Rockets give Warriors their biggest playoff loss since signing Kevin Durant

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The Warriors were treated as invincible ever since they signed Kevin Durant, and for the most, their play has only fueled the perception.

The Rockets looked like an atypically strong challenger, but a crushing Game 1 Golden State win in the conference finals instilled major doubt about Houston’s offense, defense and general ability to keep up.

The Rockets answered those question with a resounding 127-105 Game 2 win Wednesday to even the series, 1-1. The 22-point defeat is Golden State’s largest playoff loss since adding Durant, surpassing a 21-point setback to the Cavaliers in Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals.

“We played harder and smarter than Game 1,” James Harden said. “That was the only difference. We didn’t switch up any strategies.”

Teams that split Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-series at home have won the series 61% of the time.

Will that hold for Houston, which – despite its regular-season superiority – is generally seen as worse than the defending-champion Warriors? We’ll learn more in Game 3 Sunday.

At minimum, the Rockets turned the tide after getting spanked in Game 1. Golden State proved over the last three years it could play at this level. Wednesday, Houston did, too.

The Rockets’ improvements, offensively and defensively, were all connected:

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The Rockets don’t want to isolate all the time. They’ve just correctly determined isolation is their best counter to Golden State’s set, switching halfcourt defense.

But Houston – boosted, but not completely fueled by, tighter defense – pushed the ball more and faced the Warriors’ set defense less often.

James Harden (27 points on 9-of-24 shooting) and Chris Paul (16 points on 6-of-14 shooting) still carried the load when necessary. But the stars’ attention-drawing, a quicker pace and good ball movement allowed the supporting cast to thrive:

Kevin Durant (38 points) once again carried Golden State offensively, but he didn’t get much help. Stephen Curry (1-for-8 on 3-pointers) never found his range from deep. Klay Thompson (eight points on 3-of-11 shooting) didn’t get nearly as many open looks. The Rockets stayed closer to Thompson in part by exploiting the lack of scoring prowess by Draymond Green (six points and four turnovers in 37 minutes) and Andre Iguodala (five points and three turnovers in 27 minutes).

Now, it’s on the Warriors to make adjustments. They’ve been here before, and nobody is questioning whether they belong.

But nobody should be questioning the Rockets’ worthiness anymore, either.

Joel Embiid misses out on about $29 million by making just All-NBA second team

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury could cost him in free agency.

It might have already cost Joel Embiid.

The 76ers center made just the All-NBA second team, landing behind the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis. Davis surged after Cousins went down, earning overall credit from All-NBA voters, who were also increasingly likely to view him as a center rather than just a forward.

As a result, Davis made the All-NBA first team at center – costing Embiid about $29 million over the next five years.

Embiid’s contract extension, which kicks in next season, calls for his starting salary to be 25% of the salary cap (the typical max for a player with his experience level). If he made the All-NBA first team, his starting salary would have been 30% of the salary cap .

Though the exact cap won’t be determined until July, here’s what Embiid is projected to earn on his standard max and what he could’ve earned on the super max (with 8% raises in both cases):

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Obviously Embiid will still earn a lot of money, and he and Philadelphia have a bright future.

But it’s hard not to think, if Cousins didn’t get hurt, Embiid would be even richer.

At least the 76ers have more cap space to pursue their big goals.

Rockets to wear patches to honor Santa Fe shooting victims

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HOUSTON (AP)–  The Houston Rockets will wear patches on their jerseys to honor the victims of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, on Thursday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

The patches will read: “Santa Fe HS.” It’s one of several tributes the team plans following Friday’s shooting. Eight students and two teachers died at the school, located 30 miles from downtown Houston.

The school’s high school choir will perform the national anthem. There will be a moment of silence and a video tribute before tipoff.

Santa Fe’s senior class and administrators have been invited to attend the game as guests of owner Tilman Fertitta. The Rockets also will honor first responders on the court.

Proceeds from Thursday night’s charity raffle will go to the Santa Fe Strong Memorial Fund.

Rockets went all-in for Game 4. How much do they have left in tank for Game 5?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Despite trailing 2-1 as the top seed in the Western Conference finals in a season his star deemed “the year,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni claimed all the pressure was on Warriors in Game 4.

Of course, nobody believed D’Antoni.

D’Antoni didn’t even believe himself.

He played P.J. Tucker 44 minutes, James Harden 43 minutes, Chris Paul 42 minutes and Trevor Ariza 41 minutes in Houston’s win. That was the first time four teammates played 40 minutes in regulation of a non-elimination playoff game in a half decade.*

*The Pacers gave 40 minutes to Paul George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson in Game 6 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. After that win, Indiana lost to the Heat in Game 7. Since, only the Warriors – who used Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in Game 7 of the 2016 Western Conference finals against the Thunder – have played just seven players in a playoff game.

D’Antoni’s rotation revealed his desperation to win Game 4. And who could blame him? A 3-1 deficit to this mighty Golden State squad would have been nearly insurmountable.

Not only did D’Antoni lean heavily on his top players, he didn’t even spread around the remaining minutes. Just seven Rockets played in Game 4 – Tucker, Harden, Paul, Ariza, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and Gerald Green.

How fatigued will those players be in Game 5 tonight?

In the last 20 years, teams have used just seven players in a playoff game 28 times. In their following game, those teams went 10-15. (Two were eliminated.)

Here are the full results:

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Teams have used so few players just twice in the previous decade, but the super-shortened rotation was once a D’Antoni specialty. The practice only waned while he was mostly missing the playoffs with the Knicks and Lakers. In fact, 14 of the last 18 times a team used just seven players in a playoff game, D’Antoni did it.

The most recent previous example came in Game 5 of last year’s Rockets-Spurs second-round series. Houston lost by 39 and got eliminated in the next game – which became known for Harden running out of gas.

Will the result be different this time?

The Warriors have their own physical-readiness issues. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are banged up. Golden State coach Steve Kerr should probably tighten his rotation, especially removing Nick Young. It’s not as if the Warriors gave up on Game 4, either. Draymond Green played 45 minutes, Kevin Durant 43, Klay Thompson 39 and Curry 39.

These conference finals are shaping up to be a great battle. It might be one of attrition.

Carmelo Anthony responds four times to Instagram post calling Kyle Korver better: ‘FOH’

AP Photo/David Goldman
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Carmelo Anthony was the No. 3 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He had just led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman, and some fans and media advocating taking him No. 1 overall ahead of LeBron James (and Darko Milicic).

Korver was the No. 51 pick in the same draft. He looked like this:

Fifteen years later, Anthony and Korver are still in the league. Korver is helping the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, and Anthony and the Thunder already got eliminated. That sparked an Instagram post that clearly irked Anthony:

Anthony has had a better career than Korver. But who’s better right now? It depends on the terms of the debate.

Anthony is still a more-skilled all-around offensive player. (Neither gains credit for their defense.) Anthony can create in ways Korver just can’t.

But any team running its offense through Anthony now is asking for a bad time. Even if that’s that the best style for maximizing him individually, he’s no longer good enough to justify having the ball that much.

Korver is a far superior complementary player. He’s an elite 3-point shooter who moves well off the ball. Anthony struggles in that role.

In a hypothetical game between Anthony plus four average players and Korver plus four average players, I’d lean toward Anthony’s squad. But an actual NBA team capable of winning needs players better than both, and at that point, I’d rather have Korver.