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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon Turning It Up

The Houston Rockets recently visited Salt Lake City and Jordan Hicks got to witness Eric Gordon drop a 50-point effort. He caught up with him and a few others within the organization after the game and details what was discussed.

Jordan Hicks

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After a career-high 50-point night against the Utah Jazz last Monday, Eric Gordon seems to be turning a corner on the season.

His numbers up to this point, as a whole, have been some of the worst of his career. Some of it is health, some of it can be traced to a new role after the departure of Chris Paul and addition of Russell Westbrook. Regardless, he’s been shooting a career-low 38.4 percent from the field and has averaged his smallest number ever for assists, too. He’s right around his average the last few years of 16 points per night, albeit not as efficient as he’s been in the past.

However, he’s recently been getting back to form. In the last 10 games, he’s poured in 22.1 points per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three. Over his last five, he’s at 25.2 points a night, although that number is slightly skewed from the aforementioned 50-point effort.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t surprised about Gordon’s recent uptick in play and he attributes a lot of it to his improving health.

“He’s pain-free for the first time in a year and a half,” said D’Antoni, “There will be ups and downs like always. Eric‘s going to be good, so as long as he’s not hurting he’s going to be good.”

And good Gordon was.

With a depleted Houston roster missing James Harden, Clint Capela and Westbrook, Gordon preceded to drop a 50-burger on a surging Utah side. He was attacking Rudy Gobert at the rim, draining deep threes in Donovan Mitchell’s face and looking as locked in as he’s ever been. The crazy part about this high-scoring effort? He hasn’t dropped more than 40 points in a game since his rookie year, which was 11 years ago.

Austin Rivers had plenty to say regarding Gordon’s special night, too.

“You just marvel at it, he’s like a bowling ball when he drives to the basket, dudes just bounce off him. He’s so low to the ground.” Rivers continued, “He’s so strong, Eric is built like a fullback – you know his body. Seriously, I always tell people, he picked the right sport – obviously, it’s worked out well for him – but I think he could’ve played in the NFL too because he’s just so strong.”

Watching Gordon continually take it to Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, was supremely impressive — even to his teammates.

“There was times where Gobert was trying to, I mean, they just bounce off of him.” Rivers said. “His range is ridiculous. Eric’s a guy that if he played on a lot of other teams, he has All-Star capability.

“And he sacrifices a lot for this team so tonight you saw full effect how good he is.”

If the Rockets want to achieve their goal of an NBA championship — one that has been so elusive to them the past few years — they’ll need Gordon to be the best version of himself. The fact that his body is back to 100 percent is crucial, undeniable. A three-headed dragon of Harden, Westbrook and Gordon in the playoffs could be killer to whichever franchise unfortunately comes across it.

“Tonight was just a special night for me. It means a lot that we won. I just want our team to build off of this, but it is special for me for sure.”

Without question, that effort against Utah was incredible. He was 14-for-22 from the field and added 16 points from the charity stripe. But his attitude post-game was heavily team-focused. “Yeah I had it going, but other guys played well. It was like a team effort. The most meaningful thing is that we won.”

When asked if the Rockets had a nothing to lose mentality going into the game – what with Westbrook, Harden and Capela out and all – Gordon meditated on a team-centered focus once again.

“No question. The other team, they probably let down a little bit, but we just kept on playing, you know, we played hard. We just didn’t beat ourselves. We made mistakes a little bit, but we really didn’t beat ourselves. We made plays throughout the whole game.”

The Rockets got ahead early and never relinquished a lead in the second half and Gordon’s consistent play on offense was a large part of that. He was asked about his health, to which he said, “I feel like I’m getting back to being myself. I told everybody when you have surgery during the season, it’s always going to be a process. Now it’s just all about us collectively together, playing for one another — because we can do this thing, we just got to turn this thing around and win a lot of games.”

While Gordon is right, there’s little speculation that the Rockets have much to worry about. There haven’t been many moments this season where all three of Gordon, Westbrook and Harden have clicked together and, yet, they are still fifth in the West, and just three games out of the No. 2 seed. If the Rockets can clinch home-court in the first round, that might be enough for them to eventually punch a ticket to the Western Conference Finals.

“How we played tonight is how we need to play. We got after it defensively, we just went out there and played,” Gordon told Basketball Insiders. “We just played our game. Everybody contributed and that’s what made things a lot easier.”

Eric Gordon is a major key to the Rockets’ success — but he’s absolutely right in saying that a collective effort from the team definitely eases the burden. The less Houston has to rely on heroics from one James Harden, the better off they’ll be.

Almost at the All-Star break, the Rockets are surely trending upwards. Westbrook is finally playing solid basketball, Gordon is back to full health and Harden is still a complete MVP-worthy package.

There’s little reason to believe that Houston has anywhere else to go but up — but how high? That’s still anybody’s best guess.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads

Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.

A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.

  • They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
  • They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
  • They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.

Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.

The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.

He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.

There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?

To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.

It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.

Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.

And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…

And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.

For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.

Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.

An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.

So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.

At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.

Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.

So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.

Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.

At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.

That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.

But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.

Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.

And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.

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NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect

Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.

Drew Maresca

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Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.

Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.

But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.

Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.

But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.

“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”

High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.

Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.  

But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.

Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).

So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.

Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.

Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols

Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.

Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.

Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.

“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”

So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.

Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.

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Dennis’ Defense Key to Lakers’ Title Run

The Lakers realize that they need Anthony Davis in order to defend their title. After four games without Dennis Schroder, they also understand the true value of their starting point guard.

Chad Smith

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As of late, the path to an 18th championship banner has gotten more difficult for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team had lost four games in a row and five of their last six before Friday night’s victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. With Anthony Davis sidelined until after the All-Star break, Frank Vogel is forced to rely on the team’s depth and experience to navigate through the next four weeks.

The absence of Davis has undoubtedly put more of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of LeBron James, but that may not be in the best interest of the Lakers in the long run. While James has been adamant about playing every game and earning his fifth MVP trophy, he has nothing to prove to anyone. Even at the age of 36, James is still widely regarded as the best player in the world.

A healthy and motivated superstar like James is a nice luxury to have, but the void left by Davis needs to be filled collectively by the rest of the roster. Kyle Kuzma figured to slide right into a prominent role with Davis sidelined but Kuzma himself then had a back strain that forced him to miss some time. Over his last three games, Kuzma is averaging just 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 28 percent from the field.

The rest of the frontcourt players – Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Markieff Morris – have needed to step up their production but haven’t been able to do so on a consistent basis. The Lakers even tried using smaller lineups with Wesley Matthews and Talen Horton-Tucker receiving an uptick in minutes. Vogel was then blindsided with another blow to his roster.

Dennis Schroder was forced to miss four straight games due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Schroder has quietly been a brilliant addition, providing valuable on-ball and perimeter defense to this Lakers team. While there was a lot of buzz heading into the season after Los Angeles acquired the point guard from Oklahoma City, many wondered how he would fit in with the starting unit.

Schroder stated before the season that he envisioned himself as the starting point guard, taking some of the responsibility and burden of running the offense away from James. To his credit, he has been exceptional in that area, and Vogel has praised the guard for earning the starting role. Schroder’s defense has been a tremendous boost for the Lakers, and the numbers tell the story.

Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense, ranking first in defensive rating (105.8) and second in opponent scoring (106.1), according to Basketball-Reference. They also boast a top-five net rating and lead the league in blocks as a team.

James has referred to the 27-year old as ‘Dennis The Menace’ for good reason. Schroder has been a tenacious defender on the perimeter and a real pest for opposing point guard. This is where his value to the team is noticed the most, glaringly obviously without him on the floor.

In their highly-anticipated matchup last Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets, Vogel was looking forward to sticking Schroder on Kyrie Irving in an attempt to slow down one of the best offenses in NBA history. Obviously, that didn’t happen, as Irving and James Harden had their way with the Lakers’ backcourt.

In their next game against the Miami HEAT, Kendrick Nunn scored 27 points in their win over Los Angeles. The Washington Wizards defeated the Lakers as Russell Westbrook (33) and Bradley Beal (32) scored at will. The Utah Jazz throttled the Lakers as well and Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell each nearly had a triple-double. In Schroder’s return, the Lakers not only won the game but were also able to hold Portland’s seventh-ranked offense to just 93 points.

Schroder had started all 29 games this season before that game against Brooklyn. Offensively, he has been quite consistent this season when comparing his two previous years in Oklahoma City. He started just 16 times in his 144 games in Oklahoma City, often playing behind Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. His shot attempts are down this season – but his free-throw attempts are up as he gets to the rim and thriving in his role as a playmaker.

Beyond that, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft had been having a sensational February. Last month, he averaged 17 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor, 38 percent from three-point range and 88 percent from the free-throw line.

When Davis and James are on the floor together, they’re able to feed off of one another and stagger their offensive aggressiveness. Without Davis, it will be more important for Schroder to generate the offense while keeping up his tenacity on defense. Simply put, those are things that no other point guard on the roster can provide.

It may not have been the extended absence that Davis is facing, but Schroder missing games in the future could cost them in terms of playoff seeding. The Western Conference is loaded as now the Lakers must fend off the Phoenix Suns for the third seed. With the rest of the season’s games being unveiled last week, the Lakers have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league.

Stopping or slowing opposing point guards will be a difficult task for the Lakers without Schroder in the lineup. Guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Jamal Murray can cause problems, and that’s just in the Western Conference. Should Los Angeles meet a team like the Nets in the Finals, Schroder’s defensive prowess will be vital to their success.

The good news for the Lakers is that seeding shouldn’t matter as much this season. Despite some fans being allowed into arenas, there are no expectations of having anything near full attendance later this season. The home-court advantage is minimal, and if the Lakers are fully healthy for the postseason they should still be the favorites as the defending champions.

Like all contenders, Los Angeles will be very active in the buyout market. Finding an inside defensive presence is crucial, while shooting upgrades will be available too. But what will be most difficult to find is an asset like Schroder, a contributor that provides so much on both sides of the ball.

Aside from James and Davis, Schroder just might be the most important player for the Lakers as they prepare to defend their title.

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