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.

James Harden wants Carmelo Anthony to get another chance in NBA

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The James Harden/Carmelo Anthony marriage in Houston (with Chris Paul as the third wheel) simply did not work out. It lasted 10 games and was more annulment than marriage, Anthony couldn’t/wouldn’t accept the role Houston needed him to fill.

The Rockets traded Anthony to Chicago on Tuesday, and after the Feb. 7 trade deadline the Bulls are expected to waive ‘Melo, making him a free agent.

There are questions around the league about where — and even if — Anthony will sign once he is a free agent. Plenty of fans don’t want their team to take him on, but ‘Melo has a supporter in former teammate Harden. Here is what the reigning MVP told ESPN’s Ian Bagley.

“I just want to see him hoop, see him happy, and I mean, he deserves it, honestly,” Harden said of Anthony on Tuesday. “Like, he’s put so much time and effort into this game that he should be able to hoop and still have fun playing the game of basketball.”

“Yeah, man. Melo is one of the best to ever hoop. He loves the game of basketball,” Harden said. “Some guys just do it just because they’re gifted or they’re athletic or they can shoot the basketball. There’s not that many players that like, love to hoop. … It kind of sucks that it didn’t work out. It is what it is. I just hope he finds somewhere where they can embrace him and he can still hoop. So he [gets to] make that decision that he’s done [playing].”

Probable lottery pick and injured Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland declares for NBA draft

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Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland suffered a season-ending knee injury in November.

But that will actually accelerate his ascension toward the NBA.

Garland:

Garland still looks like a lottery pick. This draft is top-heavy, and a player as skilled as him likely won’t fall far.

The 6-foot-3 point guard is an excellent shooter. He also has the ball-handling, footwork and quick release to get his shot off against most defenses. He looks like he could become a prototypical lead guard in the modern NBA, a scorer who distributes enough.

Still, his torn meniscus hurts. Not only will teams want to know the status of his knee, he’s missing valuable developmental time during the college season. Garland still needs to refine his court vision, and it’d be nice if he clamped down defensively.

It was clear well before Garland enrolled at Vanderbilt he was on the one-and-done track. His injury allows him to drop the pretense of college basketball being a priority.

Report: Grizzlies will listen to trade offers for Marc Gasol, Mike Conley

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Last summer there was a lot of buzz around the league, the Memphis Grizzlies might finally end the grit ‘n grind era, trade their stars and embark on a needed rebuild. But then owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners and the word quickly came down — forget a rebuild, this was a team that could win 50+ games and would make the playoffs.

After a fast 15-9 start to the season,  Grizzlies have lost six in a row and 12-of-13, having dropped to 14th in the West. Last week, those stars — Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — met with Pera face-to-face.

Now, Memphis considering trading Gasol and Conley, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

There will be interest from other teams, but getting a deal done in the 18 days before the trade deadline will be difficult. Especially considering both Gasol and Conley have huge salaries, and sources have said the Grizzlies have wanted to attach Chandler Parsons — who is owed $25.1 million next season and is almost unplayable — to any trade.

It’s very possible that these talks, especially around Conley, continue into this summer.

Gasol, who has seen his skills decline this season at age 34 (he has a 17.1 PER that is above average but the lowest since his rookie season, and his defense has not been nearly as good as it once was), is expected to opt out of this contract for next season, so any team that trades for him would want a wink-and-a-nod deal that they could re-sign him next summer. Big men are in demand, but will teams give up much for a potential rental?

Conley is a borderline All-Star point guard and a solid defender. Conley is averaging 19.8 points a game, 6.1 assists, is shooting 35.4 percent from three, and has a PER of 20.

Conley is making $30.5 million this season, has a fully guaranteed $32.5 million next season and an early termination option for 2020-21 at $34.5 million, and he will almost certainly not opt out and stay in the contract for that season. Not many teams can take on that much salary, no matter how good Conley is.

Former Kings executive pleads guilty to defrauding team out of $13.4 million

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A former top Sacramento Kings executive has pleaded guilty to siphoning $13.4 million from the team to buy Southern California beachfront properties, according to court records.

The records show former chief revenue officer Jeffrey David pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of wire fraud and identity theft. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced April 15.

David was charged last year with forging the team president’s signature to divert sponsorship payments to a bank account he controlled.

Prosecutors say the scheme was uncovered soon after David left the Kings in June and accepted a similar post with the Miami Heat. The Heat said in September that the team and David parted ways..