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Rockets set up rematch with Warriors

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Bring on the Warriors.

The Rockets did their part to set up a highly anticipated rematch by dispatching the Jazz 100-93 in Game 5 Wednesday. With a 4-1 series victory over Utah, Houston enters the second round to face the winner of Warriors-Clippers. Golden State leads 3-1 entering its own Game 5 tonight.

Houston pushed these Warriors harder than anyone has, falling just short in last year’s seven-game Western Conference finals. James Harden said he thinks about losing Games 6 and 7 every day.

Will the Rockets supplant Golden State this year?

Harden is better. Chris Paul is healthy. The Warriors – their veterans a year older, Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency causing more drama – look somewhat vulnerable.

But Golden State is still favored in the second-round series before even winning its first-round series. The Warriors have historic top-end talent, and that usually wins out in the playoffs.

It did for the Rockets against the Jazz.

Harden (26 points, six rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals) and Paul (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals) weren’t great tonight. But they gave Houston enough considering Utah’s best player was Royce O'Neale (18 points on 8-of-13 shooting).

Donovan Mitchell (12 points on 4-of-22 shooting, including 0-for-9 on 3-pointers, with only one assist and five turnovers) had an awful game I doubt he’ll forget. His competitiveness and self-awareness are so impressive. I bet this only fuels him.

The Rockets are ready now.

They’ve won 24 of their last 29 games, going back to the regular season. They like to play a high-scoring style, but they’re versatile enough to adjust. P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela keyed a strong defensive performance tonight.

Houston probably won’t beat Golden State. But the Rockets have the opportunity they’ve desired for the last 332 days.

James Harden struggles, Rockets still beat Jazz 104-101 for 3-0 series lead

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SALT LAKE CITY — James Harden never worried.

In fact, he didn’t know he had missed his first 15 shots.

Through it all, he never changed the attacking style that made him the NBA’s leading scorer.

Harden overcame a poor shooting performance and scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Houston Rockets to a 104-101 win Saturday over the Utah Jazz for a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.

“Keep shooting. Keep being aggressive,” Harden said of his only thoughts. “My job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes.”

Not much has worked against Harden for the Jazz, and even when they thought they had him trapped, they weren’t able to control The Beard for a full game.

“You’re going to give something up. The best thing you can do with him is just try to make it hard on him. Even when you do that, there’s times where he’s going to make plays,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

The Jazz didn’t take it easy on Harden, and took every opportunity to knock him down, even when it sent him to the line. For one of the rare times this season, Harden passed up some shots. But he did take them – and make them – when they counted most.

Though the victory was hardly a thing of beauty, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was grateful for the way it went down.

“Sooner or later we have to win games on defense. We did this time,” D’Antoni said of his team which is known for Harden’s lethal 3-point attack but has drastically improved on the defensive end since mid-season.

Harden made a 3-pointer and added two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to give the Rockets a 101-97 lead. After Donovan Mitchell made two free throws, Harden missed another 3-point attempt, but P.J. Tucker, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, grabbed the rebound, was fouled, making one of two free throws.

Chris Paul said: “You trust (Tucker) to make those plays. … He’s going to do anything and everything to help the team win.”

Mitchell had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but like so many of his shots in the hard-fought contest, it was off the mark.

Game 4 of the best-of-seven Western Conference series is Monday night in Utah.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and we still won. That just gives us more confidence,” said Harden, who was 3-for-20 shooting with 10 assists. He was 14 for 16 from the line.

Paul scored 18 points and Clint Capela had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Rockets, who shot 38.4 percent from the field and 67.6 percent from the line.

Mitchell scored 34 points, but struggled shooting, too, making just 9 of his 27 attempts. Derrick Favors had 13 for the Jazz.

Royce O'Neale, who played tenacious defense on Harden, made a 3-pointer for Utah’s last lead at 89-88. In fact, the Jazz led most of the game, but never by more than eight.

The Rockets made their move in the fourth quarter.

Gerald Green made back-to-back 3-pointers and Harden added a pair of free throws with 8:33 remaining put the Rockets up 84-80.

After two slow starts in Houston, the Jazz came out energized with a deafening crowd hanging on every basket. Utah led 11-3 and Harden picked up two fouls in the first 94 seconds, but stayed on the court. He couldn’t find his rhythm until the stretch run.

The Rockets have made no secret they are keying on Mitchell and Ingles to take away their playmaking and make other Utah players beat them. So far, no one else has made them pay.

Mitchell vowed to be more aggressive and apologized for being a “no show” early in the series. He re-introduced himself to the series in an exuberant show of shot-making and open emotion after big plays. But it didn’t last.

“I just started missing shots,” Mitchell said. “I can’t miss 16 shots (after the first quarter). That’s my role and I can’t miss makeable shots.”

Prior to Saturday’s big game, Mitchell was shooting 32.6% and had more turnovers (nine) than assists (six). After his hot start, Mitchell missed 11 straight field goal attempts but never stopped attacking.

Harden was missing 3-pointers and floaters, including two that were rejected by Rudy Gobert early in the game, and didn’t convert one until his emphatic fast-break dunk with 7:34 to play. But then he made a step-back 3-pointer to give Houston its largest lead at 89-83.

The leading MVP candidate did get to the line – something the Jazz have tried desperately to avoid.

Gobert had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.

 

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.

James Harden, Rockets rout Jazz 122-90 in Game 1

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HOUSTON — James Harden had 29 points and 10 assists to help the Houston Rockets rout the Utah Jazz 122-90 on Sunday night in Game 1 of a best-of-seven first-round playoff series.

The Rockets had a double-digit lead for most of the game, but the Jazz got within five points midway through the third quarter before Houston used a big run to pull away and sail to the victory.

It’s the second consecutive year these teams have met in the postseason after the Rockets eliminated Utah in five games in the second round last season.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Houston.

Houston was up by 15 in the fourth quarter before Harden, who had eight rebounds, scored six points in a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 108-86 with four minutes left and both teams cleared their benches about a minute after that.

Houston’s starting lineup helped carry the scoring load on Sunday night, with each starter scoring at least 10 points. Eric Gordon had 17, Clint Capela scored 16, Chris Paul added 14 and P.J. Tucker had 11.

Rudy Gobert had 22 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Jazz after not scoring more than 15 points in a game in the playoff series against the Rockets last season. Donovan Mitchell had 19 points, but did not have an assist as the Jazz went long stretches without scoring.

Ricky Rubio started after missing four of the last five games of the regular season with a quadriceps injury. Rubio, who finished with 15 points, didn’t play against Houston in the playoffs last season after injuring his hamstring in a first-round series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Houston had a 12-point lead entering the fourth quarter and an 8-0 spurt, with two 3-pointers from Danuel House, extended it to 95-75 with nine minutes remaining.

The Rockets led by 17 when Harden re-entered the game about a minute later. Soon after he returned he found House behind the 3-point line in the corner and drove to the basket and finished with a one-handed slam.

The Rockets were up by 15 at halftime, but Utah opened the second half with a 10-3 run, with six points from Gobert, to cut it to 62-54 with nine minutes left in the third.

The Jazz got within five with a shot from Mitchell later in the third, before the Rockets scored next 10 points, with a 3 from Gordon and a three-point play from Harden, to make it 76-61 with about four minutes left in the quarter.

Mitchell ended a Utah scoring drought of about 4 1/2 minutes after that with a 3-pointer, but Harden hit a 3 seconds later to leave the Rockets up 79-64.

Utah cut into the lead a bit after that and trailed 83-71 after three.

TIP-INS

Jazz: Derrick Favors had 13 points. … Utah went 7 for 27 on 3s. … The Jazz had 18 turnovers. … Jae Crowder scored nine points off the bench.

Rockets: Coach Mike D’Antoni was back on the sideline after missing Houston’s last three regular-season games with an intestinal virus. … Hall of Famer and former Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon watched the game from a courtside seat. … Houston made 15 3-pointers, led by four from Harden.

UP NEXT

After Game 2 on Wednesday the series moves to Utah for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on April 22.

Five teams that can knock off Golden State Warriors

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There’s going to be a parade this June in Oakland. It’s all but set, city officials quietly have started the planning already. The Golden State Warriors are going to win the NBA title and there is nothing anyone can do about it…

Or can they?

The Warriors are the favorites to with the NBA title. Again. As they should be. However, there are teams that can challenge the Warriors, this is not going to be a cake walk. And unlike the past couple of years, the Warriors biggest challenge will be in the Finals.

Here are the five teams that have a shot at beating the Warriors this season.

Raptors small icon1) The Toronto Raptors.

Don’t get stuck in the “the Raptors are not a playoff team” past, this is by design a very different Toronto roster heading into the playoffs. And it’s a team that matches up well with what Golden State — they are long and switchable on defense, they know how to get buckets, and they now have a clear closer.

Nobody is going to stop Kevin Durant, but Kawhi Leonard can slow him, make KD work, and be left on an island against him (relatively) allowing other defenders to stay home with their guys. While I don’t put much stock in regular season games as postseason predictors, way back in November Leonard and Durant had a back-and-forth showdown that was one of the more entertaining games of the year.

Danny Green is a strong defender who can be put on the hotter of Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry, then Kyle Lowry can do a solid job on the other. Pascal Siakam can get Draymond Green and help off him while daring Green to shoot jumpers, and Siakam can be the five when the Warriors go small with Green at center. Marc Gasol will likely start on DeMarcus Cousins, but Serge Ibaka can get time, too. Then the Rockets bring Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet as needed.

Toronto’s fifth-ranked offense this season is still going to score points against the Warriors. They can score inside and out. And when the game is on the line Leonard will get the chance to show why he was once Finals MVP.

The Warriors would and should still be favorites in this potential Finals matchup, but the Raptors are poised to make it work.

Bucks small icon2) The Milwaukee Bucks.

A team needs long, switchable defenders and an elite offense to beat the Warriors. The Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA this past season, led by MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo. So check that box. As for long, switchable defenders, the Bucks are built around the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and the physical at the point Eric Bledsoe. Check.

The Bucks are one of the few teams that can take and make threes at the pace of the Warriors and they may be willing to play that way. If Warriors defenders have to slide out to arc to stop shooters — especially Cousins chasing Brook Lopez out of the paint — it opens up the lane for Antetokounmpo’s drives, and nobody is stopping those.

What the Bucks need is Brogdon back and healthy to put on Klay Thompson. Also, Milwaukee would need to find a way to keep playing their base defense, which has Lopez dropping off picks to clog the paint, without giving up too many threes to the Warriors. Finally, when the Warriors go small the Bucks can go with Antetokounmpo at center lineups.

It would be a big step for the Bucks to challenge the Warriors, but on paper they have the tools.

Rockets small icon3) The Houston Rockets.

This is the same team that was ahead at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their home court less than a year ago….

Well, they’re not the same team exactly. But they are playing closer to that level than they have all season — Chris Paul looks more like his old self, Clint Capela looks in shape, Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker have found a groove as role players, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have the second-best defense in the land and the best net rating (+10.7).

The Rockets still have James Harden and nobody — on the Warriors or on the planet — can stop him. If he has other guys knocking down some shots around him and the Rockets keep defending, they are the only team in the West with a chance. The Rockets do not have Trevor Ariza or the same depth that made them a genuine threat to the Warriors, a Rockets team that might have a ring if CP3 had stayed healthy. But the Rockets are still the second best team in the West and the only team with a shot at the Warriors.

If the Rockets and Warriors meet it will be in the second round — and that could be good for Houston. What has slowed the Rockets in recent seasons was Harden just running out of gas from the load he has to carry, or Paul getting injured. Does meeting in the second round make it less likely either of those things happen, meaning the Rockets have a better chance? Maybe. The Rockets will have to fight their way past a very good Jazz team to find out.

Celtics small icon 4) The Boston Celtics.

The preseason favorites in the East have shown flashes this year where you can’t help but think “that’s a contender, they can push the Warriors.” Boston just hasn’t been able to sustain it.

The matchup on paper is interesting. Kyrie Irving has battled Stephen Curry to a standstill in the Finals before. Al Horford can be effective against Golden State whether Cousins is in the paint (Horford is a better post defender than people think, and on offense he could pull Cousins out to the three-point line to defend his shot) or if the Warriors go small and Green is at the five. Horford blows up the mismatches Golden State banks on.

The Celtics would need Marcus Smart back and healthy. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier all need to play as well as they did last playoffs. A lot of things need to go right and the Celtics have not been able to sustain that this year.

But Boston has the pieces to be a potential threat to Golden State.

Sixers small icon 5) The Philadelphia 76ers.

Philly being on this list comes down to one thing: They have the second best starting five in the league. The one starting five that can challenge the Warriors best lineups.

Joel Embiid (who can outplay Cousins, but didn’t play well against the Warriors this season), Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and sharpshooting J.J. Redick have a ton of potential. When on the court together, the unit has been dominant on both ends.

The problem is they haven’t been on the court together that much and there are chemistry questions. Plus, behind this five there is little depth.

Philadelphia has a long way to go to really be a threat to the Warriors, but if they make it out of the East they may be that team by June.