HOUSTON — Maybe it was fitting that James Harden’s shot kicked off the rim, took a bounce and received an unintentional assist from Jermaine O’Neal that carried the Rockets into the playoffs.
It was Harden himself who practically fell out of the sky right into the laps of the Rockets just four days before the start of the season that began the return to respectability and relevance.
“I didn’t know who was on the team. I didn’t know what was going on,” Harden said. “I was still kind of shocked. Weeks went by and a month went by. We kind of gained confidence in one another that we can go out and compete with anybody in this league. It’s been that way through this whole entire season and now we’re in the playoffs.”
The Rockets are back in the postseason for the first time in four years, having spent the past three springs with their noses pressed up against the window pane, tantalizingly close and yet locked out of the fun. For three straight years — with win totals of 42, 43 and 34 (in lockout-shortened 2012) — they had been the last team to miss out on the playoffs. Or took the best record into the draft lottery. Any way that you said it, the result was simply frustrating.
While team owner Leslie Alexander has been steadfast to “dive” for a chance at the bonanza offered by the draft lottery, general manager Daryl Morey has been more frantic than a one-armed juggler of chain saws to make and remake the roster again and again and again. It was that constant turmoil that led to exasperation by former coach Rick Adelman and an eventual parting of the ways. It has been an ongoing process that still puts constant new challenges into the path of coach Kevin McHale in his second season.
Even now, the Rockets are a laboratory project still in development. Houston is the NBA’s youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years and opened the season as the most inexperienced NBA team in the shot-clock era, based on minutes played.
The Rockets are the sixth-youngest team in history to reach the playoffs. The Thunder teams of 2010 and 2011, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are the youngest ever. Next in line are the Trail Blazers of 2009, led by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Bulls of 2006 with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and the Hawks of 2008, led by Joe Johnson and Al Horford.
Despite Harden’s rapid rise to the league’s elite level, his first appearance in the All-Star Game and rank among the league’s top five scorers along with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Rockets are still greener than most young sprouts of spring. Harden has been to the playoffs the past three seasons and went to The Finals last year with OKC, but is still only 23. Point guard Jeremy Lin is 24. Center Omer Asik is 26, but his is only his third year in the league and the first that he’s played starter’s minutes.
Though a 13-6 record over the past six weeks has made the return to the playoffs seem inevitable, it was not made official until Utah lost to the Thunder shortly after the Rockets beat Phoenix on Tuesday night.
“I actually didn’t think I would be excited,” Lin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going for the six seed.’ Now that it’s really here, I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into the season that we’d be in the playoffs.”
The Rockets have been a franchise stuck in a rut, mired in mediocrity since the glory days of their back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. While this is now their 18th winning record since the 1992-93 season — only the Spurs and Lakers have more at 19 — they have had precious little playoff success. In fact, the Rockets have won only a single playoff series — vs. Portland in 2009 — since 1997 when some of the names on the backs of the jerseys read: Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley.
There was always hope and unfulfilled promise during the eras of Steve Francis, then Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But never the kind of results that were expected.
So when the wheeler-dealer Morey was able to land Harden on the eve of this season, it was the first step in his long held plan to put a franchise-type player on the court to build around and then supplement with the likes of Lin, Asik and Chandler Parsons.
In the process, the Rockets have turned into a fast-paced, 3-point shooting, prolific offensive club that most often produces the most entertaining games of any given night on NBA LeaguePass.
This will all lead into a summer of trying to land another big-name free agent, another All-Star caliber player, who can vault the Rockets back onto the level of title contenders.
But first things first and that was Harden’s shot that bounced high off the rim, O’Neal’s unofficial assist by goaltending and finally the Rockets taking an initial step back into the playoff conversation.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson has been a believer in his team all season and that faith has been realized now in the form of a team that won six of its past eight games to strut into the playoffs, as opposed to slipping through the back door.
“We celebrated, and rightfully so,” Jackson told reporters afterwards, fighting back the tears that flowed in a reportedly emotional and raucous postgame locker room celebration. “People questioned us, and they should have. People doubted us, and they should have. But they underestimated the heart, the desire, the work ethic, the determination, the willingness to put in the time and then the favor of God.”
Much like fellow Tuesday night playoff clincher Houston, the Warriors have arrived to the surprise of many. They’ve done it without the hype-train that has accompanied the Rockets’ rise. There’s no James Harden or Jeremy Lin headliner on this Warriors team (although an All-Star like David Lee and shooting star like Stephen Curry certainly deserve whatever plaudits come their way).
The Warriors’ front office doesn’t have a figure like Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the Wizard of Advanced Metrics Oz,to point to. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has gone about his business without a ton of fanfare. He’s plotting the course properly. The Warriors roster is sound. And they are built not just for a momentary playoff flash this time, but for a sustained period of playoff contention that Warriors fans have not experienced before.
“We should enjoy this,” Lacob said after Tuesday’s playoff-clinching win. “We’ve got to celebrate the little moments, too. Every step counts. This is an important first step for this franchise and this ownership group and for all of these guys and the coaches.”
How soon the Warriors take that second step remains to be seen. The playoffs provide all sort of opportunities for upstarts to attempt to “shock the world.”
One thing seems certain, though, and that is the Warriors shouldn’t have to endure another six-year wait between playoff trips.
We’re past the point now where the Heat can slip on their noise-canceling headphones and pretend the only beats they hear have been downloaded according to personal taste.
After 105-103 in Boston on Monday night, the drums are pounding louder than the “1812 Overture” all over the basketball world.
The Heat’s 23rd consecutive victory pushed them past the anomaly that was the 2008 Rockets and at very least tiptoes them across the threshold and inches them into the throne room with royalty.
Wilt, West and Goodrich. LeBron, Wade and Bosh. That’s a Hall of Fame red carpet that’s rolled out between them.
Make no mistake. It is all no more than a hollowed-out log if they aren’t standing under a shower of confetti and holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Because that’s why you play the game. It is fine for the contrarian Jeff Van Gundy and stat geek Daryl Morey to point out that these serpentine win streaks that stretch from one month into the next are almost as rare as unicorns and therefore technically more difficult to achieve than championships.
But let me know the next time somebody hangs a win streak banner from the rafters or hands out rings for consecutive regular-season wins.
As Magic Johnson said: “I’ll take the diamonds.”
Heat upcoming schedule
Still, there is no denying that what is happening here is special. Even the usual facade of the ‘”We’re-above-it-all” Heat is slipping to reveal the emotion that’s building like the lava dome under a volcano.
A week ago, those in the Miami locker room still insisted that nobody was thinking about a double-digit win streak or rushing to flip ahead several pages in the record book. But a look at the expressions and the emotions that showed on the Heat faces in the fourth quarter at the TD Garden on Monday night showed just how much has changed. They were down 13 with eight minutes to play. Rather than appear defeated, the Heat were defiant.
It is prudent to note that they are just over 2/3 of the way from the record of 33 held by the 1971-72 Lakers. If the Heat were an individual player chasing Wilt’s 100-point game, they would have 69. Impressive, but still a long way off. Yet stepping over the flotsam of the Houston team that couldn’t even win a first-round playoff series in 2008 clears a path toward their own unique place in the game.
“It means a lot,” James said. “I am a historian of the game. I know the history of the game. I know almost all the teams that have come through the ranks. To be sitting in second place right now, with so much that this game has given to our fans and everything, for us to be there, doing it the way we want to do it, it means a lot.”
Back in the summer of 2010, in the aftermath of “The Decision,” James was ridiculed for ticking off the number of championships that the Heat could win — “not one … not two … not three … not four … not five … not six … not seven …”
But now that they’ve got the first title, and it seems reasonable to think there’s another in the pipeline, this could be their once-in-a-slam-dunking-lifetime opportunity to put an indelible stamp and stake a place in the NBA’s pantheon.
While Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six championships, it is the 1996 team that set a regular season record of 72-10 that stands above them all. The 1967 Sixers, led by Chamberlain, won a then-record 68 regular-season games and made their mark by ending the eight-year reign of Bill Russell’s Celtics. The 1983 Sixers vaulted from an overpowering 68-14 regular season to the pinnacle behind Moses Malone’s “Fo’, fo’, fo’ “ proclamation that they nearly fulfilled by running through the playoffs with a 12-1 record. And, of course, the Lakers ran off their 33-0 streak early in the 1971-72 season, won a then-record 69 games and made their claim as the all-time best team by closing the deal on the championship.
A singular achievement. That’s where the Heat are now, fully engaged and fully aware that this is now the stuff of legacy. It is what James and Wade and Bosh came together to do.
“We’re aware, and it’s a special opportunity that we have with this group,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “And you don’t want to take it for granted. You want to treat every day as a special opportunity to be with this group, to share these moments together, but more importantly to take a step closer to going after our goal. And every day that we improve puts us in a better position in a quest where nothing is guaranteed for anybody.”
It is almost a living, breathing creature inside the locker room, one they’ve fed and fueled. It forces the Heat to look at themselves differently.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: Two games on the schedule, but only one of ‘em was a real must-see, making Thunder vs. Knicks our pick this morning. Kevin Durant put in work on basketball’s biggest stage, rolling up 34 points, eight rebounds and six assists and Russell Westbrook had 21 points, six rebounds and five assists as OKC took a thriller at MSG. Great work put in, too, by the Knicks’ J.R. Smith as he scored a career-best 36 in the losing effort.
Green taking command of bench unit — The transition Jeff Green has faced since coming to Boston in a 2011 deal hasn’t been easy on him or the team. Green had to acclimate himself to a new system in the span of a few months. Then, in the 2011 offseason, Green was diagnosed with an aortic aneurism that wiped out the 2011-12 season. Green then re-signed with the Celtics last summer for four-years and $36 million contract, but he struggled to find a groove in Boston. At last, though, Green is thriving as the leader of Boston’s reserve corps and is loving his role to boot, writes Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald:
“The past couple of weeks I just think I was more consistent,” he said. “That’s what (Rivers) sees. But he’s grown to trust my abilities, and allowed me to make mistakes. That being said, we can both see now how I can help this team out. He’s found where he can put me on the floor. He’s feeling more comfortable about it.“I’m just playing basketball,” said Green. “I have a training camp under my belt. I came here first in a trade and I wasn’t familiar with the schemes, nothing. It affected how I guarded at first, but it helped when I was able to have a training camp. It’s a long season, and things are just coming around.”
Green has taken over leadership of the second unit, and is usually on the floor at the end of games. That perpetual pressure Green imposes on himself is paying its highest dividend yet.
“I don’t see it any more than anyone else,” Ainge said of Green’s inner wrangles. “Jeff has opened up. He’s a communicative guy. The Jeff we’re seeing now is a Jeff who is more confident. He knows where he fits in, and as a result of confidence and rhythm you get more aggressive. Doc has been real good for Jeff in that way. He pushes him. His teammates also push him that way.”
Garnett has told him not to be so nice, in language that typically can’t be used here. They’ve all told him to be more selfish. But Green has the critiques covered.
That never-ending gravity was apparent the night of Feb. 20 in a tweet by @unclejeffgreen: “Damn altitude killed me today, tough (loss) but got another one tomorrow.”
Green came off the bench with 15 points that night during a loss to the Lakers in the Staples Center. He also had seven rebounds, four assists and a block. He may have been minus-11, but rare was the Celtic with something to crow about that night.
So Green sent out a modern mea culpa. He tweeted.
Lin returns to where it all really began — When ‘Linsanity’ burst onto the scene last season, most casual fans thought of Jeremy Lin as a solely New York Knicks kind of story. But a deeper look into Lin’s career reveals that his NBA journey actually began in Golden State. It was there that Lin, as an undrafted rookie, played 29 games in the 2010-11 season before being cut by the Warriors. After an appearance in the Houston Rockets’ training camp (where he was cut again), Lin landed in New York , went on his miracle run and parlayed that into a big payday with the Rockets last summer. As Houston plays Golden State tonight, though, Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury-News looks back on Lin’s NBA beginning:
A little more than a year after the birth of “Linsanity,” point guard Jeremy Lin returns to where it almost didn’t begin.
He was buried on the Warriors’ bench for 29 forgettable games two seasons ago. It was during that stretch when an elderly man with a special place in basketball history sat down and wrote him a fan letter.
“I figured he could use a little bit of encouragement,” recalled Wat Misaka, now 89 and living in Salt Lake City. “So I sent him a note that said: ‘Hang in there. It’s sure to get better.’ “
Things got better all right. Lin, now with the Houston Rockets, returns to Oracle Arena on Friday as an internationally known sensation playing on a three-year, $25 million contract.
A documentary that traces his unlikely rise to fame with the New York Knicks opened to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The 88-minute film, “Linsanity,” makes its San Francisco debut next Thursday at the Center for Asian American Media Festival.
Lin’s global fame means the world to Misaka, who in 1947 became the first non-Caucasian to play professional basketball in the U.S. The Japanese-American was a 5-foot-7, 150-pound point guard for the Knicks, even if his career only lasted three games.
The two finally met face to face in January, one night after the documentary about Lin’s journey from Palo Alto High to Harvard University and from D-League scrub to Knicks phenomenon was greeted by a standing ovation at Sundance. The Los Angeles Times called the documentary an “uber-inspirational tale.”
Misaka was scheduled to attend the Sundance screening but a blizzard disrupted the plan. Instead, he attended the Rockets’ game against the Utah Jazz a night later.
His reaction to finally meeting Lin?
“He was big,” Misaka said of the 6-3, 200 pound guard. “Especially since I’ve shrunk four inches since my playing days.”
The tone of modern media coverage for “Linsanity” could be similarly jarring, as San Francisco-born director Evan Jackson Leong discovered in making his well-received documentary.
Fortunately for him, he had access to Lin long before the cameras began to swarm. Leong began pestering Lin for permission to make a film while the point guard was still at Harvard.
Lin finally consented while with the Warriors, figuring the worst-case scenario would be having some cool footage of his basketball career to look back on later.
“We started it before I had ever gone to New York. That was the coolest part of it. We have the whole journey,” Lin told ESPN.com at the Sundance screening. “We have me being cut, me getting waived, me going to the D-League — the moments when I basically had to be dragged in front of the camera to be filmed, even though I didn’t really want to. Looking back, it was one of the best things ever.”
Leong laughs now when he recalls that he and his producers considered wrapping the project after Lin’s stay with the Warriors.
“We knew we had this great story of this kid who made the NBA, but was kind of a bittersweet for a ‘success story’ because his career wasn’t that great,” Leong said by phone from the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. “It was kind of a sad ending.
“So we were looking for an ending, right? In February, he gave it to us … and then he gave us another. And then it just got really crazy.”
Knee still bothering Cavs’ Irving — Kyrie Irving showed off his All-Star credentials in leading the Cavs to a comeback win over the Jazz on Tuesday night. But he apparently is still struggling with a knee injury that caused him to miss two games in late February. Bob Finnan of The News-Herald has more on Irving’s injury and how the Cavs plan to handle it:
After Wednesday’s game at Quicken Loans Arena, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving admitted his right knee is not 100 percent.
“I’m trying not to let it bother me,” Irving said. “It’s still bruised. The only way it’ll get better is to the sit out the rest of the season, and I’m not doing that.”
Irving played 38 minutes in the 104-101 victory over the Utah Jazz. It was a rough-and-tumble game, and the point guard took several hard falls.
The news caused a furor on Twitter.
A Cavs spokesman clarified the team has no plans to rest Irving.
“If he said it was bothering him again to the point that he can’t perform like I know he’s capable of, yeah (I’d considering shutting him down),” coach Byron Scott said.
Irving missed three games recently with a hyperextended right knee. He said he landed awkwardly in practice on Feb. 7. He played two games on the Florida trip, but things didn’t feel right. He had an MRI when the team got to Chicago. He missed the Bulls game on Feb. 26, Toronto on Feb. 27 and the Los Angeles Clippers on March 1. The 6-foot-3, 191-pound Irving had 20 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and two steals against Utah.
Scott said he couldn’t tell if Irving’s knee bothered him against the Jazz.
“In the first half he looked like everyone else — disinterested in the game until the second half,” Scott said.
Scott added he planned on discussing the matter with Cavs athletic trainer Max Benton on Thursday.
“If Kyrie is hurt, I have no problem with sitting him down,” he said. “I want him to go out there and be effective. When I read it (in the clips), I hadn’t heard that. It definitely caught my attention.”
Report: Rockets, Morey agree to extension — The Rockets have a tenuous grasp on the No. 7 seed in the West, thanks in part to a roster that has been built from the mind of their advanced metrics-following GM, Daryl Morey. Although Morey has been on the job in Houston since 2007, Houston has missed the playoffs the last three seasons. The Rockets seem much closer to the postseason than ever before and that progress has led to a contract extension for Morey, reports Mark Berman of MyFoxHouston.com:
Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander told FOX 26 Sports on Thursday that he and general manager Daryl Morey have reached a verbal agreement on the key components of a 4-year extension.
Morey has one-year left on his contract, so the four-year extension ties him to the Rockets through the 2017-18 season.
“The reason I extended Daryl, I thought he’s done a terrific job in his tenure with the Rockets,” Alexander said.
“I think he’s somebody we want to keep around for a long time to help construct the team.”
Morey joined the Rockets as assistant general manager in 2006, and succeeded Carroll Dawson as general manager the following year.
Prior to this season Morey traded for guard James Harden and signed guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik as free agents, moves that have propelled the Rockets into the playoff hunt.
Richmond seeking front-office gig with Kings — If you missed it earlier this week, our man David Aldridge had a great recap/update on the goings on with the Sacramento Kings sale. We’ll let you parse through that, but one of the key points of the story is that there are several folks who have contributed $1 million to keeping the Kings in town. One of those contributors is none other than Kings legend Mitch Richmond. Richmond is not only buying in to the Kings’ future to stay in town, but is also seeking a front-office job with the team, too, writes Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee:
The first legitimate star of the Sacramento era is among the investors who each have committed $1 million and are bidding on the seven percent share being auctioned in bankruptcy proceedings.
But that’s not the bottom line. Richmond wants back into basketball, too.
Because uncertainty intrudes into virtually every conversation about the Kings and their future, Richmond declined to elaborate. There is an exhausting list of issues to be addressed and resolved before one city celebrates and the other city slumps.
But if things shake out Sacramento’s way? If the Mastrov/Burkle offer is presented and approved by the board of governors during the April 18-19 meetings? If the incoming owners clean out the basketball operations department headed by longtime president Geoff Petrie – who, coincidentally, traded an aging, discouraged Richmond in a masterful maneuver for Chris Webber in 1998? If Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson retains his influence and provides the necessary job references?
Richmond will contact a moving company and pack his bags. Though he has a home in Southern California, where he oversees a foundation (Rock Life) that addresses bullying and other social issues affecting children, he says he has not lost affection for Sacramento or forgotten the best of times with the Kings.
“This is a city that really gave me a lot,” Richmond said. “There was a time when I wasn’t happy about the trade, but this city, this team, the fans stood behind me from Day One. They came out and sold out every night. The (investment) was a good way to try to give back to the city, get involved. The Kings mean a lot to this community. It would just be a sad day if the Kings leave this community.”
ICYMI of the night: Injuries have prevented us from seeing one of the better jack-of-all-trades reserves this season, but now that Wilson Chandler is healthy and doing work for the Nuggets, we get plays like this:
It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver…whoever. – Kobe Bryant
Over his 17 seasons in the NBA, Bryant could always guarantee that he’ll do something absolutely amazing with the basketball just about every time he steps onto the court.
He can shake off an 0-for-10 shooting start to bury a half dozen jumpers and an opponent in a fourth-quarter blink of an eye.
He can duck and whirl through traffic, change hands with the ball and squeeze through a crack in the defense for a clutch how-did-he-do-that bucket.
He can rise up with a hand in his face, almost down his throat, and knock down an impossible 3-pointer with the sheer grace.
He can lead a 20-0 comeback in the final 6 1/2 minutes to pull out a dramatic and critical 108-106 win over the Hornets.
But no matter how many times or how emphatically he says it, what Bryant cannot guarantee is all that can happen with the teams in front of his underachieving Lakers in the Western Conference standings. For even if the Lakers put on a strong finishing kick — say 14-6 or 13-7 — they will still likely need one or more of the Warriors, Rockets and Jazz to tumble.
Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Nothing guaranteed. Sometimes it’s not about the hunter, but the prey.
No. 6 — Warriors (35-27)
Back in those long ago days of early February when his team was threatening to compete for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs, coach Mark Jackson liked to shake his head and scowl at the doubters who didn’t think his Warriors could run and shoot and play defense all at the same time. Maybe those doubts were just premature. Over the past five weeks, the Golden State defense has fallen off any one of the area’s picturesque bridges and sunk to the bottom of the bay. (more…)
BROOKLYN – The general consensus is that the Houston Rockets made a great deal in acquiring Thomas Robinson from the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday. Robinson, selected with the No. 5 pick just eight months ago, has the potential to be one of the best rebounders in the league some day. He’s an active athlete who will only benefit from escaping the dysfunction of Sacramento.
But in making the trade and a subsequent deal with the Phoenix Suns, the Rockets traded both their starting power forward, Patrick Patterson, and his back-up, Marcus Morris. And they either compromised an offensive system that ranks in the top five in efficiency or a defense that has been just good enough to keep them on the right side of the .500 mark.
Robinson may one day start at the four for Houston, but he’s a very different player than both Patterson and Morris. And it’s unclear how he fits into how the Rockets have been playing all season.
Houston is the ultimate pace-and-space team. They play the fastest tempo in the league and they keep the floor spread, allowing James Harden and Jeremy Lin to attack the basket off of pick and rolls. Patterson and Morris played their part as stretch bigs.
At the time of the trade, 13 of the Rockets’ 15 most-used lineups included either Patterson or Morris, who attempted about 60 percent of their shots from outside the paint and accounted for about two 3-pointers per game.
Kevin McHale admitted to having seen very little of his new rookie, but he knows that Robinson isn’t that kind of player.
“We’re going to have space a little bit different,” he said Friday.
For now, the Rockets are making due with Carlos Delfino playing the four, alongside Chandler Parsons at the three. It’s a lineup they’ve used before, but only once (previous to the trades) had it played more than nine minutes together.
General manager Daryl Morey believes that his team can survive, and even thrive, with the Parsons/Delfino tandem at forward.
“It’s sustainable,” Morey told reporters on Thursday. “If you look across the league, when teams play small, they play well. Your offense goes up. Your defense goes down, but your offense goes up more than your defense goes down. So a lot of teams are playing small. We’ve got the personnel to do it. We’ve got the style that fits. I absolutely think it’s a sustainable way to play against almost any opponent.”
McHale doesn’t seem to be completely on board with that sentiment, saying that the Rockets can play Delfino at the four “situationally.” The bottom line is that the two trades took two guys out of McHale’s rotation and replaced them with a question mark.
But so far, so good. After Friday’s 106-96 win in Brooklyn, the Rockets are 2-0 with their new starting lineup, with wins over the Thunder and Nets. They’ve been outrebounded in each game, but have shot 31-for-63 (49 percent) from beyond the arc.
Over the course of the season, the Rockets’ new lineup has been excellent offensively, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions in 133 minutes together. It’s yet to be really hurt on the glass and held its own defensively.
Really, it’s just taking the pace-and-space style to a new level. Less size, more shooting. Delfino has played 79 minutes over the last two games after averaging just 25 per game before the trades. He knows that he can only try his best to keep power forwards like Reggie Evans off the boards, and that the Rockets can take advantage of the same matchup offensively.
“When we go small, we play against big people and we try to create space,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not just me getting my shots or having the ball, but [it's] rotations. They don’t rotate off me and they have more space in the paint.”
That’s exactly what happened in the first half on Friday. The Nets stayed at home on Delfino on the weak side, and the Rockets got a handful of dunks and layups off their pick and roll. Harden was the star against OKC on Wednesday, but his team managed to beat Brooklyn on Friday despite a relatively quiet night (22 points and only five trips to the line) from their All-Star.
Time will tell if the small lineup can hold up over time and keep the Lakers at bay in the playoff chase, and if Robinson has a place in McHale’s rotation this season. Certainly, 49 percent from 3-point range isn’t sustainable, but Houston does have an easier schedule than L.A. going forward.
One additional note: While the Sacramento trade makes complete sense, the trade that sent Morris to Phoenix for the Suns’ second-round pick was a little more curious. Morris wasn’t playing big minutes every night, but he obviously would have helped replace Patterson’s production if the Rockets had just made the one deal.
Morey said that he likes having high second-round picks and one has to wonder if the Rockets have already fallen in love with a player they project will be available when that Suns selection comes up. Right now, it’s set to be the No. 35 pick in the draft.
Houston got Parsons with the No. 38 pick two years ago.
HANG TIME, Texas — If the Lakers require a boost to become a playoff team rather than mere wannabes, the trade deadline deals by the Rockets could be just the leg up they need.
Currently sitting in the No. 8 spot in the West with a 3 1/2 game lead on Team Dysfunctional, Houston is virtually sending a stretch limo and holding open the door for the Lakers.
In trading starting power forward Patrick Patterson for Thomas Robinson, the Rockets did nothing at all to solidify their lineup for the stretch run of the season. By also swapping out Marcus Morris, the final 26 games of the season are being turned over to rookie Donatas Motiejunas, NBA D-Leaguer hustler Greg Smith and whatever Robinson might chip in at the four spot.
“Our goal is to get to the championship,” said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. “That’s goal No. 1. Goal No. 2 is to make the playoffs this year. The good thing is I don’t think those goals are in conflict with this move.
“We feel like Thomas Robinson has a lot of upside for the bigger goal of getting back to being a contender. And we think we can just just as solid. If we made it harder (to make the playoffs this season), it’s just a little bit harder.”
There is virtually nothing to criticize with what the Rockets did. Patterson and Morris, while solid in their jobs, do not come close to holding the potential of the 21-year-old Robinson, who was the No. 5 pick in the draft just eight months ago and, in the eyes of many, possessed the talent to be taken even higher. The Rockets believe he can be a high-energy, rebounding monster that can run the floor and mesh perfectly with James Harden and Jeremy Lin, while helping Omer Asik far more on the boards and Patterson or Morris ever would. In addition, they picked up a high, second-round draft pick that could be valuable. Plus, the aggregate salaries of the four players the Rockets traded could give them between $15 million and $20 million to spend on free agents next summer.
Already the youngest team in the league, the Rockets are playing the long game and the future suddenly looks very bright. So while hanging onto the No. 8 seed in the playoffs would be a nice bauble, the right to get slapped around by the Spurs or Thunder in the first round isn’t an end.
But it is not exaggerating to say that it could provide the Lakers with the opening they need to save this season and their future. Let’s face it: the chances of getting Dwight Howard to sign a new contract that would keep him around as the foundation of the next generation in purple and gold would be helped by the Lakers making the playoffs. If they finish on the outside, whatever criticism of Howard’s shortcomings that currently exist will only be ratcheted up.
In addition, if the Lakers do manage to claw their way into the postseason, it would mean that they have somehow pulled things together and played better over the final third of the schedule. Unlike the youthful Rockets, who might wander into the playoffs with their jaws agape, a Lakers team with momentum along with Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and a recovered Pau Gasol in the lineup would be least have the veteran puncher’s chance to pulling off the upset and advancing.
Especially over the next few weeks as they move two rookies — Motiejunas and point guard Patrick Beverly — into the rotation, the Rockets have practically eliminated their margin for error and given the Lakers a chance to wipe out all of their wrongs of the past four months.
It’s quite fitting that it’s Oscar Week. The Rockets have just rolled out the red carpet for the Lakers.
If Thursday’s NBA trade deadline was a movie, the audience would have walked out in the middle from boredom. This freeze came straight from the script that is the league’s new collective bargaining agreement — with its harsher luxury tax penalties and diminished roster flexibility for tax offenders — it put the clamps on a stunningly uneventful deadline day.
The big names were on the opening credits: Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
Yet, when the curtain closed at 3 p.m. ET, Orlando Magic sharpshooter J.J. Redick stole the show as the lone player of significance to switch teams. The Milwaukee Bucks acquired the career 39.8 percent 3-point shooter in a six-player deal that involved five other relatively anonymous NBA names.
Only one potential blockbuster deal percolated, but ultimately died on the vine with the Atlanta Hawks going the distance in an attempt to strike a deal with the Bucks for Smith before pulling back. One reason so few big deals were discussed was simply because there wasn’t much talent realistically in play, a point that goes beyond any ramifications of the CBA.
The CBA that took effect in December 2011, and begins to smack tax-paying teams with stiffer fines next season, has clearly put franchises on the defensive. Teams that were once willing to add salary to consummate a deal no longer are. Teams that once didn’t think twice about sweetening a deal with a first-round pick, suddenly guard them with their lives.
“Cap room and draft picks, which are usually the currency of how these [big] deals get done, were at a huge premium and are something that everyone wants to have,” said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who steered the most active club at the deadline with a couple of lower-tier deals.
There’s really no greater example of the effect of these changes than the Dallas Mavericks and their braintrust, owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. Chronic and strategic over-spenders and tax payers under the old CBA, Cuban, who took on salary in deadline deals for Jason Kidd in 2008 and Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson in 2010, analyzed the new rules and reversed field last year.
He dismantled the 2011 championship team, choosing to covet cap space and the roster flexibility granted to teams that remain under the tax threshold, as well as newfound valuing of first-round draft picks as low-priced labor and trade assets.
It’s a strategy that no longer has the Mavs on speed dial of teams looking to make a deal and dump salary.
“It’s definitely a factor,” Nelson said of the CBA’s chilling effect Thursday after the deadline expired. “There’s no question that folks have their eye on the inevitable, and there’s no question that people are getting their collective houses in order.
“There’s some teams that see that on the horizon and act early, and other teams that will procrastinate and pay a dear price. But I think we’re right in the middle of that. It’s not brand-new news and so, yeah, I think you’re going to see a lot of teams try to correct themselves financially.”
The so-called “repeater” tax really has teams scared. Several clubs tried to deal away lost-cost players to avoid the repeater tax, which will whack franchises with an additional fine if they go over the tax line in three of four seasons. Golden State was successful in this venture. Chicago was not and will pay a luxury tax for the first time since its implementation.
This “repeater” penalty deterred teams from making deals that would have pushed payroll even slightly over the tax line, deals they might have normally green-lighted in the old days. So, is this the way of the future under the current rules?
“I can’t predict the future,” Morey said, “but I think the trend is more this way.”
Rockets: Morey’s stockpiling of assets the last couple years has been questioned, but he’s turned it into quite a haul starting with James Harden prior to the start of the season. The day before the deadline, Morey acquired the No. 5 overall pick, Thomas Robinson, from Sacramento. Morey’s dealing didn’t damage an abundance of cap space next summer that will be used to pursue a top free agent such as Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
Bucks: GM John Hammond didn’t get his big fish in Smith, but he pulled off the deal for Redick, who should really help a club that’s been skidding down the East standings and needs a boost. Hammond held onto Jennings and Ellis and will have room to maneuver in the summer to add more pieces.
Thunder: GM Sam Presti continues to make shrewd moves. The acquisition of Ronnie Brewer from the New York Knicks for a second-round pick gives OKC another strong perimeter defender to help Thabo Sefolosha.
Celtics:Jordan Crawford might not be Jamal Crawford, but he can score in bunches and Boston was desperate to bolster its injury-ravaged guard backcourt. Boston fans are the winners here, too, with the team’s heart and soul, Garnett and Pierce, staying put.
Mavericks: Sure, on the surface, picking up 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow for defensive-minded guard Dahntay Jones doesn’t sound like much. But then SheridanHoops.com reminded us of this Dwight Howard interview in Russia when he named Morrow as one of a handful of players he’d like to have as a teammate.
Blazers: The team with the leanest bench in the NBA finally got some help in a minor deal that netted OKC guard Eric Maynor, who lost his job early on to Reggie Jackson. Maynor will help Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard reduce his 38.5 mpg workload.
Hawks: They didn’t get the deal done to ship out Smith and now it seems they will lose him for nothing in free agency. On one level, however, it’s hard to say that this is a definitive loss. They’ll keep Smith (who might or might not come away from this experience deflated) for the rest of the season, and, with any luck, try to keep him while recruiting friend and fellow Atlantan Howard next summer. If GM Danny Ferry wasn’t pleased with the deals presented, it doesn’t always pay to take something, anything just because in the end you could be left with nothing. If Smith leaves, the Hawks will take the cap space and look to spin it in their favor.
Magic: They deal away a useful player and one they drafted in Redick and hand over his Bird Rights to the Bucks. There was no guarantee that Redick would re-sign with Orlando, but he at least had said the door was open to a return. The Magic’s Josh McRoberts to Charlotte deal for Hakim Warrick is a head-scratcher.
Knicks: They didn’t upgrade at any position and gave away a solid defender in Brewer, who was starting for the club during their hot start out of the gates, but had slipped out of the rotation. New York did use the roster vacancy to sign veteran power forward Kenyon Martin.
Nets: They failed to land another high-priced player in Smith and failed to unload one of their own, Kris Humphries.
HOUSTON – Sometimes the future looks so bright that you need sunglasses.
Or maybe that’s just the solar flare that is James Harden.
Three nights after the All-Star circus left town, Harden put on a show that could have filled all three rings under the big top.
There were a career-high 46 points to go with eight rebounds, six assists, a steal and a blocked shot. It all came on 14-for-19 shooting from the field, 7-for-8 on 3-pointers and 11-for-12 from the line.
“That’s as efficient a game as you can play in the NBA,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
It was also necessary, since the Thunder are the Thunder and the Rockets were playing with only 10 bodies in uniform after the pre-game dealing sentPatrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich and Toney Douglas out of town.
While general manager Daryl Morey was doing his usual juggling act at the trade deadline — giving the Rockets a puncher’s chance at power forward with the addition of Thomas Robinson — Harden was once again the lion tamer, cracking his whip and taking complete control.
This was the kind of game that the OKC stars Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook usually put in a chokehold coming down the stretch, but instead it was their old buddy who took it into his hands and squeezed tight.
From the time he stepped to the free-throw line with the 6:29 left to play and the Rockets down by a dozen, the scoring the rest of the way showed: Harden 14, Thunder 12.
Any Rockets game has become the most entertaining NBA game to watch on any given night. That’s because of their frantic pace of play, constant desire to attack the lane, their ability to rain down 3s.
Nobody player has done more in the league this season to change the face and outlook for a franchise than Harden. With him relentlessly driving at the basket or pulling up to stab jumpers, he’s an offensive force every bit as unstoppable when he’s rolling as Durant, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
Give Morey credit for pulling off the deal that brought him to Houston and for also adding supporting cast members Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Give the G.M. credit for forging ahead with a plan that has the Rockets already well positioned under the salary cap for free agency next summer and for swinging Wednesday’s deal that could pay off huge if Robinson comes to town and delivers on the talent that made him the No. 5 pick in the draft.
The Rockets have become a team that is attractive to free agents because they have someone who belonged on the floor with the rest of the All-Stars Sunday night with a game and style and confidence that should draw help down the line like a magnet attracts metal filings.
Keep the sunglasses handy. Truth is, Harden might be just beginning to glow.
HOUSTON — Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and The Sundance Kid had nothing on Rockets G.M. Daryl Morey.
The itchiest trigger finger in the NBA got things rolling in the countdown to the trade deadline by shipping out two power forward candidates who hadn’t panned out and bringing back another with plenty of talent and still something to prove.
Officially, it was Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas and Cole Aldrich going to the Kings for Thomas Robinson, Tyler Honeycutt and Francisco Garcia and Marcus Morris going to the Suns for a second round draft pick.
But the essence of the deal was the Rockets taking a shot at the 6-foot-10 Robinson, who was the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft and a bundle of raw ability that many evaluators thought was the No. 2 pick of the litter eight months ago.
In two seasons, Patterson never established himself as a low post player on offense and did not carry his weight as a rebounder. Morris, too, is a decent mid-range shooter who also does not make his presence felt on the glass.
While there were character issues that surrounded Robinson before the draft and he was labeled a problem early in Sacramento and did not bloom, it is a move that is certainly worth the gamble for the Rockets.
If Robinson gets his act together and plays up to his potential, they’ve got a 21-year-old power forward who could fit in nicely on a roster that will now give him all the minutes he needs. If not, he carries a manageable $3.5 million contract that is only guaranteed through next season and also more cap space for free agency next summer. The Rockets were a team that had room to sign a max level free agent and another significant player and now they’ve carved out more room.
It is not on the blockbuster level of Morey’s deal that landed James Harden four days before the season opener. But it’s the kind of shrewd, low-risk deal that could set the Rockets up for an even bigger bang down the line.