May 4, 2018, 2:48 pm
James Harden wasn’t the problem in Game 2. He had 32 points, six rebounds and 11 assists on 21 shots, and spearheaded the offensive onslaught on either side of halftime that helped the Houston Rockets come all the way back from an early 19-point deficit. It was the type of casually dominant performance we’ve come to expect from the presumptive MVP. Harden wasn’t quite good enough to beat the Utah Jazz by himself, but nevertheless put his team in a position to win on a night Houston was far from its best.
Still, it was easy to watch the deciding stretch of Wednesday’s game and come away expecting more from Harden. He needed seven shots to score as many points in the fourth quarter, and didn’t offset that subpar efficiency with high-level playmaking, doling out just one assist. Utah outscored Houston 24-17 over the game’s final eight minutes and four seconds, turning a two-point deficit into a convincing eight-point win – and Harden, simply, didn’t do much to stop it.
The Rockets’ defense is more culpable than anything else for their dispiriting Game 2 loss. Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza combined for an ugly 11-of-35 on uncontested attempts, per NBA.com/stats, too. But Harden has made a habit of coming to the rescue for Houston when needed most, and failed to do so in crunch time on Wednesday.
The Jazz, obviously, deserve immense credit for keeping him in relative check. Dante Exum made several splash plays offensively, using his burst and length to get to the rim for explosive finishes and pinpoint lob passes, but was at his best on the other end of the floor, where he forced Harden into 0-of-7 shooting and two offensive fouls – his only turnovers of the game.
Utah’s coaching staff has clearly stressed the importance of primary defenders keeping their hands high, out of Harden’s proverbial cookie jar, and no player has done it better than Exum. His first step is quick enough to press up on Harden, invading his airspace to prevent a comfortable pull-up jumper, without giving him an unimpeded path to the basket going right. Few defenders in the league have the requisite combination of physical gifts and dogged demeanor to force Harden into looks like this.
“Dante has some size and some length,” Quin Snyder said after the game. “We’ve had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups. No one’s congratulating each other with what happened for us defensively; I think we need to be better. Like I said, [Harden is] not a player that any one guy can guard. So the fact that Dante can come in, give us some minutes and compete and battle, is a big thing.”
Royce O’Neale, starting for Ricky Rubio, has done yeoman’s work on Harden, too. The Jazz’s defenders are contesting long and early on Harden’s vaunted step-back 3-pointer, extending right arms up and out even before he’s fully gathered the ball. Harden can make off-dribble jumpers under heavy duress, but those shots, so key to his effectiveness this season especially, carry a much lesser expected efficiency when his space is encroached and his vision is hampered.
The guide to successfully defending Harden, or at least hoping to do so, begins with keeping him away from his left hand. That’s far easier said than done. Harden attacks his defender’s top foot with relentless precision and patience. He almost always gets where he wants to go, no matter where the defense is trying to send him. Acknowledging that imminently helpless reality, Donovan Mitchell and other defenders unenviably switched onto the Rockets’ maestro often completely opened their hips to the sideline, sitting high on Harden’s left hand, yielding an open lane to the paint headed right.
That approach, while limiting Harden’s ability to pull back for triples, is a death-knell for the vast majority of Rockets opponents nonetheless. No player in basketball is better at getting back to his strong hand. But no player in basketball is a better rim-protector than Rudy Gobert, either, who did a masterful job in Game 2 committing to getting vertical with Harden at the last possible moment, preventing alley-oops or dump-offs to an awaiting Clint Capela.
Gobert contested 13 field goal attempts on Wednesday night, according to NBA.com/stats, five more than any other player, and Houston connected on just five of those tries. Just as importantly, he prevented at least half that many shots in the paint, ones Harden would normally feast on against most back-line big men – and did against Derrick Favors.
The length and timing of Gobert allows him to hang back in isolations or pick-and-roll action, confident he’ll be able to provide resistance once he and the ball handler meet closer to the rim. Favors’ comparative lack of physical gifts doesn’t afford him that luxury, and the Rockets routinely took advantage when he was playing center with Gobert on the bench.
The tandem of Favors and Gobert has a 133.5 defensive rating in 24 minutes over the first two games of this series, confirming a regular-season trend, just as expected. Expect Snyder to pull the plug on Favors even earlier in Game 3, bringing in Jae Crowder, who’s playing his best offensive ball of the season and offers far more positional versatility on the other end.
Regardless of what Utah looks like up front, though, Houston needs to put Harden in better position to succeed. Flattening the floor and letting him call for a ball screen or dance one-on-one isn’t enough against the Jazz. One of the biggest reasons Daryl Morey brought Paul in last summer was to give Harden the opportunity to work off the ball, running around screens and catching on the attack as his defender trails in rear-view pursuit and the defense is already scrambling.
The slightest step one direction or the other can be the difference between Gobert blocking a shot or forcing a miss, and Harden finishing over the top or Capela slipping in for a dunk.
The Jazz have the horses, on the perimeter and interior, to make life difficult on Harden, and did exactly that when it mattered most in Game 2. Whether or not they manage the same feat at home could decide the tenor this series going forward, but even that isn’t guaranteed. Great offense beats great defense, and Harden is a virtuoso at the height of his powers.
The push and pull continues from Salt Lake City on Friday night.
June 2, 2020, 10:02 pmCorey BrewerSF, Sacramento Kings
Corey Brewer, a veteran of eight different NBA teams, is still hoping to sign another contract before he calls it a career.
Brewer, 34, seems to think he has enough in the tank for one final stint in the NBA. “We had some talks with a few teams, but nothing really happened. My agent is still working on it, so we’ll see,” Brewer said. “I feel like I can still help a team and I feel like I have a few good years left. But you never know, man." Brewer has not suited up for an NBA team this season and, with a waning jump shot and increased age, his chances of securing another pact in the NBA are pretty unlikely.
June 2, 2020, 9:47 pmDeMarcus CousinsC, Los Angeles Lakers
Kings broadcaster Grant Napear stepped down from his position with the Kings on Tuesday after he said 'All Lives Matter..Every Single One!' when asked about his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement during a Twitter interaction with former Kings center DeMarcus Cousins.
This is the first domino to fall in American professional sports in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, even if it's a relatively insignificant one. Napear said of himself and the interaction, "I’m not as educated on BLM as I thought I was. I had no idea that when I said 'All Lives Matter' that it was counter to what BLM was trying to get across," he said. "I’m in pain. I’m 60 years old and I still have a lot to learn." The Kings will evidently have to find a new play-by-play man for their radio broadcasts to accompany Doug Christie when games resume.
June 2, 2020, 8:45 pmJohn WallPG, Washington Wizards
John Wall, who has long been rumored to have absolutely zero chance of returning to the court even if the current season is resumed, said in a conference call last week that he feels "110 percent."
Wall and the Wizards both maintain that he will not return to action this season, regardless of the outcome of the vote on Thursday by the NBA Board of Governors. This is good news, obviously, for the team as they set their sights on next season. As of late, trade rumors have been swirling around the franchise's two top assets: Wall and All Star guard Bradley Beal. Moving forward, there is a high possibility that the Wizards will decide between the two, as Beal's contract will expire after next season. Which player will the Wizards keep? Who will they trade, or will they trade them both? They are hoping to have some time to evaluate how the pair plays in tandem early next season, as Wall has missed significant time with a torn left Achilles he suffered during the 2018-19 season. But it may be too late to negotiate an extension with Beal at that point, so they will have to play their cards with extreme care.
Source: The Athletic
June 2, 2020, 8:27 pmBradley BealSG, Washington Wizards
Wes Unseld, a Hall of Famer and Washington Bullets legend, passed away on Tuesday due to complications with pneumonia and other illnesses. He was 74 years old.
An outstanding rebounder, Unseld is also one of only two players to ever be awarded Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season in 1968-69. He guided the Bullets to the NBA Finals four times, winning once in 1978, a series where Unseld took home MVP honors. Hornets' GM and former teammate Mitch Kupchak said of Unseld, “As a teammate, he was tough, dependable and competitive to no end.” Unseld was a fearless competitor and highly respected across the league during his 13 seasons with the Bullets franchise. Former Knicks center and fellow Hall of Famer Willis Reed recently recalled their battles against one another, "He was most consciously a rebounder — he could shoot, but he didn’t emphasize that part of his game — and felt that if he did his job right, by getting the defensive rebound and making the quick outlet pass, they would score quickly.” Unseld was undoubtedly a pioneer for the game of basketball and means a great deal to the city of Washington D.C.
Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter
June 2, 2020, 7:58 pmLeBron JamesSF, Los Angeles Lakers
ESPN's Adrian Wojanrowski is reporting that Adam Silver and the NBA Board of Governors, who are planning to vote Thursday on how to continue the season, would like the NBA Finals to conclude no later than October 12.
With July 31 being the widely-reported restart date and the league tentatively planning to start 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵 season by Christmas Day of this year, it would make sense to crown a league champion as early as possible. The meeting with the NBA Board of Governors on Thursday will (finally) bring some clarity to the rest of the NBA season, as they will hold a vote to decide how to proceed. NBA fans have been waiting since the middle of March for some resolutions. This week will provide them.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
June 2, 2020, 12:28 pmStephen CurryPG, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors opened their practice facility on Monday, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic.
Slater adds that five players showed up for voluntary workouts. It's the first time that Golden State's gym has been open in over two months, and there are only three teams who have yet to get players back into team facilities. While it must be nice for the players to get back to some kind of business, the Warriors are not expected to be playing any more games this season given their league-worst record and the likelihood that the NBA trims the fat rather than ask every team to play out the season.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter
May 31, 2020, 8:10 pmKz OkpalaF, Miami Heat
Kz Okpala's offensive game has come a long way since January according to Heat Vice President and Assistant GM, Adam Simon.
Okpala is already viewed as an NBA-ready defender, and once his offensive game is up to speed the Heat will have a hard time not getting him into the rotation. He spent 20 games in the G League and five with the Heat before the suspension slowed down his progression in 2020. Okpala got off to a slow start due to injuries, and a trade on draft day took away his chance to play in summer league. While this season is unlikely to amount to anything, Okpala is someone to watch in deeper leagues next year.
Source: Miami Herald
May 31, 2020, 8:03 pmGabe VincentPG, Miami Heat
Heat Vice President and Assistant GM, Adam Simon, stated that Gabe Vincent's knee is "good to go".
It sounds like Vincent would have no problem being NBA ready if the Heat decided to call up the two-way guard when play hopefully resumes July 31. Vincent is a strong 3-point shooter with the ability to attack a closeout, but it is still unlikely the Heat will need to put him on the floor for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.
Source: Miami Herald
May 31, 2020, 7:51 pmShake MiltonSG, Philadelphia Sixers
According to projections by Mike O'Connor and Derek Bodner of The Athletic, Shake Milton will be a starter for the Sixers whenever play relaunches.
Milton was thriving for the Sixers when the season was suspended due to COVID-19, and some risk remains that Ben Simmons will bump him from the rotation when the stoppage in play is lifted. In 16 starts with the Sixers, Milton averaged 14.1 points, 2.2 3-pointers, 3.6 assists, 3 rebounds and 1.1 steals. As a 3-pointer specialist along, Milton has earned a slot in 12-team formats, but things are going to be more difficult when he is forced to play off-ball in a fully healthy lineup in Philadelphia
Source: The Athletic
May 31, 2020, 7:42 pmKevin DurantSF, Brooklyn Nets
On a recent ESPN podcast featuring Adrian Wojnarowski and his colleague Zach Lowe, Wojnarowski stated that Kevin Durant (torn Achilles) would not play for the Nets this year.
Wojnarowski went onto say that he had no source that had relayed that information to him. The Nets have largely been deferring to Durant and the medical staff when it comes to his prospects for playing this year. While the organization may get hopeful that KD will lace it up for a playoff run, all signs are still pointing to him waiting until 2020-21.
Source: Anthony Puccio on Twitter