Rockets Feeling Very Confident After All-Star Break; Here Are The Four Reasons Why They Are Primed to Beat The Warriors (Video)Read Now
There was an aura of confidence in the postgame visitors’ locker room on a recent Tuesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Why wouldn’t there be? The Rockets just came into the arena and beat a frisky Nets team, 123-113. A road win by a team with championship aspirations over a sub .500 club is expected and generally nothing to get excited about. But there was something different in the way the Rockets players talked during their postgame media availability. As of the posting of this article, the Rockets are 44-13 and sit 1/2 game up on the defending champion Warriors and have the best record in the NBA. Make no mistake about it, they want the #1 seed and home-court advantage because the Rockets believe this is their year to not only challenge the Warriors but win the NBA championship.
It’s the reason Rockets GM Daryl Morey pulled off the Chris Paul trade in the offseason. He knew that getting past the Warriors would take more than one superstar in James Harden. They needed to attract at least another and fill their roster with a bunch of players that could hit threes and defend. All of that has led to the league’s best record. They are ranked #1 in offensive rating, #9 in defensive rating and #1 in point differential. They take and make the most 3’s in the league and are the only team in the league to have 3 starters (Harden, Paul & Clint Capela) in the top 10 in PER. That’s a recipe for a deep playoff run and if things break correctly a championship.
As well as the Rockets are playing, winners of 10 straight at the all-star break. Many still believe, despite their lackadaisical play, the Golden State Warriors are still the class of the league and favorites to repeat as champs. The road to a title almost assuredly goes through Oakland. Morey knows this, saying earlier this season:
It’s the only thing we think about. I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’
The obsession is palpable, he talks about it and the players and head coach Mike D’Antoni feel it. They don’t shy away from mentioning, playing the Warriors is not just a regular game. It’s an opportunity to measure themselves and see just how close they actually are. The Rockets and Warriors played three times this season, Rockets won the series 2-1; thus owning the tiebreak if it’s needed to determine playoff seeding.
After that aforementioned victory over the Nets earlier this week, Capela was asked about the importance of where the Rockets land in the seeding. With just under 25 games left, it’ll be critical.
Capela talks about openly making the Warriors aware of their presence. Recently Kevin Durant and Steph Curry were asked about the Rockets and both players acknowledged what the team from Texas is doing. They are keenly aware that they are now “chasing” for the first time in a while.
While Durant, Curry & company have a championship pedigree to lean on come playoff time, the Rockets do not. The previous failures of their two stars in the playoffs is the focal point of any argument dismissing the team’s playoff chances but that is a bit overblown. Chris Paul’s playoff averages are 21.4 ppg, 9.4 apg, 2.2 spg. His shooting splits are: 48.4%, 38.1%, and 84.7%, with an eFG of 53.2%. Do you know what his regular season averages are? 18.7 ppg, 9.8 apg, and 2.3 spg. His shooting splits are: 47.3%, 37.3%, and 86.7%, with an eFG of 51.8%. Those numbers tell me he is, statistically, slightly better come playoff time. But what do we all remember? His tremendous gaffe in the 2014 playoffs against the Thunder, and blowing a 3-1 series lead against his current team, the Rockets, while a member of the Clippers. Horrible marks on his playoff record for sure. But outside of those two series, he has played very well. Now, he’s never led a team past the second round, but a lot of that is circumstantial.
Harden’s playoff shortcomings are much harder to explain away. His numbers nosedive in the postseason. His regular season averages of: 22.8 ppg, 6 apg, and 5 rpg on shooting splits of 44.3%, 36.6%, and 85.5%, with an eFG of 52.2% drop to 20.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, and 5.2 apg on 42.3%, 33.5%, and 86.9%, with an eFG of 49.4%. The most glaring dropoff coming in the last two seasons. Part of that issue is due to the heavy minutes and usage he logs in the regular season and a rumored propensity for enjoying the nightlife. But there is something noticeably different in Harden’s eyes this season. There is a hunger, an even deeper commitment level. The man has been a runner-up league MVP twice, so he’s committed. But this year it’s different. Perhaps he’s tired of hearing about his shortcomings. Perhaps he knows there is a destiny for him to fulfill. Perhaps he saw former teammate and good buddy Kevin Durant taste the success of a championship and wants his turn.
The addition of Paul cannot be overstated. The “Point God” is an exacting and demanding leader, but more importantly, he saw something in Harden and the Rockets. Harden is by far the best player Paul has ever teamed with, and while Harden played with Durant and Russell Westbrook back in OKC, that was early in his career. OKC management let that trio breakup before they could realize their full potential. But in Houston, you arguably have the best backcourt in the NBA. At all times D’Antoni will have one of the league’s best point guards on the floor. What other teams can say that?
For Paul, this is a chance for him to exorcise some of those playoff demons. While the missteps have been largely overblown, he hears the criticism and knows that his legacy would be forever altered if he’s able to win a title with this Rockets team. He is already one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game. A title would eliminate the, “yeah, but he never won a chip.”
The all-star break officially ends on Thursday and while Harden was the only Rocket to make the squad, the extended rest is good for his teammates. Paul, still an elite point guard, is 32 and a veteran of many playoff battles. This break comes at the right time. He can take care of his body, recover and gear up for the stretch run for the #1 seed and the playoffs. The break will also give veteran players like Trevor Ariza (who is injured), P.J. Tucker, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute a chance to rest and get their minds and bodies right for a deep playoff run.
As it stands today, the Rockets and Warriors are 1 and 2 in the western conference playoff race. Barring any unforeseen issues, they will remain the top 2 seeds in some order. What that means is, they won’t face each other until the conference finals. That is the matchup that the basketball world wants to see. Odds are, the winner of that series will win the NBA title. No disrespect to whatever team comes out of the eastern conference.
Looking up and down both rosters, this is a series that should go 7 games and home court advantage might be the key. The Rockets possess the only backcourt that could go shot for shot with the Warriors’ splash brothers. When D’Antoni decides to go super small and put Eric Gordon out on the floor, that’s a lot of space and shooting. We are likely to see scores in the 120s or 130s during that series. Not because these teams can’t defend. Because great offense is nearly impossible to defend.
Here are the reasons why the Rockets can beat the Warriors and win the title:
Elite Playmaker Always on The Floor
During every minute of a game, either James Harden or Chris Paul will be on the floor. That is devastating, especially for an opponent’s second unit. When they are both on the floor, whoever doesn’t have the ball in his hands is an elite catch and shoot player from three.
Rotations do get shorter in the playoffs, but you’ll need contributions from role players to win a title. The bench mob in Golden State hasn’t looked good this year. Conversely, the Rockets have PJ Tucker, a solid “3 and D” guy, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green. Plus, they just added Joe Johnson, a man who can get you a bucket when you need it, and Brandan Wright. We haven’t even mentioned Nene. What this does is give the Rockets and D’Antoni lineup flexibility. That’s what makes the Warriors so tough is there ability to go big and small and everything in between. The Rockets bench can match that.
Home Court Advantage
This series is likely to go 7 games and having the deciding game on your home floor is huge. The Rockets have it as of now and if it comes down to the tiebreak they would get it. The Rockets are the hungrier team right now, and less likely to slack off in a game they should win.
Something that is difficult to measure and usually reserved for the teams with championship pedigrees. But this Rockets group has it. Call it “want to” or “hunger,” but whatever it is they have it and are out to prove something. When you’re at the top of the mountain it’s hard to stay motivated and fend off all the challengers. The Rockets’ biggest stars are hungry and have something to prove.
The time is now for the Rockets. With the cap flattening this summer, there won’t be teams with a ton of cap room. We are not likely to see a real balance of power shift like we did the past few summers. Chris Paul will be a year older next season and the young teams will get better. When you have a shot at the title, you’ve got to go all in to get it because you may never have that opportunity again.
From CK to LeBron our successful athletes are expected to stay in the sunken place when it comes to politics.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Those are the words of the great James Baldwin, in his timeless classic, Notes of a Native Son. It is with these words that I begin unpacking the two major stories of the week and their intersection.
On Wednesday afternoon, domestic terrorist Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and wounding many more. Cruz was arrested in possession of a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, and several magazines. Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide. In those episodes, 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed. Yet nothing has been done about restricting access to guns in this country. Naturally, politicians turned this into a political issue. Tweets with hollow and empty “thoughts and prayers” and well wishes for those affected. Meanwhile no actionable steps to actually create legislation to limit access to these weapons. This is not a political issue, this is a human welfare and safety issue. If you are a citizen and actually concerned for the well-being of your fellow man, woman, child, etc. limiting, and in many cases, restricting access to guns should be something you are pushing for.
TWEETS FROM POLITICIANS AND PUNDITS
On Thursday afternoon/early evening, video surfaced of NBA stars LeBron Jamesand Kevin Durant along with ESPN’s Cari Champion discussing Donald Trump. James and Durant were highly critical of Trump and that video drew the ire of Fox News television host Laura Ingraham. The conservative pundit closed her show with a monologue steeped in all the dog whistles about race and athlete intelligence. She essentially told James and Durant to “stick to sports” because of course, they are not qualified to do anything else. What gives Ingraham the right to dismiss the opinions of James and Durant? Particularly when she works for a network that consistently brings on non-politicians (read: athletes/entertainers that promote the Fox agenda) to espouse their political views on the airwaves.
LAURA INGRAHAM CLOSING MONOLOGUE
These two seemingly unrelated events bring to mind, the issue of governance and who has the right to criticize America? Being critical of our elected leaders and responding to acts of senseless violence, that could have been avoided, with push for legislation are actions every functioning member of a civilized society should engage in. Yet, in America we don’t seem to afford everyone that right.
“Real Americans” love to tout their freedoms and what makes America the best nation on earth. Yes, it’s true, “freedom” is one of the things that makes America what it is. But that means freedom for everyone, not just people you agree with. Prior to Wednesday’s shooting in Florida, many athletes have come out in support of gun control. Often greeted with the same spirit spurred on by that Ingraham monologue. “Stick to sports, you are not qualified to speak on these issues.” If we only allowed people who were “qualified” to speak on issues, things would look and sound a lot different. Think about that for a moment.
What is it about athletes, in particular black athletes, that makes them “unqualified” to so many? In America black athletes are not allowed to be critical of America because at all times they must show appreciation for their place. In a country whose system is designed to thwart black progress at every level, the black athlete has made it and attained a level of fame and riches in accordance with what the mainstream will allow. He has no right to criticize the country that has given him all he has. Not realizing that his ascent, despite looking destined from the beginning, is nothing short of miraculous.
We have a Presidential administration that, at every turn, alerts its base with targeted attacks on black athletes like it’s attack against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest. “No. You don’t have the right to protest social injustice, gun control, bail reform, etc. Play your sport and be thankful you’re rich.”
No matter how much money or level of success attained by the black athlete in America, he still isn’t afforded the right to be critical of the nation in which he lives. He doesn’t have the right to use his platform to speak up for those that don’t have a voice, suffering injustices at the hands of a system that in theory is supposed to protect its citizens.
Back in December after a win against the Washington Wizards, in which Nets rookie Jarrett Allen finished with 10 points & 6 rebounds, we spoke about players in the league he models his game after. The first name that came up was Rockets big man Clint Capela. On Tuesday night in Brooklyn, Allen got the chance to measure his game against one of the games elite bigs. The Nets lost 123-113, because the Rockets are better and a title contender. But, they competed, and Allen and the team can take away some positives.
Allen finished with 16 points & 2 rebounds in 23 minutes of action and was a +8. Not bad. There were obviously moments where Capela, (18 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks) got the better of Allen. He has the superior footwork and a better game, plus he plays with arguably the best backcourt in the league. Allen held his own and had a couple nice plays down in the post.
In many ways, the Rockets are what the Nets envision their team to be. Head coach Kenny Atkinson and GM Sean Marks have built an outstanding culture, and in terms of playing style, they rank in the top 3 in the NBA with three-pointers attempted and made. They space the floor and look for easy shots at the rim. It’s almost exactly the way the Rockets play. The major difference, of course, being personnel. The Rockets have MVP front-runner James Harden, the “Point God” Chris Paul, Capela, and Eric Gordon. The Nets just don’t have the arsenal to match up with them. Nevertheless, it was a game that showed what the Nets could be once they determine who are the right players to build around.
Prior to the game, Kenny Atkinson talked about how much they ask of Allen, who has said he wants to be the “face” of the franchise.
Kenny Atkinson on Jarrett Allen
You can tell Atkinson really likes Allen. He believes the rookie can handle most anything that gets thrown at him and sees him developing into a combination of Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert. Safe to say, Allen is for sure a big part of the Nets future. If he can approximate those lofty projections, something really good will happen in Brooklyn.
But, before we get ahead of ourselves, Allen is still a rookie and a lot of development needs to occur. He does appear to have the right temperament for being a star in this league. He doesn’t get too high or too low. He competes, has a great motor and is extremely intelligent. While he is motivated to be the best every night, he knows that games like last night are important for his development. Before the game, we spoke about playing Clint Capela and being the “face” of the Nets.
Jarrett Allen pregame
The trade deadline is coming up on Thursday and Brooklyn has already been active, sending Tyler Zeller to the Bucks for Rashad Vaughn, and a 2nd round pick. The Nets are currently nine games out of the last playoff spot, so making a run is not likely. It will be interesting to see what Marks does in the next couple days. It’s clear that they have a vision for their future and that Allen is a key piece, along with D’Angelo Russell, who is working his way back after an injury. Despite their record, things are looking up in Brooklyn.
The Philadelphia 76ers lost their third game in a row Wednesday night to close out their four-game road trip with a 1-3 record. This latest defeat was at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets 116-108. The problem in these losses has been the same, the Sixers inability to get stops late. In all three losses, they had chances to win but could not do what was necessary on the defensive end. Sixers big man Joel Embiid who finished with 29 & 14 was at a lost for words in Brooklyn on Wednesday night saying, “we forgot how to play defense.”
The Sixers are currently the eight seed in the playoff race but are only a game and a half up on the Detroit Pistons. You may have heard news about the Pistons this week. With the addition of all-star caliber forward Blake Griffin, they’ll be looking to make a playoff push. That’s why Wednesday night’s loss to the Nets is so concerning. The Nets do get up for big games against high-level opponents, but on a night when the Nets were without Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert the Sixers should have done what was necessary to win. There seems to be a connectivity issue on defense late in games, guys are not in sync on pick and roll coverage and if a mistake is made the defense is forced into scramble mode.
Philadelphia is a young team and this is all part of the growing and maturation process. But if the playoffs are this team’s ultimate goal, and it is. They will have to be able to play defense late in close games and stay disciplined in their assignments. Sixers head coach Brett Brown talked about the team’s defense following the loss, saying:
Brooklyn is an analytic, sort of, blueprint to how young teams want to play. They either want to shoot three’s, get fouled or get layups. And the volume of three’s we knew were going to come. Defensively I think we were poor. That’s who we are – I think we’re third or fourth in the NBA (defensively). I like where we’re trending defensively, but tonight you felt like you were 24th.
Following the game, Embiid talked pick and roll coverage and how the team needs to go back to basics if they want to make the playoffs.