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Salute to the Houston Rockets

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Ever since the Warriors signed Kevin Durant, they’ve been treated as invincible.

Bettors favored them over the field – a rare distinction in any sport. NBA teams tried to time their peaks not to coincide with Golden State’s.

And the way their first year with Durant went, who could blame anyone for assuming the Warriors would repeat? They eased their way to a 67-15 regular season and went a record 16-1 in the postseason, outscoring a opponents by 13.5 points per game in the playoffs. It was arguably the greatest season of all-time, and it only reinforced existing perception.

Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson returned in their primes for this season. Golden State became even larger favorite to win the 2018 title before even wrapping up its 2017 championship.

But the Rockets refused to cede anything.

They trade for Chris Paul and signed P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. They implemented a switching defense. They pushed hard for the No. 1 seed.

And they never hid the reason: They wanted to beat the Warriors.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said he was “obsessed” with Golden State. Despite Houston coach Mike D’Antoni trying to manage expectations, his players followed Morey’s lead. Clint Capela said the Rockets are better than the Warriors. James Harden declared, “This is the year. For sure.” And Morey kept making known how closely he was watching watching the Warriors.

It reached the point Golden State wanted the Rockets in the playoffs just to shut them up.

The Warriors have ’em – heading into Game 7 of the Western Conference finals tonight.

Houston hasn’t been overwhelmed in this series. After getting spanked in Game 1, the Rockets gave Golden State its worst playoff loss since signing Durant. After losing home-court advantage, Houston won Game 4 in Oakland. And even after Chris Paul got hurt at the end of Game 5, the Rockets jumped out to a big early lead on the road in Game 6.

Though they blew that, I don’t expect them to crumble in Game 7.

Houston is full of tough, resilient players. Harden and Paul have been put through the ringer for their playoff failings. Role players like Trevor Ariza have seen it all.

This team looks primed.

That doesn’t meant the Rockets will win Game 7 tonight. Golden State is great, and Paul is banged up.

But win or lose, we should appreciate Houston’s fearlessness. There has been an organizational commitment to dethroning the Warriors, and the Rockets are on the brink of doing what – to many – seemed impossible.

Even the Cavaliers – who lost to Golden State in last year’s Finals and will return this year – hedged their bets. Cleveland traded Kyrie Irving for, in part, the Net’s first-round pick (which landed No. 8) rather than a player who could help this season. Though LeBron James‘ looming player option obviously factored, the Warriors’ perceived inevitability also surely drew consideration.

I never bought Golden State titles as a forgone conclusion. But if other teams cowered to them, the Warriors’ run to another title would have become closer to predestined.

Houston didn’t do that. If the Warriors repeat, they will have gone through an exceptionally strong foe.

The season and the playoffs have been better because because of the Rockets’ daring determination to beat Golden State. No matter how tonight turns out, Houston deserves commendation.

Watch James Harden score MVP-like 48, lift Rockets past Lakers in OT

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden scored 48 points, Eric Gordon added 30 and the Houston Rockets overcame a 21-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 138-134 in overtime Saturday night.

The Rockets trailed for most of the night and were down by 18 in the second-half. Gordon sent it to overtime with a 3-pointer, and made four free throws in the last seconds of the extra period.

Coming off 57- and 58-point games, Harden had his 19th straight game with at least 30 and he’s had 40 in 10 of the last 13. He was 14 of 30 from the field, going 8 of 19 3-pointers, and hit 12 of 15 free throws.

Brandon Ingram missed a 3 for Los Angeles before Harden hit 1 of 2 free throws to make it 132-130 with less than a minute left. Ingram tied it with a basket, and Harden again made 1 of 2 free throws to make it 133-132.

Los Angeles missed a 3 before Gordon also made just 1 of 2 free throws to leave Houston up by two with 12.6 seconds left. Kyle Kuzma lost the ball and it went out of bounds to give Houston the ball back. Gordon added four free throws after that to secure the victory.

It was the second straight overtime game for both teams after Houston lost to Brooklyn on Wednesday night and Los Angeles beat Oklahoma City on Thursday night.

Kuzma had 32 points for Los Angeles and Ingram added 21 in a game where coach Luke Walton was ejected in the third quarter.

Already without LeBron James and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers have another injury concern after Lonzo Ball sprained his left ankle in the third quarter. The team said he was taken to a hospital for X-rays because the machine at the arena was broken.

Four straight points by the Lakers stretched the lead to nine in the fourth quarter, but Harden and Gordon made consecutive 3-pointers cut it to 112-109 with about two minutes remaining.

Los Angeles made four free throws to make it 116-109 about a minute later, but Harden made two 3-pointers around a basket by Ivica Zubac to get Houston within three with about 30 seconds left.

Lance Stephenson missed a 3-pointer and Harden made two free throws to cut the lead to 118-117 with 5.7 seconds left.

Zubac made two more free throws before Gordon’s off-balance 3-pointer with 2 seconds left sent it to OT.

The Lakers built a huge lead early and were up 64-46 at halftime, with Kuzma scoring 24 points.

They were ahead by 17 with about eight minutes left in the third quarter after scoring five straight points capped by a basket from Kuzma before Houston scored the next 15 points to cut it to 74-72 three minutes later. James Ennis had five points in that stretch and P.J. Tucker capped it with a 3-pointer.

Ball was injured just before Houston’s run began. He remained on the court for a couple of minutes talking with trainer’s before he was helped to his feet where he hopped on his right foot for a few steps before being carried off the court and to the locker room by Stephenson and Michael Beasley.

Walton was ejected a couple of minutes after that when he got two technical fouls after yelling at officials during a timeout.

 

Watch Buddy Hield’s game-winning three lift Kings past Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Buddy Hield beat the buzzer with a winning shot for the first time in his NBA career.

Hield made an off-balance, fadeaway 3-pointer just before time expired and scored 35 points in the Sacramento Kings’ 103-101 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night.

“I’m blessed to say I got one in the NBA at the highest level,” he said. “It’s fun. As a kid, you always dream of hitting one of those type of shots. It’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

Detroit outscored the Kings in each of the first three quarters and had a 12-point cushion midway through the fourth.

That wasn’t enough.

Hield made a 3-pointer with 1:11 left to put Sacramento ahead for the first time since midway through the first quarter.

Blake Griffin, who scored 38 points, scored on the ensuing possession to put the Pistons ahead 101-100. Griffin had a chance to add to the lead on Detroit’s next possession, but he passed to Reggie Jackson, who missed a shot to give the Kings another chance.

Hield made the most of it.

He fumbled an inbounds pass, scrambled to regain possession and put up a shot from the left wing that hit nothing but the bottom of the net.

“We were trapping him because we knew he couldn’t make another play with 3.4 seconds,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “We had three guys there. You have to be shoulder to shoulder, but he got between two guys, saw some daylight and threw one up there.”

Hield sprinted around the court after making the game-winner, leaped over a camera cord and led a joyous parade to the locker room.

“The lady almost tripped me. I think she was trying to trip me,” Hield said. “She put it up high. Thank God for my track background, I was able to hurdle over the wire.”

Griffin scored 14 points in the first quarter to help the Pistons establish control they had until Hield led a charge over the last several minutes of the game.

De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley scored 14 point apiece and Willie Cauley-Stein added 12 points for the Kings.

Luke Kennard scored 19 points for the Pistons. They were without center Andre Drummond due to him being in the concussion protocol.

Detroit held Hield scoreless in the third after he had 20 points in the first half, helping the Pistons go into the fourth quarter ahead 82-74.

“We were kind of running in mud,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “We hung in there long enough with our defense to make it close at the end and then Buddy got going.”

 

Lakers’ Lonzo Ball carried off court with sprained ankle

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Saturday night the Lakers, already without LeBron James as he recovers from a groin strain, lost their next best playmaker to an ankle injury.

Lonzo Ball had to be carried off the court after spraining his ankle in the third quarter when he collided with and apparently accidentally stepped on the foot of James Ennis. Ball went to the ground grabbing his ankle the second it happened.

Because the X-ray machine inside the Toyota Center was malfunctioning, Ball was taken to a local hospital for further examination. At least the news there was good for Los Angeles.

There is no timeline yet on Ball’s return, but he’s going to miss a little time.

The Lakers, without Ball or coach Luke Walton (who was ejected), lost to the Rockets in overtime, behind James Harden‘s 48.

The Lakers host the red-hot Warriors on Monday night without Ball, LeBron, or Rajon Rondo.

Russell Westbrook has beef with Joel Embiid after hard foul (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook is always looking for something — real or imagined — to use as motivational fuel.

He found something real Saturday in Joel Embiid.

With 1:46 left in a close game on national television, Westbrook was off to the races in transition with just Embiid back and the result was a hard foul.

Westbrook was pissed after the game thinking this was not just a hard foul (warning, NSFW language):

Embiid essentially shrugged.

The actual foul was hard but a bit of a fluke. Embiid went up to block the layup/dunk but Westbrook lost his dribble for a second, and the result was an airborne Embiid crashing into Westbrook. Hard. Was there a little bit extra in there? Depends on if you’re on Team Westbrook or Team Embiid.

But the NBA could use more feuds, so bring it on.

The Thunder went on to beat the 76ers on a Paul George game-winner.