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.

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
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One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.