Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Are these Rockets as good as last year’s version?

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are underway 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) Houston looks as good as last year’s team in shutting down Jazz. Again. First impressions tend to stick with us. It’s human nature. And our first impressions of this season’s Houston Rockets were not good — a 10-11 team that could not defend, Chris Paul looked like he lost a step, Clint Capela looked like he really enjoyed the offseason, and the result of a few off-season moves meant the Rockets didn’t have the same depth and versatility.

Get those Rockets out of your mind.

The Rockets playing right now — the ones that have gone 20-5 since the All-Star break and are now up 2-0 in the playoffs — are as good as last year’s team. They think better. Either way, this team is a genuine threat to the Golden State Warriors.

Just ask the Utah Jazz. They were 18-7 after the All-Star break with a +9.5 net rating, yet through two games the Rockets have dismantled the Jazz with ease. On Wednesday it was a 118-98 Rockets’ win in a game that stopped being seriously competitive midway through the third quarter.

Through the first three quarters Wednesday, the Jazz shot 35.5 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three, with an offensive rating of just 89.3. Well below a shot per possession. Utah’s offense has one real shot creator in Donovan Mitchell and when a good defense can focus on one guy, it can make his life difficult: Mitchell had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting overall, 1-of-8 from three, with, 6 assists but 4 turnovers.

Also, the Rockets have James Harden.

He is unstoppable right now (and the exception to the lone shot creator note above). Utah switched up its defensive strategy to try to put more pressure on Harden at the point of attack, he almost seemed to prefer that and made his moves, created space, and had his way. Harden had 32 points on 24 shots, was 6-of-13 from three, had 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and none of those numbers do justice to how he dominated the game when he was on the court.

Through two games, Houston has dominated and gotten in Utah’s heads, and the Jazz can’t shoot their way out of it (15-of-65 from three through two games). Utah’s roster limitations are being exploited by Houston and it’s hard to see a path for the Jazz to bounce back, even as they head home for Game 3.

Houston’s real test is next round — they are the only team in the West that can be a threat to Golden State. Last season Houston believed it was the better team (but for one Chris Paul hamstring…), this season nobody thought that about them that way because of that slow start.

It’s time to start thinking of the Rockets that way. This team is legit. They can beat anyone.

2) Playoff Kyrie Irving dominates, Indiana’s offense still just goes flat, and Celtics win 99-91 to go up 2-0. There are two competing storylines in this game. Both are true, but one is more fun while the other has a larger say in how this series is going to end.

The fun part — playoff Kyrie Irving showed up on Wednesday night in Boston. Celtics fans didn’t get to see him last season, but he showed up in Game 2: 37 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists. Most importantly, when the Pacers were ahead in the third quarter and threatening to blow the game open, it was Irving’s offense that kept the Celtics around.

In the fourth, playoff Jayson Tatum — the guy from last playoffs everyone has been waiting to show up all of this season — made an appearance. Tatum finished with 26 points and made some key plays late in the fourth quarter. Irving wasn’t scoring in the fourth, but his presence and the way he dominated the game early had opened up everything for the other Celtics.

The second storyline is that Indiana’s offense without Victor Oladipo is prone to ugly, extended dry spells that will doom them. Indiana led by a dozen points early in the fourth but shot 4-of-17 in the final quarter, and while the Celtics play good defense this is more about Indiana. Bojan Bogdanovic led the way with 23 points and 8 rebounds for the Pacers, but Indy relies on a team approach, with a lot of guys getting some buckets to make the whole thing work. However, for stretches, they struggle with that against good teams, and they don’t have the one guy to turn to stop the bleeding right now.

That will ultimately be Indiana’s downfall in this series.

3) Bucks overwhelm Pistons. Again. I just feel bad for the Pistons — they are better than this. However, without Blake Griffin this is not near the same team, and they were going to struggle with the athleticism and length of the Bucks in the first place. Wednesday it was a 120-99 Milwaukee win to go up 2-0 in the series.

Eric Bledsoe had 27 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 26 points and 12 assists and then there was Khris Middleton with 24 for the Bucks.

The Bucks are gaining a little confidence, which is good because they will need it against the Celtics in the next round.

Kevin Durant expected to make return to Suns Wednesday night

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In the three games he played for the Suns, Kevin Durant was his vintage self: 26.7 points and 7.3 assists a game on an insanely efficient 80.8 true shooting percentage. Not so coincidentally, the Suns won all three games.

The Suns have gone 4-6 with Durant sidelined after he sprained an ankle in warmups before his fourth game (although that was good enough to hold off the Clippers and Warriors and keep the No. 4 seed and home court in the first round). Now Durant is expected back on Wednesday night against the Timberwolves — he is officially questionable, but multiple reports out of Phoenix say he will play if there is no setback in warmups.

A setback in warmups is how we got here in the first place.

Phoenix would have seven games left to hold on to that No.4 seed (they are five games back of the Kings at No.3, that’s not happening). More importantly, they would have seven games to build chemistry with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, for Monty Williams to look at lineups and tinker with rotations — they have seven games to figure it out before things get very serious.

Seven games could be enough in a wide-open West where plenty of teams are trying to figure things out. That road starts Wednesday night against a Timberwolves team playing its best ball of the season.

Three things to Know: Warriors’ comeback puts them back in top six

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Warriors’ comeback puts them back in top six, Heat loss to Raptors does opposite

There were three games last night that impacted the playoff chase.

• Golden State was down 17 at the half to New Orleans and had looked sloppy again, with turnovers and missed opportunities. Then, giving life to the “they can flip the switch” crowd, Draymond Green lit a fire under the Warriors by getting chippy with Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones. Plus Stephen Curry — who finished with 39 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — started doing things that left Steve Kerr shaking his head (also, notice Klay Thompson‘s off-ball movement here, trademark Warriors stuff).

The Warriors picked up the 120-109 win and moved back into the No.6 seed in the West for a day by half-a-game over the Timberwolves (the two teams are tied in the loss column, and Minnesota has the tiebreaker). New Orleans, at 38-38, sits as the No. 8 seed but just half a game up on the Lakers (these teams are tied in the loss column). Every win will matter down the stretch for seeding in the bottom half of the West.

• Miami entered the day tied with Brooklyn for the 6/7 seed in the East but with a couple of problems. First, the Nets had the tiebreaker after beating the Heat last weekend. Second, Brooklyn has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. The Heat need some big wins down the stretch to overtake the Nets.

This is why a 106-92 loss to Toronto is a blow to the Heat’s chances to avoid the play-in. Jimmy Butler was out with neck soreness, and while Tyler Herro scored 33 on 13-of-21 shooting, the rest of the Heat shot 32.2% for the game and they took the loss. Now they head to New York for a tough road back-to-back.

With the win, Toronto (38-38) is tied with Atlanta for the 8/9 seed in the East. Scottie Barnes had 22 points and a career-best 12 assists in the win.

• Charlotte continues to wreak havoc on the West playoff chase — they beat Dallas twice last weekend, then on Tuesday helped out Dallas by knocking off the Thunder 137-134. The Thunder and Mavericks are now tied for the final play-in spot in the West.

2) Wade, Popovich, Nowitzki headline legendary 2023 Hall of Fame class

Saturday it will become official, but none of this is a surprise.

The 2023 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class is stacked: Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Gregg Popovich, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Becky Hammon. That is a very deep class out of the NBA/WNBA division, and there is no questioning the credentials of anyone in that class.

Wade is arguably the greatest shooting guard in NBA history (if you count Jordan as a small forward), winning three rings as a member of the Miami Heat, plus making eight All-NBA teams. Nowitzki is the guy with his statue outside the arena in Dallas, is an NBA champion and Finals MVP, plus he won the regular season MVP in 2007. Popovich, the legendary coach of the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs, also coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Parker was the point guard for much of that Spurs run, is a four-time NBA champion and was Finals MVP in 2007. Gasol is a two-time NBA champion, four-time All-NBA and led Spain to the FIBA World Championship in 2006.

3) Lillard, Simmons officially shut down for season (Beal probably is, too)

Everyone knew it was already happening, but a couple of things became official on Tuesday.

The Trail Blazers have shut down Damian Lillard for the season. The Blazers are five games out of the final play-in spot, and are tied for the fifth-worst record in the league. We know where their focus should be.

No. We are not doing the Lillard trade speculation here. Until he asks for a trade — and he has never done so, in fact saying the opposite multiple times in this past year — it will not happen.

Also, Nets’ coach Jacque Vaughn made the worst kept secret in the NBA official, saying the Nets are shutting Ben Simmons down for the season, officially for his back impingement. He reportedly does not need surgery and will be ready to go by training camp next fall.

Watch Curry score 39, spark Warriors rally from 20 down to beat Pelicans

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SAN FRANCISCO — Draymond Green yelled at the other bench, his own team and even his coach, and this time those intense emotions absolutely made the difference.

Steve Kerr loved it.

“We need his fire,” Golden State’s coach said.

“It was perfect, right, perfectly executed,” Green said with a grin.

Stephen Curry had 39 points with eight 3-pointers, eight rebounds and eight assists, Jordan Poole added 21 points with consecutive layups that gave Golden State the lead early in the fourth quarter, and the Warriors rallied past the New Orleans Pelicans 120-109 on Tuesday night in a testy, playoff-like matchup in late March.

Klay Thompson scored 17 and hit five 3s to set a new single-season career high of 278, which leads the NBA.

The Warriors moved up a spot into sixth place in the crowded Western Conference standings, a half-game up on Minnesota and 1 1/2 games ahead of New Orleans. Golden State lost 99-96 at home to the Timberwolves on Sunday, so coming back from 20 down to win this one was key as the defending champions try to avoid the play-in round. The top six teams are guaranteed playoff berths.

“We lost a heartbreaker the other night. We knew we had to bounce back,” Kerr said.

Brandon Ingram had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Trey Murphy III scored 21 points and CJ McCollum added 15 for the Pelicans, who came in riding a five-game winning streak.

Green chirped and pushed the emotions and physicality all game, then threw an alley-oop to Jonathan Kuminga for a dunk with 7:09 left for one of his 13 assists and a 101-98 advantage.

“Draymond willed us to victory tonight,” Kerr said. “His frustration early with the way we were playing. Mad at the world. Yelling at everybody, their bench, our bench, me, and frankly we all deserved it.”

Green was whistled for a double technical for tussling with Ingram late in the second quarter – and Green’s foul was upgraded to a Flagrant 1. He already served a one-game suspension March 17 at Atlanta for his 16th technical.

Green committed an offensive foul moments later and players for both sides tangled, Green’s feet getting caught up with Herbert Jones’ head. A replay showed no additional infractions but Kerr briefly took Green out with tensions running high because of his “extreme energy” in that moment.

“We looked dead those first 18 minutes of the game,” Kerr said. “We had to find some energy somewhere. I knew it wasn’t just going to come.”

Three straight 3-pointers by Curry late in the third got Golden State within 89-83. Poole then stole the ball from Ingram and dunked on the other end as the Warriors trailed 89-85 going into the final 12 minutes.

Golden State started the third on an 8-0 burst fueled by Donte DiVincezo. He made a putback dunk over Ingram early in the second half then a three-point play before Thompson’s 3 at 10:44 made it 63-54.

McCollum’s 3 with 1:40 left before halftime put the Pelicans up 60-43, then Ingram made it a 20-point game with a 3 New Orleans’ next time down.

The Pelicans, coached by former Warriors assistant Willie Green and longtime Golden State assistant Jarron Collins on his staff, had won five straight after a 124-90 romp at Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors’ victory prevented the Sacramento Kings, coached by former top assistant Mike Brown, their first playoff berth since 2006 that would end the worst drought in NBA history at 16 years.

Nowitzki, Wade, Gasol, Popovich reportedly headline Hall of Fame class

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It will not become official until Saturday, but this is shaping up to be a legendary Hall of Fame class.

Dwyane Wade. Dirk Nowitzki. Gregg Popovich. Pau Gasol. Tony Parker. Becky Hammon. They are all in, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a deep class, and there was no question about any of those players’ Hall of Fame credentials.

Wade is one of the (arguably THE) greatest shooting guard in the history of the game, winning three rings as a member of the Miami Heat, plus making eight All-NBA teams and 13 trips to the All-Star game. Nowitzki is the greatest Maverick ever and the greatest European player in NBA history, an NBA champion and Finals MVP, plus he won the regular season MVP in 2007.

Popovich, the legendary coach of the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs — a team that won 50+ games 18-straight seasons with him at the helm, plus he coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Parker was the point guard for much of that Spurs run, is a four-time NBA champion and was Finals MVP in 2007. Gasol is a two-time NBA champion, four-time All-NBA,and led Spain to the FIBA World Championship in 2006 and won three Olympic medals.

The Hall of Fame class will officially be announced on Saturday.