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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors surge, Raptors still on top

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The Golden State Warriors reminded everyone Tuesday night what they are capable of, but the top two spots still belong to the top teams in the East. They have been more consistent.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (33-12, last week No. 1). Things are coming together for the Raptors. They have won five in a row, the last four of those with Kyle Lowry back in the lineup returned from injury, Kawhi Leonard has moved the ball better in those five wins (26 assists), Pascal Siakam is getting more run at center, and Serge Ibaka has slipped up a few times but is still having a renaissance season playing center. Raptors fans, enjoy the journey, this may well be the best Toronto team ever, try to ignore that cloud over the team about Leonard and July. Teams like this don’t come around often. Savor it.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (31-12, LW 2). They had a statement win against Houston — where Brook Lopez’s defense in the paint was the surprising key (after they overplayed Harden and forced him right and into Lopez) — and while the Bucks then turned around and lost to the Wizards a couple of nights later it was without Giannis Antetokounmpo so we’re not holding that against them. The other interesting thing out of the win over Houston: How well Eric Bledsoe did on James Harden. Yes, Harden had 42 points on 30 shots, but Bledsoe made him work for his buckets and that bodes well for the Bucks heading into the postseason. Milwaukee has 7-of-9 on the road coming up.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (30-14, LW 5). The reports of the troubles/demise of Golden State have been greatly exaggerated — despite the injuries, lack of depth, infighting and everything else they currently have the best record in the West. They took control of the conference with an emphatic win over Denver, a game that was a reminder of how good they can be. Friday night against the Clippers the DeMarcus Cousins experiment begins and should be one of the more interesting stories of the second half of the season (when you hear rumors of the Warriors’ interest in Robin Lopez on the buyout market, that’s really just Cousins insurance, nobody knows how this is going to go).

Pacers small icon 4. Pacers (29-13, LW 3). Myles Turner returned from injury against Phoenix Tuesday, which was good news because their defense when he was out was not the same — and the Pacers are second in the NBA in defensive rating. It’s a credit to coach Nate McMillan how well he has this team defending, that end of the floor has become their calling card. Indiana went 3-2 on a recent road trip but the losses were to Toronto and Boston, two of the other teams at the top of the East, and that’s a cause for some concern.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (29-14, LW 7).. Will Barton is back in the lineup — he played in just the first two games of the season before injuring his groin — and that is a big boost for Denver and it’s wing depth and rotation. Just ignore the Warriors game, Golden State does that to teams a couple times a season, except that it was another rough defensive outing. While the Nuggets on the season have a top-10 NBA defense, that has slid to the second worst in the NBA in their last 10 games. The defensive slippage has been covered up because Nikola Jokic can do things like this.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (25-18, LW 4). Clint Capela is out 4-6 weeks with an injured right thumb, and the pressure just mounted even more on James Harden — he responded with 57 points in the first game without Capela, but can he sustain this? The Rockets are 3-3 in their last six with an elite offense covering up for a bottom-10 defense, and that defense is not likely to improve with Capela out. Look for Daryl Morey to try and find some help at the five because the only real center on the roster now is Nene and he can give them maybe 15 minutes a night, tops.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (26-17, LW 6). The Thunder have the best defense in the NBA on the season, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com stats), but in the last five game that has slipped to 119.7 per 100 (28th in the league in that stretch). While teams have bad runs of games over the course of 82, the Thunder are built on defense and they can’t afford for the defensive issues to last much longer, or there will be more ugly losses like Tuesday’s one to Atlanta.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (29-16, LW 10). Philadelphia is 20-10 since trading for Jimmy Butler, and the way the Sixers looked and the way the Timberwolves rolled over in that game Butler looked prophetic. That said, all is not just puppy dogs and rainbows with the Sixers — After an Embiid-less loss at home to the lowly Hawks, Ben Simmons called his team out as soft (Atlanta was the more physical team in that game). That Simmons would go there speaks to the struggles still going on trying to get Butler/Embiid/Simmons on the same page.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (25-18, LW 9). Terry Rosier said this week this team is “too talented” and that has been a popular theory — too many mouths to feed, too many players who want touches and shots, and it leads to a crowded rotation and guys pushing for larger roles. Is it too much talent or that talent not fitting together? The Celtics can rise up and look like one of the best in the East — they did it in the win over Indiana — but they don’t consistently. Brad Stevens also needs to be thinking about who will be in his 8/9-man playoff rotation, and which current rotation guys (likely Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye, maybe others) will be relegated to the bench.

Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (26-19, LW 11). The Blazers are 18-7 at home and have a +7.1 net rating, but get on the road and they are 8-12 with a -5.1 net rating. The problems are on both ends of the court, the offense is 5.4 per 100 worse on the road and the defense is 6.8 per 100 worse. We saw it recently in action, the Blazers won four in a row at home then got out of Portland and promptly lost two straight. The Blazers have five more road than home games the rest of the way (but a relatively easy strength of schedule(.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (24-21, LW 14). The Jazz look like themselves again winning four in a row, 6-of-7, and they have allowed less than a point per possession in that stretch (best in the NBA). Utah has moved into a tie for the eighth seed in the Wes. Granted, this run has come against a softer part of the schedule (something that ends this week with the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Nuggets), but the Jazz have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and the easiest of any team in the West. Utah is starting to look like a playoff team again.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (25-20, LW 8). Last Thursday’s dramatic double-overtime win against the Thunder — where LaMarcus Aldridge scored 56 — was a signature win for San Antonio. And, if that’s all you saw of them you’d say they were surging. However, they have dropped 3-of-4, including splitting that home-and-home with OKC. The Spurs’ defense, which has carried the team this season, is bottom 10 in their last 5 games, while the offense has been pedestrian. The Spurs may be coming back to earth a little bit, they need to get their defense right and start winning some road games against the West (3-12 so far).

Kings small icon 13. Kings (23-21, LW 17). Rookie Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation after missing 11 games and is starting to find his form again. Bagley has played fairly well, averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a night off the bench before he got injured (it’s just in this rookie class those numbers get overshadowed). Coach Dave Joerger needs to get Bagley some run and bring him along, the No. 2 pick is a big part of the Kings’ future. Sacramento has won four in a row at home, but now heads out on the road for their next six.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (24-19, LW 12). The Clippers have regressed to the mean recently, having lost three in a row and 7-of-8. In those last 15 games the Clippers have had a top-10 offense — with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell providing a big spark off the bench — but a bottom 10 defense. The Clippers will be the focus of the NBA universe Friday night because DeMarcus Cousins makes his return against them — we all want to see Boban Marjanović matched up against him. Doc Rivers needs to make that happen.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (24-21, LW 13). Los Angeles has gone 4-7 since LeBron James’ groin injury, sliding down to a tie for the final playoff spot in the West, and with some ugly games in there — the loss to Cleveland at home was their worst loss of the season. Two things to be concerned about if you’re a Laker fan: 1) This recent run of games really did not help the “we can trade these guys for Anthony Davis” cause (although Brandon Ingram, when he’s facilitating still shows promise); 2) The Lakers have the second toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. With LeBron back they should be able to handle it and make the playoffs, but it’s not going to be easy.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (21-21, LW 15). The unlikely backcourt of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson has started to find some chemistry, they had big games in the wins against the Celtics and Grizzlies recently, and the Heat have won 10-of-15 with them running the show (although it’s a top-10 defense that has really carried the Heat through this stretch). The loss in Milwaukee Tuesday was the first of 6-of-7 on the road as Miami enters a rough patch of the schedule.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (21-23, LW 20). New Orleans finally has Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic back in the rotation after extended absences due to injury, they have gone 2-1 in those games and looked much improved. Their return came at the right time, if New Orleans is going to make a playoff push — read: have any shot at all of keeping Anthony Davis — they need to survive a tough January schedule the rest of the way, with 5-of-7 on the road and much of that against West playoff teams. The Pelicans have the fourth toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way.

Nets small icon 18. Nets (22-23, LW 19). Before the season it was expected that Brooklyn would be out of the playoff mix and with some expiring contracts — DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried — and they would be sellers at the trade deadline. But the scrappy Nets, who play hard and take smart shots, have turned their team of journeymen into the seven seed in the West with a real shot at the playoffs. With that, the fire sale is off and Brooklyn is one of the feel-good stories of the season.

19. Timberwolves (21-23, LW 16). Coming out flat against Philadelphia was ugly — they made Jimmy Butler look prophetic about Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins by showing no fire in that game. This team shows flashes — KAT was blocking Anthony Davis at the end of a win over the Pelicans — but they don’t defend or take smart shots with any consistency. Ryan Saunders is 2-2 as a coach and there are people rooting for him to do well enough to keep this job, but he has a lot of work ahead of him to just get more every night out of this roster.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (20-23, LW 21). Why are the Mavericks shopping Dennis Smith Jr.? Because, while his shooting has improved this season, he simply has not fit with Luka Doncic (and Doncic is the future). Smith as part of the regular starting five for Dallas scores less than a point per possession, sub rookie Jaylen Brunson in for Smith and that lineup’s offense gets 16 points per 100 possessions better. Smith is incredibly athletic and should have value on the trade market, but with every other team knowing both Dallas and Smith want to part ways, it’s going to be hard to get anywhere near fair value.

Magic small icon 21. Magic (19-24, LW 24).
Another team many around the league expected to be a seller at the deadline, but after back-to-back victories over Boston and Houston, the Magic are just a game out of the playoffs in the East and are more likely to make a push for it rather than tank. The key to making the playoffs will be more of the Aaron Gordon who showed up against Boston and Houston, scoring 28 and 22 points in those games, shooting a combined 51.7 percent, and getting to the free throw line. Orlando needs Gordon to be aggressive and the catalyst for the offense.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (20-23, LW 18). Charlotte wants to make the playoffs this season, owner Michael Jordan wants to make the playoffs, and their recent 2-4 road trip did not help that cause (although the Hornets remain a game ahead of Orlando for the eight seed). The bigger problem is they miss Cody Zeller, he has been out seven games (2-5) and in those games the Hornets have the third worst defense in the NBA. They need to get some stops over the next few weeks because Kemba Walker’s heroics alone are not enough to get them into the playoffs.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (18-26, LW 25). They beat the 76ers. They beat the Bucks. They took the Raptors to double overtime. Forget about tanking and selling off players, the Wizards are playing better and, with the third easiest schedule the rest of the way the Wizards are thinking playoffs. The Wizards are 5-4 with a +3.2 net rating since John Wall left the team due to injury, there is more balance on the offense and Bradley Beal is attacking the rim more than we’ve seen in years. Despite their horrid start to the season and injuries, the Wizards are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and stranger things have happened.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (18-24, 22). Blake Griffin’s 44-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night was a classic revenge game — he even blew off Steve Ballmer (maybe) — and a great reminder of how good Griffin can be. It’s also the Pistons’ only win in their last six games, the team continues to struggle offensively (bottom 5 in the league over the last 10 games). The Pistons have 7-of-10 at home and if they are going to make a playoff push it needs to come now.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-30, LW 26). The Hawks have quietly gone 8-7 in their last 15 games, with an average NBA offense and a just slightly below average defense in that stretch. That included a 142-126 win over Oklahoma City. Rookie point guard Trae Young has started to show some chemistry with Kevin Huerter,, and the Thunder found out about that the hard way.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-24, LW 23). Unexpected stat: The Grizzlies lead the NBA in passes per game, averaging 342.1. Unfortunately, that does not correlate directly to winning, the Grizzlies have gone 3-13 in their last 16, have slid out of the playoffs, and their next four games are the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, and Pelicans. If the losing continues for another week or two, and with Marc Gasol a free agent this summer, will we finally see Memphis talk trade and break up their core? Other teams are watching, but if they didn’t do it this summer would they now?

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-34, LW 27). Kelly Oubre Jr. is starting to find a comfort level in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.6 points per game on 50.8 shooting in his last five games. That said, the offense continues to struggle if Devin Booker is not on the floor, and that lack of consistent offense keeps them from winning games (although they are competitive most nights, they are not just rolling over).

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-33, LW 29). It will be February before we get an update, but if the rumors are true that the Knicks want to hold Kristaps Porzingis out all season — against his wishes — then that is the kind of short-sighted things that leads to broken relationships. (This is providing there is not a good medical reason to keep KP out.) Only one game this week as the NBA decided to promote its game by sending the Knicks and Wizards over to London for a Thursday game (don’t they have enough problems over there with Brexit without us making them watch that excuse for basketball?).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (10-34, LW 28). Chicago has lost eight in a row, but Bulls management wants to show it’s committed to the old-school ways of coach Jim Boylen by giving him a raise this season and next (they had lost six in a row when that news leaked). Boylen is now 5-15 as head coach. When you’re losing like that, experimenting with Lauri Markkanen at the three — as Boylen wants to do — is worth trying.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-35, LW 30). the Cavaliers snapped their 12 game losing streak thanks to the LeBron-less Lakers. One bright spot, Matthew Dellavedova has played like a solid pro for the Cavaliers off the bench providing some steady play their bench units can use. Beyond that… here’s a Zion Williamson highlight to dream about.

Russell Westbrook goes from ‘Next question’ to ‘That’s a good question. Not sure’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook can be a pain.

Pain to his opponents. Pain to his teammates. Pain to the media.

Sometimes, it seems Westbrook even takes pride in being a jerk. Which is fine. His cutthroat attitude is part of who he is, and it has gotten him a long way.

Lately, Westbrook has clashed with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. For months, Westbrook has answered all Tramel’s questions with, “Next question.” Yet, Tramel keeps asking them – as he should. Westbrook has earned control over a lot of things. Tramel shouldn’t cede control of his job to Westbrook.

The back-and-forth has gotten increased prominence during the playoffs, when postgame press conferences are nationally televised. Both sides have found plenty of support. Westbrook’s fans love that his intensity never relents. Many also respect Tramel’s professionalism.

Four years ago, Westbrook infamously told Tramel, “I just don’t like you.” Westbrook got into it with Tramel again two years ago. But Tramel continues to cover the Thunder the best he can.

Likewise, Westbrook is trying to lead Oklahoma City the best he can. That means picking battles, even small ones like this, and pushing himself to win them all.

But after the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Trail Blazers last night, Westbrook finally gave an inch. But just an inch.

Tramel asked how the Thunder’s defense of Damian Lillard changed from the first half to the second half.

“That’s a good question,” Westbrook said. “Not sure.”

Tramel asked about the lessons learned about overcoming a 3-1 deficit to the Grizzlies in the 2014 playoffs. (Oklahoma City trailed 2-1 and 3-2 in that series, but never 3-1).

“Really don’t know,” Westbrook said.

For Westbrook, those answers were a huge breakthrough. They surprised everyone, even Tramel. Just a few days ago, the columnist predicted Westbrook wouldn’t change his two-word answers anytime soon: “He’s not going to give in this playoff series.”

Maybe this means the series is over.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.

Bucks on brink of first playoff series win in 18 years

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Milwaukee Bucks can wipe away 18 years of frustration on Monday night.

They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals. That drought can end in Detroit if they complete a sweep of the Pistons.

The top-seeded Milwaukee cruised through the first three games, winning by an average of 24 points. If they lose in Game 4, the Bucks would have three more chances in the best-of-seven series to end their streak of eight straight first-round exits. The earlier the Bucks eliminate eighth-seeded Detroit, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the conference semifinals.

“It’s going to be nice if we can finish it here and get six days of rest,” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

In Game 3 on Saturday, Antetokounmpo had a quiet night and the Bucks still led by double digits most of the way. Antetokounmpo finished with 14 points, three assists and four turnovers and only played 27 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pistons couldn’t take advantage of his off night, though, as Milwaukee had six other players in double figures in its 119-103 victory.

“It’s good to see my team doing really well out there without me,” he said. “It means a lot to me. There’s going to be nights like this. My teammates did a great job of picking me up.”

The Bucks were up 13 points when Antetokounmpo sat early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his fourth foul. When he re-entered late in the quarter, they were leading by 22 points.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to build all year,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re a team that plays together, tries to take what the defense gives us. Guys have a lot of confidence to make plays. It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is. If and when we need more from other people, it’s a credit to Giannis to let his teammates carry him some nights, carry him some stretches.”

The Bucks will try match their regular-season feat against the Pistons. Their four-game sweep was the first by either team in the all-time series. They have met in the postseason four other times, with Detroit winning each time.

“We might be the number one seed and best team in the NBA (record-wise) but at the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re hungry, everybody’s hungry.”

The Pistons’ best player, power forward Blake Griffin, made his debut in the series after sitting out the first two games with a sore left knee. Griffin toughed it out for 31 minutes and posted 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His teammates let him down, as Detroit shot below 40 percent for the third straight game.

“That young man is giving us everything he has,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He said he was feeling good. I was concerned about his conditioning with as much time as he’s missed. You can’t really simulate 5-on-5 basketball when you’re rehabbing. But he came in and gave us what he could. He just has a presence that we can’t replicate.”

The Pistons haven’t shown enough of a defensive presence against a team that averaged a league-high 118.1 points.

“We had some situations where we make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and don’t carry out our assignments,” Casey said. “That’s part of growth. That’s a team that makes you pay for mistakes that you make.”

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Not just Lillard, CJ McCollum outplaying OKC, too

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It’s not a one-man show, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum outplaying Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Coming into the series, both Portland and Oklahoma City faced a question: Could their stars help overcome weakness with their depth and support players. Through four games, one team’s stars are outplaying their counterparts.

That played out again on Sunday: Russell Westbrook was 0-of-7 shooting in the second half, 5-of-21 for the game, finishing with 14 points. Paul George was 8-of-21 shooting but at least was getting to the free throw line on his way to 32 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard had 15 points in the third quarter alone when Portland started to pull away, CJ McCollum hit some critical threes in the fourth (he was 5-of-9 from three for the game) to help the Trail Blazers stay ahead on his way to 27 points.

Portland went into OKC and won 111-98, taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading home for Game 5.

After the game, Jusuf Nurkic (sidelined with a leg injury) couldn’t resist taking a little shot at Westbrook and his postgame antics.

A lot of the attention this series has gone to the heads-up matchup of Westbrook vs. Lillard duel — and with good reason, it’s been bad blood and entertaining. However, that has left McCollum in the shadows and he deserves some spotlight for averaging 26.3 points, shooting 51.6 percent from three, plus having 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game against the Thunder through four. Oklahoma City has not had an answer for him.

Oklahoma City has had to play a lot of Dennis Schroder this series because he’s been efficient on offense (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting Sunday) but either Lillard or McCollum can just take him in isolation whenever they want and get buckets. It also helps Portland when Al-Farouq Aminu is giving them 19 points, as he did Sunday.

The big picture lesson in this series: Shooting matters. Oklahoma City’s stars are not finishing well enough inside, settling for more midrangers than they should, and unless it’s from the right corner the Thunder struggle from three. You’re not going to win a lot of games with the shot chart the Thunder had on Sunday.

2) Boston sweeps past Indiana to advance, East races shaping up as expected. The playoffs in the East are going to be a dynamic show, but we knew that was really going to start in the second round. One could make a case for Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston to come out of the conference, but after those four there was a talent drop off. There was the first round to get through before the real fireworks began.

Boston advanced Sunday with a sweep of the Pacers, winning 110-106 behind 20 points from Gordon Hayward, who had himself a night.

Frankly, this series was decided back in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Without him the Pacers — who played hard and smart in his absence, and were brilliantly coached by Nate McMillan — just did not have the firepower to score enough to make this series interesting.

Also in the East on Sunday, Toronto overwhelmed Orlando 107-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead as things head back north of the border for Game 5. That loss by the Magic all but sealed this series, which might have been a sweep if not for the rider in every Toronto player contract that they have to stink in the first game of every playoff series.

Milwaukee likely sweeps Detroit out of the playoffs on Monday night, setting up their showdown with Boston in the second round. Brooklyn has put up a fight against Philadelphia — down to their GM breaking NBA taboos and going into the referees’ locker room to discuss how they officiate Joel Embiid — but with the Sixers up 3-1 and having game 5 at home Tuesday, this series also feels inevitable.

Then we can get on to the main course in the East.

3) Klay Thompson goes for a swim, comes out of the ocean and destroys the Clippers, Warriors go up 3-1. Klay Thompson hadn’t played poorly through the first three games of the Warriors’ first-round playoff series with the Clippers, he’d played impressive defense and averaged 13.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting. But he hadn’t had a breakout game, the kind we expect from one of the game’s best shooters.

So he went for a swim (via NBC Sports Bay Area and Monte Poole).

“I told Jonas [Jerebko] yesterday when we went to the beach to play some volleyball, like, ‘Yo, I’m just going to jump in the ocean. I know that will reset my mind.’ And it worked.”

Sunday Thompson had 27 points in the first half, going on to finish with 32 on 12-of-20 shooting (6-of-9 from three). The Warriors won 113-105 to take a 3-1 series lead heading back to the Bay Area for Game 5.

“The Pacific Ocean is undefeated,” said Stephen Curry after the game (he struggled with 12 points on 14 shots, the Clippers have defended him well this series).

Golden State has a showdown with Houston coming. With all due respect to the other teams still in the dance in the West, that is your Western Conference Finals, it’s just taking place in the second round. Houston has dominated Utah and can sweep them out of the playoffs Monday night.

Houston is playing its best basketball of the season, it is defending at a high level, and the Rockets have a shot against the Warriors. They believe they can win, but we’ll find out starting next weekend (most likely, dates for the second round are not public yet).