Associated Press

Mike D’Antoni on Rockets’ defense: ‘I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it.’

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Last season the Houston Rockets’ defense allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, seventh best in the NBA. After the All-Star break they allowed just 103.8 per 100, fourth best during that stretch. By the end of the season, the Rockets switched every screen on- and off-ball (something they felt they needed to handle the Warriors in the playoffs) and leaned on defensive minded role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It got them within a game — within a half, really, the Rockets led at half of Games 6 and 7 vs the Warriors — of reaching the NBA Finals and almost certainly bringing home a title.

This season, the conventional wisdom was the Rockets would take a big step back defensively. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left as free agents, replaced on some level by James Ennis (a quality defender), Carmelo Anthony (not so much) and Michael Carter-Williams. Defensive-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, adding to the losses.

That narrative was fed opening night when Anthony Davis did whatever he wanted on his way to 32 points, Elfird Payton (yes, Elfrid Payton) put up a triple-double, and the Pelicans scored at a 124.8 points per 100 pace in blowing the Rockets out.

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t see the season going that way. Speaking to  Sam Amick of The Athletic he defended the team’s defense this season.

I think we’re even deeper this year, so we can have fresher guys on the floor… Trevor and Mbah a Moute were big parts of (Houston’s switching defense), but it’ll be taken up by Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a very good defensive player. James Ennis, who has energy and can play defense, and has all kinds of energy, to Eric Gordon, who will play with Chris and James a little bit more. So I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it. ‘Melo and the guys are smart enough (to know that) by switching it helps them too. They don’t have to fight through screens and all that. We’re just switching everything to try to keep guys in front. We have a nice philosophy, I think, where players understand what we’re trying to do.

The only thing that’s really changed is that (assistant coach) Roy (Rogers) has the (defensive) voice, in film sessions, talking to them, and (former assistant) Jeff (Bzdelik) had the voice (last season, before unexpectedly leaving during the summer). We all sat down to figure out what we wanted to do defensively, what were the best matchups, talking to Chris and James and PJ about, ‘OK, who you guarding tonight, and what do you think?’ And they’ll figure it out. But at the end of the day, the information still flows exactly the same.”

While the system may be the same, the players executing it are not. Carter-Williams was just lost and a mess defensively in the opener. Anthony will be better than some think as a team defender during the regular season (not good, but not a complete dumpster fire), but he can be exploited in a playoff series (Utah hunted him out in the first round last season, and it worked). P.J. Tucker is a fantastic defender, as is Chris Paul, but both are a year older and not getting faster.

Opening night was an aberration — the Rockets are not that bad on either end of the floor. It’s just one game and every team will have a few clunkers over the course of 82. The Rockets will play better against the Lakers in LeBron James‘ home opener Saturday night (that will not be an easy game for Houston by any measure).

Right now it feels like the Rockets are headed for a step back defensively this season, and with that their margins against the Warriors get even smaller. We’ll see over time if D’Antoni knows best.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.