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James Harden being out clouds latest Rockets-Warriors clash

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Houston Rockets have had the Golden State Warriors’ number this season. However, when the teams meet on Saturday, the Rockets will have to play without the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.

Houston guard James Harden is out due a cervical neck strain. Harden was bothered by soreness Thursday during the Rockets’ 111-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was seen receiving treatment to the neck and right shoulder during the contest.

The Rockets have used different means to beat the two-time defending champs in their first two head-to-heads since Golden State prevailed in a seven-game conference finals last May.

Houston held a Stephen Curry-less Warriors team to 86 points — Golden State’s lowest output of the season — and just 42 percent shooting in a 107-86 home win in November.

The Rockets then turned Harden loose in the January rematch at Golden State, watching him pour in 44 points — including a game-winning 3-pointer — in a 135-134 overtime thriller.

More than a month later, that game still weighs heavily on the mind of Curry, who countered Harden with 35 points of his own that night.

“They just made one more shot,” he noted to reporters after the Warriors Thursday win over the Sacramento Kings. “We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing. It’s going to be a dogfight … a defensive test for us.”

At the time of Curry’s statement, the extent of Harden’s injury had not been made public. The NBA’s leading scorer at 36.5 points per game, Harden was bothered by a left shoulder strain prior to the All-Star break but didn’t miss any contests. He has played in 55 of Houston’s 58 games as he missed three games early in the season due to a hamstring injury.

In the overtime win at Oakland, Harden complemented his 44 points with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for a triple-double.

While there was no triple-double against the Lakers, Harden did extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 32.

The Rockets lost their second in a row and fell to 33-25, a full 12 games below where they stood at this point last season. It’s gotten some analysts grumbling about the club’s style of play and reliance on Harden.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni labeled such talk “absurd” before the Thursday game.

“I don’t know if they watched last year,” he said of the naysayers. “Nobody else can do what he does. … If you’re a ball-stopper, usually you’re inefficient. He’s very efficient. So when the ball stops, it’s a good thing.”

The Rockets earned the home-court advantage over Golden State in last year’s playoffs by finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors during the regular season.

That almost surely won’t be the case should they meet again this postseason. The Warriors (42-16), with the best record in the West, have a nine-game advantage over Houston, currently in the No. 5 seed.

Golden State won for the 17th time in its past 19 games by surviving a late rally from the Kings on Thursday in a 125-123 home decision. Curry finished with 36 points, making 10 of his 16 3-point attempts.

Harden (276) and Curry (246) enter the game ranked first and second, respectively, in the NBA in 3-pointers made.

Harden also led the league last season with what was then a career-best 265.

Curry got the better of his rival in 3-pointers in last year’s playoff showdown, however, making 27 of 75 (36 percent) while Harden was harassed into 19 of 78 (24.4 percent).

Curry saved his best for last in the series, going 7 of 15 on 3-point tries in a 27-point effort in Golden State’s 101-92 win at Houston in Game 7. Harden went just 2-for-13 from long range on his 32-point night.

 

New California law prompted by crash that killed Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant crash site
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday approved legislation prompted by the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other peopls that makes it a crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime.

Reports surfaced after the Jan. 26 crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the others that graphic photos of the victims were being shared.

Eight deputies were accused of taking or sharing graphic photos of the scene, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said then, adding that he had ordered the images deleted. He said the department has a policy against taking and sharing crime scene photos, but it did not apply to accident scenes.

The measure that will take effect Jan. 1 makes it a misdemeanor with fines up to $1,000 per offense to take such photos for anything other than an official law enforcement purpose.

Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, has sued the department over the photos.

LeBron James calls bubble “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done” in NBA

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The NBA bubble has worn on players.

Paul George talked about the depression it brought on, saying he went to a “dark place.” Other teams just seemed to crumble under the weight of it when things got tight.

The strong-willed survival of all things bubble is why the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat start play in the NBA Finals on Wednesday. Just don’t think it’s been easy.

“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” LeBron said on Media Day Tuesday. “But I knew when I was coming what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it’s been extremely tough.

“But I’m here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to compete for a championship. That was my mindset once I entered the bubble, once I entered the quarantine process the first two days. Then right from my first practice, my mindset was to — if I’m going to be here, make the most of it and see what you can do and lock in on what the main thing is. The main thing was for us to finish the season and compete for a championship.

“So that’s just been my mindset throughout these — I don’t even know how many days it is. However many days it is, it feels like five years. So it really doesn’t matter. I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career.”

LeBron James has been a leader in every sense throughout the bubble. On the court, he took charge when it was needed to lift the Lakers organization back to the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade.

Off the court, he has been a consistent and loud voice for social justice — and he has put his money where his mouth is. That has made him a target of conservative talking heads, to which LeBron has largely shrugged. He’s thinking bigger picture, not their short-term distractions.

Right now, however, he’s thinking about winning NBA Finals.

 

NBA Finals Preview: Five key things to watch when Lakers face Heat

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—This is not the NBA Finals preview we expected to write heading into the season because this had never happened in NBA history: Two teams that were 10 seeds a season ago, two teams completely out of the playoffs, are competing in the NBA Finals one year later.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat both have the advantages of market and management, and both used that leverage last offseason to land big stars — Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler — who could lead them back to this point.

The Lakers and Heat meet in an interesting chess match of a Finals — the Lakers have the two best players in the series, but the Heat have the better ensemble and have thrived in the bubble. Miami also creates some matchup challenges the Lakers have yet to see this postseason.

Here are the five things to watch, five things that will help decide the 2020 NBA Finals (with my prediction at the end).

1) Bam Adebayo vs. Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis has been the best offensive player so far in the playoffs — he is averaging 28.8 points per game and is scoring with ease from all three levels. He’s a devastating finisher at the rim, he is hitting 36.6% from three (on 2.7 attempts a game), and when he gets the ball and faces up he’s been unstoppable, including from the midrange. Portland and Denver went big but slower against him, Houston has no center, and none of those teams had an answer for Davis.

Miami has Bam Adebayo.

No one player will stop Davis, but Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player with the length, instincts, and athleticism to make Davis work. Adebayo is a fantastic isolation defender, by far the best Davis has faced this postseason. Davis will get the ball and drive, but the buckets will not come as easily — ask Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Bam is a great player, Davis said of Adebayo. “Bam is a lot like [Nikola] Jokic. He handles the ball a lot, pushes them on the breaks for them, he makes great passes, scores. He’s like their energy guy as well. So, it’ll be fun. Two Kentucky guys. Coach Cal [John Calipari] probably texted and called me enough about that.

But it’s going to be a fun matchup… That team leans on him a lot. I think it was Game 4 where he took that pressure, and took the blame for not playing well, and ended up losing. And he comes out in Game 5 and almost had a triple-double.”

When the Heat have the ball, Adebayo is at the heart of Miami’s attack — he was the difference in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Boston — and like Davis, he attacks the rim. Davis can defend him but it’s going to require a lot of energy on the defensive end.

Miami likely will use Jae Crowder to guard Davis at times as well, they will go under every pick and play back in the paint, daring Davis and the Lakers to be jump shooters. It’s the right strategy, but the way Davis is playing he will make Miami pay anyway.

2) Miami’s shooters get red hot

The Lakers have been a fantastic defensive team through the playoffs in part because they are quick on their rotations, scramble well when things break down, and they don’t give up a lot of threes (32.9 attempts per game, second-lowest in the playoffs).

If Miami is going to win this series, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and the rest of the Miami shooters are going to have to change that dynamic. The Heat have to keep moving to get open then shoot over the top of the Lakers’ defense all series, stretching their defense across the court.

“The way they move off the ball, they share the ball,” LeBron said of things that have impressed him about the Heat. “Everyone is live on the floor. There’s not one guy that you can disrespect or be off throughout the course of an offensive possession. And they do a hell of a job of moving without the ball, sharing the ball, cutting, passing.”

The Lakers have length, but do they have a defender who can stay in front of this Goran Dragic — the guy in the bubble playing like the All-NBA version of himself from six years ago? If he gets into the paint and hits a few shots, the Lakers’ defense will collapse down and suddenly, two quick passes and Heat shooters will have an open three. That’s bad news for L.A.

Miami was streaky from deep against Boston — Herro had a great game but Miami shot under 30% from deep in games two, three, and four — and they can’t be against the Lakers. Miami’s chances in this series hinge on its ability to shoot lights out.

3) Lakers dominating the offensive glass

The Los Angeles Lakers have grabbed the offensive rebound on 29.7% of their missed shots these playoffs, and those second-chance points have helped fuel their run to the Finals. With Davis and JaVale McGee/Dwight Howard up front, the Lakers’ size inside has been a problem for teams. Even big teams. It’s been all season long.

Pat Riley used to tell his Showtime Lakers “no rebounds, no rings,” and that will apply to his Heat now — if Miami doesn’t keep the Lakers off the offensive glass they will lose. Miami plays with incredible energy (which has helped them on the offensive glass at critical points), and they will need to focus that energy on the boards this series.

4) Jimmy Butler and Heat try to make LeBron a jump shooter

The most telling action to watch in this series is how Miami defends the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll.

The Heat got to the Finals playing zone defense (more on that is a few paragraphs) and being a switching team in man-to-man. However, they may look like more of a basic drop defense against the Lakers — go under the pick, pack the paint and protect it, and dare the Lakers to become jump shooters.

Especially LeBron. The problem is, back off LeBron and he sees a runway. That is where Butler comes in — he has to have a fantastic defensive series keeping LeBron from taking over (and it’s fair to question if he still has the athleticism to do it, even against an age 35 Lebron). Guys have been trying to find a way to slow LeBron for 17 seasons, and with limited success. For Miami to have a chance, Butler (and to a lesser degree Andre Iguodala) will have to make him work hard for his points.

“He’s seen everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of LeBron. “At this point in his career, it’s just about winning. And his ability to do what he does at his age is incredibly uncommon. But there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to be able to maintain that.”

LeBron will hunt for switches and try to get Herro or Robinson on him — he is relentless at forcing the matchup he wants (even if Miami is fairly good at avoiding the switch). The Heat rookies could be in for a long series.

Then there is the Miami zone.

Miami will use it to protect the paint — pack it in a little, take away lanes for LeBron to drive, remove passing lanes to cutters, and try to take LeBron out of his comfort zone. The challenge is Miami likes to put its bigger wings out top in the zone to overwhelm smaller ball handlers (think Boston’s Kemba Walker), but that’s not going to work against LeBron. Still, the Lakers have not done as well against a zone in the playoffs (less than a point per possession, but just 30 possessions according to Second Spectrum tracking data, so it’s small sample size theater). The Lakers will need to figure it out, as Boston eventually did, because the Heat will run it until the Lakers beat it.

5) Which team stays out of foul trouble

Nobody ever pities the referees, but they are in for a brutal series.

Both the Lakers and Heat attack the paint and put pressure on the officials to make calls — and the Lakers have fouled a lot these playoffs. Both teams will target getting key opponents in early foul trouble — watch the Davis/Adebayo matchup in particular and LeBron/Butler. Both teams will be physical.

“You got to be smart about ticky-tacky fouls,” Adebayo said.

How games are officiated — is it called tight, or do they let them play a little? — will mean a lot in this series.

Expect a lot of complaining — from players, from coaches, and from fans — about the officiating. Expect letters and video to be sent to the league by both teams. Expect fines for complaining.

Despite what fans think, the referees will work to be impartial in the NBA Finals, but it’s going to be hard for the referees to stay out of the middle of this series.

Prediction: Lakers in six. As many problems as Miami poses for the Lakers, LeBron will figure out the puzzle.

Report: Delonte West enters rehab with help of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with Delonte West
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Every so often, a video or picture goes viral of Delonte West – who played primarily for the Celtics and Cavaliers and whose NBA career ended with the Mavericks in 2012 – on the street appearing to be in rough shape.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did something about it.

TMZ:

Mark Cuban is personally helping Delonte West get back on his feet … with the Dallas Mavericks owner picking up the ex-NBA star at a gas station in Texas.

We’re even told Cuban has offered to help cover Delonte’s cost for treatment.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Good for Cuban for stepping up. And hopefully West gets the help he needs.