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Rockets have much to improve heading into Game 2 vs. Warriors

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HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets have plenty of things to fix after squandering their coveted home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.

Tops on their list: limiting turnovers, eliminating open 3s and making things tougher on the Golden State Warriors – particularly Kevin Durant.

“Kevin Durant and (Stephen) Curry, they’re good. So they’re going to make” shots, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Our head can’t explode that they go one-on-one and make shots … you have to be able to absorb some of their greatness; at the same time, don’t make the mental errors that we did. That would accumulate for 15, 20 points, and that’s the difference in the game.”

Some almost sounds like the Rockets will have to play almost perfect beat the Warriors. They wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but James Harden, who scored 41 in Game 1, did say that at this level the margin for error gets razor thin.

“It’s the (conference) finals,” he said. “There’s four teams here for a reason. Obviously these four teams have done great things all year. You can’t make the same mental mistakes like you’re in a regular season.”

There were plenty of Rockets miscues in Game 1.

They coughed up the ball 13 times on Monday and the Warriors outscored the Rockets 18-3 on fast break points en route to a 119-106 victory. Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made 6 of 15 3-point attempts on a night Harden lamented that about 10 of those looks were wide-open. Thompson’s performance came on top of Durant scoring 37 points, mostly by knocking down long 2’s when he was matched up against smaller defenders.

That said, what the Rockets won’t do in Game 2 on Wednesday night is change what they’ve done all year and what led to them winning a franchise-record 65 games in the regular season to earn the top-seed.

“We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it,” D’Antoni said. “We can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be a better (version) of who we are and don’t worry if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way … we’ve got to play at our strengths.”

For the defending champion Warriors, they masterfully answered the challenge of opening a playoff series on the road for the first time since 2014. After falling behind by nine points early in front of a raucous Houston crowd, they settled down and led for most of the second half en route to the victory.

But playing in a franchise-record fourth straight conference finals, the Warriors know that they can’t let up after wrestling homecourt advantage away from the Rockets.

“That was a big win. We’re not going to downplay it,” Thompson said. “But we’re not satisfied. We have a golden opportunity tomorrow to take a good lead. You have to have a short memory in the playoffs, because the next game will come at you fast, and it might feel good to win, but it’s a seven-game series for a reason.”

Now they believe they’re up for an even bigger test in Game 2, with the Rockets desperate not to head to Oakland in a 0-2 hole. But they insist they won’t approach this game any differently than they did the opener.

“I think the game really came down to staying solid and allowing our talent to shine through,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We have so many gifted players, that as long as we’re solid with the ball, we don’t make mistakes, defend with intensity, then our talent’s going to take over.”

To counteract all of that talent, the Rockets must find a way to get more players involved offensively to provide support for Harden. Chris Paul scored 23 points on Monday, but P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza, who combined to average almost 18 points in Houston’s first 10 postseason games, managed just nine points combined in Game 1.

Part of the struggles came from Ariza getting into foul trouble early, picking up his fifth foul with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter. While the Rockets still expect Durant to get his points, they hope Ariza will be able to stay on the floor more on Wednesday to try and make him work harder for them.

The Rockets insist that they aren’t going to let the disappointment of their loss in the opener bleed into Game 2. Harden took it upon himself to check in with his teammates after Game 1, calling them up to see if they had their heads in the right place and remind them that there’s a lot more to play for.

“I wanted to make sure that they’re good and they’re in a good place,” he said. “All the guys seem happy and motivated. So we watch film, we can correct some things, and (Wednesday) we should be better.”

 

Jordan Clarkson urges NBA to allow players to compete in more global events

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The NBA is trying to walk a fine line. On the one hand, the league and its owners want to globalize the NBA — it is the best, most watched basketball league on the globe and they want people in Europe and Asia to follow the NBA the way American soccer fans follow the Barclays’ Premiere League. That will make the owners more money, and never forget this is a business first, second, and third. With that, the owners allow players to compete for their native countries in major events, such as the FIBA World Cup or Olympics.

However, there is a “club vs. country” tug of war in the NBA. Players want to represent their countries — and sometimes are pressured to do so — while NBA teams see injury risk. They look at the story of Dante Exum blowing out his ACL playing for Australia as a cautionary tale.

So when the Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson wanted to play for the Philippines in the Asian Games (his mother is a native of that country, so he is allowed), the NBA shot it down at first saying this tournament was not part of the agreement between FIBA and the NBA that allows the league’s players to take part in major international events (the Olympics, the basketball World Cup, etc.). However, the league eventually flipped and allowed a “one-time exception” for Clarkson (plus Houston’s Zhou Qi and Dallas’ Ding Yanhuyang).

Now Clarkson says he wants the NBA to allow players to compete in more global events, he told Agence France-Presse at the Asian Games.

“After being told no so many times, I refused to give up. I kept fighting,” he said. “I’m here now, ready to compete.”

“I think they get the point — in Asia kids are picking up a basketball. I feel like the NBA is allowing us to do our thing.”

Basketball is a growing sport in Asia — it’s huge in the Philippines already, and it’s growing fast there and in countries such as China. The NBA wants its foot in the door there. It wants to be part of that market — the NBA plays exhibition games in China every year for a reason.

The Asian Games — the second largest multi-national sporting event in the world behind the Olympics — is a good exception to make. Clarkson and other NBA stars playing there — including in the future — is good for the NBA.

However, the league is going to face a challenge trying to find that line in future years between promoting the game and the NBA internationally and protecting its investments in its players.

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).

Victor Oladipo: ‘I play nothing safe now’ because ‘that really didn’t get me anywhere’

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Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.