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Game 1 Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

Harden vs. Leonard. Offense vs. Defense. Who will come out on top in the crucial series opener?

Ben Nadeau

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After both sides took care of business in the first round, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets are set to lock horns in the Western Conference semifinals. As the best two teams in the league that didn’t have Kevin Durant join them last summer, the Texas-based sides dominated all season as polar opposites. These franchises have been fated to face off in the postseason for much of the year, pitting a stout defense against one of the league’s best offenses of all-time.

Just as James Harden defeated one of his competitors for MVP honors last round, he’ll be asked to take down the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard next. Although the Spurs took the regular season series with a 3-1 record, the Rockets have the offensive firepower to outpace any team on a given night.

But can they do it four times against Gregg Popovich and the No. 1 ranked defense in the league?

#2 — San Antonio Spurs

The more things change, the more they stay the same — and, once again, the Spurs are a great basketball team. Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA and Popovich continues to prove his case as one of the best coaches in league history. Flanked by the aging-but-playoff-worthy future Hall of Famers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the typically steady play of LaMarcus Aldridge and long-range threats in Danny Green and Patty Mills, the Spurs have a well-constructed roster. And, as most Spurs teams go, it’s one that is suited for another deep postseason run.

Yet, the Spurs had their hands full in their 4-2 series victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Of course, the Grizzlies have long been a tough playoff out, but San Antonio collectively had no answer for Mike Conley. The Memphis point guard averaged 24.7 points and 7.0 assists as he wreaked havoc on the Spurs’ top-rated defense (100.9 points per-100-possessions allowed in the regular season).

Yes, Patrick Beverley is no Conley, that’s for sure, but the bulldog defender had quite the series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and may relish the opportunity to go against Parker and Mills instead of Russell Westbrook for 35 minutes a game. Look for the Spurs to go to Aldridge as much as possible in this series, as he’ll be most often guarded by Ryan Anderson or another smaller player. While Anderson isn’t a sieve defensively, he’s far more suited to collecting rebounds and hanging out on the perimeter than banging in the post.

Aldridge struggled at times against Memphis, shooting just 3-for-8 in Game 2 and then 5-for-13 in Game 5. If Aldridge can get that wonderful mid-range and post-up game cooking right away, it’ll open up the rest of the floor against the 18th-ranked Houston defense.

However, the Spurs’ crème de la crème is the aforementioned Leonard, the soft-spoken lockdown defender that Popovich called the best player in the league after they eliminated the Grizzlies on Thursday. With Leonard dedicating most of his on-court time to defending the opposing team’s superstar (sorry, James), the Spurs ranked second in opponent points per game in 2016-17 — a feat they’ll need to replicate against the (usually) unconscious shooting of the Rockets.

Harden, for the most part, slogged through the series with the Thunder, hounded constantly by Andre Roberson, a legitimate contender for some NBA All-Defensive honors. In Games 4 and 5, Harden shot a combined 13-for-41 from the floor, but his free throw shooting was often enough to propel the Rockets to victory. The bearded MVP candidate loves to draw fouls — as many Thunder players found out the hard way — but particularly so out on the perimeter. If Leonard can limit those cheap, free points for the Rockets’ star, the pressure will fall firmly on his supporting cast to pick up the slack, something that ran hot and cold in the first round.

Leonard averaged a healthy 28.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 50 percent shooting in the Rockets and Spurs’ four regular season matchups — can he carry the load offensively while frustrating Harden for four quarters? The Klaw is, by far, the most compelling storyline headed into this juggernaut showdown between contrasting styles.

#3 — Houston Rockets

For the Houston Rockets and all the pre-series bluster about their historically great three-point shooting, their cast of characters came up short against the Thunder. The Rockets, who averaged 14.4 made three-pointers on 35.7 percent during the regular season, saw their numbers from deep plummet through the six hard-fought contests. Overall, Houston went 48-for-170 on three-pointers in the series (28.2 percent) but that’s a total that you’d expect to rise, even against San Antonio.

Even then, however, the Rockets still found other ways to win, dispelling the lower-seeded Thunder in a slew of unexpected ways. From Beverley’s inspired play to the unexpected bench flurries from Lou Williams, somebody new was there to step up alongside Harden each night. All series, the Rockets took advantage of quality mismatches against Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Taj Gibson as Harden picked apart the defense time and time again. If there’s a semblance of consistent improvement from the likes of Anderson, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, then the Rockets will like their odds to hang tough with the Spurs.

Anderson, in particular, can only go up after a poor 13-for-39 showing in five games against the Thunder. But while the usual suspects traded off on carrying the load behind Harden, it was the surprise contributions of Nene that pushed the tightly-contested series in their favor. Nene averaged just 9.1 points per game in the regular season, but surpassed that mark in three games against Oklahoma City, including his masterful 28-point and 10-rebound effort on 12-for-12 shooting in Game 4. Against Pau Gasol, whose best defending days are well behind him, the Brazilian veteran should be a favorite to pitch in heavily off the bench once again.

Even with Leonard defending him, Harden should continue to put up some fantastic statistical lines, but he’ll need to be a little more efficient from the field at times as well. Harden attempted 73 free throws in just five games, something that a Popovich-coached team will assuredly look to cut down on in this series. Of course, Harden had his struggles with Roberson, just as he will with Leonard, but the Rockets love to get him switched onto a big or lesser defender at the top of the key.

Additionally, the Rockets are poised to get Sam Dekker back from a hand fracture he suffered in early April. Dekker hasn’t played in about four weeks, but his energy off the bench could be interesting should head coach Mike D’Antoni re-insert him into the shortened rotation the Rockets have generally worked with this postseason.

Harden will likely get his fill one way or another, but the series will hinge on getting more consistent performances from his teammates. Beverley’s energetic 21 points in Game 1 and 15 in Game 2 were huge reasons why the Rockets took their commanding lead in the series. On the flip side, however, he managed just one point in Game 3, a compelling argument for a big reason behind the Thunder’s sole win of the series. More often than not, the Rockets can get away with those nights against a team like Oklahoma City, but the well-oiled San Antonio machine is an entirely different beast.

Who Wins Game 1?

The Spurs struggled with their first round opponent more than the Rockets did, but they took three of four games from the in-state rivals during the regular season. Although their margin of victory in the three wins was by a total of 10 points, it’s enough to back Leonard, Popovich, three other Hall of Famers and the rest of the Spurs at home in Game 1.

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

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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