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NBA PM: This is Isaiah Thomas’ Time to Shine

Isaiah Thomas is arguably the Celtics’ best player and is finally in the spotlight after being underrated for years.

Alex Kennedy

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The 2014-15 NBA season featured quite a few trades prior to the February deadline. Oftentimes, there are plenty of rumors, but only a few notable deals that actually occur. But last year, there were transactions involving Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Michael Carter-Williams among others.

Perhaps that’s why the Boston Celtics’ move to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick flew under the radar a bit. After all, it wasn’t even the biggest trade that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made that afternoon since he also dealt Dragic and acquired Knight in two other deals.

However, it was a huge trade for the Celtics. Since putting on that green and white jersey, Thomas has been remarkably productive and emerged as Boston’s best player. That may seem like a strange statement considering Thomas hasn’t started a single game for Boston, but he was fantastic after the change of scenery and the fact that he produced at such a high level as a reserve makes his stats even more impressive.

IsaiahThomas_CelticsInside3Coming off of the bench in his 21 regular season games with Boston, Thomas averaged 19 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26 minutes a night. He played a huge role in Boston’s late-season playoff push and helped them land the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 40 wins – all while he was still getting acclimated to his new teammates, city, coaching staff and more.

Thomas even made history last season, becoming the first NBA player ever to average at least 16 points and four assists despite playing fewer than 26 minutes per game.

Once the playoffs started, Thomas continued to play well in the Celtics’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though it was his first time competing in the postseason, Thomas averaged 17.5 points, seven assists and three rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. He had a 22-point, 10-assist, five-rebound performance in Game 1 as well as a 21-point, nine-assist, five-rebound outing in Game 4. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland, but it was a good learning experience for their young squad.

“The playoffs were huge for us, even though we got swept by a great Cavaliers team,” Thomas said. “It was a confidence builder for us because nobody expected us to be there and nobody expected us to compete against them the way that we did. As a young team, that helps our confidence a lot. It also lets us see where we are as a team [compared to one of the NBA’s top contenders].”

After a strong offseason in which the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter among others, Thomas is confident Boston can be even better.

“This year, our goal is to make the playoffs at least and then build from there,” Thomas said. “We want to go even further than we did last year, winning a couple of games and hopefully winning at least one playoff series. We just want to continue getting better and we’re trying to build on last year.

“We added a few nice pieces and I definitely think that’s going to help us, especially playing in the Eastern Conference. David Lee is a former All-Star and an NBA champion who can help us as a veteran since he’s been one of the best power forwards in the game when given the opportunity. With Amir Johnson, every time someone brings up his name I only hear great things about him. He’s someone who brings a lot to the table and can help any team he’s on. We need that type of leadership and those kind of experienced veterans, so I liked the additions. And the young guys, the rookies we drafted, are very talented too. If given the opportunity, I definitely think they can help us out.”

Thomas ended up finishing the 2014-15 campaign as Boston’s leading scorer in the regular season and in the playoffs – topping all of the team’s starters. He has become a fan favorite and he admits that he has trouble walking around the city without being stopped a lot, which is new to him since he usually just blended in earlier in his career thanks to his 5’9 height. He appreciates that he’s being acknowledged as one of the Celtics’ best players; however, he says he won’t be satisfied until he’s acknowledged as one of the NBA’s best players.

“It’s nice – it’s pretty cool – but I want it to get to the point where everyone respects me that way and everyone looks at me as that guy,” Thomas said of being widely regarded as Boston’s best player. “I want to be that guy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to [be a star] and work tremendously hard until I’m that guy. I like having that kind of pressure on me and having everything on my shoulders. That’s what I work for: to be one of the best players in the NBA, one of the best players in the world. I want to be a guy who can carry a team. That’s what everyone wants growing up – you want to be that guy. I’ll do whatever it takes to be that. If that’s my role and what the [coaches] want me to do and what this organization sees out of me, then so be it and I’ll take full advantage of that.

“I still feel underrated, no doubt about it. I’ve always felt that way, but I’m going to earn my respect no matter what. I work extremely hard and I don’t want to be given anything. I want to earn it and get that respect from people. When you work hard on your craft – when you work as hard as the stars do – that’s how you earn people’s respect. Winning obviously takes care of everything too, and I think I did gain more respect from being on a playoff team. I just want to build on that and show the world that I’m one of the best players in the NBA.”

Thomas certainly emerged as one of Boston’s most important players last year after the trade, which becomes evident when taking a deeper look at some of his advanced statistics.

When Thomas was on the court, Boston had a remarkable 109.2 offensive rating. When he was off the court? Their offensive rating dropped to 98.8. A player’s offensive rating is the number of points their team scores per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor. Thomas’ on-court offensive rating was by far the highest of any Celtic player. Putting those numbers into perspective, a 109.2 offensive rating would’ve ranked third in the NBA last season (behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, a 98.8 offensive rating would’ve ranked 27th in the NBA (ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).

IsaiahThomas_InsideCeltics1Offensive box plus/minus is another stat that shows Thomas’ effectiveness, as it tracks how a player fared offensively per 100 possessions relative to league average. With Boston, Thomas’ OBPM was 6.4. Only four players finished with a higher OBPM last season (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden). Now Thomas’ Boston sample size is obviously smaller than those players, but his full-season OBPM of 4.6 still ranked eighth in the league.

Not to mention, Thomas was incredibly efficient last year. His player efficiency rating for the entire 2014-15 season was 20.6, ranking 32nd in the NBA and first among all reserves. He finished with a higher PER than some All-Stars, such as John Wall, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant among others. Looking solely at his time in Boston, his PER was an even better 22.3. That would’ve ranked 15th in the NBA and fourth among all points guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul).

Boston relied heavily on Thomas – and understandably so – as evidenced by his 32.1 usage percentage. Only four players were involved more than Thomas: Westbrook (38.4), Dwyane Wade (34.7), DeMarcus Cousins (34.1) and LeBron James (just barely at 32.3).

Put simply, Thomas was a tremendous deadline addition for the Celtics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas’ success was that he didn’t have any chemistry with his teammates or know head coach Brad Stevens’ system, so he was oftentimes just free-styling. Now that he’s comfortable with his teammates, coaches and plays, he expects to be even more productive in this upcoming season.

“Last season, after I got traded, everything I was doing [with the Celtics] was on the fly,” Thomas said. “It was basically like we were playing open gym. We had a lot of plays that Coach Stevens couldn’t put in because everything was happening so fast. They helped me figure some things out and let me just go out there and play. Having a full offseason to learn everything really helps me, and I think I should be even better because I’m more comfortable. I’ve learned the plays, I know the system and I have more familiarity with my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully it’s a good one.”

Thomas and Stevens have developed a solid bond and were in contact with one another quite a bit over the offseason.

“We have a good relationship,” Thomas said. “We’ve texted back and forth throughout the summer; sometimes he’ll just reach out to check in on me. We actually just went to dinner together last week – I went to his house for dinner with my family and it was really nice. We’re building our relationship, and we want to get as close as we possibly can and always be on the same page because the point guard is an extension of the head coach.”

Speaking of being a coach on the floor, one of Thomas’ goals for this season is to be a better leader for Boston. It’s difficult to join a team midseason and take on a significant leadership role, but now that he’s entering his first full season with the Celtics, he is hoping he can be a strong veteran presence.

“I’ve always been a leader ever since I was a little boy, so that comes second nature to me and I want to be a leader for this team,” Thomas said. “I’d love to be a team captain and one of those guys who everyone on the team can turn to when times are hard. I want to be looked at as a leader and someone who people can turn to at all times. Hopefully the coaching staff and organization chooses me to be one of those guys because I’d embrace being in that position.”

Throughout Thomas’ four-year career, he has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. When given minutes, he has thrived and he has career averages of 15.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and a steal in 28.3 minutes per game. For a guy who was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, with no guarantee he’d even make the Kings’ roster, he has exceeded all expectations and then some.

And it’s not like Thomas can only succeed as a sixth man. While he does do well as a spark plug off of the bench, he has also shown that he can be a very effective starter. In the 2013-14 season – his final campaign with the Kings and the last year he was used as a starter – he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor in the 54 games he started. That year, his 20.5 PER was fourth among point guards (trailing only Paul, Westbrook and Curry) and his 21.2 PPG was also fourth among point guards (trailing only Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard).

Whether he starts this season for Boston remains to be seen. The numbers show that good things happen when Thomas is on the floor, so starting him seems like the best option. However, the team hasn’t said whether Thomas will surpass Marcus Smart on the depth chart. Danny Ainge did recently acknowledge that he and head coach Brad Stevens have discussed the possibility of putting Thomas in the starting five, but no decision has been made. For his part, Thomas has said all of the right things, saying that he’s fine with any role given to him and that he just wants to do what’s best for the team.

Thomas has constantly been doubted due to his 5’9, 185-pound frame; that’s the main reason he slipped so far on draft night. There have also been some concerns about his shoot-first mentality, but that’s extremely common among point guards in today’s NBA. Even though he has had so much success, he continues to use the fact that he’s often overlooked and doubted as motivation. Quite frankly, it’s odd that a player so productive has bounced around so much. The Kings could’ve kept Thomas last summer since he was a restricted free agent, but they chose to let him walk. Then, the Suns quickly traded him in a move that blindsided Thomas, as he had just gotten situated in Phoenix when he was uprooted. Now, since he has thrived with the Celtics and Ainge is a big fan of his game, it seems he may have found a home. Still, Thomas has learned never to assume he’s completely safe from being moved.

“It’s nice, but I always tell myself that you can never get too comfortable; in this business, in this league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “You can be here [with your team] today and then gone tomorrow. I’ve been through that. Last year, I definitely thought I was staying in Phoenix and then they traded me. You can never get too comfortable. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you in your current situation. That’s what I’m doing here, and I’m hoping I can be here for a really long time.”

In addition to his production, another reason for Boston to keep Thomas long-term is that his contract is a bargain. His salary decreases each year, so he’ll make $6,912,869 this season, $6,587,132 in 2016-17, and $6,261,395 in 2017-18 (which will be excellent value over the final two years since the cap is about to skyrocket). Getting star-level production for that price is every executive’s wish.

And Thomas may not be done developing. He has only been in the league for four years, and he spent this summer working extremely hard in hopes of expanding his game and reaching his full potential. This offseason, he worked on his three-point shooting as well as his ability to finish at the basket.

“Mainly, I’ve been working on extending my range – being able to pull-up from anywhere – so that I’m a more consistent long-range shooter,” Thomas said. “I’ve also been working on a lot of one-foot shots, a la Steve Nash. I liked some of those shots he used to do. Those were my main [priorities] this summer, extending my range and working on different types of finishing moves around the basket. I’ve also been working on my mid-range game, and I have a one-foot three-pointer that I’m going to show off this season. I’m just trying to add different things to my game and become an even more complete player.”

For years, Thomas has been trying to prove himself and solidify himself as a quality NBA player. Now, he’s being viewed as a star and it’s his time to show what he can do with the spotlight pointed directly at him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: An Elite Generation Takes Aim At The Postseason Greats

Even without LeBron James in the playoffs, there are plenty of historical narratives worth keeping an eye on — from steals to blocks, there’s plenty up for grabs.

Ben Nadeau

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When LeBron James missed out on the postseason for the first time in 14 years, he left a massively large hole in the proceedings. After all, James had dragged his squad to the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, dating back to his inaugural season alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down in Miami.

Without James, in a way, the playoffs seem just a little bit emptier.

But it goes past his hulking status as a legend or his ability to dominate the headlines throughout the work week — literally, his box score is a standstill, collecting dust for once. James already owns more postseason points than anybody in NBA history with 6,911. That’s more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, more than Kobe Bryant and more than Michael Jordan — all by the age of 32.

Unsurprisingly, James is also the active leader in nearly every other category as well — games, minutes, field goals, rebounds, assists and steals.

The absence of James and a few notable other leaves the 2018-19 playoffs in an intriguing position in terms of the historical ladder. But since James cannot extend his absurd statistical bounties this spring, here are the players worth watching into the second round and beyond.

Of note, without James, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Dirk Nowitzki on the floor this postseason, Pau Gasol (136) is highest-ranking active games leader. Trailed by Kyle Korver at 133, it’s a small testament to their sticking power in an ever-changing NBA landscape.

Not far behind that pair is Kevin Durant, who will presumably pass Kevin Garnett, James Worthy and Reggie Miller for 37th all-time in postseason minutes at some point in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Durant’s name, naturally, will be popping up far more than just that.

Field Goals — Kevin Durant
1,265, 20th all-time

1. LeBron James, 2,457
10. Tony Parker, 1,613
14. Dwyane Wade, 1,450

44. Russell Westbrook, 834
48. Stephen Curry, 815

Regardless of how Durant’s championships in Golden State resonates person-to-person, there’s no denying that the 6-foot-9 finisher is a crash course with history. At 30, Durant just continues to rise up the ranks and his free agency decision this summer suddenly looms large. Just as the rest of the categories reflect, these year-after-year deep Warriors runs can do wonders for your postseason standings — but Durant seems willing to give that all up. Still, outside of his first playoff berth in 2009-10, Durant has only failed to splash more than 140 field goals in just one other season.

During the Warriors’ championship-winning run in 2018-19, Durant dropped an absurd 212 buckets on 48.7 percent from the floor. Should he just tally a more human total in this current postseason pace, he’ll be knocking on the door of the top ten. Hell, even if Durant leaves Golden State come July in free agency and his field goals per playoffs revert to a more sustainable number of around 150, it’ll only take another three seasons before he’s challenging the likes of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Durant is destined for greatness, the only question now is how high he’ll go.

Three-Pointers — Stephen Curry
395, 1st all-time


3. LeBron James, 370
6. Klay Thompson, 308
11. Kevin Durant, 273
14. James Harden, 240
15. Kyle Korver, 237
20. Danny Green, 194

Yeah, so, Curry owns the three-point line already — that’s well-established.

Just last week, Curry became the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in made three-pointers by passing Ray Allen during Game 1 against the Clippers.

Also, relevantly, Stephen Curry is only 31 years-old.

At this rate, his record has a legitimate chance to become untouchable by the time Curry retires. Saying that Curry is a fire-flinging marksman almost states nothing at this point — but what he’s done in the span of four years would’ve been borderline unimaginable 10 years ago. Along with three championships, Curry has tallied 98, 80, 72 and 64 made three-pointers over the previous four postseason runs.

For comparison’s sake, neither Ray Allen nor Reggie Miller ever passed 60 made threes in a single postseason during their Hall of Fame-worthy careers.

Needless to say, the gulf between No. 1 and No. 2 could be unfathomably deep in a few years’ time — if not for the efforts of Klay Thompson, his co-Splash Brother.

Over those same four seasons, Thompson has been nearly as prolific as Curry has been. Knocking down 57, 98, 41 and 67 made three-point totals, Thompson has flown to No. 6 on the charts in no time. Of course, Curry and Thompson benefit from playing close to 20 games each postseason — just as James has for the last decade — but these are prime sharpshooters simply showing off.

Even if Thompson makes a modest 40 three-pointers per postseason this year and next, he’d swiftly pass Allen and James for second on the ladder. Unless proceedings take a surprising twist this summer, Thompson and Curry may have another half-decade of elite play left in Golden State’s backcourt.

Which is to say, basically: Say goodbye to any and all three-point records — both in the regular and postseason — as these two are going to smash them all to pieces — if they haven’t already.

Total Rebounds — Pau Gasol
1,246, 37th all-time

6. LeBron James, 2,122
23. Dirk Nowitzki, 1,446
29. Dwight Howard, 1,315

53. Kevin Durant, 1,025
61. Draymond Green, 942

Gasol has slowed down as of late, but he’s still near the top of the rebounding ladder for now. The Spaniard has been dealing with an ankle injury since he joined the Milwaukee Bucks in March, but he likely won’t feature all that much once he returns either. With Brook Lopez handling most of the center minutes, it’s unlikely that Gasol does too much damage here. He’s on the backend of his career and hasn’t played meaningful postseason minutes since 2016-17, where he tallied 75 rebounds over 365 minutes and 16 games for San Antonio.

Unless there’s an injury, Gasol can reasonably snag a few spot-minute rebounds here and there to pass Kevin McHale (1,253) and Dan Issel (1,255) for 35th all-time. If the Bucks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s certainly a chance Gasol could pass Artis Gilmore this postseason, but don’t expect much fanfare in either case.

Elsewhere, much like Thompson, the Warriors’ length four-year chases have sent Draymond Green skyrocketing up the standings too. Green has put up 166, 190, 135 and 180 tallies over that interval, so another run like that would place him around Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in the low 40s for the most all-time postseason rebounds. For a second-round selection, Green’s contributions have already left an indelible dent in NBA history with no foreseeable end in sight.

Assists — Chris Paul
815, 25th all-time

3. LeBron James, 1,687
5. Tony Parker, 1,143
13. Rajon Rondo, 981
20. Dwyane Wade, 870

31. Russell Westbrook, 746
41. James Harden, 597
42. Draymond Green, 593
43. Stephen Curry, 592
51. Kevin Durant, 518

This list is popping with recent activity, full of vibrant playmakers and game-changing court visionaries. James, Parker, Rondo and Wade decorate the top of the ladder, however, the next generation is approaching fast.

Paul, who deserves to be in the conversation for the best point guard of all-time, sports a career playoff average of 8.8 assists over 93 games. Of course, his numbers have taken a slight hit since he joined up with the ball-dominant James Harden but Paul can leapfrog a bevy of legends this postseason alone.

If the Houston Rockets play in 15 games again and Paul averages five or so assists in that stretch, he’d finish on par with Clyde Drexler at No. 19 all-time. In matching Drexler, Paul would pass John Havlicek, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Julius Erving and Dwyane Wade — so, obviously, that’s not bad company to keep at all.

Paul’s ability to reach even higher will depend on his health and role next to Harden, but his Hall of Fame legacy is already cemented without question.

Steals — Chris Paul
201, 24th all-time

1. LeBron James, 419
14. Dwyane Wade, 273
24-T. Rajon Rondo, 201

30. James Harden, 181
31. Russell Westbrook, 180
35. Andre Iguodala, 174
40. Draymond Green, 169
45. Stephen Curry, 160
48. Kawhi Leonard, 149

Paul’s aforementioned legacy is furthered thanks to his long-time ball-swiping prowesses — today, the 33-year-old finds himself on the verge of joining another elite group. During the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run in 2017-18, Paul snagged 30 steals. If Paul were able to replicate those totals for the remainder of this postseason and all of the next, he’d have enough to pass Karl Malone for No. 16 all-time in postseason thefts. Again, Paul’s recent injury history makes it a tough area to predict — but as long as he’s playing, his team has a chance to win.

The presence of Andre Iguodala is an exemplification of his impressive career too, particularly so given his recent multi-round trips as a member of the Warriors. Iguodala, 35, has only missed the postseason once since 2007 — albeit playing in just one series clips typically — but he’s been a springtime staple this era. Over Golden State’s historic four-year journey, Iguodala has snatched away totals of 25, 29, 14 and 21 steals, respectively.

If he were to manage another 20 or so this postseason, he’d rank close to the top 25 in postseason steals — all in all, a fantastic achievement for the well-liked veteran.

Blocks — Serge Ibaka
255, 10th all-time


14. Dwight Howard, 234
15. Pau Gasol, 233
16. LeBron James, 232
25. Dwyane Wade, 175
35. Kevin Durant, 156
37. Draymond Green, 152
44. Al Horford, 138

Saving the best for last is Serge Ibaka, the NBA’s active leader in postseason blocks. That’s right: Not James, not Gasol, not Howard — Serge Ibaka. The 6-foot-10 brick wall has slowed down from his elite days in Oklahoma City, but he’s still consistently climbing the historical ladder. Ibaka hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2008 and he’s featured in 10-plus games in every postseason since 2009. Back in the Thunder’s heyday, Ibaka swatted away a whopping 52, 59, 33 and 42 shots over a four-year period.

North of the border, Ibaka’s postseason tallies have been far more muted — still, he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. With Toronto looking like an Eastern Conference Finals contender, Ibaka has a real chance of reaching 20 blocks this time around. Should Ibaka do so, he’d be right on the tail of Kevin McHale and Julius Erving for ninth and eighth all-time in playoff blocks. Although Ibaka is extremely unlikely to reach the Hall of Fame himself, his place as one of basketball’s best shot blockers is practically set in stone.

James’ departure — along with the massive holes left by Nowitzki and Wade — have given this postseason a completely different feel. But even if onlookers can’t watch LeBron further many of his categorical leads, there are plenty of other narratives worth paying attention to. Given Curry and Thompson’s elite long-distance shooting, Paul’s high-ranking steals and assists totals and Durant’s overall dominance, that means that every game — whether in the first round or the Finals — has historical implications.

Which NBA legend will be passed next? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? With this group of stat-stuffing future Hall of Famers, almost nothing is off the table.

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NBA Daily: Is Now the Time for the Houston Rockets?

Houston pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink last year. Shane Rhodes analyzes whether the Rockets are now ready to advance to the NBA Finals.

Shane Rhodes

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In what may be the best eventual series of the postseason, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are expected to go head-to-head in the second round.

Both teams are almost certainly looking forward to their postseason rematch — to show which team is truly dominant over the other. Both the Rockets and Warriors, for the most part, have made easy work of their first-round adversaries; while the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, may play hard, neither have the personnel to contend with the NBA’s most talented teams. Meanwhile, both Houston and Golden State have subjected the NBA to a season-long offensive clinic, and their postseason performance thus far has shown that neither team has lost much, if any steam.

But, over the last few seasons, the Rockets have had one goal (beyond the obvious Larry O’Brien Trophy), one obsession: unseating the Warriors dynasty.

“It’s the only thing we think about,” General Manager Daryl Morey said last season. They were meticulously built to defeat the beast that Golden State has become in recent years.

And now, Houston may have its best chance to topple a giant.

While some may argue otherwise, the Rockets are a better team than they were a season ago. Not only are they healthy — Chris Paul was lost to injury in the midst of their Conference Finals series last season — but their defense is better. Even James Harden, voted Most Valuable Player a season ago and in line for another this season, has significantly improved, both as an offensive weapon and as a defender.

Houston went through multiple regular season stretches that were rife with injuries. Paul missed 17 straight games midseason, while Clint Capela missed 15 of his own around the same time. But now, there are no major injuries, and the Rockets are actively trying to avoid them: P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, amid two blowouts, have seen their time on the court dip from a season ago, while Paul is on pace to finish with a career low in postseason minutes player per game (30).

A dose of early season adversity seems to have hardened the Rockets mindset quite a bit as well; while they were somewhat carried by Harden’s historic offensive effort, it put the roster in a position where they needed to grind out some ugly wins on the defensive end and it has made them better in the long run. Tucker, an already versatile defensive weapon, has proved even more capable this season while Capela and Paul are their usual stout selves.

As for Harden, who has looked to be in the best shape of his career, he has become even more valuable for the Rockets than he was a season ago. He has proven a stout defender, both on the perimeter and in the post, en route to career-high two steals per game (good for second in the NBA this season).

Offensively, his shot volume has increased dramatically, but he has remained surprisingly efficient, shooting 36.8% and 44.2% from three and the field, respectively, on 13.2 threes (a career high) and 24.5 shots per game (also a career high). But he has developed more than his three-point stroke. While Harden has made art of the stepback three, he has improved on his ability to draw fouls; Harden was the first since Allen Iverson in the 2005-06 regular season to average at least nine free throws made and 11 free throw attempts per game (again, both career highs for Harden). While he is often criticized for his style of play, he has used it to put the Rockets in a position to win big games time and time again.

What may be the best news for Houston, however, is that, through two games, Harden has averaged his lowest postseason minutes played since he was in Oklahoma City. Harden, as have the Rockets in recent years, has tended to run out of gas come postseason time — an entire season playing as physical as he does would leave anyone drained. So, the quicker the Jazz are dealt with, and the more rest the Rockets are afforded, the better.

It could certainly prove a fool’s errand to predict the Warriors demise, but there are causes for concern this postseason.

DeMarcus Cousins, who played a major role with the team upon his return this season, is likely out for the postseason after he tore a quad muscle. Not only does his absence remove one of the Warriors’ biggest chess pieces, but it gives other teams a matchup they can exploit. Even hobbled, Cousins would have been a superior option to Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell.

The team recently sustained a historically bad loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who overcame a 31-point deficit to steal a game at Oracle Arena, as well. While Golden State punched back — and punched back hard — in the next game, it goes to show that any team, even the Warriors, are prone to take their foot off the gas when they feel comfortable.

And, perhaps the biggest distraction this Warriors group has faced, the future of Kevin Durant has hung like a dark cloud over the team for much of the season.

Now don’t take this the wrong way — short of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green calling it quits after the Clippers series, the Warriors will be far from a pushover. But, they appear to be vulnerable, for the first time in a long time.

The Rockets already had them on the ropes last season. If they can take advantage now, Houston may very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.

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NBA Daily: The Spurs’ Reign is Alive and Well

The promise from some of the Spurs’ young talent has shown that the rumors of San Antonio’s death were greatly exaggerated, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s time for what is called a mea culpa.

Around this time last year, this writer wrote an article detailing why it appeared the Spurs’ dynasty was approaching its demise. Manu Ginobili was on his way to retirement, Tony Parker was not the player he once was, and Kawhi Leonard appeared on his way out. After being predictably defeated in five games by Golden State in the first round and losing the aforementioned players the following offseason, it seemed like the end of a glorious era.

But it wasn’t. The Spurs’ dynasty is far from dead. San Antonio may not have the same household name on the roster like a Duncan or Leonard or a Robinson as of now. What they do have presently is a promising foundation of talent that should keep the team in the conversation for the next 5-10 years.

That much is clear when you see the All-Star caliber players that they have in their arsenal. LaMarcus Aldridge put up yet another fantastic stat line for the Spurs, averaging a near 20/10 on 52 percent shooting despite having fewer touches than last season. Even at 33, Aldridge continues to prove that he’s still one of the most offensively polished bigs in the game.

Then there’s DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs have embraced DeMar’s natural mid-range game while also helping him succeed more in other areas than he ever has before. DeRozan put up his most efficient field goal percentage – 48.1 – since his rookie season, and averaged career-highs in both rebounds (6) and assists (6.2) per game. He may not have made the all-star team, but this season was DeRozan’s best as an all-around player.

There is also the Spurs’ well-oiled rotation full of players who know their roles. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl all do their thing. Who would have guessed that Rudy Gay – a player who had a reputation for putting up empty stats – has been an effective backup wing for San Antonio? Yet another example in a long line of evidence that Gregg Popovich can make do with anyone in the NBA.

But this isn’t about the star veterans or the role players that the Spurs have molded. This is about the young talent who should be able to keep the Spurs in contender status. First, there’s Derrick White.

If you hadn’t heard of Derrick White leading up to the playoffs, you’ve probably heard of him by now.

White has exploded on the national stage since the playoffs began, averaging 23 points on 68 percent shooting from the field despite shooting only 23 percent from three, with his most recent scoring outburst against Denver being the standout, putting up 36 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field. His performance has easily made him this postseasons breakout star.

Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to the Spurs all season then you’ve probably known about White all along.

After losing Tony Parker to free agency and Dejounte Murray to injury, many wondered where the Spurs were going to turn to run the point. Sure they had Patty Mills but he fit snugly in the second unit. White didn’t get the call immediately, but when he did, the Spurs threw him to the wolves.

White was thrust into the starting lineup when they inserted him into the rotation. White wasn’t awful when he got those minutes, but he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. His first two months into the season, White averaged 6.3 points on 43/30/80 splits. But then January came.

White tore it up in January, putting up 15.3 points on 60/47/75 splits while putting up 4.2 rebounds and nearly four assists per game. By doing this, it appeared Derrick was more than just a player to use in case of emergency. Both the Spurs and White were on the right track before a heel injury knocked him out for a few weeks. While he came back sooner than expected, Derrick was never able to replicate his play from January.

Now, it appears White has his mojo back, and at the absolute perfect time too.

And it’s not just about his contributions on offense. Defensively, White has proven to be pretty pesky. Derrick ranks behind only Chris Paul in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 1.59. The Spurs defense is also a minus-3.8 defensively when White is on the floor, third among active rotational players behind only Poeltl and Gay.

Nobody’s saying that White is a franchise player, but the 24-year-old has excelled in his expanded role for San Antonio. If he’s to keep the franchise relevant as they transition away from the Kawhi Leonard era, he’ll need as much help from other young starlets as he can.

Enter Dejounte Murray

Murray was originally believed to be the Spurs’ prized young prospect when the season began. Murray was a jack-of-all-trades point guard for San Antonio. At 6-foot-6, he was a tenacious defender – he made the All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team last year in just his second year – and was aggressive on the boards, corralling 5.7 rebounds per game.

Dejounte was believed to be pretty raw offensively given his youth, but with a bigger role on the team, many believed there was more for him to build off of. That was until he tore his ACL during a pre-season game. After losing Kawhi, Danny Green, and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs’ defense could not afford to lose its expected best player on the defensive end.

The Spurs clearly managed to do fine without him, but their defensive rating dropped all the way down to 111.2, which ranked 19th in the league. Had Murray been able to play, that rating probably would have gone up as well as where the Spurs were seeded.

With his body type and the Spurs’ love for versatility, Murray should be a welcome addition to the team next year when he comes back healthy. After the expectations that were placed on him, Dejounte should be extra motivated to show the world that he is part of the Spurs’ next generation of young talent.

Now that he has another young piece to play off of, both he and White should give San Antonio a strong two-way backcourt that the team hasn’t seen in all its years of glory. These two may very well bring the Spurs back to the promised land. Just not in the way that previous Spurs have done so.

Many believed that the Spurs were finished after they traded one of its all-time players in Kawhi. We should have known better knowing what Pop can do.

Should Murray and White pan out, the Spurs’ expiration may not be brought up again until the 2030’s.

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