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Game 5 Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

Turns out it’s tough to beat a team that shoots 44 percent from three-point range, writes Benny Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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When James Harden and his electric cast of shooters are locked in, they’re nearly impossible to stop — just ask Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard. And for all the possible ways to win a game, there’s just simply no answer for a team that can knock down 44 percent of their three-point attempts.

Harden’s 28 points and 12 assists led the way in Game 4’s crucial 125-104 victory at home against the San Antonio Spurs. After a tightly contested first half, eight three-pointers in the third quarter broke it open for the Rockets, who’ll head back to San Antonio with the series tied at 2-2.

As Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post elegantly put it: If the Rockets shoot well from three, they’re going to win.

For the Spurs, their elite regular season defense has been no match at times for the Rockets’ long distance strategy, and paid the price again in Game 4. While Leonard is undeniably one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, what can be done against a side that regularly sports just two rotation players that don’t shoot three-pointers? Even without those centers on Sunday — Nene got hurt two minutes into his stint and Clint Capela dealt with foul trouble for large chunks of the game — the Rockets used Ryan Anderson at the position to great impact as well (13 points, four rebounds, 5-for-11).

If not for an impressive stint off the bench from Jonathon Simmons (17 points, four rebounds and two steals), then it could have been even worse for San Antonio. The Spurs have already adjusted to one blowout victory by the Rockets, and the insertion of Gasol into the starting lineup was a game-changer at the time, but Popovich will have his hands full once again.

Eric Gordon was a one-man wrecking machine off the bench, hoisting up shot after shot to the tune of 22 points and a wild 6-for-9 mark from three-point range. Gordon was one of seven Rockets in double-figures, and he and Lou Williams have traded off bludgeoning the opposing team’s weaker second unit all postseason. Even better, the Rockets averaged 15.1 turnovers per game during the regular season in their quick-paced, risk-heavy offense, good for the sixth-highest mark in the league. On Sunday, however, the Rockets turned the ball over just nine times in a 125-point scoring effort — in reality, the Spurs were nothing but bystanders in Game 4.

The Spurs have looked fantastic in this series when the Rockets aren’t impossibly red-hot from deep. In Games 1 and 4, the Rockets made 22 and 19 three-pointers, respectively. In their Game 2 and 3 losses, Houston tallied a combined total of just 23. That isn’t to say that the Spurs’ hopes of moving on simply boil down to more poor shooting efforts for the Rockets — no, that would be a massive disservice to Popovich, Leonard and an entire franchise of championship winners. Still, it’s getting harder to ignore that the Spurs may just be too slow to keep up with the Rockets’ pinging perimeter offense for a full 48 minutes.

Harden just has far too many weapons to choose from in the pick-and-roll, presenting a choose-your-own-poison situation for the Spurs. With Leonard understandably not switching off of Harden, it asks too much of the Spurs’ big man, often Aldridge, who must then quickly chase Anderson or roll to the rim with Capela. When Leonard isn’t on the floor, Harden often gets to the rim with ease and if any help comes, the MVP candidate is more than happy to dump it off.

To the credit of head coach Mike D’Antoni, it’s a strategy that’s far easier to describe than defend, but the Spurs must look to replicate their Game 2 success on Harden. When they do that, the Spurs look like they belong. However, when a team hits 44 percent of their three-pointers, that’s going to make them pretty tough to beat, even with the best two-way player in the world on the opposing side.

Who Wins Game 5?

It’s May, which means it would be extremely foolhardy to doubt Popovich and the Spurs, but, again, 19 three-pointers! Everybody that was expected to contribute from deep did — Gordon the high man at six, Williams the low at just one — and that’s something the Spurs aren’t very well-equipped to stop. Although the Rockets announced the loss of Nene for the remainder of the postseason with a left adductor tear, Anderson found success at center in Game 4. Aside from throwing Dewayne Dedmon into the fire in hopes of changing the defensive tides, Popovich may not have a ton of cards left to play.

The Rockets probably won’t go 19-for-43 from deep again, especially so on the road for Game 5. However, until the Spurs prove they can handle the barrage better, Houston will keep their crucial edge for now. Look for the Rockets to put the Spurs on the ropes in Game 5 and take series lead before the elimination games begin.

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: Second-Round Draft Steals to Watch

Several possible second round picks have a chance to make an impact at the NBA level, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Draft is upon us this week. The hopes and dreams of many basketball players will become reality. Each year there are players who are drafted in the second round who end up outperforming their draft selection spot.

A premium has been placed on draft picks in recent years. Even second round picks have become extremely valuable. For a team like the Golden State Warriors whose payroll might limit their ability to sign quality rotation players (veterans taking discounts to win a ring notwithstanding), smart drafting has seen them scoop up steals like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell. Both those players have emerged as key rotation guys on a championship team, and both were taken in the second round.

The second round is an opportunity to pick up overlooked young talent on cheap contracts. Sure, it’s rare to get a Manu Ginobili or an Isaiah Thomas or a Draymond Green that goes on to become an All-Star caliber player, but plenty of quality contributors can be found.

Here’s a look at a few guys who have a great chance at becoming second round steals.

1. Allonzo Trier – Arizona

Outside of DeAndre Ayton, there may not have been a more valuable player to the Arizona Wildcats last season than Allonzo Trier. He was the Wildcats second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. There have been questions about his supposed selfish style of play, but he’s been a solidly efficient player his three years at Arizona.

This past season as a junior, he shot 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. Over his three years in college, he was a 47.5 percent shooter from the field and a 37.8 percent shooter from the three-point line. He’s also an 82.3 percent shooter from the line. And he did dish out 3.2 assists this past season.

Trier is a scorer, plain and simple, an efficient one at that. Despite this, his name has failed to appear on many mock drafts. The few that actually project the second round as well have him being drafted near the end. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Trier has great size for a shooting guard in the NBA. A sixth man type scorer is probably his best projection at the next level.

2. Brandon McCoy – UNLV

The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t quite have such a noteworthy year, which might explain a little about why Brandon McCoy is flying under the radar. UNLV posted a 20-13 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite that, McCoy managed to emerge as their biggest bright spot.

In his lone college season, he led UNLV in scoring with 16.9 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. He also pulled down 10.8 rebounds per game and was their leading shot blocker at 1.8 blocks per game. For a big man, he shot a semi-decent 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.

He has good size, he’s a legit seven-footer. He moves well on the floor and with some work, can be a very good defensive player. Part of what might be causing him to get overlooked is he doesn’t have much in terms of a mid-range game, a necessity for big men in today’s NBA game. But that can be worked on. At any rate, he can be a high energy big off the bench, good to come in and block some shots, grabs some boards and clean up around the rim. Every team could use a guy like that.

3. Devonte Graham – Kansas

One year ago, Devonte Graham’s Jayhawk teammate Frank Mason III was also being overlooked in the draft. Like Graham, the major issue working against him was his status as a four-year college player. Mason went on to be one of the bright spots for the Sacramento Kings, establishing himself as a legit NBA point guard.

This summer, Graham is looking to do the same. Mason was also a bit on the shorter side, coming in at 5-foot-11. Graham has little more size than that at 6-foot-2. He was the Jayhawks best player for most of the year, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 40.6 percent from the three-point line. He also dished out 7.2 assists per game.

Most mock drafts have consistently had Graham being drafted early to middle second round. Being a college senior, he has leadership abilities. He’d be perfect for any team looking for a solid point guard off the bench.

4. Chimezie Metu – USC

For much of the mock draft season, Chimezie Metu’s name appeared as a first round selection. But in recent weeks, as other names began to climb up the draft ladder, Metu it appears has fallen back into the second-round. It’s interesting though, as his skill set for a big man appears to project well in today’s NBA game.

He was the Trojans’ best player as a junior this past season. He put up 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds while averaging 1.7 blocked shots. Although the percentages may not reflect that, he has an improving jump shot. He’s quick and mobile defensively.

He’s got all the tools be able to guard the post as well as switch out and guard other positions if need be. With a little more work, he can be a good jump shooter. With the evolution of today’s game, Metu has the perfect build and talent to find success as a modern NBA big man.

5. Tony Carr – Penn State

Tony Carr has been a consistent second round pick in most mock drafts. There has been the occasional one here or there that had him being drafted at the end of the first-round, but the second round is most likely where he’ll hear his name called.

Carr was the best player for a Nittany Lions team that ended up winning the NIT. This past season as a sophomore, he put up 19.6 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from the three-point line. He was able to pull down 4.9 rebounds per game and he dished out 5.0 assists.

He can play both guard positions and create for himself or his teammates. There have been question marks about his athleticism and ability to defend at the NBA level, but all a team needs for him to do is come in off the bench, run the offense a bit and get a few buckets. He’s definitely capable of doing that.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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The NBA world nearly stopped last week when reports circulated that Kawhi Leonard wanted out from San Antonio.

All of a sudden, within a few days, both he and Kyrie Irving were both reportedly open-minded about taking their talents to New York.

And while either (or both) of the two would look great as Knicks uniforms, they’d look much better in orange and blue in 2019.

After all, only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it… Next year.

If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that.

This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash this summer or whether he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.

The right play for the Knicks is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding each of them to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.

The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks could have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of landing both Leonard and Irving, but instead of trading the farm for them, they’d have a realistic shot at signing them. They’d be adding them to the core instead of sacrificing it for them. Imagine that.

From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.

Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in playing in New York when he’s able to test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that he could opt to take his talents elsewhere.

Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team, even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. He’s no Steve Nash, but he is truly special. Just don’t tell the national media that.

Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.

Going from Leonard and Irving to Walker and Butler might seem like a sad story of riches to rags, but one could very easily make the argument that adding two high-quality All-Star caliber starters to a core featuring Porzingis, Ntilikina and two lottery picks would do more to make the Knicks contenders than unloading the cupboard in an attempt to bring one in.

If that sounds like exactly what the Celtics did, that’s because it is. The Lakers, too. There’s a reason why they’re the most winningest franchises in NBA history, it would seem.

One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.

So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge. 

So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.

“Prove it.”

Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.

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Ranking the Free Agents – Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues to evaluate the top free agents at each position. David Yapkowitz breaks down the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at the top free agents set to the open market in just a few weeks. We’ve already covered the point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Now we check in with the power forwards.

There may only be a few power forwards who can probably expect a max or near max deal this summer, but there are quite a few guys that, for the right price, can end up being difference makers on a team next season.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump to $101 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$25,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$30,300,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$35,350,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

Max/Near Max Guys

Julius Randle* – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,149,242

Julius Randle is definitely in line for a bigger payday this summer. The fourth-year forward turned in his best NBA season yet and was arguably the Lakers best player for most of the year. He played in all 82 games with 49 starts.

He put up career-high numbers across the board with 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Most of Randle’s scoring comes in the paint where his “bully” ball type game has proven quite effective. He has an improving jump shot and at 23 years old, he still has his best years ahead of him.

He will be a restricted free agent, giving the Lakers the ability to match any offer he receives, but doing so could come at the expense of signing two max-level free agents as has been the team’s plan. It’s going to be an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as Randle most likely will attract interest right away from potential suitors thus forcing the Lakers hand early on in free agency.

Aaron Gordon* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $5,504,420

Aaron Gordon will also most likely receive a max or near max contract his summer. Early in the season when the Orlando Magic started out hot, Gordon was playing like an All-Star and even a borderline MVP candidate.

The Magic’s play then went rapidly south, but Gordon finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all career-highs. At the beginning of the season, he displayed a much improved three-point shot. The Magic have tried him at small forward before, but he’s a natural at power forward.

Gordon is also a restricted free agent allowing the Magic to match any offer. At age 22, he should also have his best years ahead of him. For a team like the Magic, in need of talent and quality young players, re-signing Gordon is probably ideal. But it’s also important to note that the Magic have a newer front office in place, one that did not draft Gordon. It’s also possible that John Hammond and Jeff Weltman might want to shape the roster in their vision.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Jabari Parker* – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Season’s Salary: $6,782,392

Jabari Parker is perhaps one of the most interesting and intriguing names on the free agent market. A former No. 2 overall pick, as a rookie Parker looked like he was definitely part of the Bucks growing young core. Unfortunately for him, injuries struck him hard as he suffered two ACL tears during a three-year period.

This season, he struggled a bit to find a role with the Bucks. There’s no question that if he’s healthy, he’d be quite an asset to any team. He represents the new breed of power forward with a perimeter game. Prior to his injuries, he’d almost assuredly be a max contract guy. It’s a bit difficult to imagine any team willing to pay him anywhere close to that now.

The Bucks have the option to match any contract offer he gets as he is a restricted free agent. It’s conceivable that they would do so as it will probably take a massive offer to pry Parker away from the Bucks. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to go that high.

Thaddeus Young** – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $14,796,348

Thaddeus Young could be another intriguing power forward on the free agent market. The thing with Young is he has a player option he could choose to exercise and become a free agent. Never an All-Star, Young has been a steady and dependable player his entire career.

His numbers were a bit under his career averages this season. He put up 11.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and he pulled down 6.3 rebounds. Nevertheless, he remained an important part of the Pacers rotation, especially on the defensive end.

Should he hit the open market, there likely wouldn’t be any shortage of suitors.

Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – Last Season’s Salary: $12,000,000

Ed Davis – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Season’s Salary: $6,352,531

Montrezl Harrell* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mid-Level Or Below Guys

Mike Scott – Washington Wizards – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Ersan Ilyasova – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $357,454

Trevor Booker – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $332,516

David West – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Nemanja Bjelica* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Season’s Salary: $3,949,999

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mike Muscala** – Atlanta Hawks – Last Season’s Salary: $5,000,000

Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $11,000,000

Channing Frye – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Season’s Salary: $7,420,912

Quincy Acy – Brooklyn Nets – Last Season’s Salary: $1,709,538

*Qualifying Offer (If made, the player becomes a restricted free agent.)
**Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent.)

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