Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Rockets miss chance to steal game in Oracle

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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) Houston had a chance to steal a game in Golden State and it clanked off the rim. Thirty-three missed threes. 33.

Houston had a 102 offensive rating in Game 1 of the second round (12.8 below their regular season average), they took 57 percent of their shot attempts from three but hit just 29.8 percent of them — 33 misses.

That is the stat that sums up why the Houston Rockets blew a chance to steal Game 1 on the road — this felt like a blown opportunity because those chances are rare at Oracle Arena. The Warriors stumbled in this game, the Rockets did not grab the opportunity.

The Warriors hung on to win Game 1 104-100. Game 2 is Tuesday night back in Oracle.

In an intense defensive game that turned things sloppy at times, the Rockets missed the shots that define their offense. The Warriors defensive strategy of crowding the shooters seemed to throw off the Rockets, and Houston didn’t get the calls they expect/get bailed out by (depending on your perspective). More on the officiating in item No. 2 below, but know it wasn’t the reason the Rockets lost. They just missed their shots.

The other reason they lost was one Kevin Durant. He has been the best player on the planet for a couple of years now and continues to show it on the biggest playoff stages. He had 35 in this game — the same as James Harden, but Durant’s felt more clutch as he hit them when his team needed them.

Game 1 was about the defenses, and now the Rockets need to adjust to how the Warriors have chosen to defend them.

The Warriors did not switch Harden’s picks to give Houston the matchup it wanted, instead, Stephen Curry (or whomever) would do a hard show to cut off the drive, then recover, and they did that smoothly. (Late in the shot clock the Warriors switched those picks but at that point Harden’s options were limited and he just had to try a stepback three everyone knew was coming). Golden State — and Draymond Green in particular — also did an excellent job of contesting Harden on drives while at the same taking away the lob to Clint Capela.

Warriors got away with sloppy play for long stretches of the game, they turned the ball over on 30 percent of their possessions in the first quarter, 20.6 percent for the game (22 total). Be careless with the ball like that again and it will cost them a game.

However, their stars both got the matchups they wanted and hit the big shots when needed. For example, when Mike D’Antoni subbed in Nene for rebounding in the final minute, Curry got the switch he wanted and sunk the dagger in the Rockets.

Houston had a chance to respond and went to a Harden stepback three that did not fall (and he was not fouled by Draymond Green on that play… again more on the officiating below). Chris Paul grabbed the rebound after Harden’s final miss, Harden was still on the ground trying to sell the call that wasn’t coming, so CP3 attempted to draw a foul on Klay Thompson he didn’t get, then got ejected with his second technical when he yelled at the referee for not giving him the call. CP3 will be writing a check to the league for this.

In the end, the Warriors fought through their adversity to get the win and go up 1-0, knowing they can play a lot better — they didn’t take great shots at times, didn’t take care of the ball, and were not always sharp defensively. The Rockets can play better too, but it feels like this was as good a chance as they were going to get to steal a game. Maybe Houston can prove that idea wrong in Game 2.

2) “Refereeing is an inexact science. So it is what it is.” That was Draymond Green, and he’s right. The officials are human, they miss calls, and that’s just part of basketball. However, Houston’s system is built on pushing the rules and getting calls, and those calls did not come in Game 1. There are legitimate questions about where the line is and how it should be enforced.

Mark Cuban put it this way.

Houston and Harden have a system that pushes the rules to their edge — and they count on getting those calls as part of their offensive strategy. It’s baked into the system. Those calls were not coming on Sunday, the referees were consistent — and at times incorrect — not calling fouls where Harden was contacted in the air, where he didn’t have a landing zone (Klay Thompson in the first half should have gotten fouls for that). The idea that a jump shooter has to have a place to land has been a point of emphasis for officials for a while now. Houston banks on it.

However, it’s not clean cut and easy to call, especially with Harden. He leaps forward on his shots, he’s not vertical. His final three-point attempt, where he wanted a call on Green, was not a foul and a good no call by the referee, as Joe Borgia explains well, here.

Harden does leap forward, not straight up, and if he goes into the defender’s space that’s not a foul. However, there were missed calls where the Warrior defender closed into Harden’s space and a foul should have been called.

Warriors fans can “whataboutism” this — and they would be right. There were also times Harden pushed off (Kevon Looney) and no call was made, or a player was just in a good defensive position (Andre Iguodala) and Harden got the call anyway. Things tend to balance out over the course of the game.

Houston wants to say historically Golden State gets the benefit of the whistle. That there is an institutional bias benefitting the Warriors.

That’s a lovely esoteric argument, but it’s not going to help them in Game 2. The question is how will that one be officiated compared to Game 1.

3) Boston goes into Milwaukee, plays a textbook game, and comes away with a comfortable Game 1 win. Things could not have gone much better for Boston — they set up a list of things they wanted to do in Game 1, then proceeded to just go down the list and check them off.

That started with defending Giannis Antetokounmpo. In NBC’s preview of this series I wrote Al Horford was the key for Boston, he had to be big on both ends. He was that in Game 1 — 20 points and he did a great job defending the Greek Freak. Still, nobody saw this coming.

Boston went into Milwaukee and owned Game 1, taking it 112-90. It was the kind of performance that had Boston looking like a contender — something they have done in flashes for the season, but have not been able to sustain.

This was no one-man show, the Celtics threw multiple defenders at the Greek Freak, but it was Horford’s ability to recover that was key to forcing Antetokounmpo into a 7-of-21 shooting night. More importantly, Antetokounmpo had just two assists. The Bucks were not moving the ball, finding the open man, the making the Celtics pay.

“If they’re going to play like this the whole series, I just have to make the right pass, and trust my teammates to knock down shots,” Antetokounmpo said after the game.

Offensively, Boston took the shots they were given — 41.5 percent of the Celtics shot attempts came either as midrange jumpers, or longer (floater range) shots in the paint, but they hit 56.8 percent of them. Milwaukee forced the Celtics into the shots nobody wants to take, but if Boston can knock them down at that rate Milwaukee will be in real trouble this series. Kyrie Irving had 26 to lead the Celtics.

However, Boston’s defense — and Milwaukee’s offensive struggles — were the real keys. Especially in the first half, the Bucks seemed to take a lot of difficult, contested shots that were not going down. Then again, by the NBA’s tracking data, the Bucks also were 18-of-50 (36 percent) on uncontested shots, too. Just nothing was falling.

Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee need to find that offensive flow before Game 2 or the hole they will find themselves in will be just about impossible to climb out of.

Five players poised to make first NBA All-Star game this season

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Who is ready to make the leap?

Every season there are players on the cusp of becoming an All-Star — not only has their game improved to be one of the top 24 players in the league, but their stature has risen to the point fans (voting for the starters) or coaches (voting for the reserves) want to see them in the game.

Here are five players on the cusp of making that leap and getting the chance to suit up in Salt Lake City this February for their first All-Star Game.

1. Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers)

He was the centerpiece headed to Indiana in the trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento — and a lot of executives around the league were shocked the Kings gave him up. After the trade, Haliburton averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists a game with a 62.9 true shooting percentage — and this season he’s going to be asked to do even more on a team that is rebuilding (but still has Myles Turner and Buddy Hield on the roster… what exactly is Indiana doing?).

The Pacers will take a step back this season (which doesn’t help his All-Star chances) but Haliburton himself will be unleashed. He will draw the attention of fans and opposing defenses — coaches know and like his game, which is why he stands a good chance to be an East All-Star reserve this season.

2. Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves)

Edwards has made the leap in popularity and stature — he is trash-talking Kermit in Adam Sandler’s Hustle — and he probably should have been an All-Star last season averaging 21.3 points a game.

Edwards has the explosive, highlight-factory game and has the big personality fans love (although his homophobic social media post over the summer does not help his cause). He will be in the spotlight more on an improved Timberwolves team — he will be the outside to Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert inside — that should be in the mix for the playoffs in the West. Anthony Edwards has a lot of All-Star Games in his future, this season should be his first.

3. Evan Mobley (Cavaliers)

As a rookie, Mobley was already a top-flight defensive big man who averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game — and he came back this season stronger and ready to make a leap on the offensive end. He finished a close second in the Rookie of the Year voting and took that personally, hitting the gym hard and coming out with a chip on his shoulder this season. He flashed potential last season with the ball in his hands, a guy who could beat his man and be a playmaker. Expect to see more of that, more of Mobley out on the perimeter as a creator this season (maybe even grabbing the board and bringing the ball up in transition himself).

He’s going to get noticed on a Cavaliers team with an All-Star backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, and if he has added to his game this year it’s Mobley’s turn.

4. Tyrese Maxey (76ers)

Maxey got thrust into the starting point guard role last season when Ben Simmons never suited up for the 76ers (and played like the guy the 76ers hoped Markelle Fultz would be). Then he thrived after the trade, working a little more off-ball and being a secondary shot creator off James Harden. Maxey averaged 17.5 points and 4.5 assists a game last season, and he is in a position to have those numbers jump again this season.

Maxey is quick with the ball and can get downhill, with the skill set to finish at the rim or pull up and nail the jumper. He shot 42% from 3 last season, although that may be unsustainable (he can shoot, but over 40% every year may be a big ask). Maxey is adding to that game on the court, but it’s his maturity and decision-making — this is his third year in the league — where the biggest leaps are coming.

The 76ers are going to be in the spotlight a lot and should win a lot of regular season games, and with Maxey shining in that light, the All-Star game is a real possibility.

5. Jalen Brunson (Knicks)

Brunson burst out of Luka Doncic’s shadow last season in Dallas and averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists a game last season — now he’s going to have the ball in his hands every night on the biggest stage in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau will hand Brunson the keys to the Knicks offense, which means the guard’s counting stats should climb — and with that his All-Star chances go up.

There are questions about how the Knicks’ offense will fit together with Brunson, RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, but Brunson is going to get the chance to prove he can be a No.1 guard. In that spotlight, a trip to Salt Lake City is in the offing.

Steve Nash on Ben Simmons: ‘I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot’

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The last season he played, Ben Simmons took just 9% of his shots from beyond 10 feet — he did not space the floor at all, which meant Joel Embiid had to at times. That lack of a jumper he trusted has always been one of the knocks on Ben Simmons’ game.

Steve Nash doesn’t care. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“That’s why I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot for the Brooklyn Nets. He’s welcome to, but that is not what makes him special and not what we need. He’s a great complement to our team, and he’s an incredible basketball player because of his versatility.”

In an offense with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving setting the table — particularly in the halfcourt — Simmons is going to be asked to play more of a role: Be an elite defender, push the ball in transition, work in some dribble-handoff situations where he can drive the lane as an option, be a cutter off the ball, and be a distributor in the halfcourt. It’s why Simmons’ ideal role with the Nets often gets compared to Draymond Green — it’s a Draymond-lite role. There will be far less of him as lead guard running pick-and-roll.

Will Simmons settle into that role? Also, it should be noted that peak Green (2016 for example) shot better than 30% from 3 and had to be respected out there (last season 29.6% on 1.2 3s per game) — he had to be covered at the arc. Simmons does not. Also, Green did not avoid getting fouled and getting to the line.

Nash has the task of meshing Simmons into the system and figuring out the rotations — can he play Simmons and Nic Claxton together, or is having two non-jump shooters on the floor at once clog the offense? Is Simmons going to play center at points? There is championship-level talent on the Nets roster, but so many questions about fit, defense, and grit.

There’s no question about Simmons taking jumpers, but Nash doesn’t care.

Pelican’s Green says Zion ‘dominated the scrimmage pretty much’

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The Zion hype train keeps right on rolling. First were the reports he was in the best shape of his life, then he walked into media day and it looked like he is.

Now Zion has his own hype man in Pelicans coach Willie Green, who said he dominated the first day of team scrimmages. Via Andre Lopez of ESPN.

“Z looked amazing,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday afternoon. “His strength, his speed. He dominated the scrimmage pretty much.”

“What stood out was his force more than anything,” Green said. “He got down the floor quickly. When he caught the ball, he made quick decisions. Whether it was scoring, finding a teammate. It was really impressive to see.”

Reach for the salt shaker to take all this with — it’s training camp scrimmages. Maybe Zion is playing that well right now — he’s fully capable, he was almost an All-NBA player in 2020-21 (eighth in forward voting) before his foot injury — but we need to see it against other teams. In games that matter. Then we’ll need to see it over a stretch of time.

If Zion can stay healthy this season, if his conditioning is where everyone says it is, he could be in for a monster season. Combine that with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a strong supporting cast in New Orleans, and the Pelicans could surprise a lot of people — and be fun to watch.

 

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Celtics, Suns? Should NBA end one-and-done?

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NBA training camps just opened and teams have yet to play a preseason game, but already two contenders are dealing with problems.

The Celtics have the suspension of coach Ime Udoka as a distraction, plus defensive anchor center Robert Williams will miss at least the start of the season following another knee surgery.

The Suns have the distraction of a suspended owner who is selling the team, plus Jae Crowder is out and demanding a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not seem happy.

Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself go through all the training camp news, including the wilder ones with the Lakers and Nets, breaking down what to take away from all that — plus how good Zion Williamson and James Harden look physically.

Then the pair discusses the potential of the NBA doing away with the one-and-done role and letting 18-year-olds back in the game — is that good for the NBA?

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.