Backed into must-win Game 4, here are three things Rockets must do to even series

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Three years ago, the Houston Rockets came back from 3-1 down in a playoff series to defeat a Los Angeles Clippers (and give that franchise a punch to the gut from which it has not recovered). It was one of the great Rockets’ moments of the last decade.

Houston is not going to be able to do that against these Golden State Warriors. Go down 3-1 after Game 4 Tuesday at Oracle and the series is all but over.

Which means after the Rockets’ blowout loss in Game 3 Sunday night, Houston finds itself in the same must-win spot it did after Game 1. And unlike Game 2, the Rockets will not get helped out by an arrogant Warriors team not playing at its peak — the Rockets are going to need a near perfect game to beat a full-force Warriors team on Tuesday.

Here are the three key areas the Rockets must improve to win Game 4:

1) Just shoot better — finish shots at the rim and hit some threes. It’s rather obvious and simplistic, but it’s the reality: Houston just has to shoot better in Game 4.

The Rockets took a full one-third of their shots at the rim in the restricted area in Game 3, but they struggled with those making just 13-of-27 (48.1 percent). The Rockets took 42 percent of their shot attempts from three but hit just 11-of-34, and they were 7-of-25 on above the break threes. That’s not good enough, the Rockets are going to need at least 15 made threes in a game to win.

“Those are double whammies,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said of the missed shots at the rim. “It’s like we missed layups first half especially and they go down and score. So in transition, you’ve got to keep them out of transition, you’ve got to make layups. We didn’t do that. When they did miss, we didn’t box out all the time, and then we turned it over 20 times. It’s a formula for losing, and for us to correct that, we can’t turn it over. Got to make layups for shots, and get back.”

To be fair, the Warriors contested shooters well all game, especially guys driving the basket, but still, the Rockets need to knock down more of their shots contested or not. It’s the most basic premise of basketball.

2) Houston has to play faster. D’Antoni said it above, the Rockets and their missed shots let the Warriors get out in transition and control the pace. It’s also a simple fact that the team that controls the pace — the team that gets transition opportunities and gets into its offense earlier in the shot clock — will win the games.

Golden State had 26 transition opportunities to 12 for the Rockets, according to the Synergy Sports stats breakdown.

Or, look at it this way (via Cleaning the Glass), in Game 3, Houston started just10.4 percent of their possessions in transition (and scored a dreadful 0.89 points per possession on those plays). For comparison, in their Game 2 win, the Rockets started 18.7 percent of their possessions in transition. On Sunday night in Game 3 Warriors started 19.8 percent of their plays in transition, nearly one in five trips down the court, and they scored 1.44 points per possession on those plays.

The Rockets need to make more shots and then, even when they miss, get back in transition and not let the Warriors get rolling early in the clock. Houston also needs to defend better and force more Warriors misses, which will allow them to run. It’s all tied together, the Warriors were making shots so the Rockets were taking the ball out of the basket and coming up against set defenses; the Rockets were missing shots that let the Warriors come up fast and forcing the Rockets to scramble on defense (Golden State tears apart teams in those situations). It’s a holistic thing, but the evidence it’s working is which team controls the pace, and the Rockets need to do that in Game 4.

3) Houston needs more out of Chris Paul. It’s easy to point to the Stephen Curry eruption in the third quarter as the time the Warriors ended the game, and there is truth to that. Golden State started the third on a 10-0 run (where Curry had five of those points) and the fire was lit, then Curry started hitting 30-foot threes and quickly the game was out of reach. Those Warriors runs are crushers.

However, to me the turning point in the game was when James Harden went to the bench for his usual rest with 2:46 left in the first quarter — the Warriors outscored the Rockets by nine before the quarter was up (part of an 11-0 run to end the quarter). By the time Harden returned with 9:16 left in the second quarter, the Rockets were down 10, a hole they never could get out of (they were down 11 at the half).

CP3 has to be better in that stretch. The Warriors threw bigger, switchable guards at him on defense — Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, and then Andre Iguodala — and Paul couldn’t get separation and make plays against them. Without Harden, the Rockets offense stalled out, and doing that led to the Warriors getting to push the pace and get their transition buckets. Paul looked slowed at points, reaching on defense and not as explosive as we’ve seen.

This isn’t the Utah Jazz. Harden was off in Game 5 against Utah, but Paul picked up the slack (his 41-point, 10 assist game) and Houston got the win. Against Golden State, both Paul and Harden must have good games for Houston to have a chance. The Warriors are too good, too deep, there is no margin for error anymore.

The Rockets have an elite game in them — we saw the blueprint of what they have to do in Game 2. Houston can do that again. The only question is can they do it in the face of Golden State’s pressure, because the sharks on the Warriors smell blood in the water and will be coming hard in Game 4.

Report: Bulls likely to keep Jim Boylen as coach for financial reasons

Bulls coach Jim Boylen
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The Bulls appeared ready to fire Jim Boylen. After all, Chicago just hired a new team president in Arturas Karnisovas who’d want to pick his own coach. That was unlikely to be Boylen, whose tenure had been defined by players disliking him, ill-timed timeouts and losing.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

But as the Sun-Times learned this week, even if Karnisovas didn’t like what he would have seen from Boylen he would likely be handcuffed from making a change.

According to several sources, there is strong growing momentum that financial concerns the Reinsdorfs have about the 2020-21 NBA season will keep Boylen in his current seat, as well as most of the coaching staff.

Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has earned a reputation for his frugality. However, the economic downturn surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has caused many teams to tighten their belts. The financial consequences will likely continue into next season.

But this puts Chicago at a disadvantage.

Boylen has looked like one of the NBA’s worst coaches. Though Bulls ownership is more optimistic than most on Boylen and he could exceed expectations, it’s telling that Chicago probably wouldn’t have kept him based on merit. This is about saving money and hoping for the best.

That’s obviously great news for Boylen. He has improved significantly since taking over last season. More time on the job could allow him to grow into it. That said, improving from a near-mutiny in his early days doesn’t exactly mean he’s in an acceptable place now. Boylen still has a long way to go, and it could be more difficult if players are tired of him.

Nets fined $25K for injury-reporting violation

Brooklyn Nets
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Earlier this season, Kyrie Irving missed several weeks with a shoulder injury. Throughout the absence, the Nets provided few details and no clear timeline. Eventually, a report said Irving could miss 2-3 additional weeks with bursitis. The Nets denied it. Later, Irving confirmed he had bursitis then returned nearly three weeks after the report.

Finally, Brooklyn caught the league’s ire.

NBA release:

The NBA today announced that the Brooklyn Nets have been fined $25,000 for failing to comply with league policies governing injury reporting.

It’s unclear what specifically caused this violation. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Jamal Crawford and Rodions Kurucs have all appeared on the Nets’ injury report during the resumption. As 19-point underdog, Brooklyn pulled a historic upset of the Bucks. Remember, public injury disclosures are primarily about preserving gambling integrity.

For the NBA not to reveal even basic details while fining the Nets for their lack of transparency is ironic. It’s also ironic this fine comes amid a restart that featured the NBA being highly secretive about player heath.

The Clippers got fined $50,000 earlier this season for saying Kawhi Leonard was healthy. What did Brooklyn do that was less egregious but still worth of a fine?

LeBron James says Lakers have off-court issues, out vs. Rockets (groin)

Lakers star LeBron James
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The Lakers’ offense has stumbled so far in the bubble.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

LeBron gave a weird answer about this. He agreed that he and the Lakers were looking for a rhythm on offense. And then he said: “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.”

Mike Trudell of the Lakers:

Was LeBron referring to his groin injury? I wouldn’t call that an off-court issue, but maybe he would.

LeBron knows how to work the media. This subtle comment will draw attention and sets up LeBron to look better if he leads the Lakers through this mysterious issue.

Without more context, it’s easy for imaginations to wander – especially about a team with Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. The Lakers could be facing a major hurdle. Or a minor nuisance. Who knows? But the unknown is scary.

It’ll be difficult to detect the Lakers’ progress during remaining seeding games. The Lakers have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and without a home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, there’s no reason to chase the NBA’s best overall record. That’s why LeBron missing tonight’s game against the Rockets could be mostly precautionary.

76ers: Ben Simmons suffered subluxation of knee cap, considering treatment options

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Ben Simmons injured his knee during the 76ers’ win over the Wizards yesterday.

The diagnosis is in, and the prognosis sounds worrisome.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

How quickly will Simmons recover? Once he recovers, will he face elevated risk of re-injury?

These questions now haunt Simmons and Philadelphia.

Simmons is a young star who’ll begin a max contract extension next season. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons opened Philadelphia’s championship window, and now rain is drizzling through. Philadelphia can’t reach it ceiling without Simmons healthy and providing value.

Even more modest goals in a disjointed season will be more difficult to reach.

The 76ers were just adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward. Now, they must again re-configure their plan – maybe for a significant chunk of the remainder of the season.

Even more burden falls onto Embiid, who has been shouldering so much with this mismatched roster. Simmons plays across the positional spectrum, so any number of 76ers could fill in while he’s out. Many of those lesser players will complement Embiid more smoothly than Simmons did. But the talent deficit without Simmons can’t be offset.

That’s the scary issue for now – and maybe a while.