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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.

Report: Markelle Fultz and Drew Hanlen no longer speaking, let alone working together

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Markelle Fultz has had few more vocal backers than Drew Hanlen, who trained the 76ers guard over the offseason.

Hanlen said Fultz would be an All-Star this season if 100%. With Fultz still struggling to shoot, Hanlen said Fultz wasn’t fully healthy.

But Fultz contradicted that, calling himself generally healthy. Fultz also rebuffed Hanlen’s assertion Fultz had the yips, as Fultz stressed his problems were due to injury.

Apparently, they became even more divided.

Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype:

Hanlen brought himself plenty of fame through his work with Fultz. This moves Hanlen back closer to the anonymity of most trainers.

More importantly, it suggests Fultz needs yet another plan for fixing his shooting form.

Rumor: Lakers not signing Carmelo Anthony

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Many in Houston are convinced Carmelo Anthony is done with the Rockets.

If so, where will he play next?

Like when he was a free agent just a few months ago, speculation has centered on teams with his banana-boat buddies. Chris Paul and the Rockets already tried. But LeBron James‘ Lakers and Dwyane Wade‘s Heat seem viable.

Marc J. Spears on ESPN:

I am hearing that not the Lakers. I think the Lakers are done.

The Lakers already have scoring power forwards in Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley, and LeBron can obviously play that position. I’d rather have the incumbents than Anthony.

So how about Miami? Wade has been Anthony’s most outspoken backer, after all. But the Heat also have a superior offensive power forward in Kelly Olynyk, and Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr. provide a fair amount of depth at the position.

Really, this is probably the wrong conversation. Maybe there is a bad team or two with a deficiency so glaring, Anthony is worth a roll of the dice. But he might just be finished as an NBA player, regardless of the fit.

Kevin Durant argues with Draymond Green after failed final shot attempt

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The Clippers had been in control of the game against the Warriors, up 11 midway through the fourth quarter, but that’s when the run everyone had been waiting on came. The Warriors closed the gap behind Klay Thompson becoming a tough shot maker, and when Lou Williams missed a tough fade-away long two with :06 seconds left, Golden State had the chance to escape with a win.

Draymond Green got the rebound. Kevin Durant was clapping his hands calling for the ball. No timeout to set up a play was called, and Green decided to do it all himself, pushed the ball upcourt and… fumbled it away without a shot.

Durant was pissed on the bench after that.

Here are some better looks, notice Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins were the peacemakers.

After the game, Durant — who fouled out in overtime — left without speaking to the media. Green refused to discuss it.

It’s a long season, these kinds of spats happen to every team, and the Warriors will get over it. This is not the first family squabble they have had. But this just feels like one to file away in the memory bank and recall next July when decisions will be made about the future of this roster.

Three Things to Know: NBA family sends love after horrific Caris LeVert injury

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Caris LeVert’s promising season halted by a horrific leg injury, NBA family reacts with love. Caris LeVert was having a breakout season scoring 18.4 points per game, having taken on a larger percentage of the Nets’ offense yet improving his efficiency. It’s early to talk awards, but his name came up as a most improved candidate.

Then on Monday came a horrific leg injury. One that undoubtedly ended his season. Here is the video, but only watch it if you have a strong stomach. The injury pushes both Nets and Timberwolves players to tears.

NBA players reacted on Twitter, here is just a small sampling.

Our thoughts are with LeVert as well.

2) Two days after beating Bucks in OT, Clippers do the same thing to Warriors. If you’re not taking the Los Angeles Clippers seriously, it’s time to. Saturday night they knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime, a quality win against the team with the best net rating in the NBA so far.

Monday night, the Clippers knocked off the Warriors in overtime, 121-116. Lou Williams, who was ice cold for most of the game and shot 3-of-15 in regulation, was making plays and had 10 points in overtime. Tobias Harris continues to be a leader and had 17 points. But it was the youth of the Clippers that got this win. Montrezl Harrell dropped 23 points on just 13 shots while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots off the bench. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander started at the point and finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, five rebounds, and three assists.

The Clippers have the seventh-best net rating in the NBA, with a top 10 offense and defense (usually the sign of a contender). If they can stay healthy — and that has always been the concern with this Clippers roster — we may need to pencil them in for a playoff spot.

Of course, leave it to the Warriors to ramp up the drama, even in a loss. Monday’s game only reached overtime because of an 11-0 Warriors run to close out regulation (and the Warriors were without Stephen Curry due to his groin injury). However, it was the last play of regulation that led to the drama — Draymond Green grabbed the defensive rebound, ignored Kevin Durant clapping and calling for the ball, decided he was going to take it the length himself and get the game winner… and fumbled it away without a shot. You don’t have to imagine how that sat with KD.

Notice Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins were the peacemakers.

It’s a long season, these kinds of spats happen to every team, but this is just one to file away and remember.

3) Now where does Carmelo Anthony go? ‘Melo is not with the Rockets as they travel to Denver for a game Tuesday, officially due to an “illness” but nobody is buying that. Frustrations about his role have led to meetings with the team and it is expected Anthony has played his last game as a Rocket, he will be released.

Just don’t expect that to happen too quickly.

Because, where is ‘Melo going to land? What team will bring him in? Where does he have a significant role? Anthony said it was “mentally challenging” to come off the bench for Houston, he expects to be tenured in and treated with the deference of a quality starting player. There was a time when Anthony was that; there was a stretch of four or five years where he was the best scorer in the NBA (not the most efficient ever, but he could get buckets with the best of them). That time, however, ended three or four years ago (at least). The fall has been rapid. At this point, Anthony is a bench player — but not one who can accept that role, making it an awkward and challenging fit anywhere.

ESPN’s Marc Spears said on The Jump he had heard Miami and Philadelphia as possible destinations. Philly is looking for depth and role players (maybe even a fifth starter), but not guys who are going to get a lot of touches — Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and J.J. Redick should get the bulk of the Sixers’ touches and shots. For years Brett Brown has worked to build a blue-collar, hard-working culture in Philly, a team that defends well and plays all out. Butler fits with that ethos. Anthony… not so much. The Lakers came up because of the LeBron connection, but they need to focus on their young players and to build a core for the future, ‘Melo never made sense there.

Miami makes more sense on paper, just because the 5-8 team could use a jolt to awaken their pedestrian offense so far. But they strike out on Butler so they go get ‘Melo? Is Pat Riley really going to bring him in?

Anthony couldn’t accept a role with a contender in Houston. No team developing young players is going to bring him in to take away touches from those guys. That doesn’t leave a lot of options. This could take a while.