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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 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.

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.

Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen unapologetic about late-game timeouts in decided games

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Saturday night, Chicago was about to lose its eighth straight game, down 112-102 to Phoenix with 30.2 seconds remaining, when Bulls coach Jim Boylen called a timeout. Boylen extended a decided game, and the Bulls’ embarrassment at home, and it apparently did not sit well with Zach LaVine.

Why call the timeout? Here is what Boylen said postgame, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

“We were just trying to get a 3, execute an action we’ve been working on,” Boylen said. “I think their pressure on our inbounds hurt us all night. We had a hard time getting the ball into actions.”

Boylen sees a teaching moment. Whether the players are tuned into him and he can effectively teach anything at that point in the game is another question entirely, one Boylen does not care about. LaVine was asked about it postgame but just laughed it off as Boylen being Boylen, but noted that’s not a good time to make a point.

“That’s what he do, man,” LaVine said, laughing. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not the coach. He told me he likes working on things we do in practice and things like that. He’s the coach. He can call timeout if he wants to.

“I just wish we were in the game. We played a really good game throughout the game and then we lose control. It’s just frustrating. Obviously, you never know what can happen type thing. But you’re down by 10 with 30 seconds left, it’s tough to stay locked in at the end of that.”

This is far from the first time Boylen has called a late-game timeout in a decided game. Darnell Mayberry counted four times he has done it — in February.

This speaks to the tension within the Bulls organization, something that will make a rebuild even more challenging. Boylen has never been popular with the players — something that can be overcome to a degree if the team is winning, but the Bulls are 19-38 and have lost eight in a row. Evidence shows the players are not responding to the coach, but team president John Paxson LOVES Boylen’s old-school attitude and has his back.

Right now, any free agent of note is going to look at the team, its coach, and if they have good options, take a pass. The team needs to be built up internally, and it’s fair to question if the GarPax front office (which is far more Pax than Gar right now) and Boylen are up to that task. Especially if the players are tuning out the coach.