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Rockets jump to early lead, cruise in Game 1 win over Jazz

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If you’re the coach of an NBA team, you know what the Houston Rockets are going to try to do to you. Usually, you’re powerless to stop it. That was the position Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder found himself in on Sunday as his team took on the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their semifinal series against each other.

The Rockets played their usual game, putting the Jazz into poor defensive positions as they vacillated between crisp ball movement and devastating isolation play. Utah, meanwhile, just didn’t have the firepower to match Houston. The Jazz had to play without Ricky Rubio after he injured his hamstring, instead calling on Dante Exum to fill some of his minutes.

The result was that Houston played much the way we’ve seen them do all season long. The Rockets ran, getting out on the break and punishing the shorthanded Jazz from the 3-point line. Houston was 10-of-16 from beyond the arc in the first half alone, with PJ Tucker and Harden leading the way. The Rockets put Utah in a tough position, forcing switches and moving the ball. Harden & Co. used an 11-2 run to end the second quarter to take a 25-point lead into halftime.

Snyder made some adjustments during the break, allowing the Jazz to gain seven points on the Rockets in the third quarter. Donovan Mitchell led the charge as Utah concentrated their attack in the painted area. Utah also did a better job defending the 3-point line to open the second half, although even with a redoubled effort they still only kept Houston to 36 percent from deep in the third quarter.

The Rockets stabilized, and although Utah continued to play better in the fourth quarter the visiting Jazz just couldn’t overcome the lead Houston built in the first half. At no point did the Snyder’s team unplug one of Houston’s weapons — the best the Jazz could manage was to turn down the volume.

As such, Harden scored a whopping 41 points to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists. Four of five Rockets starters scored in double figures, and as a team Houston shot 53 percent from the 3-point line.

Utah saw the Rockets concentrate on pushing its guards off the arc. Donovan Mitchell scored 21 points, but went 1-of-7 from the 3-point line. Joe Ingles had 15 points, six rebounds, and five assists, but shot just 1-of-3 from deep. Jae Crowder scored 21 points in a great effort off the bench.

After a thrilling, heartening win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the last round, the Jazz got a quick taste of what it’s like to go up against a championship-caliber team locked into playoff mode. It won’t get any easier for Utah, either. They are likely to be without Rubio for Game 2 according to reports, and Mitchell turned his right ankle with 5:33 to go in the fourth on Sunday. Mitchell’s health will be something to keep an eye on as his tissue responds over the next few days.

Game 2 isn’t until Wednesday at 5 p.m. PST. Hopefully that will give Mitchell and Rubio time to rest up, and for Synder to adjust his offensive gameplan to get his scorers more opportunities. Like everyone else in the NBA, Snyder’s task next time out will be to find a way to stop Houston from bombing away from deep like they did on Sunday afternoon.

The Rockets took care of Utah in easy fashion in Game 1, 110-96.

Ricky Rubio out for Game 1, likely 10 days or so, with hamstring strain

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Friday night — thanks to a massive second half from Donovan Mitchell, good ball movement that got other players good looks, and a suffocating defense — the Utah Jazz were able to get by without Ricky Rubio and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Now the Jazz step way up in class to take on the Houston Rockets, and they are again going to have to do it without Rubio for at least a while. Officially, he is out for Game 1 on Sunday, the team announced.

It’s going to be more than one game. Other reports on how long Rubio will be out vary from a week to two, in part because hamstrings heal slowly and are easy to re-aggravate if not right when the player comes back.

Rubio tried to take it in stride.

No Rubio will likely mean Dante Exum starts, with more run for Alec Burks and others.

Rubio had played well against the Thunder, providing a secondary shot creator after Mitchell (on a team that struggles in that area). Rubio averaged 16.8 points and 8.6 assists per game in the last series, although he wasn’t efficient (true shooting percentage of 47.7). Still, his playmaking and willingness to take the shot kept defenses honest.

Without him, it becomes that much more difficult to beat a championship-level Rockets team.

 

Ricky Rubio leaves game with hamstring injury, will not return

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Russell Westbrook is going to get the better of Ricky Rubio in Game 6, but not for a good reason.

Rubio, who has been battling a sore hamstring through much of the series, aggravated it early and went to the locker room. He was ruled out for the rest of the game.

This will mean more Dante Exum and Alec Burks for Utah.

This is a blow to a Utah offense that struggles to create good offense (something that has been a particular problem in the early stages of Game 6). Rubio has averaged 16.8 points and 8.6 assists per game, and while he hasn’t been efficient (true shooting percentage of 47.7) he has scored enough to keep the OKC defense honest and open things up. He outplayed Westbrook, leading to Westbrook saying he would shut Rubio down (then played out of control trying to do so the next game).

Without Rubio, the Thunder defenders can focus more on stopping Donovan Mitchell.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back on top behind MVP-to-be Harden

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The Houston Rockets are back on top of the power rankings, with the Raptors now second, and the Trail Blazers holding steady at fourth despite the end of their win streak. At the bottom, Phoenix has “reclaimed” the last spot and are winning their race to keep Deandre Ayton in Arizona.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (56-14, Last Week No. 2). Things look good for the Houston Rockets: They almost certainly will finish with the best record in the NBA, James Harden almost certainly will win the MVP, Ryan Anderson is back in the rotation giving Mike D’Antoni another three-point shooter to lean on (although how much Anderson can be used in playoff matchups remains to be seen), and after the dramatic 115-111 win in Portland Tuesday night the Rockets’ schedule softens up. D’Antoni has kept his rotations tight and not rested guys very often, how much will that change down the stretch?

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (53-18, LW 1). The Thunder snapped the Raptors’ 11-game win streak Sunday, but don’t read too much into that one loss: It was Toronto’s third game in four days and it showed in their legs late. Toronto plays each of the other two top teams in the East twice, starting with Cleveland Wednesday (the Celtics start next week), which makes for interesting storylines, but be careful drawing big conclusions from those games: If I’m Dwane Casey and I have a strategy I like vs. Cleveland, I’m not breaking it out for a regular season game (maybe beyond a couple of possessions at most). Save your best strategies for the games that matter.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (53-18 LW 3). Golden State should get Stephen Curry back Friday vs. Atlanta — he would have been back last weekend if this were the playoffs, but the Warriors have conceded the one seed and now are working on just getting their team healthy and rested before the postseason. With Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson banged up, the Warriors health is something to watch over the final few weeks of the season. The team says that everyone will be healthy come the start of the playoffs, and if so they will be a fully formed Voltron again, but if not the equation changes some.

 
Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (44-26, LW 5). Despite the loss to the Rockets and the end of the 13-game winning streak, Portland seems to have nearly locked itself into the three seed in the West (and the way they are defending they should be favorites in the first round). One interesting stat that could play a role in a postseason series: the Blazers have the worst shooting percentage of any team in the league at the rim, 57.1% (not including garbage time numbers, this stat via Cleaning the Glass). Also, they are 27th in the league in corner threes attempted, just 5.5% of their shot attempts.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (48-23, LW 4). The Marcus Smart thumb injury and surgery is a big blow, especially depending upon how much of the playoffs he misses. Smart is Boston’s best perimeter defender and a central part to the best defense in the NBA this season. Boston is more vulnerable in the first round without him, but would really miss him in a second-round matchup (especially if that is Cleveland). Kyrie Irving is getting a second opinion on his knee and could miss more time than originally thought, but he should still be back for the postseason, giving Boston’s offense a much-needed boost.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (43-30 LW 6).. Corey Brewer has given the Thunder a tremendous lift since getting picked up after the Lakers’ waived him. Brewer is scoring 11.7 points per game, shooting 38.2 percent from three, playing competent defense, helping them speed up the pace, and generally giving them the fifth starter they needed since Andre Roberson went down. Brewer with the other four starters — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams — is +11.3 per 100 possessions. All this seems unsustainable at this level, in fact, the numbers fell back considerably after the loss to Boston, but still this move has been a big pick up for the Thunder, who had won six in a row before Tuesday.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (40-31, LW 10). The Jazz had won nine in a row before Tuesday’s punch-to-the-gut loss to tanking Atlanta. Still, Utah seems destined for the playoffs (which should get Quin Snyder some Coach of the Year votes down the ballot). It’s still all about the defense for this team: Their Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert lineup has a defensive rating of just 76.4 since Crowder was traded to the team (and they use that lineup heavily). This is a tough playoff out for whoever lands them. It’s good to see Dante Exum back on the floor.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (39-30, LW 9). They have won three in a row and still have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way — 9-of-13 games against teams below .500. The Sixers are just one game back of the four seed — home court in the first round is not out of the question. But there are questions: How hard does Brett Brown and the organization push for that four seed vs. make sure Joel Embiid gets some rest down the stretch before they lean heavily on him in the postseason? And how much can they up his 31 minutes a game average in the playoffs?

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (41-30, LW 7). Injuries have caught up with the Pacers, Domantas Sabonis is still out with an ankle issue, and Myles Turner missed a little time, all of which meant more Al Jefferson than the Pacers would like to see and a couple of losses. The Pacers need some quality wins — like vs. the Pelicans, Clippers, and Heat coming up this week — because of the teams in the mix for the 3/4 seeds in the East (Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia are in there, too) the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule. That includes a West Coast road swing starting next Tuesday in Golden State.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (41-29 LW 12). Kevin Love is back (he looked pretty good dropping 18 in his return from a broken hand) and Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. should be back in the rotation soon as well. Cleveland survived a recent road trip with a 3-3 record but need to rack up wins — and find some cohesion on defense — to keep the three seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Interesting test Wednesday against Toronto (they catch the Raptors on a back-to-back).

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (40-30, LW 14). The Wizards are a good three-point shooting team, hitting 37.6% of their triples once you remove the garbage time stats from the equation (via Cleaning the Glass). Which makes you wonder why they are 23rd in percentage of their shots taken from three — if you can make them, take them. What matters most to this team is the return of John Wall, which may not be that far off — Scott Brooks thinks he could get into some 5-on-5 drills in the coming days, the last step before suiting up.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (41-30, LW 16). The death of the Spurs has been greatly exaggerated. Just a reminder not to completely count them out, the Spurs have won four in a row and it appears they will extend their playoff streak to 21 seasons. This Spurs run of wins has come like so much of their season: Incredible defense — 0.88 points per possession allowed through the four games — and enough offense courtesy LaMarcus Aldridge to get the “W” (he’s averaging 30.25 points per game over the streak). Bet the under when the Spurs and Jazz play Friday.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (41-30, LW 5). It’s not only the Anthony Davis show since DeMarcus Cousins went down, Jrue Holiday has stepped up, too — he is shooting 41.1% from three in his last 15 games, adding the spacing the Pelicans need. In the wake of owner Tom Benson’s death, his wife Gayle runs the show now and there are not going to be big changes, according to sources. Also, the rumors that she’s going to sell the team are not true (at least not for a while, the Pelican’s lease runs through 2024). New Orleans won the first game of a rare back-to-back-to-back at home, something forced by the leaky roof postponement against the Pacers earlier this season.

 
14. Timberwolves (41-31, LW 8). The Timberwolves have gone 5-5 without Jimmy Butler, and Tuesday night against the Clippers was what we need to see more of from this team. First, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting touches and shot attempts (through the first 8 Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season). Second, there was leadership on both ends from Andrew Wiggins, who had one of his better defensive nights. Minnesota is now three games up on the Clippers and the Timberwolves have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, they are going to make the playoffs.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (38-33, LW 19). With no Dwyane Wade, in a very close game with Denver last weekend, it was Josh Richardson isolation at the end of regulation then James Johnson at the end of overtime. Neither really got to their spots on the floor for a quality shot (fortunately for Miami it dominated the second OT, so no need to look for another option). With an easier schedule than the stumbling Bucks, Miami may be destined for the seven seed and a date with Boston in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (38-33, LW 15).. Denver has started a crucial 7-game road trip 0-2, including a gut-punch loss to the Grizzlies (and the 2OT one to the Heat stung, too). Just since the start of March, the Nuggets have lost to the Mavericks, Lakers, and Grizzlies — that lack of urgency and consistency is why they are two games out of the playoffs and with difficult prospects to climb back in (fivethirtyeight.com has them with a 12% chance of getting in). The Nuggets have gone 11-23 on the road this season (they are 27-10 at home) and if they don’t change their road woes around this week the playoffs will be out of reach.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (37-33 LW 13). Since the All-Star break, the Clippers are 24th in the NBA in defense, and their problems were evident Tuesday night when they had no answer to the Jeff Teague/Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll and were roasted in the second half because of it. Tough road games ahead against the East coming up next — at Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — and with the Clippers 2.5 games back of the Jazz and the final playoff spot, they need to find some road wins fast.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (37-33 LW 18). The Bucks are going to make the playoffs — in large part because the teams behind them in the East have collapsed — but that’s not what people around the league are talking about with this team. The question is who will be the next coach? This is going to be a coveted job — getting to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of good role players who just need a better system in place — plus the team will be moving into a new arena. Will Bucks ownership spend what it takes to get a name/high-level coach?

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (31-39 LW 17). Remember a few weeks back when Lonzo Ball torched the Spurs from three because, as coach Gregg Popovich admitted after the game, their game plan was to go under the pick and dare him to beat them from deep, then Ball did just that? Teams in the NBA learn, they are now trailing over the top on Ball, not letting him have uncontested looks, and since Spurs game he’s shooting just 23.1% from three (and 30.3% overall). Ball is good from three if he gets some room and his feet set, but teams have figured that out and are taking his space away.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (32-39, LW 20). Detroit has played poorly of late and is going to miss the playoffs. What happened in Detroit? Blake Griffin is getting blamed for it. Stan Van Gundy likely will lose his GM title for it (and we’ll see if he is back as coach next season). However, the reality is this team came apart when point guard Reggie Jackson got hurt. Since he went out Dec. 27 the Pistons were 12-25 without him — they were 19-14 with him. Jackson returned Tuesday in a limited role (15 minutes) but it will be too little, too late for the Pistons this season.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-41, LW 21). Nicolas Batum is going to miss some time to deal with chronic tendinitis in his left Achilles — a real concern because that doesn’t exactly heal well. Much like Mike Conley in Memphis, it requires constant monitoring and plenty of rest during the season. Before the All-Star break the Hornets were a middle of the pack defensive team in the NBA. Since the break they are 26th in the NBA giving up 6.6 points more per 100 possessions.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (23-49, LW 24). No team of late has given a higher percentage of minutes to first and second year players than the Kings — and there have been bright spots. Specifically, back-to-back wins last weekend against Miami and a banged-up Golden State team where rookie point guard D’Aaron Fox was making clutch plays. The Kings have started out 0-1 on a six-game homestand at the Golden One Center where the home fans can get a good look at the young players themselves.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (23-48, LW 25). Part of what the Nets wanted to do after the All-Star break is give a lot of minutes to D’Angelo Russell and see what they really have in a player eligible for a contract extension this summer. He has shown flashes of both an ability to score and ability to lead a team, but the simple matter is the Nets have been 4.8 points per 100 possessions better this season when he is off the court, with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end. My guess is Russell is back next season without an extension and hits restricted free agency in 2020.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (26-45, LW 28). New York easily took care of Chicago on Monday night, meaning the Knicks almost certainly will enter the lottery in the nine slot (a 6.1% chance of jumping up into the top three). Few people around the league expect Jeff Hornacek to keep his job past this season, but who replaces him? Mark Jackson’s name gets mentioned. New York would be wise to get David Fizdale in early and talk to him. Whoever gets the gig, with Kristaps Porzingis likely out for the first half of next season, the new coach needs a long leash to build a culture that can win with KP in a couple of seasons.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (24-46 LW 22).. Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine are two of the young cornerstone pieces the Bulls think they have going forward. One problem, when they are on the court together this season, the Bulls get outscored by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. When those two are paired, the Bulls score less then a point per possession and are sieve defensively. This is over the course of 308 minutes, so while there is certainly noise in that number it’s not inconsequential. Chicago may not be able to keep both.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (22-49 LW 23). Whatever Mark Cuban says — and he should be far more focused on off the court Dallas issues right now rather than on it — the Mavs players are not tanking. The team just went 1-3 on a recent road trip, but in the losses they took the Raptors to overtime and played both the Nets and Pelicans tight. Another week, another milestone for Dirk Nowitzki, who is now fifth on the NBA’s career regular season games played record.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (21-50, LW 26). With Elfrid Payton shipped West, D.J. Augustin has played well as a point guard for Orlando since the All-Star break. It’s a lone bright spot in an offense where Aaron Gordon missed time, Evan Fournier is still out, and after some impressive play lately Jonathon Simmons missed Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-50, LW 27). Atlanta is 1-1 to start a six-game road trip thanks to a surprising win over the Jazz Tuesday. Dennis Schroder went off in that game for 41. Before that, the bright spot for the Hawks lately has been Taurean Prince, who dropped 38 points Saturday, and now has two 35+ point games this season, the first Hawk to do that since Joe Johnson.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (19-51, LW 30). Tyreke Evans is back on the court, and not surprisingly the Grizzlies’ 19-game losing streak came to an end. If the “Most Improved Player” award were still the “Comeback Player of the Year” award Evans would be in the mix, despite playing just 51 games (so far). Evans has averaged 19.5 points a game and shot 39.2% from three, he’s going to make more money than the Grizzlies can afford this summer and they will lose him.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-53, LW 29). Losers of nine in a row, the Suns have “reclaimed” the bottom spot in the rankings. The Suns are on pace to finish the season with the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA by net rating — an “impressive” feat. They will probably have the best lottery odds going into it (25% chance at No. 1), and if they get the top pick you can bet they would love to keep DeAndre Ayton in Arizona.

Escaping shadow of LeBron James’ tweet, Shabazz Napier seizing opportunity with Trail Blazers

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DETROIT – When Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to the 2014 national title, LeBron James – then with the Heat and months before free agency – tweeted:

That was atypical thinking. Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis were generally rated higher than Napier, and Elfrid Payton also got drafted higher. Napier was commonly seen as a second-round pick.

Miami traded up to get him with the No. 24 pick, anyway. Though Heat president Pat Riley downplayed LeBron’s involvement in the selection, LeBron was clearly pleased.

But LeBron still bolted for the Cavaliers a couple weeks later, leaving Napier in Miami with an organization that wasn’t necessarily sold on him.

“I knew for a fact they picked me because LeBron,” Napier said. “Which is understandable. I would want to keep the best player on the planet, too. So, that sucked for me.”

Napier tried not to let it affect him, but he couldn’t help but notice how LeBron’s tweet loomed over his pro career.

“To everyone else, it was big. Whenever he says something, it’s big. And that’s because of the impact he has,” Napier said. “But, to me as a person, I always try to live in the moment. I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, this guys said my name.’ He doesn’t make that big of an impact on my life.

“Unless it’s like my mother or something like that, no one else has a big impact on my life to make me feel a certain way.”

Napier said he lacked confidence throughout his rookie year, taking the blame for that and noting he was too immature. But he also clearly believes he deserved more than fringe-rotation minutes.

“I felt like they didn’t really give me an opportunity,” Napier said.

The next offseason, the Heat traded him to the Magic of practically no return.

“When I went to Orlando, I thought there was going to be an opportunity,” Napier said. “But there wasn’t, really.”

Napier’s production regressed, as his role shrunk even further. He didn’t look cut out for the NBA.

After only one year, Orlando sent him to the Trail Blazers – again, for no real return. In Portland, his role remained minor last season and to begin this season.

But Napier appears to be finally coming into his own.

Shooting more efficiently than ever while remaining pesky defensively, Napier ranks sixth among backup point guards in real plus-minus:

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Napier has made solid gains in most facets of his game, but the biggest change has come with interior scoring. At 6-foot-1, he struggled mightily in the paint against bigger NBA players. After shooting 39% his first three years, Napier has made 57% of his shots in the restricted area this season.

His 3-point percentage has also improved – to 40%, up from 35% his first three seasons. The outside-inside game is producing 9.4 points in 21.6 minutes per game, tilting defenses and creating passing lanes.

Napier can sometimes get overpowered defensively, but he makes up for it with a knack for getting steals.

Important for any Trail Blazers role player, Napier also plays well with both C.J. McCollum (+6.7 points per 100 possessions) and Damian Lillard (+10.9 points per 100 possessions).

But Napier might not be long for Portland.

The Trail Blazers already have $110,456,026 committed to just eight players next season, and that doesn’t even account for pending restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic. The luxury-tax concerns don’t dissipate in 2019-20, when Portland has $110,128,053 committed to seven players (including rookie-scale options for Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, but not a probably re-signed Nurkic).

Considering their ability to stagger Lillard and McCollum as lead guards, the Trail Blazers might deem Napier a luxury they can’t afford. Heck, they might not even extend his $3,452,308 qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent.

The way Napier is playing, he might fetch more in free agency. Plenty of teams could use him as a backup point guard, and someone could devote a nice chunk of its mid-level exception to signing Napier.

If he’s bound to leave Portland this summer, could the Trail Blazers preemptively trade him for return before Thursday’s deadline? They should consider it. Shedding him and a minimum-salary player (Pat Connaughton or Jake Layman) would allow Portland to dodge the tax this season.

But tied for sixth in the West at 29-25, the Trail Blazers are also trying to win this season. Having Napier helps. It’s unclear how a cost-cutting move would sit with Lillard.

No matter where he ends the season, free agency will be a big opportunity for Napier. After four years at UConn, he’s already 26. This could be his only shot at a major payday.

Portland coach Terry Stotts credited Napier with working extremely hard last summer in advance of a contract year. That’s why Stotts believes Napier has improved so much, though he recognizes another explanation.

“Probably, if you ask him, he’s given an opportunity,” Stotts said.

In that regard, Napier has finally found a team on the same page as him.

“Everyone talks about I’m playing better,” Napier said. “I think it’s just all about opportunity.”