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Three Things to Know: Rockets lost their swagger

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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) Rockets “lost our swagger,” build a brick house with shots on the way to a fourth straight loss. It’s far too early to panic. It’s far too early to panic. It’s far too early to panic.

The Rockets keep repeating the mantra, but they also know last season it was almost Christmas before they lost their fifth game (Dec. 20) and they had won 25 games by then. This year the fifth loss came before Halloween.

That fifth loss was ugly. Even without James Harden (he could be back this weekend from his sore hamstring), Tuesday night was a game Houston should have controlled. For Portland, this was supposed to be a “schedule makers’ loss” — second night of a road back-to-back (with travel across time zones), the third game in four days and the fourth in sixth. At that point, teams tend to look like they lost their legs a couple of flights ago and get steamrolled.

Except, after a lackluster first quarter by both teams, Portland played with more energy and passion than well-rested Houston. The result was a 104-85 Trail Blazers’ win, dropping the Rockets to 1-5 on the young season. After the game, coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Right now, we’re playing like crap… We lost our swagger. We’re on our heels.”

The Rockets found a new way to lose Tuesday. While their defense has been the bigger problem through the first five games, this time it was the offense. Harden or no, the Rockets still had elite bucket getters in Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Carmelo Anthony on the roster — except they shot a combined 12-of-49 (24.5 percent). Off the bench, Gerald Green was 1-of-10. Houston shot 23.3 percent from three. Rather than list the ugly numbers, just look at the Rockets’ shot chart for the game.

Houston is a mess, a team that is bottom seven on offense and defense to start the season. Some excuses have some merit, the team has missed Chris Paul a couple of games (suspension) and Harden a couple now, but that doesn’t explain the depth of the troubles. Nor can all the woes be blamed on Carmelo Anthony. It’s both of those things and the loss of defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik and much more. However, the biggest thing is a consistently lackluster effort, especially when the team is challenged. The Rockets are playing with no heart.

Friday the Rockets head out on a five-game road trip that feels like it could help define the entire season. For good or bad will be the question.

2) Patrick Beverley crashes into Russell Westbrook’s knees. Again. And soon police were on the court. Before this season started, Russell Westbrook had “clean up” surgery on his left knee, his fourth surgery on that knee. The issues date back to the 2013 playoffs, when Patrick Beverley (then with Houston) went for a steal, took out Westbrook’s knee, which led to a meniscus tear and a couple of surgeries. Westbrook and Beverley have had a beef ever since then.

Tuesday night this happened and it felt like Deja’ Vu.

Westbrook was not injured — but he was hot. So were his Thunder teammates. So much so that the police came onto the court just to keep the peace.

Westbrook was given a technical foul for his reaction (and probably a few choice words). Doc Rivers may not have liked it, but Beverley was given a Flagrant 1 foul. If anything that was soft. Beverley was going for a loose ball (which Westbrook had already controlled) but was reckless with his body in a way that could have led to a serious injury. Fortunately, this time Westbrook wasn’t hurt.

The Thunder got the win 128-110. These teams meet up again Dec. 15, circle that one on the calendar.

3) Cavaliers win! Cavaliers win! They can’t hire a coach but Cavaliers Win! Larry Drew is 1-0 as the Cavaliers’ coach… except he’s not the coach. Drew is the voice of the head coach right now, whatever that means. Maybe there’s a puppet involved. Technically, the Cavaliers were without a coach.

Whatever. It worked.

Cleveland picked up its first win of the season in the first game since Tyronn Lue was fired, easily handling the Atlanta Hawks 136-114. Rodney Hood had 26 points to lead seven Cavaliers players in double figures in scoring. The Cavaliers hit 54 percent from three, which helped, as did the fact they attacked the rim and played fast. Neither team defended well, but the Hawks turned the ball over on 21.6 percent of their possessions and let the Cavaliers get the offensive rebound on 31.4 percent of their missed shots, and that was the difference.

It was a welcome respite for a team that has had nothing but bad news to start the season. The ugly coaching situation still looms, and the team has started shopping Kyle Korver again, but a win at least makes the optics a little better for all of it.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.