sitting near him.

In the end, they all agreed it was best for Drake to stay in Toronto for the away games — with Drake ultimately leading the Raptor fan watch party at Jurassic Park during Game 6.

They chose… wisely. I have no doubt the NBA encouraged this move, it only makes sense.

Besides, the last thing these Finals needed was more Drake.

Winners and Losers in blockbuster Anthony Davis trade

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It is very possible both teams at the heart of this blockbuster trade — the Lakers and Pelicans — get what they want out of this deal. Which is rare. It’s the goal, no GM makes a trade thinking they lost the trade, but usually someone comes out on the short end.

This time, the Lakers — a team that has missed the playoffs six years in a row — got their man now have two of the top seven players in the league. Meanwhile, the Pelicans have (or will after Thursday’s draft) Zion Williamson and are set up in the short term to be entertaining, and in four years or so could be a beast in their own right.

But there are losers to go with the winners in this trade, here is the breakdown.

Winner: Anthony Davis.

The man got where he wanted to go. He felt he toiled in obscurity in New Orleans, and that the small market franchise had done a poor job building a team around him (which is absolutely true). Davis believed he wasn’t getting the endorsements and attention he deserved. That changes now (and be careful what you wish for). This summer he will lead Team USA at the World Cup in China, then come back and play next to LeBron James in Los Angeles — the brightest of all spotlights — with a team that has the potential to contend. Davis got exactly what he wanted, now he just has to stay healthy and take advantage of it.

Winner: LeBron James.

At LeBron’s first press conference in Los Angeles, he said he knew he needed to be patient as they built this team to contend around him… and everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen. He’s 34, he not at that point in his career where patience is an option. Now he has another elite star around him — and a perfect complementary player for his game. It should work. The pressure now is on Laker GM Rob Pelinka to fill out the roster with role players who can make this a contender, because star power alone is not enough in today’s NBA.

Loser: Boston Celtics.

Danny Ainge had a plan and haul of assets to pull it off (thanks again Brooklyn). The Celtics signed Gordon Hayward, traded for Kyrie Irving, drafted well and developed those players, things were coming together… and then it all fell apart. Boston didn’t land Paul George or Kawhi Leonard in trades. Hayward had the freak injury and is not back to his old self yet. Irving became disenfranchised this season and now he has one foot out the door (likely to Brooklyn). Rich Paul kept saying Davis would only be a rental in Boston. All of that meant Ainge couldn’t go all-in on a Davis trade like he had planned (throwing in Jayson Tatum specifically), and once again Boston missed out. Ainge is a great GM, don’t get me wrong, but this shows how hard to put together these multi-year plans in the NBA and pull them off. In an East with Toronto (who may or may not be the same after this summer), Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, Boston has a lot of work to do to get back to contender status.

Winner: Rich Paul.

Fans may not like his tactics — and there were miscalculations along the way — but the job of an agent is to get his clients where they want and what they want. Rich Paul has done precisely that. The man orchestrated this. His client LeBron is in Los Angeles where he wants to be, and now has a running partner in another Paul client, one who now has the spotlight he wanted. It may not have happened on the timeline Paul wanted, but he may be the biggest winner in this whole thing.

Loser: The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Knicks have big free agent plans this summer, and maybe Kevin Durant still comes (and plays, eventually). However, the longshot dream of landing Davis is dead, and worse yet now there is another major player for elite free agents in the game. One that is a better draw than New York as you read this. Maybe this summer works out for New York, but in the past week the market got a lot more complex.

Twenty-four hours ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were the best free agent destination in Los Angeles. Now…. they may still land Kawhi Leonard (or he may choose to stay in Toronto for a year or two, who knows?) but the Lakers are still the Lakers in that market. And now the Lakers are the big free agent draw.

Winner: David Griffin and the New Orleans Pelicans.

When the Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery — and essentially the rights to draft Zion Williamson — the calculus of this trade changed a little. They now had the potential superstar/top-five player, it became a matter of building along that timeline. This trade does that. New team VP David Griffin had leverage (the Lakers needed a star and this was their best chance) and he used it to get a haul. Maybe the Pelicans keep Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, maybe those two get flipped for other players, and that same thing is true of the draft picks, starting with the No. 4 in this draft. Bottom line, Griffin got this franchise the building blocks to contend, and while there is work to do to reach that level in the short term this team is going to be fun to watch.

Loser: Dell Demps and Magic Johnson.

The nuts and bolts of this trade could have been worked out at the trade deadline if egos and emotions had been put aside. They weren’t. In New Orleans, there was anger at the timing and nature of Rich Paul’s trade request, which led to people above Demps shooting down the idea of any trade with the Lakers. Demps wouldn’t even talk to Pelinka — only Magic, and barely that — and wasn’t able to manage up and get the people above him on board (Griffin pulled that off). Magic, when he was in the office, bungled this and killed the Lakers’ locker room chemistry in the process. That it got done this June, and with far fewer back-and-forth rumors, doesn’t reflect well on the guys out the door.

Winner: Lakers fans (and their sense of exceptionalism).

There is some pushback on this trade in Lakers nation. Fans become emotionally attached to and overvalue draft picks the team brings in, fans watch them develop and see them as “their guy.” Those fans don’t want to give up Ingram and Ball and Josh Hart (and a lot of picks), and they are right that is a lot of assets… and the Lakers got Anthony freakin’ Davis. The Lakers now have two of the top seven players on the face of the earth. This is what Lakers fans expect — stars to come to them, and for them to contend. In Los Angeles, Lakers’ exceptionalism is a real thing. That faith has been rewarded. Savor that.

Loser: LaVar Ball.

Does this even need to be explained?

Pelicans get haul in Anthony Davis trade; become League Pass favorite

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Picture Lonzo Ball in transition throwing lobs to Zion Williamson

The New Orleans Pelicans just became must-watch television. They are early contenders for League Pass favorites next season.

Teams never get equal value back when trading a superstar, but the Pelicans did as well as could be hoped in the Anthony Davis trade agreed to on Saturday (it can’t be executed until July for salary cap reasons). You can make an argument the Pelicans won that trade in the long term. New Orleans landed Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first round picks (including this year’s No. 4) and a series of pick swaps. The Pelicans are not committed to that group, they could flip those players and the picks for something they want more, but one thing remains clear:

The Pelicans are going to be fun to watch.

Zion Williamson was already the kind of player that makes you stop and watch, the kind of player you can’t take your eyes off of. Thunderous dunks in transition are coming.

Coach Alvin Gentry likes to play fast — New Orleans played at the second-fastest pace in the NBA last season. That is the style where Lonzo Ball thrives. Ball plays an instinctual style of game suited to the open court, where his court vision and passing can take advantage of a scrambling defense. It’s kind of a playground style. It worked well with the Lakers when they ran two seasons ago (they played fast this season, but when LeBron was on the court it was different). Brandon Ingram can finish in transition, plus he will become a go-to shot creator in the half court for New Orleans. He’s going to get the kind of touches he wants.

Jrue Holiday with Ball will form an outstanding defensive backcourt.

And the Pelicans have the No. 4 pick in this draft, which means Jarrett Culver could join them on the wing, a shooter and finisher with a great feel for the game.

Make no mistake, Pelicans president David Griffin rolled the dice here, he chose to go young rather than get an established All-Star back. Ball has an injury history already and Ingram has not lived up to the hype. The picks (including Williamson) may not pan out as hoped, and if the Lakers are as good as they think they will be those could be some late round picks.

Still, the haul from this trade is the kind that transforms franchises. New Orleans has a real chance to be good fast.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be must-watch television.

These Pelicans are going to be entertaining.

LeBron James welcomes Anthony Davis to Lakers

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LeBron James got exactly what he wanted — a young superstar to play with him, a guy who can be a force on both ends of the court. The kind of elite player the Lakers needed to not only make the playoffs next season but be a threat to win the West.

Anthony Davis got what he wanted — out of small market New Orleans to the brightest spotlight in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers. He will go unnoticed by casual fans no more.

A happy LeBron welcomed Davis to Los Angeles.

The Lakers gave up a lot to get Davis — some Lakers fans would argue too much — but they have landed two of the top seven players in the world (when healthy). Round out the roster wisely with veterans (and get some shooters this time) and the Laker can move into a crowded list of contenders next season (with the Warriors headed for a down year, teams are lining up to take their shot).

Lakers fans should be happy, what is in this Instagram post is going to win them a lot of games.