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.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly targeting Sunday for return from calf strain

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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How much the Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard was on clear display Tuesday night in maybe their ugliest loss of the season. The Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, Anfernee Simons was on his way to putting up 37, and they were facing a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Yet Portland came from ahead to lose. Their defense was bested by the unstoppable offensive weapon that is Nicholas Batum (32 points). Portland just let go of the rope in this one.

The Trail Blazers are now 1-4 with Lillard out with a strained calf (the second time this year). The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is targeting Sunday against the Pacers for a return, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

Haynes is well connected with the Lillard camp, this is a report that can be trusted.

Portland is trying to keep its head above water and is now 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week, with games at the Lakers and at the Jazz before Lillard’s targeted return.

Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to seeing before he was slowed by an abdominal injury that required surgery.

Bulls extended coach Billy Donovan before season started

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls
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Bulls’ fans are not thrilled with a 9-11 team sitting 11th in the East, outside the play-in.

Bulls’ management is not either, but they aren’t laying the blame at the feet of coach Billy Donovan — in fact, they extended him just before the season began, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic and since confirmed by Bulls’ media relations staff to K.C. Johnson NBC Sports Chicago.

Why the extension? Because Donovan and head of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have a tight relationship, Johnson writes.

Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.

And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.

No details about the length of the extension were made public.

This is a decision about stability. Donovan is a solid coach and the front office trusts him. That’s enough to get some extra years on your deal in Chicago.

The Bulls’ issues are not because of Donovan, it’s more a roster that has a “playoff team but not much more” ceiling — a ceiling that is lower this season due to injuries forcing constantly shifting rotations. The Bulls are especially hamstrung without the defense and transition play of Lonzo Ball (still out after another knee surgery). Chicago has defended well this season without Ball (10th in the league), but the offense is bottom 10 and misses the easy buckets Ball helps get with his passing and transition (plus he can knock down some 3s). Donovan has done a respectable job with the players he has.

That is good enough in Chicago to get a few more years.

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavericks still win behind Doncic’s 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.