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Rockets give Warriors their biggest playoff loss since signing Kevin Durant

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The Warriors were treated as invincible ever since they signed Kevin Durant, and for the most, their play has only fueled the perception.

The Rockets looked like an atypically strong challenger, but a crushing Game 1 Golden State win in the conference finals instilled major doubt about Houston’s offense, defense and general ability to keep up.

The Rockets answered those question with a resounding 127-105 Game 2 win Wednesday to even the series, 1-1. The 22-point defeat is Golden State’s largest playoff loss since adding Durant, surpassing a 21-point setback to the Cavaliers in Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals.

“We played harder and smarter than Game 1,” James Harden said. “That was the only difference. We didn’t switch up any strategies.”

Teams that split Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-series at home have won the series 61% of the time.

Will that hold for Houston, which – despite its regular-season superiority – is generally seen as worse than the defending-champion Warriors? We’ll learn more in Game 3 Sunday.

At minimum, the Rockets turned the tide after getting spanked in Game 1. Golden State proved over the last three years it could play at this level. Wednesday, Houston did, too.

The Rockets’ improvements, offensively and defensively, were all connected:

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The Rockets don’t want to isolate all the time. They’ve just correctly determined isolation is their best counter to Golden State’s set, switching halfcourt defense.

But Houston – boosted, but not completely fueled by, tighter defense – pushed the ball more and faced the Warriors’ set defense less often.

James Harden (27 points on 9-of-24 shooting) and Chris Paul (16 points on 6-of-14 shooting) still carried the load when necessary. But the stars’ attention-drawing, a quicker pace and good ball movement allowed the supporting cast to thrive:

Kevin Durant (38 points) once again carried Golden State offensively, but he didn’t get much help. Stephen Curry (1-for-8 on 3-pointers) never found his range from deep. Klay Thompson (eight points on 3-of-11 shooting) didn’t get nearly as many open looks. The Rockets stayed closer to Thompson in part by exploiting the lack of scoring prowess by Draymond Green (six points and four turnovers in 37 minutes) and Andre Iguodala (five points and three turnovers in 27 minutes).

Now, it’s on the Warriors to make adjustments. They’ve been here before, and nobody is questioning whether they belong.

But nobody should be questioning the Rockets’ worthiness anymore, either.

Watch the actual NBA lottery drawing (video)

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The Suns didn’t just win the lottery.

They also placed second and third.

Phoenix had its ping-pong-ball combination pulled first, second and third last night. With the No. 1 pick already given to the Suns, the second and third drawings were disregarded. Eventually, the Kings and Hawks landed the No. 2 and No. 3 picks.

The NBA released footage of the actual drawings, no doubt to quell absurd talk of the lottery being fixed. It won’t work. That representatives of each involved team are in the room doesn’t convince many fans. People enjoy conspiracy theories.

For the reasonable-minded, this is even more evidence in the overwhelming case that the lottery is on the up-and-up. For everyone, it’s an interesting look behind the scenes. And for a few, it’s a chance to comb the video for irregularities, real or imagined.

NBA announces awards finalists

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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The NBA will reveal its major individual honors June 25 in a televised award show.

For now, the league has announced finalists. Click the name of each award for more analysis of the race:

James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis finalists for Most Valuable Player

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James Harden will almost certainly win Most Valuable Player this season.

It doesn’t matter that LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo advocated for themselves. It doesn’t matter that Harden’s style of play grates. It doesn’t matter how he performs in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals tonight.

The Rockets superstar will likely claim the NBA’s premier regular-season award when it’s presented June 25.

Until then, we just know he’s one of three finalists:

James Harden (Rockets)

LeBron James (Cavaliers

Anthony Davis (Pelicans)

Harden scored an NBA-high 30.4 points per game, maintaining his efficiency and distributing, to lead the league’s best offense. Add improved defense in Houston’s switching scheme, and Harden was the main reason the Rockets finished with the NBA’s best record.

LeBron was mostly awesome, but his effort and focus waned in January. Davis did a great job lifting the Pelicans into the playoffs after DeMarcus Cousins got hurt.

The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo is a tough exclusion. I bet LeBron, Davis and Antetokounmpo were 2-4 in varying orders on many ballots (which called for five selections).

Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis finalists for Defensive Player of the Year

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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The NBA delaying revealing its regular-season awards until after the playoffs comes with one major upside – a TV special that can be monetized.

But it also sucks the enthusiasm out of the honors. After the drama of a lengthy and high-stakes postseason, who cares about the best performances in a relative mundane regular season?

That can perhaps be felt most strongly in Defensive Player of the Year. Nobody produced an elite defensive season that a national audience will be excited to celebrate months later, and all three finalists have already been eliminated from the playoffs:

Kawhi Leonard missed nearly the entire season. Draymond Green didn’t bring full effort. Andre Roberson got hurt after a strong start to the season.

And with that, three prime candidates didn’t become (or deserve to be) finalists.

I’d pick Gobert, but even he missed 26 games. Nobody sustained elite defense for a large portion of the regular season. How many people will care June 25 who voters deemed came closest?