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

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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.

Miami, Milwaukee have their eyes on Jae Crowder

NBA 2022 Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks
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The Heat and Bucks don’t just have interest in the same player. They’re looking to replace the same player.

Two years ago, P.J. Tucker helped Milwaukee win their first championship in a half-century. Last season, he helped Miami lock up the top seed in the East and make the Conference Finals.

With Tucker in Philadelphia, both the Heat and Bucks are looking to fill the void with a different lockdown enforcer that can stretch the floor.

Jae Crowder and the Suns agreed that he won’t participate in practice as the team looks to accommodate his trade request. In a recent ESPN+ article, Zach Lowe made it clear that both Miami and Milwaukee are interested in pursuing a trade for Crowder.

“The Bucks have internal interest in Crowder as that Tucker replacement after getting into the recent Jerami Grant and Bojan Bogdanovic discussions, sources say. They will search all season for one more piece.

“The Heat have interest in Crowder too, sources say, but finding matching salary is tough until Dewayne Dedmon, Caleb Martin and Victor Oladipo become trade-eligible in the winter. Martin might start, and the Heat are optimistic Oladipo can play a huge role.”

– ESPN’s Zach Lowe

Grant and Bogdanovic were traded to Portland and Detroit, respectively. The Heat may struggle to find a trade that works since Phoenix probably won’t want to take on Duncan Robinson’s contract. Dedmon, Martin and Oladipo will become trade eligible on January 15th.

Crowder has a history with the Heat, as he helped them make the NBA Finals in the bubble. He helped Phoenix make the NBA Finals two seasons ago and then helped them finish with the best record in the NBA last season.

LeBron says Wembanyama is an ‘alien’ and a ‘generational talent’

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There was a time when LeBron James was the “it” kid coming for the NBA — a freakish athlete like nobody in the league had seen. A player the size of Karl Malone with the quickness and skills of an elite point guard.

Now the “it” guy is Victor Wembanyama, the 7’4″ mold-breaking big out of France — and LeBron is impressed.

“Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, well he’s more like an alien,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Suns in Las Vegas. “I’ve never seen, no one’s ever seen anyone as tall as he is, but it’s fluid and as graceful as on the floor…

“His ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers on the post, step-back 3s, catch-and-shoot 3s, block shots. He’s for sure a generational talent. And hopefully he continues to stay healthy, that’s the most important for him personally, and as you could tell he loves the game. He was smiling a lot while playing the game last night. I think it was the two best players in the draft on the floor last night and they both did their thing.”

Wembanyama is projected to be the No.1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, just ahead of point guard Scoot Henerson, who scored 28 points with nine assists of his own leading his G-League Ignite to a win over Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92. Wembanyama scored 37 points in the game, hit 7-of-11 shots from 3, had five blocks and a few other shots changed because of his length (7’11” wingspan) and the threat of his block.

Wembanyama and Henderson face off again tonight in a second game between the Ignite and Metropolitans 92 just outside Las Vegas in Henderson (9:30 p.m. ET on NBATV).

Wembanyama will play, with his agent telling ESPN there are no plans to shut the No.1 pick down to avoid injury and protect his draft status. “He’ll never agree to that. He wants to compete and get better,” Bouna Ndiaye said.

LeBron looked back on his time as the “it” player and said simply, “thank got there wasn’t social media” at the time. It’s a different world now, but game still recognizes game.

And LeBron recognizes it in Wembanyama.

LeBron tells Adam Silver he wants to own expansion team in Vegas

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
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The odds are good that Las Vegas will get an NBA expansion team. Eventually.

But when it happens, LeBron James wants to be in the Vegas ownership group — and he made that pitch directly to Adam Silver after the Lakers exhibition game in Sin City against the Suns on Wednesday.

“I know Adam is in Abu Dhabi right now, I believe. But he probably sees every single interview and transcript that comes through from NBA players,” James said, via the Associated Press. “So, I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”

Silver is in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting an exhibition game between the Bucks and Hawks this week. But LeBron doesn’t need to worry about Silver seeing this request. He probably already has.

The widely held belief around the league is that the NBA owners will not entertain expansion until a new CBA and a new television/streaming rights deal are locked in (driving up the franchise prices), things that will take a couple of years. Expansion talk may come after that, and maybe there will be two new NBA teams by the end of the decade.

“We are not discussing that at this time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of expansion last June. “As I said before, at some point, this league invariably will expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it.”

If and when expansion happens, Las Vegas, along with Seattle, are the clear frontrunners to land teams. Most importantly, both cities have NBA-ready stadiums and fan bases to support the franchises, and their mayors are on board.

LeBron would be the face of an ownership group. While LeBron himself is a billionaire, Silver had called reports of a $2.5 billion expansion fee per team “low.” And that’s not including all the other start-up costs that come with a team.

But if the NBA is coming to Las Vegas, don’t be shocked if LeBron is involved.

Zion and more: Five must-watch intriguing NBA players this season

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At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.

The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.

Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.

Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?

The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.

If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.

We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.

Ben Simmons, Nets

Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.

What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way  — and will Steve Nash ask him to?

No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.

Precious Achiuwa, Raptors

Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).

Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.

After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.

Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks

Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?

Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.

Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.

De'Aaron Fox, Kings

If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.

How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?

“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.

Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.

The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.