Rockets survive gut punch from Warriors, even Western Conference Finals at 2-2

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The Houston Rockets can only win against the Golden State Warriors in one way: ugly.

During their Game 2 blowout against the defending champions, Houston’s 22-point victory was ugly for the Warriors. In Tuesday’s Game 4 win, it was ugly for the Rockets despite the 95-92 score in their favor.

Golden State came out of the gates hot, scoring the first 12 points of the game as it was clear that the Warriors were drawing off of the home crowd back in Oakland. Houston eventually settled, coming back with a massive 34-point second quarter. Mike D’Antoni, using an abbreviated rotation, found a way to up his team’s defense on the Warriors, clamping down on Golden State from the 3-point line.

The Rockets took a 53-46 lead into the half, and needed to brace for the coming changes from Steve Kerr’s squad.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors answered with a 34 point quarter of their own to open the second half. Golden State found their range from 3-point land as — guess who — Stephen Curry started to go nuclear. Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points but shot a woeful 37.5 percent from the field, started to slow even as he got open looks off jumpers above smaller defenders.

Then came the fourth quarter.

Houston remained resolute, and full of energy as PJ Tucker and Chris Paul jumped for loose balls and battled for rebounds. Meanwhile, Golden State appeared to slowly run out of gas. Steve Kerr said as much after the game, intimating that his own shortened lineup without Andre Iguodala could have played a role.

D’Antoni, who obviously had a game plan to better defend Durant, then focused his attention toward Curry. The Warriors point guard finished the game shooting 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter, including a miss on the final shot of the game.

Curry scored 28 points with six rebounds and two assists. Durant added 12 rebounds and three assists to his scoring total. Draymond Green contributed 11 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists.

For Houston it was Harden who led the way with 30 points, four rebounds, and four assists. Paul had 27 points to go with four assists and two rebounds. PJ Tucker, who scored just four points, grabbed a whopping 16 boards. Clint Capela was much the same, scoring eight points while grabbing 13 rebounds.

This season’s Western Conference fighters has been both puzzling and Expected. Well the variants of victory margin has been much greater than any of us anticipated for both sides, the fact that the coaches on each bench are trying to out dual each other each game Runs with the idea we have of some of the best playoff series in NBA history. In fact, the back-and-forth battle between two teams as they trade winds is perhaps what makes be later rounds of the NBA playoffs so worth watching.

Houston’s victory was gritty, and defensive, and not much to look at. True to his persona, after the final horn Rockets point guard Paul called it, “A fun game.”

While we finally got ourselves a close conference finals game out West, the question now turns to what the teams will do for Game 5 back in Houston. Will this series become more competitive? Or will Houston and Golden State continue the back-and-forth, big-margin victories we’ve seen thus far?

No matter what, there’s no doubt the Rockets will be trying to recapture the defensive aura they held in Game 4 as Golden State tries to find a way to break through it.

Chris Paul is finally heading to the Western Conference Finals

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Chris Paul has finally done it.

The 12-year veteran has played on three teams, been to the playoffs every single season since he was 22, and now he’s going to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in his career after the Houston Rockets beat the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, 112-102.

Paul was spectacular, scoring 41 points, dishing 10 assists with seven rebounds, acting as the catalyst for the Rockets the entire game. James Harden, who did score 18 points but seemed to go through an odd slump in the first half, wasn’t the star Houston needed in the closing Game 5. Instead it was the wily veteran, who gave us glimpses of the Paul we fell in love with early in his career in New Orleans.

There was no ticky tack gamesmanship from Paul, either. This was not a performance marred by dribbling backwards into trailing defenders to draw fouls, or sneaky pulls just out of view of the official on the arm of a rising rebounder for a key board. No, this was CP3 at his finest; snaking the pick-and-roll, dominating from midrange, and in true form for this season, firing away from 3-point range.

It was, without a doubt, a classic.

The first half was largely dominated by the Rockets, although as they have all series Utah’s defensive resiliency helped them go on runs to sustain their chance of avoiding elimination. Alec Burks was the most impressive player for the Jazz, scoring 12 points in 14 minutes off the bench in the first half alone.

The Jazz struggled from the 3-point line in the first two periods as Houston turned up the defensive intensity. For much of the second quarter the Rockets seemed off-kilter, although you wouldn’t know it by the 33 points they racked up. A late push, including a pair of Chris Paul 3-pointers, helped Houston finish the half on an 11-3 run to take a 54-46 lead into the break.

Utah battled back in the third quarter, outscoring the Rockets by 11 as Donovan Mitchell lit a fire under his squad. The Jazz rookie had 22 points in the third period alone, although Houston’s support from Paul allowed them to keep things close as Utah took a lead into the final quarter.

Disappointingly for the Jazz, Mitchell’s night was cut short thanks to a left knee injury. With the Rockets surging and Mitchell trying to fight them off, Harden picked the rookie’s pocket with 7:13 to go in the fourth. Mitchell appeared to bang knees with Harden on the play, and he had to leave the game for x-rays. He did not return.

Meanwhile, Paul was at the center of the Houston offense to close the game. A banked 3-pointer with 2:30 left and the shot clock winding down was the dagger in the heart of the Jazz. Paul then drove the dagger into the bone with 35 seconds left, passing out of a double team to find a wide-open PJ Tucker in the corner for a three that gave the Rockets a 10-point lead.

Houston moves on to the Western Conference Finals, and Utah will go home with their heads held high. The Jazz gave the best team in the West a run for their money, and the final scores tell a tale of stratification a championship-caliber team and a playoff contender. But Utah played team ball, and Mitchell is an all-out baller.

Meanwhile, the Rockets get to see if they can stack up against the best when it matters most. The Golden State Warriors will presumably be their opponent in the next round once they close out the New Orleans Pelicans, and that’s the matchup we’ve been waiting all season to see.

Now that Paul has finally broken through after years of trying, we have to wonder whether a weight will be lifted from his shoulders? He certainly seemed ready to will his team to victory, and the Rockets are going to need every weapon they have to advance to the NBA Finals.

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.

Chris Paul’s game-winning miss helps Rockets end Blazers’ 13-game streak

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Tuesday night at Moda Center was electric. It was a game of switches, both between opposing big men on the pick-and-roll and as the lead batted between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

It was all we could have asked for between two of the best teams in the NBA.

The Blazers were aided by a hot start from Al-Farouq Aminu from beyond the arc. The defensive stalwart hit four threes in the first quarter alone for Portland as the Blazers took a four point lead into the second period. Houston, accustomed to playing in Rip City when their arena is at its loudest, wasn’t phased by the atmosphere.

James Harden went off — he finished with 42 points and seven assists — and looked unstoppable. At one point, after nailing a 3-pointer in the first half, Harden turned around and gave the Portland sideline a look. The leading MVP candidate was there to play, and the rain of boos that came down from the 300 level at the Moda only fueled his fire.

On the other side of the court, Portland’s star point guard seemed just off of center. Perhaps it was anticipating the soon-to-be birth of his child or just the stress that comes with upholding a 13-game winning streak, but Damian Lillard‘s aim was poor and he wasn’t as large a factor as he’s been all winter. In fact, both Lillard and C.J. McCollum were quiet on the night. McCollum, the other half of the second-highest scoring duo since the All-Star Break, had just eight points on a night where he shot 4-of-15 from the field.

But the story of these two teams, and why they remain top playoff contenders, is their defense. That showed all night, with the margin between the two staying razor thin until the final seconds. The Blazers’ strategy was to force switches, often getting Moe Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, or Evan Turner on smaller Rockets players while hoping to either attack the basket or swing the ball after the Rockets’ excellent help defense reacted.

Houston countered brilliantly, often guarding Nurkic with either Luc Mbah a Moute or PJ Tucker as they forced the issue of small ball on Portland. Much of the game rode on the offensive decision-making from Blazers in the post or the ability of the Rockets guards to burn past the likes of Nurkic and Ed Davis off the switch.

Chris Paul was the other factor for Houston — no shock as he loves going against Lillard — especially from beyond the 3-point line. Five of Paul’s six made field goals were from beyond the arc, and he dismantled slower Portland defenders as he snaked, shaked, and flailed his way around pick-and-rolls.

Despite the close play, Houston appeared to have struck a defiant blow when Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:55 to go, giving the Rockets a nine-point lead. But Portland rallied, with Lillard quickly drawing a three-shot foul to push the Blazers closer. Portland scored twice more in quick succession, and they were once again within striking distance for the win.

The game came down to a final Houston possession with five seconds left as Paul missed long on a floater in the middle of the lane. Miraculously, the ball hit off the back of the iron, out of reach of any Blazers rebounder (although a crafty hold by Paul on Aminu certainly helped).

Houston recovered the rebound, and closed against a heated rival.

Meanwhile the story for both teams at the end of the game was clear: both are for real.

The Rockets, leaders of the West even before the Golden State Warriors were bitten by the injury bug, showed they could come into a hostile environment against a team that badly wanted to win in Portland. Houston’s resolve was clear; while the Blazers never looked unfocused, the Rockets felt like the senior team and the leadership from Harden and Paul was a preview for what we should expect come playoff time. That’s big, especially when you consider Paul’s playoff demons and the hovering expectation that the Warriors are somehow going to come charging back and blow everyone out come spring.

For the Blazers, the sadness of the 13-game streak will linger but for a moment. Portland, who was essentially a .500 team until Christmas, looked like they were ready for showtime. Many of the Blazers’ players, including Nurkic, Aminu, and Harkless, have struggled with inconsistency all season long. But as they took on the Rockets, all three were the ones keeping Portland in it when Lillard and McCollum struggled. I had my doubts about the Blazers perhaps longer than most, but even in defeat Portland’s showing against Houston makes them look like a solid favorite in any first round playoff series they draw, and not just because of seeding.

Houston beat the Blazers, 115-111.

Let’s do this again sometime soon. Say, in mid-May?

Free Agency primer: Top 25 free agents to watch

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At midnight tonight — as Friday officially flips into Saturday and the calendar flips to July 1 — NBA free agency opens and the floodgates will open. Some of the wild action of the past few weeks, such as Jimmy Butler going to Minnesota or Chris Paul to Houston, will influence what happens next.

There are things we know will happen, some we expect, and with some players we have no idea what is about to go down.

Here are 25 top free agents and what to expect, broken down by category.

ELITE FREE AGENTS NOT LEAVING THEIR TEAM

We feel obligated to mention these guys, but your team isn’t stealing them away.

1) Stephen Curry. The heart and soul (if not the best player anymore) on the Golden State Warriors, he is going to get the richest contract in NBA history — five years, nearly $201 million. He will sign the first “designated veteran” contract in NBA history, then will hit the golf course, relax a little this summer, savor another ring, then show up in the fall ready to humiliate defenders again.

2) Kevin Durant. The Warriors best player and Finals MVP, he opted out of the second year of his contract with the Warriors. However, that was just a formality, one which allows the Warriors a better chance of retaining free agents such as Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston. He will re-sign with the Warriors closer to the end of July, and he said he will take a little less than the max, but on another 1+1 deal so he can opt out next year and get paid even more.

TOP FREE AGENTS WHO COULD BE ON THE MOVE

3) Gordon Hayward. He’s an All-Star, near All-NBA level wing player in a league where some elite teams are looking for one. He will have as many max offers as he wants, but the race appears to be down to Miami, Boston, and Utah. He will meet with all three then decide early next week, but around the league there is a sense Boston may have some momentum (getting him and Paul George, however, is very difficult financially). If he leaves Utah will in part come down to if they move to keep George Hill (keep reading, he’s on this list) and would be a huge setback for one of the West’s up-and-coming teams.

4) Blake Griffin. Chris Paul has left Los Angeles, now the Clippers want to retain Griffin, run the offense through him, put some good shooters around him, and basically put together an interesting, if not contending, team. The question is does Griffin want that? He’s meeting with Phoenix, and we know Boston and Miami are interested (if they strike out on Hayward). Denver wants in the conversation, and there will be others. He has options but if the Clippers come with a five-year max that may be enough to retain him.

5) Paul Millsap. The Hawks seem set to lose LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap in free agency in back-to-back years for nothing (which is why they would like a sign-and-trade, and why Mike Budenholzer wanted to move him at the deadline). If teams give Millsap a four-year max they may regret the last season when he’s 36, but he can rebound, defend well, shoot threes and can help almost any team. Denver, Phoenix, and Sacramento are interested and there will be others.

6) Kyle Lowry. The least likely guy on this part of the list to move on. The Raptors want him back and will pay for him, the question is will they max him out? Do they have to max him out as the market has dried up some — Philly, Sacramento, Brooklyn all were reported targets then all just got young guards around the draft, so they are out of the mix. He’s not going to find a better spot, but he may look around a little.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS ANOTHER TEAM MAY TRY TO STEAL

7) Otto Porter. A lot of teams like the Washington Wizards’ wing and he’s the kind of player a team with cap space — such as Brooklyn or Sacramento — likely try to poach with an oversized offer. While John Wall would rather have Paul George, the Wizards don’t have the space for PG13 (unless Washington and Indy want to so a sign-and-trade, meaning the Pacers lowered their asking price), which means they will pay Porter, or match whatever offer sheet he gets. Porter is about to be a max or near-max guy, and John Wall is going to need to make it up to him.

8) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Stan Van Gundy has hinted that he will match any offer for KCP — an impressive defensive wing who shot 35 percent from three last year (but has more work to do to be a real offensive threat) — and he should. Still, a team like Brooklyn will take a shot and try to sign him on the chance Detroit decides not to pony up, just expect the Pistons to match. They have to, they can’t lose him, they don’t have the cap space to replace him.

9) Nerlens Noel. Teams are no longer allowed to say “we will match any offer” because it’s seen as trying to dampen the market. So the Mavericks have said everything around that phrase — “he’s a central part of our future” — to hint they will match anything. Dallas traded for him at the deadline last year to see him as part of the future, the only question now is the price, and if they have to match someone else’s offer.

10) Tim Hardaway Jr. He’s developed well under the Hawks tutelage and last year scored 14.5 points a game shooting 35.7 percent from three. That said, he’s not much of a defender, and it’s fair to ask how much a now rebuilding Hawks team (assuming Millsap moves on) is willing to pay for his game. It’s going cost in the eight digits a season to keep him, but how high up into the teens might a team go to steal him? If one guy on this list can be stolen with a big offer, it’s Hardaway Jr.

GOOD PLAYERS WHO ARE/MAY GET PAID HEAD SHAKING AMOUNTS

11) Jrue Holiday. Do you think Holiday is a $30 million a year point guard? He’s about to get paid in that ballpark — and by the Pelicans. New Orleans has no choice, they have gone into a win-now place with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, and if they loose Holiday they will have about $12 million to replace him, and they are not going to get anyone near as good for that price. Denver and a few other teams are interested, but he meets with the Pelicans first and they aren’t going to miss this chance.

12) Andre Iguodala. There are a lot of teams interested in Iguodala — Minnesota, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Orlando, Brooklyn and Utah among them. We’ve also heard the Warriors are “concerned” about the tax bill for Iguodala (after they give Curry and Durant massive new deals). All that hints that Iguodala could be on the move, but in the end, can the Warriors really let him go? He’s crucial to Golden State’s small lineups, and with KD taking less to keep him it’s hard to imagine him leaving. The Warriors would like to get him for around $12 million or less. Iguodala has talked to GM Bob Myers about it. But if another team comes in over the top… who knows.

13) J.J. Redick. He’s one of the best pure shooters in the NBA, he hit better than 40 percent from three last season and works very hard off the ball, plus is a solid team defender. The Clippers aren’t expected to keep him, and we know that Brooklyn (where he has a home) and Philadelphia are interested, and other teams will step up. This is Redick’s last big NBA contract and he’s going to want to maximize it, he’s not going to take less to contend.

14) George Hill. Gordon Hayward reportedly wants the Jazz to re-sign Hill, but I’ve heard he’s leaning towards moving on. Obviously, it will come down to who offers the most money, but teams such as San Antonio. Minnesota (if they move Ricky Rubio), and New York reportedly all are interested. Hill is a guy good at everything — good defender, can shoot the three, strong floor general, can attack the rim — and that versatility makes him valuable.

15) Danilo Gallinari. When he’s healthy he puts up numbers: Last season the 6’10” wing scored 18.2 points with 5.3 rebounds a game, shot 38.7 percent from three, he can create shots for himself, and he’s a solid defender. However, last season he played in 63 games, and that’s the most he has played in four seasons. Denver seems to be looking at other options (Paul Millsap, even Kevin Love) but it will come down to money. Gallinari is the kind of guy that GMs talk themselves into after missing their first couple of targets, which means he’s going to get a big payday.

GOOD PLAYERS NOT GOING ANYWHERE

16) Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks didn’t pick up his $25 million option so they could go after some free agents, but there is no way Mark Cuban is letting his talisman player go. And Nowitzki doesn’t want to leave. The two sides will work out a deal at some point, and it could be a two-year deal so Nowitzki has options.

17) Pau Gasol. He opted out of the $16 million he is owed next year and likely will make less per year for that, but will get the security of a longer deal with the Spurs. Gasol did this to help the Spurs chase free agents, we’ll see who they can land with that space (and if LaMarcus Aldridge stays, that’s another discussion). Gasol is still a fundamentally solid big who can score inside, make smart passes, and defend the rim all with a high IQ. He’s past his peak but he’s still good.

PLAYER WHO COULD GET PAID MORE THAN HE SHOULD AT THIS POINT

18) Serge Ibaka. There were reports he’s already basically agreed to a deal to return to the Raptors, although how much they really want to pay for a four who doesn’t stretch the floor terribly well or defend quite like he used to remains to be seen. He’s still good, and if Kyle Lowry returns they need what Ibaka brings to be a threat in the East. He could make more than the $12.3 million he made a year ago.

OTHER FREE AGENTS TO WATCH

19) Dion Waiters. He got in the best shape of his life in Miami at age 25, and when the Heat needed scoring the second half of the season he picked up the slack (not efficiently, but he was getting buckets). Waiters is the kind of player that could get a bigger payday than the ballpark two years, $20 million he should get because when a GM strikes out on better targets he talks himself into the idea that the post-All Star break Waiters is here to stay. Miami may keep him, but other teams will come calling.

20) Kyle Korver. He doesn’t move like he used to, he is a defensive liability, but he shot 45 percent from three last season, he knows how to find open space, and he remains one of the best long-range marksmen in the game. He made $5.2 million last year and I could see a salary in that ballpark (which includes the taxpayer midlevel, so a contender could snap him up).

21) Patty Mills. He has gone to Spurs university and come out the other side as a quality NBA point guard who can knock down threes, work off the ball, defend fairly well, and just be a guy who can be trusted on the big stage. He’s likely too expensive for the Spurs to bring back, and a lot of teams that are targeting Holiday/Lowry could come calling when they strike out.

22) Zach Randolph. It would be strange not to see him in a Memphis uniform next season, but it very well could happen. After spending on restricted free agent JaMychal Green – which the Grizzlies absolutely need to do — there’s not a lot of money left for Randolph or Tony Allen. Randolph says he wants to stay in Memphis, and he’s not getting a long-term deal anywhere at age 36, but another team could offer too much money to pass up.

23) Derrick Rose. He put up average numbers last season, on paper he had an average/solid season, but the Knicks did not click when he was running the show and he’s still a defensive liability. He could help a team if he was willing to play for less than the mid-level and come off the bench, but will he do that?

24) PJ Tucker. He played on the Raptors last season and in the playoffs showed his strengths — physical, versatile defending — and his weaknesses on the offensive end. The Clippers and Knicks reportedly have interest, but other teams will line up once the top end of free agency shakes out and GMs realize they could use a veteran defender like Tucker.

25) Rudy Gay. He’s an old-school volume scorer who was already slowing down before he suffered a ruptured Achilles last January. He should be back around the start of the season, but how much does he have left? A few teams have expressed interest, including the Thunder and Clippers. But at what cost?