AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Salute to the Houston Rockets

11 Comments

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 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 traded 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.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Leave a comment

No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.