Golden State looks every bit the juggernaut in Game 1 win in Houston

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Golden State would like to remind you they are the defending NBA champions. For good reason.

Houston brought its MVP to the table in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals and James Harden had 41 points on 24 shots, hit five threes and had seven assists. The Rockets brought the three ball and took 37 of them (hitting 35.1 percent). They brought their switching defense aimed directly and dealing with the Warriors.

None of it mattered.

Kevin Durant looked like the MVP he once was too with 37 points on 27 shots. The Warriors hit just as many threes as the Rockets (in four fewer shots). More importantly, they picked apart the lapses in the Rockets switching defense — and there were plenty, more and more as the game wore on and players got tired. Klay Thompson kept getting uncontested threes (he had 28 points). Harden was a defensive liability and the Warriors directly targeted him.

The result was a 119-106 Golden State win in Game 1 on the road, where the Warriors were comfortably ahead through the final minutes of the game.

The Warriors now lead the series 1-0 and look in control, having won the first game on the Rockets’ home court.

The big difference in this game was the defense — the Warriors were solid, making the Rockets really work hard for their buckets on every possession. The Rockets would do that for stretches, but then have breakdowns in matchups or effort that led to layups or uncontested threes.

The Rockets tried to make Durant work for his buckets, but it usually just didn’t matter.

“Kevin is the ultimate luxury,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “A play can break down and you just throw him the ball. He can get a bucket as well as anybody on Earth.”

Harden went off in this one — as he has done in the first couple games of the first two rounds of the playoffs — and in this game the Rockets relentlessly targeted Stephen Curry, setting picks to force him onto Harden. Curry did not have a standout offensive night (18 points, eight assists), but he battled Harden as best he could on defense, gave a full effort and make Harden put in the effort. Draymond Green was able to help a lot, especially when Clint Capela sat (he needs to play more, especially late), but give Curry credit for the effort.

“If that’s the game plan they want to stick with, my job is to make it as tough as possible,” Curry said.

“We know James is an all-world scorer, he’s gonna make shots over us, we just try to stay solid,” Durant said.

Houston got the start it wanted — Harden hit a couple of stepback threes early, one over Curry. Harden opened the game with 12 fast points on 4-of-6 shooting. Green cane out over-hyped and emotional, picked up a needless technical for shoving Harden, and made some defensive mistakes. Capela was making plays on defense in the paint and held his own.

“Well, they home for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, we knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy, especially after that long layoff,” Durant said. “We just tried to take that first punch and keep fighting.”

Keep fighting they did. The Warriors were the Warriors. They stayed steady, Kevin Durant had 17 points in the first half, Klay Thompson hit a couple of threes and Nick Young came out of nowhere to drain three more from deep in the first half.

The Rockets never pulled away, it was 30-29 Houston after one quarter, and 56-56 at the half. It felt like a blow chance.

Durant owned the third, with 13 points, and the Warriors stretched their lead out to double digits, but a late 8-0 Rockets run kept it close 87-80 after three. Still, the Rockets just could not execute well enough down the stretch.

The Warriors could. They have done this before. And unless the Rockets find another couple of gears, the Warriors are going to again.

Elton Brand on 76ers contending for a championship: ‘I think we still need a piece’

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Elton Brand last played in the NBA in April of 2016. Now, in September of 2018 he is the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 17-year NBA veteran helms one of the best young teams in the NBA, and takes over a GM position that has previously been under turmoil. Brand has perhaps been blessed with the departure of LeBron James from the Eastern Conference, but so too will other teams try to take over that perennial top spot.

The Boston Celtics have similar assets to Philadelphia, with proven stars mixed with an excellent supporting cast and young players who could develop into stars themselves. The Toronto Raptors are a very good team who just added a Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard. The road ahead will be tough.

But the Sixers still have cap space and they are still looking for a third star to fill a necessary role on their team. Brand said as much during a recent appearance on ESPN, and from all indications it looks like he’s not going to be shy about pulling the trigger either in free agency or in the trade market if he feels he can solidify the Sixers’ position in the east.

Via ESPN:

Everyone talks about free agency, but we may have to pull the trigger on something else before free agency. If we feel we can’t get one of those stars that I can’t name. I still think we need a piece. We’re close. If you ask Joel [Embiid] we have enough and if you ask Ben [Simmons] we have enough, because that’s the chip they have on their shoulder … they don’t want to hear that, but I think we still need a piece.

Brand went on to say that he felt like development was also important in this process, and that it’s possible that Philadelphia has their additional star in Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, or both.

Philadelphia has reportedly been one of the teams that has jumped into initial conversations with the Minnesota Timberwolves about trading for Jimmy Butler. Whether or not Butler is the right move for the Sixers notwithstanding, that Brand appear is ready to wheel and deal certainly is interesting.

Anthony Davis picks new agent, signs with LeBron James’ rep Rich Paul

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The NBA offseason isn’t over just quite yet, so people are naturally ready to jump at any rumor they can get their hands on. On Sunday, it was announced that New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis had signed with Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group, and the Twittersphere exploded.

Davis, 25, has two seasons left on his current contract until he can use a player option to end his deal early and choose another location if he pleases.

Of course, the rampant speculation here — which is baseless, I might add — is that Davis could be looking to jump ship from the Pelicans, with Paul helping to create pressure for such a deal.

Via Twitter:

There is some speculation that Davis could become trade bait as soon as next summer if the Pelicans fail to meet the expectations foist upon them after their first round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers during last season’s playoffs. New Orleans no longer has the talents of DeMarcus Cousins, although they played spectacularly without him following his Achilles injury going into the end of the year. The West got tougher, and the Pelicans will also have to play without Rajon Rondo, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The coming season will be Davis’ seventh in Louisiana, and it has long been rumored that he could be a trade prospect or might want to sign in a different market. Signing with Klutch Sports Group puts Davis at the center of speculation that he could join LeBron James on the Lakers, as James is a good friend of Paul and a fellow Klutch client.

Players exchange agents all the time, and just because an agent has a specific track record doesn’t mean that anything is set in stone. The NBA is weird like that. However, It’s not completely unreasonable to raise an eyebrow at Davis joining up with Paul after leaving longtime agent Thad Foucher earlier in September. What Paul does have a rep for is getting his players paid handsomely, which is probably the main thing Davis will be looking for.

New Orleans can offer Davis the vaunted super max contract once he is up for an extension.

New lottery rules change tanking incentives, starting this season

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To paraphrase Jerry Tarkanian, the NBA is so mad at the 76ers, it’ll keep the Hawks losing another couple years.

The NBA finally enacted lottery reform that will take effect this season. The measures appeared designed to curb Sam Hinkie’s ambitious multi-year tank, but Philadelphia has already reaped the rewards of The Process. The 76ers, led by former high draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are one of the league’s top teams and extremely unlikely to land in the lottery. It’s the next generation of losing teams, like Atlanta, that will feel the brunt of these changes.

Generally, the new rules reduce incentives to chase the league’s worst record. The very-bottom teams face greater variance and worse expected outcomes than previously. The top six seeds in the lottery became less valuable than before, the 7-14 seeds more valuable than before.

In the previous system, the three worst teams had 250, 199 and 156 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-three picks were drawn then the next 11 picks were slotted in reverse order of record.

Now, the three worst teams each have 140 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-four picks are drawn then the next 10 picks are slotted in reverse order of record.

There’s several ways to measure the changes, but here a a few based on lottery seed in the old system (orange) and new system (blue):

Odds of No. 1 pick:

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Odds of top-four pick:

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Expected pick:

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The “big” change is the bottom three teams all have the same odds of getting drawn, creating an illusion there’s no difference between finishing last or third-to-last. But the last-place team still gets slotted ahead of the second-worst and third-worst (and second-worst ahead of third-worst) if none get drawn in the lottery.

Simply, teams are still incentivized to chase the league’s very worst record. The incentives aren’t as strong as they once were, but they still exist.

And the upside remains just as high. Top draft picks are so valuable – a chance to add elite young talent on a relatively cheap contract that comes with five years of team control that, practically, extends much longer.

So, how will teams handle this changing structure?

Decisions will be fascinating among more than just the lowest of cellar-dwellers. Several teams have traded first-round picks this season that contain protections within the lottery. The Mavericks owe the Hawks a top-five protected first-rounder. The Cavaliers owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder. The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight-protected first-rounder. The Nuggets owe the Nets a top-12-protected first-rounder. Those owing teams all face a new batch of decisions of when to give up on trying to make the playoffs and aim to keep that pick.

I mostly share the view that lottery reform won’t change much, particularly on a year-to-year basis. But the cumulative effect could be larger on some teams.

Hinkie’s 76ers were an anomaly. Few teams set out to tank for that long. Many more tanked for a season, knowing that would result in a high draft pick. With a new touted prospect in hand, those teams usually attempted to ascend.

But now, far less is guaranteed. Before, the second-worst team was likely to land a top-three pick and was guaranteed a top-five pick. Now, the second-worst team is likely to pick between No. 4 and No. 6. In that lower range, the team might get stuck with a lesser prospect who leaves it stuck losing again the following year.

At minimum, lottery reform adds uncertainty to a league that had grown familiar with the previous system and how teams proceeded within it. We can all guess how teams will act in the new system, but this season will provide much more tangible clarity.

Kyrie Irving says he hasn’t talked with Jimmy Butler about joining Knicks

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If you listen to some people, they believe that NBA stars are constantly scheming to end up together on certain teams, years in advance of their pending free agency. That was partially the case for the Miami Heat when Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh teamed up together. But we can’t always verify what players are talking about together, and of course they are free to have those conversations. NBA players have more agency than ever in 2018.

One rumor that has been floating around the NBA sphere as of late is the idea of disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler pairing up with current Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving on the New York Knicks next season. Butler has an option to get out of his current contract at the end of 2019, as does Irving.

Things are getting messy with Butler out in Minnesota, with the latest news being that owner Glen Taylor has decided to circumvent his front office team and offer Butler up for trade himself. Meanwhile, Irving still has not signed an extension with the Celtics, which has some fans in Boston nervous.

Of course, someone was going to have to give Irving the chance to respond to the rumors that he wants to team up with Butler, and Jackie MacMullan over at ESPN did just that in a recent feature with the Celtics star. For his part, Irving says that he has not spoken with Butler about teaming up or anything related to career decisions since 2016.

Via ESPN:

Irving said he’s aware that he’s been linked to Jimmy Butler in persistent free-agent rumors regarding a mutual desire to play together in New York, but he said he’s had no such discussions with Butler. In fact, he said, the last time he talked to Butler at length was when they were both playing with USA Basketball, and the two engaged in a spitballing session along with Durant and Cousins about what the future held for each of them.

“And that,” Irving laughed, “was in 2016.”

Players publicly denying things that could actually be true is nothing new. Readers can take Irving at his word, or continue to be suspicious. It’s your prerogative to decide, although admittedly there are few external factors that will help you confirm whether two players will actually end up on a team in this manner together.

Set aside whether actual planning has gone on: As we have seen with players like Paul George, the expanse of the NBA season can change sentiments for where players would like to play in the future. Nothing is set in stone, even if it feels that way.

At least one report has said that Butler’s interest in the Knicks has been overstated, and that he would like to win now rather than later. Certainly, adding him and Irving to the New York roster would help them move up a few rungs, but it’s unclear whether it would put the Knicks on top of major competition in the Eastern Conference.

For now, we have to sit tight and wait and see where Butler will end up. We likely won’t have to wait more than a few days.