HOUSTON -- As the Rockets try to continue their march toward history Friday night, the troops will be bolstered by the return of Jeremy Lin. The point guard, who suffered a bruised chest and hasn’t played since Game 3, will come off the bench for Game 6 against the Thunder at the Toyota Center.
Lin has been attempting to get back onto the court for days, but had been unable to get rid of the pain.
“Once game-time comes around, I probably won’t feel anything,” said Lin after Friday’s shootaround. “It’s been the longest week, a really, really long week. Just the fact I get to play is a huge, huge burden off of my shoulders.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale says that rookie Patrick Beverley will continue to start and Lin will come off the bench.
“Playoff series end up having kind of a life of their own and a rhythm,” McHale said. “To be thrown in the middle of that rhythm a lot of times, it’s hard to catch the rhythm. Our guys have a little bit of rhythm in this series, as Oklahoma City has a rhythm in the series. To be thrown out there – that’s why we have to be a little bit careful.
“We’ll bring him off the bench and see how much juice he has in the tank. It’s hard to enter a series when you haven’t played in a while, but we’re going to try to keep what we have going. Jeremy, we’ll try to fit him in there, see how he is and see how his arm feels. If he gets hit or anything happens.”
Lin has shot just 5-for-20 with 14 points and eight assists in the series.
Rockets shooting guard James Harden has been diagnosed with strep throat, but will be in the starting lineup.
HOUSTON – This is why Chandler Parsons plays basketball. It’s really why they all play the game.
To have fun.
And there are few things more fun on the court than playing without pressure, without a care, without fear of missing a shot or making a play and with a sense that it’s just your time.
“We’re fully confident that we’re gonna win tomorrow and that we’re gonna take the series,” Parsons said matter-of-factly on Thursday as he stood outside the locker room at the Toyota Center, his eyes dancing, almost bright enough to light the entire hallway.
It wasn’t a boast. It wasn’t intended to demean anyone in an Oklahoma City uniform.
It’s just the feeling that occurs when it seems that everything has suddenly turned your way. Maybe based on the last two games, it has.
History books and the oddsmakers will still tell you that Kevin Durant and the Thunder are the logical favorites to advance.
But sometimes logic doesn’t have any place in these crazy games.
It was a different team, a different time, a different Kevin McHale.
The Celtics had made one slice into what seemed like the 76ers’ insurmountable lead in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals and were going into Game 6 with a chance to tie the series.
“They better win this one, because they know damn well they’re not going to win Game 7,” said the brash 23-year-old rookie power forward.
Boston won Game 6 by two points and then finished off Philly in Game 7 by one.
So now it is 32 years later, coincidentally the uniform number that he wore on his jersey through a Hall of Fame career, and the coach McHale is approaching another Game 6 crossroad with his Rockets against the Thunder Friday night.
But in a different role.
“I was playing and had a lot more confidence back then,” McHale said. “Hey, if it was 1981 and I was still playing this series, I would say the same thing.”
Because you can’t win if you don’t believe and after the Rockets stuck a sock in the mouth of Loud City in Game 5, there is no shortage of faith.
It’s the dynamic of how a series can sometimes work. You can feel the shift, the surge of energy on one side, the planting of doubt on the other.
There were the No. 1 seed Thunder so helpless, so unable to do anything to slow down the No. 8 seed Rockets on Wednesday night that coach Scott Brooks reached into his first aid kit to find a tourniquet and the best he could do was to hack Rockets center Omer Asik and try to stop the flow.
But as happens sometimes on these occasions, the flow was like a wave that might be growing into a tsunami. Asik, a 56 percent free throw shooter, stepped up to the line to stick 8-for-11 free throws in the final six minutes and now here is OKC perhaps feeling the air getting a little thinner and the collars a bit tighter.
The last thing in the world the Thunder need is an all-or-nothing Game 7 on Sunday and all the Rockets want is a chance to walk about onto that court in OKC.
Francisco Garcia, Patrick Beverley and Parsons took turns grinning and talking about having fun. That’s not likely a word that’s been tossed around in OKC much over the past few days.
“We’re growing up every game,” Parsons said. “Every day we’re going through this process together and it can only get better from here.
“We got something really special going on right now and I think the world is starting to see it, because we didn’t get as much attention as we think we deserved during the regular season. But now the lights are on and we’re playing well and we’re really shocking people.”
The Rockets aren’t jolting anybody more than the Thunder, who figured to have a much tougher road to the NBA Finals without Russell Westbrook, but not a slog just to escape the first round of the playoffs.
Now suddenly the heavily favored Thunder are walking around as if there’s a boulder on the their backs, while the Rockets are skipping around the schoolyard.
They are a reflecting of their head coach, a personality and ethic forged on the Iron Range of Minnesota, where you work hard and never take anything too seriously. That’s why a skinny kid from Hibbing could lay down the gantlet to Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney and the mighty Sixers back in 1981. That’s why a 55-year-old coach can keep pushing and molding and instilling a sense of anything’s possible even in a season when he’s suffered the unspeakable anguish of losing a daughter.
“He’s been awesome,” Parsons said. “He’ll tell you all about his experiences when he was playing. Having a coach that’s been through it, that’s been in the same situation we’re in right now really helps us and gives us that comforting feeling that he knows what he’s talking about.
“I know it’s a serious time and we’re all focused, but he makes you feel comfortable and it’s fun to be around a guy like that instead of being uptight and yelling. He does that, too, but he’s such a nice dude.”
Thirty-two years later, McHale limps around the sidelines like an arthritic crab and is a bit more circumspect with his words.
“I could talk that way,” he said laughing, “when I was young and bouncy.”
That’s a big bounce in Chandler Parsons’ step, which is why the game has never been more fun for the Rockets and why the Thunder should be worried.
. HOUSTON – Somewhere down the line, they might look back at it like a pencil mark drawn on the garage wall.
Perhaps one day they’ll pull it out of the back of the closet and shake their heads and smile at the memory of a favorite old pair of pants that no longer covers their ankles.
If the grand and glorious night in the future eventually comes when the confetti is falling, the triumphant music is blaring and commissioner Adam Silver is presenting the gold championship trophy up on the podium to their free agent acquisition Dwight Howard, they’ll know this is where it began.
The Rockets shot up like weeds through cracks in the sidewalk, tripping the Thunder 105-103, also bringing down the nagging notion that they didn’t have the right stuff to finish.
It’s said that you have to crawl before you learn to walk and the Rockets had the scabs on their knees to prove it, having fallen into an 0-3 hole largely because they tumbled over the cliff late in each of the previous two games.
But this was a night when OKC’s splendid splinter Kevin Durant couldn’t get another four-bounce prayer to be answered because Patrick Beverley stepped in to take a charge in the clutch, because the hair shirt that was Francisco Garcia itched and wouldn’t let K.D. get off a winning 3-pointer and because Omer Asik stepped out to cut off a desperate, driving Reggie Jackson the paint.
It was not a win that will likely change the outcome of a series in which the Thunder are simply the better team. However, it was the kind of victory that blazes a trail and lays a foundation for where the Rockets franchise wants to go.
“Everyone else might say it’s just one game for us,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “But for us, it was our first playoff win with this group and you can’t get two playoff wins until you get the one. You can’t feel what we need to feel up in Oklahoma City with a team that says, ‘We don’t want to come back here for Game 6.”
There are still plenty of pieces missing from the puzzle until anyone thinks of the Rockets as championship contenders and trying to land Godzilla in the form of Howard over the summer remains the top priority.
Yet you can watch Chandler Parsons, the second-round draft choice who should embarrass every other scouting department with cable TV and a DVD player, blossom into a player that can do three things — shoot, drive and simply play like hell — and see growth.
You can see Asik, stuck on the bench for years in Chicago, make the most of an opportunity by defending the rim and pulling down rebounds simply because a team showed belief in him.
You can see little Beverley finishing off a basketball season that began in St. Petersburg, Russia by treating every possession on offense and defense as if he were still the last line of defense in the Cold War.
The entire NBA has seen James Harden explode like a Fourth of July firecracker since October, when he hit the ground running in Houston by trade from OKC four days before the start of the season and became a first-time All-Star and a player who could carry the load and carry a team. Here was a night when Harden was simply horrid, shooting just 4-for-12 from the field, scoring just 15 points and setting a franchise playoff record with a discombobulated 10 turnovers.
Yet where the Rockets of a few months ago might never have been in the game in the fourth quarter against the Thunder with Harden struggling and might simply have crumbled without him making every big basket, every big play down the stretch, there were others all around filling in the gaps.
Harden knows that it’s a process that takes nurturing and patience. Barely a month into his rookie season in OKC, the Thunder were 1-12 and coach P.J. Carlesimo was replaced by Scott Brooks. They finished 23-59 that season.
A year later, the Thunder were 50-32 and got their first playoff taste of success, winning a pair of home games in a first-round series against the Lakers. The following season they reached the Western Conference finals and last year the NBA Finals.
There are never guarantees, but it usually is a process for a young team to learn how to compete, how to survive and how to thrive in the playoffs and it starts with something that might seem as insignificant as that very first win.
“It means a lot,” Harden said. “I think the previous two games, we let both of those slip away, having the lead late in the fourth quarter and just giving it away. So just to get the first one under our belt, now we have confidence going back to Oklahoma City and anything can happen.”
Someday, somewhere, somehow, if the plan keeps on coming together for these Rockets.
They’ll look at the pencil mark on the wall. They’ll smile at the pants that no longer fit. They’ll be able to remember exactly the night that it happened.
HOUSTON – The temptation is to change without Russell Westbrook in the Thunder lineup. The temptation is to try to exploit that gaping hole in the backcourt.
But going back to that infamous apple hanging from the tree, temptation has often led to trouble.
“We can’t change who we are,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “We can’t suddenly change our style and become some team that we’re not. It’s not like we’re gonna show up and suddenly play like an inside-out team with Hakeem Olajuwon in the middle.”
The task for the Rockets in Game 3 tonight at the Toyota Center is to keep stomping down hard on the gas pedal, keep moving the basketball from side to side on the court and continue to play with the sense of urgency that was evident in their fourth-quarter comeback in Game 2.
The absence of Westbrook does not mean the Rockets are facing a situation that is any less desperate.
Of 44 previous No. 8 seeds to fall into an 0-2 hole in the first round of the playoffs, only one has managed to climb back out.
“We’ve got a one-game season,” McHale said. “That’s as simple as it is. We better be desperate. We’re down 2-0 coming home in a playoff series. We got to play well. We got to do all the things we did last game, but more.”
Rather than an OKC that is reeling, the Rockets have got to figure the Thunder will come rolling with an added measure of emotion. They have got to expect that the league’s second-leading scorer Kevin Durant will now have the ball in his hands even more and will put up more shots.
“That sounds like fun for me,” said Chandler Parsons, who will get the lion’s share of the defensive duty on Durant.
“Anytime someone goes down, it gives the team an opportunity for someone to step up. (Westbrook’s) a huge part of their team. They’re hurting right now. That’s one of their leaders. That’s one of their best players going down.
“Now we’ve got to really get them while they’re down. Obviously we have an opportunity…and we have to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Just because Westbrook is out doesn’t mean we’re not still down 0-2. The urgency’s still there and it’s probably even more now. Just understanding that it’s a very winnable game and we need to go in there and set the tone and really make this series fun by getting a win.”
The Rockets are expecting that Reggie Jackson will get the start for OKC in Westbrook’s place, but they can’t afford to concern themselves with match-ups.
Houston could be missing a cog in its own starting lineup depending on the status of point guard Jeremy Lin. He suffered a bruised chest muscle in Game 2 and is considered a game-time decision. However Lin did take part in Saturday morning’s shootaround. Big man Greg Smith was suffering from stomach distress and did not participate in the shootaround.
Nevertheless, what’s important for the Rockets is to clean up all of the problems in their own game. In the series opener, the NBA’s youngest team was overwhelmed by the first playoff experience for most of the roster and was swamped. When the ball moved better in their offense and presented open shots in Game 2, the Rockets made just 36 of 91 shots and were only 10-for-34 from behind the 3-point line.
And the one thing the Rockets cannot do at all is think for even a moment that Westbrook’s absence could make things easier.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” said forward Carlos Delfino.
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: Dirk Nowitzki finally shaved off that mangy, disgusting beard last night on the heels of the Mavs reaching the .500 mark 80 games into the season. Cute, but not exactly game-of-the-night material there. The Lakers-Spurs game was a pretty amazing showcase of heart and drive by the crew from L.A. in its first game following Kobe Bryant‘s season-ending injury as the Lakers took care of their old rivals. But we’re going with the Pacers-Knicks gamefrom Madison Square Garden yesterday simply because it showed just how much being in rhythm as the season winds down can be key. When New York’s shooters went into a swoon and the Pacers got hot in February, it looked like Indiana would easily hang on to the No. 2 spot in the East and provide the stiffest challenge for the defending-champion Heat. Instead, the Knicks have found their rhythm late in the season and this game yesterday assured N.Y. of the No. 2 spot and keeps them rolling as the playoffs draw near.
Knicks can’t wait to face Celtics in playoffs — Locking up the No. 2 seed in the East, as we mention above, was nothing to sneeze at in New York. Especially when you consider the last time the Knicks had the No. 2 seed, it was the 1993-94 season … when New York lost to Houston in the NBA Finals. Still, as nice as it was to throttle the Pacers to accomplish that feat, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Knicks are more looking forward to exacting some revenge on the team that ousted them from the playoffs last season: the Boston Celtics. Howard Beck of The New York Times has more on the Knicks’ goals:
The Knicks got everything they wanted, and with a minimum of pain.
With a suspense-free 90-80 victory, they clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference and secured home-court advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs, including a potential second-round meeting with the Pacers. The Knicks will open the playoffs Saturday against the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics — the team that swept them two springs ago, in Carmelo Anthony’s first postseason in New York.
“That’s in the back of our minds,” said Anthony, who scored 25 points. “We want to beat Boston — I mean, let’s be quite frank. This would be a great series for us.”
Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, who is injured, are the only Knicks left from that 2011 series. Yet the memory remains fresh, and for Anthony, painful.
A sweep was hardly the way he wanted to begin his career on Broadway. The Celtics have stood in the Knicks’ way ever since he arrived.
Two years later, the Knicks are deeper, wiser, more seasoned and better built for the challenge, with a veteran cast surrounding Anthony.
“We’re different as a team,” Anthony said. “As an organization, we’re a lot different than we were a year and a half, two years ago. The mind-set is a lot different. My mind-set right now is a lot different.”
Most important, the Knicks (53-27) emerged without a serious injury, although Anthony did bruise his left shoulder in the third quarter. He sat out the final period, but only because the Knicks did not need him.
Coach Mike Woodson twice called Anthony over when the Pacers started to rally down the stretch.
Each time, the Knicks beat back the spurt, and Anthony returned, smiling, to his seat.
“I was just playing with him, messing with him,” Woodson said. “No, his shoulder’s fine. And I was going to put him back. But I decided to pull him and ride the guys that kept the lead for us.”
With the Knicks clinching the No. 2 seed — their highest since finishing second in 1994 — Woodson will now rest his key players for the final two games. Anthony said he would sit out Monday night’s game at Charlotte. Raymond Felton also said he planned to take a rest over the final two games.
“I’ll be fine,” Anthony said. “And I’ll be ready come playoffs.”
Kobe-less Lakers step up against Spurs– Heading into Sunday’s game against the Spurs, the Lakers had plenty of reasons to feel down on themselves — the foremost of which being the season-ending torn Achilles Kobe Bryant suffered on Friday night against Golden State. But in a rare display of heart and teamwork, the Lakers bound together, got a strong performance from their “other” superstar (Dwight Howard), overcame a rough night by another big name (Pau Gasol) and got contributions from surprising places (such as Steve Blake) to edge ever closer to a playoff berth. Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News has more on the Lakers’ big win:
Life without Kobe Bryant, Day 1, was nothing if not unpredictable.
And in a crazy, wonderful, astonishing way, actually quite beautiful.
On a night when Pau Gasol was the 7-foot invisible Spaniard, Steve Blake told him, “I’ve got your back.”
Blake went on to have the performance of his career while standing on one of the biggest stages of his life.
In a game in which the Lakers hovered around 35 percent shooting all night and Gasol clanked 14 of 17 shots, they shook off their notoriously soft-defending ways to harass the San Antonio Spurs into 36.5 percent shooting.
“We can’t look at anybody else for help,” said Howard, who looked more comfortable in his Lakers skin than he has all year, leading the way with 26 points and punishing the Spurs with 17 rebounds and three blocked shots.
And with his team needing him to hit two crucial free throws late in the game, he sank both of them.
“Now we have to go out there and get this next game,” Howard said.
Two days ago no one would have believed they could, not with Bryant withering around in pain after tearing his left Achilles tendon and the big, bad Spurs coming to town to put the Lakers out of their misery.
Now, who knows?
After watching Blake score 23 points and Antawn Jamison come off the bench to score 15 – including two huge 3-pointers – and Gasol shake off one of the worst shooting nights of his career to grab 16 rebounds and block three shots and the Lakers dig in defensively in a way we haven’t seen all year, a trip the playoffs now seems likely.
No one is foolish enough to think the Lakers can mount some miraculous playoff run. That pipe dream is over, falling apart the moment Bryant went crumbling to the floor Friday with a season-ending injury.
Even if the Lakers do sneak through the small playoff crevice available to them, they’ll be a quick one-and-done against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio in the opening round.
To think anything else is crazy talk.
“I still believe we can win,” Howard said, sternly. “No doubt in my mind.”
McHale, Rockets embrace underdog role — Hardly any seeds in the Western Conference are secure, which is just fine for coach Kevin McHale and the Rockets. Houston is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 and has its most wins since that season, too. Although it will likely come down to the season’s final night before Houston knows who it will play in the first round, McHale and his crew are ready to play the up-tempo style that led them to the postseason, regardless of whichever foe they face. David Barron of the Houston Chronicle has more:
With their 121-100 win over the Sacramento Kings, the Rockets improved to 45-35 and tied Golden State for the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They hold the tiebreaker over the Warriors and can clinch the sixth spot with wins Monday night at Phoenix and on Wednesday in Los Angeles over the Lakers.
There are scenarios aplenty for playoff series against any of the five teams in front of them — too many for coach Kevin McHale to focus on. Besides, McHale said, he knows how the form chart will read under any circumstances.
“Whoever we play, we will not be favored,” he said. “We’ll be underdogs to whoever we play. That’s fine with us. We want to get in there and get the guys playing well.
“I like our chances against anybody. If we can get defensive stops and get out and run and put pressure on the rim and knock down some shots, we’ll give anybody we play a good go.”
“This year is a year when we’re building a lot of stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to be proud of. I think James (Harden) has had a tremendous year. Jeremy Lin coming in has played very, very well. Omer Asik for the first time starting.
“It’s been a year. Greg Smith has really come on. Terrence Jones is coming on. Finding Patrick Beverley and bringing him over here … like I said, we’re just building and building. We’ve got two more regular-season games, and then we have the playoffs. I’m looking forward to it.”
Erving sounds off on Bynum — The Sixers’ season has been an unmitigated disaster, thanks most in part to the various injuries and rehab work that have kept Andrew Bynum from playing a single game in a Philly uniform. As reports are spreading that coach Doug Collins will resign soon and the team’s future looks ever-more hazy, a night of good memories might have been just what Philadelphia needed. Before last night’s eventual 91-77 win over the Cavs, the Sixers honored Julius Erving, Moses Malone and the rest of their 1983 championship team before the game. Erving, who serves in a front-office role with the team, sounded off on Bynum’s lack of play and more, writes Tom Moore of Phillyburbs.com:
The 76ers haven’t publicly criticized Andrew Bynum during a season in which he was paid $16.5 million and played no games due to knee injuries.
Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who is the team’s strategic advisor to the Sixers’ ownership group, didn’t hesitate to give his opinion on Bynum.
Prior to the Sixers’ home finale, a 91-77 victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon, Erving was asked about Bynum, whom the team acquired in a blockbuster Aug. 10 trade.
“I know what the net result is,” said Erving, smiling. “The net result is Robert Parish’s old number — 00. We have not benefited one degree. I guess he has.
“If the Bynum situation is one of total uncertainty for another year, I don’t think the organization should stand for that or the fans should stand for that.”
On the other hand, if the Sixers don’t re-sign Bynum or any of their other impending free agents, they could have about $12 million to spend this summer in free agency.
“I think if he’s not here, you’re going to free up a lot of money,” Erving said. “Washington and Lincoln can’t play the corners for you, but they can get somebody that can play the corners for you. We need somebody to play a corner for us and play the middle for us. It’s going to be costly.”
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.
HANG TIME, Texas – So much for the notion that all of the energy and drama was sucked out of half the playoff bracket by the Heat’s 27-game win streak.
Suddenly the Eastern Conference is dripping with more subplots than a Russian novel with LeBron James complaining that the Bulls abused him, Taj Gibson cleverly telling the best player in the game that he’s too good to whine, Danny Ainge foolishly and typically wading into the middle of the war with his mouth and Pat Riley suggesting that Ainge should “shut the (expletive) up.”
Just like that, we’re back in the 1980s with LA Gear, parachute pants and an urge to sing “Beat It.”
Is the manipulative genius of Riley at work here with LeBron? Has the blueprint for beating the Heat been put on display? Does anybody actually need to light a fire under an imposing team that just went nearly two full months without losing?
Do we really have to wait three more weeks for the playoffs to begin?
Miami vs. Chicago. Miami vs. Boston. And you thought Indiana was the Heat’s only minor roadblock to The Finals.
Don’t we really have to pull for the Celtics to tumble into the No. 8 seed and open up against the Heat in the first round?
Before the opening tip, Riley and Ainge could square off at center court for an MMA bout, complete with the octagon cage.
Hopefully, the winner of that first-round street fight would then face Chicago in a series presumably played with helmets and full body armor.
Look, we can’t really blame James for feeling that the Bulls used him as a tackling dummy on Wednesday night. After all, he’s been raised and cultivated and ascended to his seat on the throne in this 21st century era that has become so polite and contact-averse that any day now you can expect the NBA’s discipline czar Stu Jackson to rule from the league office that defenders must play with their pinkie fingers extended, as if they’re attending a tea party.
“Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say [what I want to say],” James said after the game. “I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive and those are not basketball plays.”
Of course, those of us who were around in the 80s and 90s or have learned from the drawings on cave walls about the times when prehistoric figures named Oakleysaurus, Mahornasaurus and Laimbeer Rex guarded the paint with sharp elbows and pointed attitudes, know that those used to be routine basketball plays. As James is trying to climb the ladder of greatness to catch Michael Jordan, let him ask His Airness if he was ever given a bump or two at The Palace of Auburn Hills or Madison Square Garden.
All of the good will and gosh-almighty admiration for Miami and for James that was built up during the construction of the 27-game streak could go out the window if the Heat players start to believe they should be unchallenged physically and simply carried on the shoulders of tributes to a second consecutive NBA title.
“I think he’s too good of a player to do that,” Gibson zinged when asked about James’ complaints in a radio interview.
The big question is what in the world could ever have possessed Ainge to enter the fray. Then you remember that he was just being Ainge, agitator and instigator and never a finisher during his playing career.
“I think that it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating,” Ainge said.
And that’s when the real fun started.
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the #$!* up and manage his own team,” Riley said in a statement released through a Heat spokesman. “He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him.”
Give Riley credit. The guy who copyrighted the term “three-peat” back in 1987 could have another T-shirt selling bonanza on his hands with the blunt “STFU” combined with that fireball Heat logo.
It might not only have been the first official statement in known team sport history to include the home-run word, but also the artful, Machiavellian Riley’s way of delivering a just-as-short message to LeBron ahead of the 2014 opt-out clause in his contract: I’ll always have your back.
At first, Ainge backed off a bit.
“Pat Riley’s right,” he said. “I should manage my own team. I complained a lot to the officials. And I’m right, LeBron should be embarrassed about how he complains about the calls he gets.”
But just before Friday night’s game against the Hawks, he could not resist one more shot:
“I stand by what I said. That’s all. I don’t care about Pat Riley. He can say whatever he wants.
“I don’t want to mess up his Armani suits and all that hair goop. It would be way too expensive for me.”
Steve Aschburner: If you could get, right out of the chute, what many expected could be the Western Conference finals, who wouldn’t want to see that? So I’d be glued to Lakers vs. Spurs, on paper one of the most amazing No. 1 vs. No. 8 opening rounds in NBA history. Big names and reputations everywhere, old nemeses in new colors and circumstances, the Lakers’ last best chance to salvage their season vs. what might be the Spurs’ last best chance to win a title with its historic Big 3.
Fran Blinebury: Thunder vs. Rockets. Revenge of the Beard. Hangin’ it on Harden. Slammin’ it at Sam (Presti). OK can you C me now? Hey K-Mart, there’s a mess on Aisle 4. Need I go on? I can’t ever remember a player as young and as good and as critical as James Harden being bounced off a Finals team and getting a chance to stick it in the ear of the bouncers just a few months later in the playoffs. This would be simply delicious.
Jeff Caplan: Out here in the Western Conference, where there’s actually more than one team of intrigue, there’s several would-be matchups to ponder. However, one in position to launch right now is James Harden against his old mates: Rockets vs. Thunder. Houston is 1-2 against OKC this season, but both losses, coming by a combined 52 points, were in 2012 when the team was still new and adjusting, and coach Kevin McHale spent a month away on personal leave after the death of his daughter. In 2013, the high-powered Rockets are 1-0 against the Thunder with a 122-119 victory in Houston on Feb. 20. Harden has averaged 29.3 points against his former team, has shot 55.0 percent from 3-point range and has averaged 12.3 free throws in the three meetings. Imagine the pressure on the reigning champs and Harden-replacement Kevin Martin against The Beloved Beard and a Rockets squad that has swapped the top spot with OKC all season as the highest scoring team in the league.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Clippers-Lakers. It may not happen because the Lakers may not get up to No. 6, even if the Clips get to 3. But if it does, what a moment for Clippers credibility, to be able to be the team that drives the Lakers season into the ground once and for all.
John Schuhmann:Pretty much any matchup in the West. Seriously, I look at those eight teams (assuming the Lakers hold on to the eighth spot) and there’s not one series I wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy. Even the Grizzlies, who play the best defense and play at the slowest pace of all those teams, are fun to watch. In the East, I would love to see any series between the Knicks, Nets and Celtics. The regular-season matchups between those three teams (with the exception of Tuesday’s game in Boston, which was lacking two very ornery defensive anchors) have been intense, and an Atlantic Division playoff series would be crazy. Knicks-Celtics looks like the most likely scenario of the three possibilities.
Sekou Smith: There are potential first round matchups that intrigue on both sides of the conference divide. That Denver-Memphis clash in the West, New York-Boston in the East or even a San Antonio-Los Angeles Lakers showdown. But if the basketball powers that be would be so kind as to grant us a Los Angeles Clippers-Golden State Warriors tilt in the first round, I’d be forever grateful. Styles make fights and this one would be filled with non-stop action. Generally, the outcome of first-round series tend to stick to the seeding. But the Clippers and Warriors could be a free-for-all without a clear-cut favorite. The Clippers might have the better record, but they’ve had all sorts of trouble with the Warriors this season. The Warriors won the season series 3-1. The Warriors handed the Clippers their first loss of the season, 114-110, on Nov. 4 at Staples Center, and one of their worst losses of the season, a 115-94 beating in Oakland that was their second straight loss after the Clippers’ franchise-record 17-game win streak (Denver snapped the streak a night earlier). These teams haven’t played since Jan. 21, but you had better believe they’d both be eager to battle for state bragging rights, what with the Lakers limping down the stretch of the season and not guaranteed to even make the postseason.
Seven games away from setting an NBA record for most consecutive wins in a season, the Miami Heat are the talk of the sporting world. The defending champions have not lost a game since a 13-point setback in Indiana on Feb. 1 and have a chance — in some people’s minds, at least — to run the rest of the regular-season table. Their winning streak, the second-longest in league history, stands at 27 games.
NBA.com dispatched our game reporters to talk to those around the NBA who have seen the streak close up. Here’s a sampling of what people are saying:
Kevin McHale, coach, Houston Rockets: “The thing I’ve always been impressed about long winning streaks is the fact that you keep your concentration long enough to do it. You win 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 in a row, and you run into a bad team, and it’s late in the year, that’s usually when you stumble. I know the teams I played on went on a lot of 10, 11, 12, 13, 14-game streaks, and then we’d play a bad team, none of us would be ready, and they’d be all juiced up for us. You do get bored [when you're on a great team] a little bit, and you get complacent, and you start taking for granted you’re going to win. You need to lose one or two, and then you get refocused and play. But, as I’ve said all along — I know you guys don’t believe it — but actual human beings play this game. That’s just what happens.”
Ralph Lawler, announcer, Los Angeles Clippers: “I remember when the Los Angeles Lakers won 33 straight games in the 1971-72 season, it’s a record that I thought would never be broken. For the Heat to be approaching the mark, it’s extraordinary. Everyone is paying attention. Winning in the NBA is not an easy thing to do, and when you do it on a consistent basis, the pressure mounts. I think the players for the Heat understand what’s at stake. You can’t shut off the lights and say I’m not aware of what’s going on. LeBron James and his teammates might attempt to deflect talk about the winning streak to the media, but on the team plane and team bus, it’s all the buzz. If the Heat win 30, 31, or 32 games in-a-row, gee whiz, people will start to talk about them being world-beaters.”
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: “It’s hard to win basketball games in this league and to win ’em in a row is even harder and over 20 is really tough, so we don’t have any hate in our blood over here. We give respect when it’s due. But I would say we’re not worried about what they’re doing, it’s just that all we’re focused on is us. But every time you turn on the TV you hear it and once you really sit back and look at it, it’s impressive.”
Marreese Speights, Cleveland Cavaliers: “If you can’t get excited about playing Miami, then you’re not a basketball player. Everyone around the league is watching you because they’re all keeping an eye on them. [Those] are the games you love to play.”
George Karl, coach, Denver Nuggets: “They’ve won a lot of close games. Sacramento almost beat them, they had a close game with Philadelphia, a one-possession game. It’s a pretty amazing [streak]. Thirteen is a lot [the Nuggets had a 13-game streak and the time], so you double that … it’s pretty impressive.
Daniel Gibson, Cleveland Cavaliers: “When they go into every city, people want to see them. It’s exciting for all of us. They’re playing at such a high clip, you can’t help but want to watch them play.”
Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets: “Winning streaks are always fun to be a part of, but it is tough when you see one team win so much … No one is scared of these guys, but I think most of the league respects the way they’ve handled their business.”
Scott Brooks, coach, Oklahoma City Thunder: “I’ve never seen it in my lifetime, I mean I know the Lakers did it in the 70s but I wasn’t following the NBA in the early ’70s. But just to do what they’re doing now with the parity that we have in the league it’s pretty amazing. There’s so many games that you have to have everything go right to win. The travel, the back-to-backs, the injuries you have to overcome, the foul trouble, the turnovers, just everything about it and to win 25 straight games … give them credit because they have the mental ability to have the mindset to do that night in and night out, that’s just pretty phenomenal.”
On the way the Heat have won during their streak …
Matt Bonner, San Antonio Spurs: “The Heat have been impressive in that they’ve won in all types of fashion. They’ve won close games, blowouts. They’re rolling. Playing great. Everybody wants to be the team that’s going to break their streak, and that’s what makes it impressive, too. They’re getting everyone’s best shot.”
Gibson: “It definitely shows how focused they are because they have to come in every night prepared. It’s very tough to do because you also got to have a little luck with you because guys have to stay healthy, and everybody has to be clicking.”
Jerry Stackhouse, Brooklyn Nets: “It can be tough building a streak. When you’re constantly trying to find motivation, you can get some mental fatigue. But I think with it being so close to the end of the season and they’re trying to go into the playoffs on a high note, I don’t think it’s as tough a task. If it was earlier in the season, you feel like you’ve got so many games left and you’re not going to win them all, so this might be a good night to just chill out. I just think it comes down to their execution late in games. They trust each other. They’ve been together a while, enough now to know what to do. Their confidence is high.” (more…)
HOUSTON — Danny Green was sailing in on the right side for what would been a layup that stretched the Spurs run out to 12-0 and their lead up to six points with just under 1 1/2 minutes to play.
It’s not the first time nobody saw Patrick Beverley coming.
The Lakers had made him a second-round pick in 2009 and flipped him to Miami on draft night. He had previously spent a season in the Ukraine and when the pre-LeBron James Heat were doing everything they could to free up cap room, they packed his bags and extended his European vacation in Greece.
When the Rockets finally bought out Beverley’s contract from Spartak in St. Petersburg, Russia, and brought him home on Jan. 7, his first stop stateside was the NBA D-League Showcase in Reno, Nev.
“All I want to do is get a chance to show people that I can play,” Beverley said then. “Just give me a chance.”
It was the kind of move that drew little notice around the league, a young team adding another set of young legs.
A split second after the ball left Green’s hand on Sunday night, those young legs launched Beverley skyward. James Harden felt something zooming over his head like a meteor.
“You don’t usually see little guys making a play like that,” Harden said.
The little guy’s rejection of Green was big, big, big and it became huge when Chandler Parsons nailed a 3 at the other end, Harden bagged a pull-up jumper in the final seconds and the Rockets held on for a 96-95 win.
Sometimes these so-called playoff preview games can be more than a bit overblown. But having lost three times already to the Spurs this season and giving up an average of 123 points a game, it was a statement the Rockets needed to make, if only to themselves, as the possibility of a first-round Texas Two-Step series hovers.
Harden has long since proven himself as a frontline All-Star performer this season and Jeremy Lin’s game has steadily rounded into shape. And if there’s any surprise left in the Rockets’ backcourt, the 6-foot-1 Beverley has been doing all that he can to dispel it over the past two-plus months. He’s averaging five points and just under 16 minutes per game, but it’s when those minutes often come that are of note.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale put Beverley back in for Lin to play the point with 3:50 left, the score tied at 89 and going head-to-head against All-Star Tony Parker.
“I’m prepared at all times,” Beverley said. “Throughout this whole season I’ve been put in this situation a lot more than once. Orlando game, Wizards game. I just try to go out there and do what I do. Get some stops and make some open shots.”
Beverley made shots, open and otherwise, shooting 4-for-4 for 11 points in the first half and then played a critical role with his defense down the stretch.
“Patrick had a good game going,” McHale said. “Parker was driving hard and getting fouled, so we went with Patrick out there to get a little more defense and then Chandler switched off. I thought one of the biggest plays of the game was Patrick running down that block. That was a phenomenal block.”
After Harden’s jumper put the Rockets in front and the Spurs had their last chance, it was Beverley who prevented Tim Duncan from making a handoff return pass to Manu Ginobili to get the shot San Antonio wanted.
So here is the 2012 Eurocup MVP, who began another season playing on the far side of the world suddenly smack in the middle of a playoff race.
“I was on my way home from (shootaround) today and I called my mom and told her I still can’t believe I’m in the NBA,” Beverley said. “I guess it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m enjoying it…I can finally show the world I can play basketball.”