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.

Heartbreaking: Watch Mikal Bridges explain joy of joining hometown 76ers while they trade him to Suns (video)

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Mikal Bridges‘ mom jumped up, pumped her fists and screamed “Yes!” through her giant grin.

The 76ers – the organization she works for in human resources – had just drafted her son No. 10 overall. Bridges, a Philadelphia native who played at Villanova, seemed as if he’d stay home for his pro career.

Bridges:

She’s very, very excited. She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She was about to cry and all that. She said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’d try to hold it in. But no, she’s very excited. I’m her only son. I’m a little mama’s boy. Her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.

Except, as Bridges was talking, the 76ers were trading him to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

That extra pick carries major value. Even if you like Bridges much more than Smith – which I did, especially considering their fits in Philadelphia – that’s hard to pass up. The NBA is a business after all.

But it’s lamentable how this played out.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: ‘My team is a super team. Just young’

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The Kings drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2 last night (seemingly for bad reasons, which doesn’t at all eliminate him from being the right pick but makes it less likely he is). He’ll join a young core also comprised of Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.

That group excite you?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac isn’t reducing expectations.

Lina Washington of ABC 10:

To be fair, in 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-43 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson already on the roster and had just drafted Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Everyone would’ve laughed at calling Golden State a “super team, just young” then. But those four (plus Andre Iguodala) eventually led the Warriors to a championship.

But, really: Nah.

Entering the 2016-17 season, then-Knicks guard Derrick Rose said, “They’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.” We mocked Rose relentlessly, and of course, the Warriors went 73-9 while New York finished just 32-50.

How long until Divac’s young super team reaches even 32-50?

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.

 

NBA Draft Winners, Losers: Big nights for Phoenix, Dallas

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Let’s start with the obvious — this whole story is a fool’s errand. It really takes about three years to accurately assess who are the winners and losers in the NBA draft. Guys we thought were locks will turn out to be pretty pedestrian, guys we wrote off as projects down the board will impress. In three years, we’ll have a real sense of which teams read this draft well and nailed it.

But we don’t live in that world.

So here are my projections on the real winners and losers Thursday night in Brooklyn, starting with the guys who didn’t screw up the No. 1 pick.

 

Suns small icon Winner: Phoenix Suns.

It isn’t just that they didn’t screw up the top pick and landed in DeAndre Ayton, the guy most likely to be a franchise cornerstone star in this class. Although they did that. Also, it was their move later to trade their pick at No. 16 (Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith) for Mikal Bridges — most likely the best “3&D” prospect in this draft (it cost them a future first via Miami). By the time everyone was trying to get an Uber outside Barclays Center the Suns had put together a starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton (plus a point guard to be named later). That’s a group worth watching — and they hired Igor Kokoskov as their new coach this summer because he’s strong on player development. It’s the start of something.

Phoenix also drafted French point guard Elie Okobo at 31 in the second round when a lot of teams thought of him as a first-round talent. Another smart move.

Loser: Michael Porter Jr.

A couple of weeks ago, Porter was mentioned as a potential No. 2 selection to the Kings. But after teams got a look at his medical reports from last Friday’s workout — remember, he missed all but three games at Missouri following back surgery — they backed off. Reports about his attitude didn’t help. Porter slid all the way down to Denver at 14. What that means to him besides getting to play at altitude in Denver: The No. 2 pick is slotted for a $7.3 million salary next season, the No. 14 makes less than $3 million. We’ll see if Porter can use this as motivation — and stay healthy.

One winner in this: The Denver Nuggets for grabbing him at 14. That is a good team (they just missed the playoffs) with strong players already where Porter can be brought along slowly without unreasonable expectations.

Mavericks small icon Winner: Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban and company traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 and landed Luka Doncic — the player they had highest rated on the board. This is a win for the Mavs and for Doncic because he lands with a brilliant Xs and Os coach in Rick Carlisle who will put him in positions to succeed, plus Doncic gets mentored by Dirk Nowitzki. This pick also is a strong move because he should pair well with young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — Doncic can run the pick-and-roll at times with Smith cutting and moving off the ball, and in the reverse Doncic has a good catch-and-shoot game. Dallas has options for playmaking now.

Also, nice second-round pickup of Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson. That’s a high IQ player who can step in as a reserve and help immediately.

Loser: Robert Williams.

The Texas A&M big man has the talent of a late lottery pick — the Clippers met with him a couple of times — but concerns about his attitude and work ethic saw him plummet all the way down the board to 27. Will he use this as motivation to play with a high motor all the time, or will he continue to coast? If he brings it, he could be the steal of this draft. That brings us to…

Celtics small iconWinner: Boston Celtics (because they got Robert Williams).

This was an Oceans 9 level robbery (that’s the next movie, right?) for Danny Ainge this late in the first round. At No. 27 you’re usually just hoping to get a guy who can develop into a role player in a few years. Williams is much more than that, he has the tools to be an elite NBA defender, and in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. In the NBA he’s going to be a rim running big, ala DeAndre Jordan — except Jordan fulfilled his potential. It’s up to Boston to get that out of Williams (and it’s up to Williams himself to work), but if they do this was another brilliant Ainge pick.

Loser: Golden State Warriors.

They tried to buy into the second round as they did a year ago and pick up someone who fits their style — and this year they had $5.1 million to do it (more than the $3.5 million a year ago). However, other GMs remember how much heat the Bulls front office took for selling their pick to Golden State last year and watching the Warriors draft Jordan Bell — Mr. “cash considerations” was playing a role in the NBA Finals. No GM wanted to repeat that mistake. No early second-round pick for the Warriors this year.

However, their first-round pick of Jacob Evans was a good one, he’s the kind of versatile wing player who fits into their rotation.

Winner: Puma.

The German soccer cleat maker shoe and apparel company wanted to get back into the basketball game, and the did it with a splash — their guys Ayton and Bagley went No. 1 and 2. That’s going to be a lot of free publicity and a lot of eyes on their players starting in Summer League and beyond. The company also landed guys with real potential in Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.

Oh, and they hired Jay-Z as well. That’s a good week whatever else happens.

Winner: NBA Twitter

The guys in suits up the executive food chain tried to put an end to Woj bombs this year — ESPN was trying to clamp down on their news breakers Tweeting out the picks before they happened (as had been the case for a few years, with Twitter often two or three picks ahead of Adam Silver and the broadcast). Other major news breakers (such as Yahoo’s Shams Charania) agreed to play along. We all thought we would have to wait around for Adam Silver to saunter up to the table.

But if there is one thing NBA Twitter has taught us it’s that it will not be contained. It breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. NBA Twitter, uh… finds a way.

Before long Twitter picks were leaking and Twitter was a pick ahead of the broadcast again, and Adrian Wojnarowski was dropping bombs, cleverly not saying who the pick was but….

NBA Twitter is the best.