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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.

 

Lakers’ Anthony Davis ‘good to go’ for Game 5 despite sprained ankle

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This was expected, but when the Lakers officially listed Anthony Davis as questionable for Game 5 with a sprained ankle, it raised a few eyebrows.

Davis will play in Game 5 Saturday night, coach Frank Vogel said pregame.

Anthony Davis sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and while he stayed in the game there were questions about how it would respond the next day.

The Lakers are up 3-1 on a Denver team they know will not be easy to close out.

To do that, Los Angeles needs Davis: When AD has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

The Lakers want to close out in five games to get some added rest. The NBA Finals are expected to start next Wednesday, Sept. 30 (unless one conference finals series goes seven games, then it is likely Friday, Oct. 2). If the Lakers lose Saturday but win Game 6 Monday it would be a short turnaround (as it would be after a Game 7).

Denver, however, has played its best basketball whenever it has faced the prospect of packing its bags and going home.

New York congressman insults Knicks, James Dolan funds opponent

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Things are changing with the Knicks. Leon Rose is in the front office, Tom Thibodeau is the coach, and together they are talking about developing players and having a plan moving forward. It’s a reason for hope…

Then there’s James Dolan.

Max Rose, a Democratic congressman from Staten Island, echoed the voice for a lot of Knicks fans when he said: “I’m a Knicks fan to the day I die, but Dolan’s gotta sell. Right now, this is an absolute disgrace.”

We have seen how Dolan reacts to fans saying he should sell the team. In the case of Rose, he is fundraising for the Republican running against him. It would be easy to say “Dolan is a big President Donald Trump supporter and donates to GOP causes all the time” and this isn’t personal, except Dolan sent out an email to help raise funds for Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis and the New York Post got a hold of it.

“Max Rose thinks he can make our team and my ownership his political platform,” Dolan wrote in a personal email to friends last week that was obtained by The Post. “I need to let him know that we will not stand for this. The best way to do this is to help his opponent. He is in a tight race for the US Congress in Staten Island. … Please join me in helping Nicole defeat Max Rose for Congress.

“It will help send a strong message to all NY politicians that the Knicks will not be their political ticket to reelection.

That’s personal. Dolan isn’t just asking other people to donate.

A $50,000 check from MSG Sports was cut Tuesday to “The Governing Majority Fund,” a PAC run by former Reps. John Faso and Jeff Denham, Dolan confirmed. The PAC’s mission is to help Republicans take back the House.

Rose represents New York’s 11th District, a solid Republican district until the 2018 midterms when it became one of 30 districts nationally that flipped blue. The GOP is trying to turn a number of those back, including Rose’s district.

Whatever you think of Rose’s politics (he’s a former Army Ranger, which helped him in a more conservative district), what he said about wanting Dolan to sell the franchise is what many Knicks fans are thinking. Dolan just doesn’t like to hear it. Maybe Rose and Thibodeau can turn the Knicks around — they certainly deserve a chance — but the team has struggled since Dolan became the owner and that’s not a coincidence.

Whatever Rose and Knicks fans want, it’s also highly unlikely Dolan sells the team, there are no rumblings about that around the league (and he certainly has had chances).

Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps shifts to become Jazz assistant coach

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While teams have moved away from anyone in a dual coach/GM role, some people bounce between coach and the front office around the NBA: Steve Kerr was once the Suns’ GM before being the Warriors coach; Sean Marks was on the bench in San Antonio before moving to their front office and eventually the head guy in Brooklyn.

Now Dell Demps is making that move. The former general manager for the New Orleans Pelicans, who was let go a year ago, will be an assistant coach on Quin Synder’s staff in Utah. Demps was the GM of the Spurs G-League team years back and hired Snyder to coach it.

“I was fortunate to work with Dell to begin my career as a head coach in professional basketball and I know he will delve into his role on the bench,” Snyder said in a statement. “He has an incredible work ethic and commitment to his craft. His vast experience both as a player and in front office roles brings a unique perspective that will be invaluable to our team. We’re excited to welcome him to the Jazz.”

“I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with Coach Snyder again,” Demps said. “I have always had tremendous respect for Quin and the Jazz organization. I look forward to joining this talented coaching staff and working with our players. My wife Anita and I couldn’t be more excited to make the move to Utah and become a part of a tremendous community.”

Demps was not the only hire by Snyder, who is also bringing former NBA player Keyon Dooling. He played for 13 years in the league and then has worked with the National Basketball Players Association in various roles — most recently as a wellness counselor and mental health advocate — in recent years. Dooling played for two years at Missouri in college, a team coached by Snyder.

“Keyon is a fantastic addition for us on multiple levels and someone I’ve always had tremendous respect for since our time at Missouri where we formed a close bond that has continued throughout the years,” said Snyder. “He’s a natural leader who was a captain on multiple teams in the league and I have no doubt that the way he approached the game as a player will translate to the work he puts in with our roster on the court.”

New Kings’ GM doesn’t change fact De’Aaron Fox expects max contract extension

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New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair is just getting the photos of his family framed and settling into his office, but he’s made one critical decision already: Luke Walton will be back as Sacramento’s coach. McNair also decided he wants to see the Kings return to more of the up-tempo style of a couple of seasons ago (before Walton arrived). Looming after that is the 2020 NBA Draft, where the Kings have the No. 12 pick.

When free agency comes, the question becomes: Will the Sacramento Kings offer De'Aaron Fox a max contract extension?

The young point guard expects one, reports James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area.

League sources have confirmed to NBC Sports California that the Kings, under previous management, already had a discussion with Fox’s representation on an extension.

Depending on where the NBA’s final salary cap numbers come in, Fox is eligible for a five-year max money contract worth between $150-180 million. Don’t expect a discounted rate. He will ask for and likely get whatever the maximum is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

If the salary cap were to remain flat for two years (possible, but not probable), a five-year max extension to Fox’s rookie contract is $158 million. The number will likely be higher than that, and if Fox makes a huge leap and becomes an All-NBA player, it jumps up to nearly $190 million (not likely to happen, but not impossible).

Fox averaged 21.1 points and 6.8 assists per game last season, but fully healthy he stepped up his play in the bubble averaging 26.2 points a game on 50.4% shooting and dishing out 7.3 assists a game. He was by far the Kings’ best player.

In the bubble, the Kings seemed to lack an identity. What kind of team did they want to be? McNair has come in and decided that — this is going to be an uptempo, transition team. Fox would be at the heart of that plan.

McNair said at his introductory press conference he sees Fox as a cornerstone piece.

“De’Aaron is an incredible young talent,” McNair said. “I’ve loved to see what he’s done and what he’s improved on over the years and he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”

If this team is going to get back to running more, Fox is as good a ball-handler and decision-maker in transition as the league has. The Kings need to pay to keep him happy, then get players to go around him that fit that style. Expect McNair to spend the next season evaluating and shifting the roster around to fit that style. The problem is the pressure of the playoffs — the Kings haven’t been in 14 years, one short of tying the Donald Sterling Clippers for the longest drought in league history. There is pressure from ownership to make the playoffs and start winning sooner rather than later. It will be a tough balancing act for McNair. Welcome to sitting in the big chair.

Deciding to pay Fox may be the easiest of his decisions.