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NBA AM: Rockets Plan To Use Summer For Growth

Trades and free agent signings have thrust Houston closer to contention, now developing a championship mentality is a must

Lang Greene

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How close are the Houston Rockets to title contention?

Prior to the beginning of the 2014 campaign the Houston Rockets were forcefully thrust into the topic of title contention largely in part due to the offseason signing of All-Star center Dwight Howard. On paper, pairing Howard with fellow All-Star guard James Harden put the league on notice the franchise was ready to etch its name among the league’s elite. In reality, NBA history is littered with talented duos who need time together in order to mesh before dominating the league at large.

The Rockets raced to 54 regular season wins this season but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the upstart Portland Trail Blazers in six games.

Although the club failed to live up to many expectations and their playoff elimination sparked plenty of what ifs, Howard believes there’s no reason for his teammates to hold their heads down in disappointment and says the team’s championship mentality must be born from within.

“I’m disappointed we lost but at the same time there’s no need for me or anybody else to hold our heads down,” Howard recently said during his exit interviews. “Because even when you lose we’re all still blessed. You can’t measure your success by [championship] rings. As bad as I want a ring it doesn’t define who I am as person or a player. So I’m not going to hold my head down about it. Was I very upset? Of course. Was I hurt? Yeah. But I just have to get ready for next season.

“It starts on the inside. Guys having the right mentality no matter how many parts you put on the team. So everybody has to be on the same page. A lot of these young guys, they see that you have to be on the same page on and off the court. We all have to play for one goal and it has to be about a championship.”

Harden firmly believes the franchise has the right chips in place to contend for a title in short order, but states improving team chemistry and gaining the necessary cohesion will be important for his teammates this summer.

“I think we have more than enough to compete at a high level,” Harden said. “We got everything. It’s just a matter of us locking in making sure we’re all on the same page.

“Even though we lost in the first round we still had some great moments. We saw a lot out of the guys we needed to see. So we can just take the positives out of that and go into the summer time. We know each others’ personalities and what we can do on the court. It’s just a matter of us spending [more] time together.”

There were questions on whether head coach Kevin McHale would be back as head coach of the team next season however the Rockets’ front office quickly put any of those rumors to bed.

Harden says McHale is the right man for the job and is happy the league veteran received another chance to lead the club into battle.

“It fits for us,” Harden said of McHale and the current roster. “He’s won championships so he knows what it takes so if guys are listening to him … we know he’s been there before. But we got to come back with the mindset of wanting to win a championship next year, consistently.”

The Rockets own the No. 25 and No. 42 overall picks in this year’s draft, but title contenders rarely rely on incoming rookies to play pivotal roles in the rotation.

In order for Houston to take the next step Harden feels he must emerge as a leaders on both ends of the floor next season.

“I have to emerge,” Harden said. “I have to take another step and just be locked in. It’s a matter of will and focusing on [the defensive] end as well. Focus is a major part of the game. Talent wise, I’m there, but just focusing on the majority of the game.”

Hawks GM promises aggressive but calculated offseason in Atlanta

The Atlanta Hawks have reached the playoffs for the past seven season which ranks as one of the best active streaks in the league. However, the team hasn’t been able to round the success into an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Hawks have been able to maintain their success over the years despite an annual rotating cast of reserves, changes in franchise players going from Joe Johnson to Al Horford and three different head coaches.

Atlanta lost in the opening round of the playoffs this season versus the Indiana Pacers in seven highly contested games. But the Hawks entered the postseason as a sub .500 eighth seed and were up against the top seed in the conference.

Although the Hawks were eliminated quickly, headed into the summer the team is strongly positioned to make strides up the standings. The Hawks have cap room, draft assets and favorable contracts to deal this offseason as they make their play.

Hawks general manager Danny Ferry says this summer will be a key crossroads for the organization while trying to get over the proverbial hump and he plans to be very aggressive.

“We look forward to the summer with the draft and free agency,” Ferry said in his season ending recap interview. “This is an important summer. They’re all important summers. Hopefully we can make good decisions, take appropriate risks and continue to build on what was a good year for us.”

The Hawks managed to overcome the early season loss of Horford, while also introducing Mike Budenholzer into the fold in his first NBA head coaching assignment. Point guard Jeff Teague continues to make huge strides and the team’s marquee signing last summer, Paul Millsap, became a first time All-Star.

However, Ferry believes there’s plenty of work left to be done and feels the club is just scratching the surface.

“Obviously there’s more work to be done,” Ferry said. “But the foundation that was laid this year I think will help us going forward. We played a different way this year. We asked our guys to go out their comfort zone. Our first year coach (Budenholzer) got incredible experience this year and I think really established himself with our group and gained a good deal of trust with our group.”

The Hawks own the No. 15 and No. 43 overall picks of this year’s draft. The team is projected to have over $10 million in salary cap room this summer.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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