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Game 1 Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

The heavyweight battle between Harden and Westbrook is finally here, but which team will come out on top?

Ben Nadeau

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Well, it’s finally here.

For months, fans and analysts alike have debated a hotly contested MVP race led by this series’ two biggest stars: James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Now facing off in the first round of the playoffs, the two superstars will look to extend their historically great seasons for a few more weeks. While the regular season saw the third-seeded Houston Rockets take three of four games from the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’d be nearly impossible to count out Westbrook and his never-say-die attitude. The pair of former teammates could combine for a double-digit triple-double total, but this series will swing on the contrasting styles of play around them.

#3 — Houston Rockets

In one corner, there’s James Harden, the inventive left-handed assassin that’s a threat from every spot on the court. Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Westbrook’s tidy triple-double count, Harden still managed to stuff the box score all season, averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and a staggering 11.2 assists per contest, a league-high. Sporting a record of 55-27, however, it’s hard to pin the Rockets’ success on just Harden’s MVP-worthy campaign. Firing with reckless abandon alongside Harden are Sixth Man of the Year candidates Eric Gordon and Louis Williams, the perennially great sharpshooter Ryan Anderson and the defensively stout Patrick Beverley.

Orchestrated by Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets surrounded Harden with some of the league’s most lethal shooters after letting Dwight Howard walk in unrestricted free agency last summer. Almost immediately, the previously underwhelming roster blossomed. Under D’Antoni, the Rockets have embraced their long range inclinations and attempted an otherworldly 40.3 three-pointers a game, an NBA record, en route to becoming one of the best offenses in league history.

In fact, the Rockets led the league with 14.1 three-pointers made per game, a mark that blows the Thunder’s 26th-ranked average of 8.4 out of the water. Should Houston take care of business from deep, that alone may bury the lower-seeded team in this series.

And yet, for all that scoring firepower, the defense was often an entirely different story. Middling at best, the Rockets’ defensive rating came in at 106.4, good for 18th in the NBA and even with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. For a team that has championship aspirations, their defensive shortcomings should certainly be a cause for concern.

But first, a Westbrook-sized obstacle lies ahead of the Rockets. This is a defensive assignment that’ll fall squarely on the shoulders of Beverley, a tough-nosed guard willing step up to the Thunder’s out-of-this-world floor general.

For the Rockets, their gameplan should be simple enough: let Westbrook get his. It sounds silly, perhaps, but even during some of Westbrook’s most heroic regular season performances, he couldn’t always pull it off against some of the league’s elite franchises. Of Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles, nine of them came in a loss. So, if Houston takes care of business from behind the arc, the Rockets will only need to outlast Westbrook, not drive a wooden stake through his heart.

#6 — Oklahoma City Thunder

For the Oklahoma City Thunder and the enigmatic Westbrook, the plan is far simpler: get Russell the ball and get out of the way. From game-winning buzzer-beaters to legendary triple-doubles, Westbrook has undeniably achieved one of the best individual seasons in NBA history. Usually overpowered and outgunned, the Thunder often needed every point, rebound and assist from Westbrook to stay within striking range on most nights.

In return, of course, Westbrook averaged the first triple-double in league history since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson did in 1961-62.

After Kevin Durant’s unceremonious departure last summer, a new ruthless Westbrook emerged from the ashes of a broken-hearted franchise to lead the Thunder to a better-than-anticipated 47-35 record. Without the services of long-time shot-blocking stalwart Serge Ibaka, the Thunder relied on the talents of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo to buoy Westbrook’s one-of-a-kind efforts — something that often ran in hot and cold streaks.

Jumpstarted by the trade deadline acquisitions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott from the Chicago Bulls, the Thunder finished the season 14-10 and should feel confident heading into the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. If Westbrook’s unmovable mass can help the Thunder steal a game on the road, all bets are off in what should be one of the playoffs’ highest scoring series.

Similarly to Beverley, the Thunder have a defensive answer for Harden and his name is Andre Roberson, a legitimate candidate to be selected to his first-ever All-Defensive team this awards season. Roberson is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and if he can impact some of Harden’s fluid effortlessness, the series has potential to go down as a classic.

Elsewhere, the banging bodies of Adams and Kanter will need to take advantage of their opportunities against Clint Capela, Nene and Anderson in the paint, but most of the Thunder defenders will also struggle to chase the latter around the arc — setting up nicely for a clash of opposing frontcourt strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the Thunder will need a major sidekick to step up consistently throughout the series if they want a chance of upsetting one of the league’s elite offenses — we’re looking at you, Oladipo.

Who Wins Game 1?

Although the Thunder certainly have the ability to cause a disruptive series, it won’t be on Sunday. With the aforementioned Anderson finally back in the swing of things after missing six games toward the end of the regular season, the Rockets’ second-highest paid player could be a difference maker in Game 1. As exhibited throughout the season, it’s tough to bet against Westbrook in these high-intensity moments, but the series will still swing on the help he receives and Roberson’s cagey defense on Harden.

The two superstars will both notch triple-doubles, but the discrepancy in the three-point shooting may be too much to overcome on the road for Oklahoma City. Look for the Rockets to capitalize on their homecourt advantage in an emotional (and tight) series opener.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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