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Forget the isolation offense, Rockets’ awful Game 1 defense is much bigger problem

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The image from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals that should keep coach Mike D’Antoni up at night is not Kevin Durant taking fadeaway jumpers right over the top of P.J. Tucker, or even Stephen Curry working hard and getting a couple of steals off James Harden as the Rockets tried to isolate him on defense.

No, Houston’s nightmares should be filled with Klay Thompson hitting wide open, uncontested three after uncontested three.

Thompson took 18 shots in Game 1 and only four were contested (according to the NBA’s tracking data). He finished with 28 points and six made threes on 15 attempts. All game long Harden — the primary defender on Thomspon much of the night — either got burned by Thompson on cuts or just lost him as he tried to switch and help on others. Nine of Curry’s 15 shots were also uncontested. Harden, despite his 41 points on one end of the floor, was a defensive mess that the Warriors targeted all night long in Game 1.

A lot was made — both on the national broadcast and in writing out of that game — about the Rockets isolation-heavy offense and how the Warriors defended that. It is worth some discussion, although that is precisely how the Rockets have played all season — slowing the pace (they were 14th in the NBA) and hunting out mismatches with Harden and Chris Paul, two of the best isolation players in the game. Points for everyone else came off those actions. That is who the Rockets are now.

The Rockets bigger problem in Game 1 was their switching defense — the Warriors had a 118.4 offensive rating for the game (points scored per 100 possessions, stats via Cleaning the Glass), with a ridiculous team true shooting percentage of 65.4.

If the Rockets can’t do a better job of getting stops, this is going to be a short series.

“When you get this deep in the playoffs, it’s all about defense. You have to be a great defensive team to win a championship,” Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “You just have to be.”

The Rockets had the sixth-best defense in the NBA in the regular season, but they looked nothing like that in Game 1. They couldn’t get the ball out of the hands of Durant, Curry, or Thompson.

The Warriors three best players — three of the best shooters/scorers in the game today — were able to get up 60 of the Warriors 80 shots in this game (and a combined 26 three-point attempts). If the best scorers in the world get to take 75 percent of the team’s shot attempts, the Warriors are going to win. Meanwhile, the guys most teams want to force to shoot didn’t have too much: Andre Iguodala took just three shots, Draymond Green five, Kevon Looney one. Every game one of the Warriors’ big three is going to get up a lot of shots, but if all three of them do (and a lot of those looks are not contested) it’s going to be a long night.

“(Durant is) seven feet, shoots falling away, he’s one of the best scorers ever, right?” D’Antoni said. “I thought he was extremely good. We can withstand that. We can’t withstand turning the ball over, missing layups, Klay Thompson got up 15 threes — he can’t get up 15 threes. We’re switching everything and staying out for that reason. So we have to clean up some stuff.”

All season long the Rockets switched everything defensively — every on and off the ball pick, even when they didn’t have to — in preparation for this series. Against the Warriors’ versatility switching is needed and must be seamless. Houston did not do that in Game 1.

The Rockets did do a couple good things defensively, such as limiting the Warriors in transition. Golden State started 15.3 percent of their possessions in this game in transition, a much lower percentage than in the regular season (when the Warriors were north of 20 percent). However, when the Warriors did run they were very efficient, scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

It was not enough. The Rockets need to be much better in Game 2.

The Rockets need more Clint Capela on Wednesday night — he had a couple of blocks and played respectable defense in this game.

More than that, the Rockets need better team defense from guys like Harden, Paul, Trevor Ariza, Tucker and the rest. They need to contest shots, and they need to not let the Warriors best shooters — again, some of the best shooters in the game — take the 75 percent of the team’s shots.

The Rockets will score more points in Game 2 and going forward in this series. They will find their spots against the Warriors defense.

None of that will matter if Houston doesn’t get more stops. Defense is going to win them this series.

 

Reports: Nets to buyout Kenneth Faried, who will sign with Rockets

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He seems to have found it in a guy the Brooklyn Nets are ready to let go — Kenneth Faried. The Nets are buying him out and “the Manimal” will instantly sign in Houston.

Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN filled in the details.

Faried would step in instantly in Houston and get the kind of run he was not in Brooklyn, where he appeared in just a dozen games this season for a total of 118 minutes. When he did play for the Nets Faried has looked solid — 59.5 percent shooting, strong on the boards — but it was hard to read much into his limited run. Faried will bring hustle and effort to Houston, we’ll see how much skill he has left.

The Rockets need to clear a roster spot to sign Faried. While the team does have Carmelo Anthony on the roster but in limbo, the more likely solution is letting go of the just signed James Nunnally.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).