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Game 5 Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Can the Oklahoma City Thunder stave off elimination in Game 5?

Ben Nadeau



The Houston Rockets are a dangerous and scary basketball team.

Somehow, someway, more often than not, they win games. If James Harden is struggling, Eric Gordon is there to pick up the slack. If Patrick Beverley shoots just 2-for-13, that’s no issue either because Nene will gladly erupt for 28 points without missing a single attempt. Even when one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league is hitting just 32 percent from deep in the series, the Rockets have still figured out how to still come out on top, no matter how they manage to get to that final buzzer.

That’s very bad news for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who now must win or go home in Game 5.

After another hard-fought effort through the third quarter, the Thunder were unable to grind out a victory in a must-win contest at home in Game 4, falling 113-109. Ultimately, the Rockets have been too good and too deadly when the moments have mattered most — a label that simply cannot be shared by their opponents. Now with Oklahoma City looking to stave off elimination on the road in Game 5, they’ll need to be better than ever and decide what to do with Andre Roberson in the fourth quarter.

Roberson, who is set to cash in as a restricted free agent this summer, has been one of the Thunder’s best players this postseason. Coming into the playoffs, his All-NBA-worthy defense was considered his strongest attribute, but it has been his surprisingly efficient offense that has turned heads against the Rockets. Unfortunately for him, Roberson, a career 49.3 percent free throw shooter, was forced to attempt 12 of them in Game 4 — of which he made just two. Employing the “Hack-A” strategy with the lead was intriguing, but with the Thunder committed to Roberson’s defensivve impact on Harden, the Rockets sent him to the line over and over again.

By the time Thunder head coach Billy Donovan finally pulled the plug, it was already too late momentum-wise and now his team finds itself in 3-1 series deficit. And if Mike D’Antoni’s postgame answer about the strategy is any indication, Donovan will need a clear, concise game plan should the Rockets go after Roberson again in Game 5.

“I’d probably vote against it if they asked the coaches,” D’antoni said. “I don’t like it. It’s not great for basketball, but it’s a rule and we’ll take advantage of it.”

Elsewhere, more of the same issues reared their head for the Thunder as there was not enough help for Westbrook. And while Westbrook shut down any talk of the team struggling without him on the floor during Sunday’s postgame interviews, it’s still been the Thunder’s biggest weakness in the series.

Enes Kanter was a solid Sixth Man of the Year candidate in 2016-17, but in this series, Donovan’s only been able to play him a total of 41 minutes. Somehow, Norris Cole was outscored by 18 points in the nine minutes he was on the floor for Oklahoma City in Game 4, and Taj Gibson’s difference-making Game 3 (20 points) evaporated to the tune of just six points and two rebounds in 22 minutes.

So, in the end, this is more or less a eulogy for Oklahoma City — a team driven by a historically great MVP candidate. The Thunder’s performance so far in this series is a stark reminder that nobody can do it alone. Westbrook, who notched a triple-double in the first half on Sunday, is doing and saying all the right things as the team’s leader, but the ugly truth remains the same. There’s not enough consistent firepower here for the Thunder to push any situation in their favor, despite the slim margins of defeat, other than in Game 1.

For example, there’s been little said about Lou Williams in this series. Outside of a shaky 3-for-11 start in Game 1, he’s been fantastic for Houston, racking up totals of 21, 22 and 18 points on 51.8 percent shooting in the subsequent contests. Needless to say, Westbrook would kill for that type of consistent play off the bench. It’s nothing against the Thunder, nor an argument to discredit Westbrook’s one-of-a-kind season, but there’s a reason why they’re just the sixth-best team in the conference.

At this point, the Thunder need perfection in three straight games to upset Houston, a challenge that’ll have Donovan turning over every page in the book for an edge. As for Houston, they’ll keep humming along — even as they continue to struggle from three-point range — just waiting for their chance to land the knockout blow. While the Thunder have, of course, relied heavily on Westbrook, the Rockets have benefited from somebody new stepping up in each contest — in Game 4, that was Nene.

The Brazilian veteran scored his highest point total in any game since late Feb. 2014 with 28 off the bench in 25 minutes of action. As an extra boost, Trevor Ariza scored in double-figures for the first time in the series with 14 points, adding five rebounds, three assists and three steals for good measure. Honestly, there’s not much here to add otherwise — the Rockets aren’t shooting up to their standard from deep, but they’re still winning. Harden shot just 5-for-16 in Game 4, but they still won.

Ryan Anderson, the NBA’s ninth-best three-point shooter by makes this season, had his best game of the series in their sole loss and has made just 4 of his 19 attempts outside of Game 3. And yet, you guessed it, the Rockets are still just one game away from eliminating the Thunder and moving on to the conference semi-finals.

Outlasting Westbrook hasn’t been easy, but the Rockets’ well-coached efforts have forced the Thunder into uncomfortable decisions. With Roberson poised to shoot another series of fourth-quarter free throws and Kanter glued to the bench, Donovan is quickly running out of options and opportunities to find support for Westbrook.

Who Wins Game 5?

Outside of a shaky fourth quarter in Game 2, Westbrook has been phenomenal in this series — make no mistake about that. But against an elite Western Conference opponent, the Thunder have run out of steam in just about every game thus far. There were certainly signs of life for the Thunder in Game 4, like their 14-block effort or Oladipo showing some much-needed ball handling chops without Westbrook on the floor, but if that couldn’t get things done, what will?

Back on the road where the Thunder went 19-22 during the regular season, expect another heroic performance out of Westbrook with the result staying more or less the same. The Houston Rockets should win Game 5 and send the Oklahoma City Thunder home for good. Godspeed at the free throw line, Andre.

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 AM: Calderón’s Late NBA Start

Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.

Joel Brigham



There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.

“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”

Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.

“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”

That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.

“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”

As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.

“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.

“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”

He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.

“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”

The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.

“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”

That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.

“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”

Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.

“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”

He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.

Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.

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Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race

Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.

Jesse Blancarte



When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.

More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.

Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.

He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”

Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.

“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”

Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.

“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”

Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.

“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”

Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).

The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.

When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.

“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.

He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”

There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.

“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”

Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.

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NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors

The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.

Moke Hamilton



The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.

Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.

Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.

Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.

Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.

Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.

Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.

The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.

There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.

At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.

We may be seeing that now.

En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have.  In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.

As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.

Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.

We’ll find out in short order.

* * * * * *

As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.

Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.

On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.

A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?

With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.

Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.

While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.

For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.

Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.

Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.

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