Five things the Rockets need to do to beat the Warriors in Game 7

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We all know what the Golden State Warriors are capable of — we have seen them at their “Thanos got all the infinity stones” peak where nothing can stop them. We witnessed it in the second half two days ago.

However, this is a Houston team explicitly built with beating these Warriors in mind, a Rockets team that won 65 games this season and forced Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. This is a very good team. A team capable of winning Game 7 in its home court, with or without Chris Paul.

However, their margin for error is gone (even if CP3 is back, he’s not going to be near 100 percent). Here are the five things Houston has to do if it’s going to dethrone the champs and move on to the NBA Finals.

1) Knock down their threes. It’s obvious, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The Rockets made more three pointers this season than any team in NBA history (breaking their own record of a season ago). The three-ball is critical to the Rockets’ offense, and that importance only goes up if Paul is out. From the opening tip, whether it’s James Harden on stepbacks, Eric Gordon in transition, or P.J. Tucker in the corner on a kick-out, the three ball has to fall.

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The Rockets did that in the first quarter of Game 6, the Warriors seemed confused on defensive assignments (Kevin Durant, in particular, missed a couple switches and did not pick up shooters in transition) and the Rockets took advantage. The Rockets were 11-of-22 from three in the first half of Game 6 and up 10, they need to repeat both that volume and nearly that percentage.

The Rockets are going to take 35 or more threes in this game, but how well will the Warriors contest those? Will the Rockets hit them anyway? The Rockets need to make 17 or more threes in this game to give themselves a shot. Those cannot be forced, it needs to come with room in transition, or when Harden drives the lane and gets into the middle, forcing help and rotations and opening up shooters on the perimeter.

2) Take care of the basketball — limit the turnovers. In Game 6, the Rockets turned the ball over on 21.3 percent of their possessions — more than one-in-five times down the court they came away without a shot, just giving the ball back to Golden State. In the second half, that percentage was slightly higher. Live ball turnovers are an accelerant for the Warriors offense.

“The problem with (the Warriors) getting 115 (points in Game 6) is it’s because we turned it over about 20 times and that’s a double whammy — we don’t score first of all and they get out in transition,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

That ties directly into…

3) Control the tempo — do not get into a transition battle with the Warriors. The Rockets played slightly faster in the first half of Game 6, with Paul not out there to slow things down, than they have the rest of the series. That may have caught the Warriors off guard a little in the first quarter, but Golden State adapted and we saw the results in the second half. The Warriors thrive at a high pace. These Rockets were 14th in pace in the NBA this season, they are not a D’Antoni seven seconds or less team, they are methodical and hunt mismatches, running only when it suits them. If Game 7 is a track meet, Houston will lose.

“We’ve got to dictate (the tempo) by our good play, we can guard them but we can guard them in the halfcourt, it’s tough in transition,” D’Antoni said. “That means we have to limit our turnovers.”

Limit turnovers and also get back in transition. When Harden attacks the rim and Clint Capela is lurking around the bucket looking for the offensive board, a miss means the Warriors have numbers going the other way. Houston has to make those shots and get back.

4) Defend so well in the half court the Warriors resort to Kevin Durant isolation ball. For long stretches of this series, the smooth switching defense of the Rockets has frustrated the “beautiful game” offense of the Warriors. The back cuts, the split cuts, the things the Warriors offense thrives off of have not been there. That has led to Golden State going to its fall-back — Durant isolations. Those are effective, Durant is the best scorer on the face of the earth right now, but it takes the Warriors out of their flow and makes them less dangerous, and less prone to massive runs.

“We made way too many mistakes defensively, like we did in Game 3,” D’Antoni said of the Game 6 effort. “We cured that in games 4 and 5, we’ve got to get back to that.”

One twist, the Warriors attacked the switching more in Game 6 with Curry’s ball handling — and when he had the ball the Warriors moved much more crisply off it. Curry has the skills as a point guard to break down the defense and find the open man with his passing, not just drain ridiculous threes. That ball movement and passing led to Klay Thompson getting open and no Warrior’s shooter can get as white-hot for a stretch as him. It led to the entire Warriors’ second-half run, and the Rockets need to have a defensive counter to that (something where they really could use Paul back).

Which leads us to…

5) Withstand the Warriors third-quarter run (or whenever it happens). We all know it’s coming. Including the Rockets. Curry will start draining 29-footers. Thompson will hit shots in a sliver of space. When the Warriors get rolling suddenly Draymond Green’s threes are falling, Shaun Livingston is slashing into the lane for easy buckets, and it’s an unstoppable avalanche.

Houston must keep the run relatively short — 11-0, 15-3 — and not lose their heads, just keep playing their game. Don’t try to get it all back with one shot. Execute the game plan, force the Warriors into the kind of game they don’t want to play, and hit their own threes. Grind the Warriors down. Do that and the Rockets can win. Get sucked into the pace, press to match the Warriors run, and the Rockets players can make early tee times for Tuesday.

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.

Pelicans Trey Murphy III reportedly invited to participate in Dunk Contest

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We knew three participants invited to the All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest: G-League fan favorite Mac McClung, the Portland Trail Blazers Shaedon Sharpe and the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin.

The fourth slot in that event will go to the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

No doubt Murphy can throw it down with the best of them.

The Dunk Contest will headline All-Star Saturday night, Feb. 18, from the Vivint Arena (soon to be the Delta Center again). The event will be broadcast on TNT.

The Dunk Contest is the Saturday night headline event, but it has fallen flat in recent years. Adding a G-League dunker and young, bouncy athletes such as Murphy, Martin and Sharpe could make this one entertaining. However, what fans really want to see — what made the Dunk Contest must-watch back in the day when Jordan, Kobe, and Vince Carter were doing it — is the stars. There will be no Ja Morant, no Zion Williamson, and no Anthony Edwards in this contest.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
117

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,271

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Jan. 30 at Nets
Jan. 31 at Knicks
Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder (if he does sit out Monday against the Nets, as the team announced).

Since he turned 38 (on Dec. 30), LeBron has averaged 35.2 points per game, which would see the mark broken at home against the Thunder.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Watch Harden run onto court from bench mid-play to defend

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It takes a second to notice, but the 76ers had just four players on the court trying to defend the Nuggets on a late third-quarter possession.

But when James Harden — sitting on the bench — notices it, he stands up and runs into play, drawing a technical.

The technical foul was for having four men on the court, not on Harden specifically.

While that may have been a rare instance of Harden rushing to play defense, the 76ers as a team cranked up their defense in the second half against the Nuggets and went on to get the home win behind 47 points from Joel Embiid.