Austin Rivers

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Rockets betting on talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, everything else be damned

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There is a tried-and-true method for winning an NBA championship: Get two recent MVPs. It has worked every time.

The Celtics paired Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Won a title.

The 76ers paired Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Won a title.

The Warriors paired Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Won a title.

By acquiring 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to join 2018 MVP James Harden, the Rockets are testing the limits of this plan.

Houston upgraded from Chris Paul to Westbrook in its trade with the Thunder. There’s certainly logic to that. Harden is in his prime, so this is the time to push in. It’s almost impossible to win a championship without stars. Stars are also hard to come by. Sometimes, you must just get whichever stars you can and hope for the best.

But Westbrook came at a significant cost.

Houston had to send Oklahoma City top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, a top-four-protected pick swap in 2021 and a top-10-protected pick swap in 2025. By the time most of those picks convey, the Rockets could be far worse.

The trade is salary neutral for the next three seasons, which partially explains why Houston gave up so much. Most teams would require a sweetener for taking Paul’s contract. But Westbrook’s contract runs a season longer, and the Rockets will owe him $47,063,478 at age 34.

There will be diminishing returns with Harden and Westbrook, two ball-dominant guards. They have the talent to figure it out offensively, though it will require major adjustments to how they’ve played lately. The defensive concerns are far bigger. Both players have frequent lapses on that end.

Westbrook, 30, has also declined the last few years. He remains quite good. But the way he relies on his athleticism, he could fall rapidly.

Based on name recognition on both sides, this is the most monumental trade in NBA history. In Houston, it will likely define the rest of Harden’s prime then – with those picks outgoing – the Rockets’ next phase.

Beyond that, Houston did well to build depth on a budget. The Rockets re-signed Danuel House (three years, $11,151,000 million), Austin Rivers (1+1, minimum) and Gerald Green (one year, minimum) and signed Tyson Chandler (one year, minimum). Most of the mid-level exception remains unused with the free-agent market largely dried up. But hey, luxury tax. Houston could still re-sign Iman Shumpert through Bird Rights.

The Rockets look pretty similar to last year – except Westbrook replacing Paul. That’s the enormous move.

I’m not even sure it will help next year, though. Houston could’ve kept Paul and fit squarely into a wide-open championship race. At least on paper.

The big unknown: How toxic was the relationship between Harden and Paul? Several Rockets denied a problem, but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Westbrook is better than Paul. The two stars will likely get along better.

But will Westbrook add enough value to justify the high cost? All those draft considerations could have gone toward addressing other needs. Really, just needs. Houston didn’t need another ball-dominant guard one bit.

I support the Rockets prioritizing the present. Westbrook could propel them to a championship.

But given the fit concerns, the cost was too steep for my liking.

Offseason grade: C-

Austin Rivers reportedly agrees to return to Rockets on 1+1 contract

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Austin Rivers will be backing up Chris Paul again.

He won’t be making “my dad is the team president” money anymore, but the Rockets are bringing him back on a one-plus-one veteran minimum contract ($2.2 million salary next season) keep key parts of their bench together, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Rivers join Danuel House and Gerald Green as key Rockets bench players returning next season. Rivers fit well in Houston, signing there mid-season after starting the season with the Wizards.

While Rivers became a whipping boy with the Clippers, he has evolved into a respectable backup guard. He average 8.1 points and 2.2 assists per game last season, his three-point shooting fell off (and needs to be something that bounces back up to the 37 percent range this season), but he’s a good floor general who can defend a little.

Which is why he reportedly had offers much higher than the league minimum, but he wanted to return to a team where he felt he fit.

CP3 started to show his age last season, and if that trend continues the Rockets may need to ask even more of Rivers.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Hit the panic button in Boston

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The NBA playoffs are deep into the second round, and with all that is on the line there can be a lot to unpack in these 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) Go ahead and hit the “now what happens” panic button in Boston after ugly Game 4 loss. It was maybe the biggest question heading into this round two series: Had the Boston Celtics finally found themselves in their first-round sweep of the Pacers, or would the ugly habits of the regular season return when faced with a good Milwaukee Bucks team?

Monday night, with their season essentially on the line, Boston played inconsistent defense with missed rotation after missed rotation. The offense devolved into a series of isolation, hero ball plays. Then Kyrie Irving headed back to the locker room with 10 seconds left to play, leading to all kinds of easy-to-draw parallels to what could happen in July.

Turns out, bad habits die hard.

Behind another strong outing from Giannis Antetokounmpo with 39 points on 15-of-22 shooting, and him getting help from the Bucks bench, Milwaukee has taken a commanding 3-1 lead in this series, heading home for Game 4.

This loss felt like someone threw a gas can into the “where will Irving play next season” fire. Boston fans can reach for the panic button now because a second-round exit is not helping Kyrie Irving want to stay.

The Celtics season isn’t over yet, but Knicks fans are already on Zillow hunting out places for Irving to live if he comes to Manhattan. That speculation is only going to grow, and his decision could impact Kevin Durant‘s decision, the Anthony Davis trade and more.

The decisive stretch of Game 4 Monday came in the final 6:20 of the third quarter, when Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton went to the Milwaukee bench with four fouls apiece, plus Boston was in the bonus. This is when the Celtics should have stomped on the gas pedal, run the Bucks off the court, and taken control of the game. Instead, the Bucks went on a 19-9 run, with George Hill leading the way (he had 9 of his 15 points in that stretch). When the quarter ended, the Bucks were in control.

That leads to the other big question heading into this series: Where the Bucks a regular-season phenomenon? They had the best record in the NBA, but would their style of play hold up when the game slowed down and defenses focused in to take away strengths during the postseason.

Turns out the Bucks are just fine in the playoffs.

Both of these teams are talented, but right now only one is playing like a team, only one has its star setting up teammates and getting them involved when the defense focuses on him. Milwaukee is getting big games from not only its stars but also Hill is getting key buckets, Pat Connaughton is playing quality minutes and throwing down big dunks, and Eric Bledsoe is a pest.

The Bucks are for real and about to head into the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics are about to head into the summer where, whatever they look like on the other end of it, they will not be the same.

2) Now we have the series we expected, Houston beats Golden State to even series 2-2. For the past couple of seasons, Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr has used his “Hamptons’ five” lineup — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green — almost as a “break glass in case of emergency” lineup. He’d bring it in when the game was on the line and no team had an answer for it.

Until Houston this series. In a sign of how much respect he had for the Rockets, Kerr opened the series starting the Hamptons’ Five, leaning on them for heavy minutes. In Game 4 they played just shy of 22 minutes — and were -11. For the series, this lineup is just +5, it is not dominating or intimidating the Rockets.

Mike D’Antoni has gone small to counter that lineup at the end of games, leaning on a lineup of Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and P.J. Tucker at center. All 6’6″ of him.. D’Antoni tried to call it the “South Beach” five, which doesn’t at all fit them. But the lineup is a thing in this series.

James Harden is dominating. The beard shot 7-of-11 in the paint and 6-of-17 from three on his way to 38 points.

Houston won 112-108 and after an ugly start in the first two games has bounced back and turned this into the intense, emotional, knock-down drag-out series we expected. It is 2-2 after both teams held home court, with Game 5 Wednesday back in Golden State.

The Rockets are making Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson work hard on defense, and it seems to impact their offense — the Warriors were 8-of-33 from three in Game 4. That is why they lost. It was summed up in this final play, when Golden State had a chance to tie it.

Kevin Durant has been otherworldly and had 34 in this game, he just needs some help. In the Steve Kerr era, this Warriors team has always responded with a big defensive effort when their backs are against the wall. That’s where they are in Game 5, but can they really solve the Harden riddle? Because nobody else has this season.

3) Lakers apparently closing in on a deal to make Tyronn Lue their next head coach. With Monty Williams off the board and ensconced in Phoenix, Tyronn Lue became the clear and lone frontrunner to get the Lakers coaching job. The latest update is that the side are working toward a deal, one that brings Frank Vogel in as a lead assistant (which would be a good hire, Vogel is a strong defensive coach).

Once announced, it’s a highering that will get ripped in some quarters because it looks like LeBron James got his man. Which he did. LeBron trusts Lue. The perception is that Lue is LeBron’s patsy, but the reality is Lue is one of the few guys with a relationship that allows him to really challenge LeBron, to call him out. The Lakers will need that.

Lue is not the terrible coach some want to paint him as, but he’s also not an elite NBA coach. Lue got his team to defend and ran some creative stuff near the end of his run in Cleveland. Lue is not brilliant, he is somewhere near the middle of the bell curve of NBA coaches. Go ahead and say “that’s not good enough for the Lakers” but in reality who were they going to get that’s better?

Lue can do the job if he has enough talent on the roster. The question is can the Lakers land the talent they and Lue need? Rob Pelinka is going to have a wild summer.

Red-hot James Harden, ice cold Warriors shooting means Rockets even series 2-2

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Nothing summed up Game 4 better than the final meaningful Warriors’ possession of the night.

With :11.1 seconds left in the game, Golden State inbounded the ball and thanks to a James Harden missed free throw was down three, 111-108. The play ended up with first Kevin Durant then, after an offensive rebound, Stephen Curry getting clean looks to tie the game. Both missed.

It’s a make or miss league and the Warriors were missing all night.

The Warriors shot 8-of-33 from three and that — combined with another unstoppable night from Harden where he had 38 points — led to a 112-108 Houston win.

This is the tight, intense series we thought we’d get going in, and it is now 2-2 with both teams having held serve on their home court. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Oakland.

For the past four years, when the Warriors have had a playoff loss they have almost always bounced back with an improved defensive effort. James Harden has blown that trend up, especially as the Rockets try to force switches to target Curry and wear him down (which has worked). Harden was 7-of-11 in the paint and 6-of-17 from three on his way to 38 points and nine assists in Game 4.

The Rockets played with urgency and played their game — pushing the pace when they could, shooting threes (56.2 percent of their shot attempts were from three), and pressuring on defense. It worked, in part because Harden got help. Eric Gordon had 20 points and continued his trend of outplaying Klay Thompson in this series (Thompson had 11 points on 15 shots). P.J. Tucker had 17 points hit three from beyond the arc, and did as well as anyone is going to on Kevin Durant defensively. Austin Rivers had 10 points. It all came together for Houston.

That despite another monster night from Kevin Durant who had 34 points on 12-of-22 shooting. Curry finished the night with 30 points and attacked the rim more, but was 4-of-14 from three.

After two wins at home, the Warriors thought they were in control of this series, but much like they did in the regular season the Rockets have bounced back from a slow start to put themselves very much in the mix. This is now the series we thought we would get — the Rockets have the formula to beat the Warriors and are catching the breaks they need.

This series between these two teams was tied 2-2 a year ago in the Conference Finals and the home team — that time Houston — won Game 5. Then the Warriors won the next two. Golden State has always been able to find another gear when it matters, but we have seen less of that this season. They need to find that gear Wednesday night, or they will be on the brink of elimination

James Harden’s 41 bests Kevin Durant’s 46 because he had help, Rockets win Game 3

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Kevin Durant once again reminded us he is the best player on the face of the earth.

In a hostile environment, Durant had 46 points, hit 6-of-10 from three, dished out six assists, and also played impressive defense all night. It was a virtuoso performance.

However, KD didn’t get much help. Stephen Curry was 0-of-6 in the fourth quarter and overtime, with four fouls. And he had this embarrassing play in a clutch moment, capping off a night Curry was 2-of-9 at the rim.

Meanwhile, James Harden got to 41 points in the game by sticking the dagger in the Warriors.

“That’s James, that’s what he does…” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said, but then listed contributions of bench players like Nene and Austin Rivers. “Everybody kinda gave us something and we won the game.”

That was the difference — Harden got help. Eric Gordon had 30, Nene and Clint Capela made plays, Chris Paul was not at his best but still finished with 14 points and seven assists. The Rockets as a team grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, giving themselves second chances.

It was enough. Barely. The Rockets hung on to win 126-121 in overtime, getting their first win in the series to make it 2-1. Game 4 is Monday night in Houston.

Durant has been otherworldly all players — this was his third 40-point game of these playoffs. In this series, Durant has 110 points, and Curry and Thompson have combined for just 105. Worse yet, the Rockets targeted Curry late in the game, having his man attack him off the dribble.

This Rockets win did not feel like a series changer — there was not some critical adjustment, some great change that elevated their game or gave them a massive advantage. The Rockets were just grittier, and their stars stepped up in the moment.

The Rockets came out with an appropriate sense of desperation to start Game 3 and the Warriors shooting struggles came early, which led to a 58-49 halftime lead for Houston. Golden State’s big three — Curry, Durant, and Thompson — combined to shoot 11-of-32 in the first half, and as a team the Warriors were just 3-of-16 from three. Kerr tried to change the momentum in the final five minutes by going to his Hamptons’ Five lineup, and that didn’t change the lead (it was nine when they entered and at half).

Meanwhile, the Rockets got 20 points from Eric Gordon in the first half, he was 4-of-9 from three before the break.

Whenever the Warriors would go on a run in the third, the Rockets answered (and often the Warriors shot themselves in the foot). At one point Golden State cut the lead to 7, but then Curry missed a layup and Harden answered on the other end with a three. Next possession, Thompson missed a layup and CP3 responded with a three. At the end of three, it was still Rockets by 7.

Then the Warriors made an early fourth quarter run, fueled by Durant, that made it close down the stretch. At the end of the fourth, nobody could buy a bucket — the Rockets and Warriors combined to go 1-of-10 in the final minutes of regulation — which led to overtime. That’s where the lid stayed on the Warriors basket — for three straight possessions Durant did not touch the ball for reasons nobody can explain — and the Rockets got just enough for the win.

Now Houston needs to do it again Monday, but it got the win, got back in the series and gave itself a chance.