TrueHoop: Houston Rockets

Morey on Barkley, Harden for MVP, more

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey makes his pitch for James Harden as MVP and Charles Barkley as 2016 Sloan Conference headliner.


NBA geek stories

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
Abbott By Henry Abbott
David Thorpe with first-person tales of analytics informing decisions by the Rockets, 76ers and Mavericks.


#HateHard: Barkley vs. Morey

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
Charles Barkley and Daryl Morey engaged in a war of words. Amin Elhassan is here to sort through the remains.


#HateHard: Houston's 'not good' idea

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
The Rockets don't know how to handle not being able to handle the Warriors.


James Harden keeps growing his game

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
Adande By J.A. Adande
HOUSTON -- The thing to remember about the Oklahoma City Thunder trading James Harden is that the Thunder didn't trade this James Harden.

They didn’t have such a prolific scorer, they didn’t enjoy such an effective passer. They had a player who would be a perennial sixth man of the year candidate, not a guy drawing truly legit "M-V-P" chants during his numerous trips to the free throw line. They had a cult hero, not a star.

Most of all, they didn't have a player who is 0-2 in playoff series as an above-the-title star. Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale traces Harden's improvement in every other area to that one pertinent stat. McHale told ESPN Radio's Kevin Calabro and Jon Barry before the game that he tried to tell Harden how empty the accolades would feel if no playoff success came with it, and now that Harden has experienced that himself, he's even more dedicated to the things that matter for winning teams.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden, Andre Roberson
Thomas B. Shea/USA TODAY SportsJames Harden's 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds against his ex-team showed his growth as a player.
"I just think he's making more of the simple plays," McHale said after Houston's 112-101 victory over the Thunder on Thursday night.

Harden can still make complicated shots -- contested 3s, even a 3-point shot over Kevin Durant that banked in as Harden fell into the courtside seats -- but it's his willingness to quickly pass to the open man when the double-team arrives, or his penetration followed by a pass to an open 3-point shooter (McHale likes those the best) that have Harden on a higher plane these days.

Here's a rather arcane stat that speaks to McHale's point: Harden is 10th in the NBA in points created per assist, an number that accounts for passes that lead to a 3-pointer as well. He's the only shooting guard in the top 18 in that category (LeBron James is the only other non-point guard in the group).

That's the crux of what Durant implied when he said of Harden: "He's a point guard over there. He initiates everything. He's playing well."

Both Durant and McHale talked about how much Harden has the ball in his hands, yet Harden doesn't rank among the NBA's top 20 in number of touches or time of possession (also via

Maybe this observation from Durant was more explanatory: "He's playing with a lot of swagger."

Harden has also scored the most points on drives to the basket, and he's in a familiar position with the most made free throws in the league. It all adds up to an NBA-best 26.9 points per game.

But leading the team in scoring doesn't always correlate with championships or even make convincing arguments for MVP. The older heads in the Rockets organization are reminding him that he'll get the most credit if the team wins. They feel he saw that in action with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup last summer. Harden led the team in scoring, but everyone from Klay Thompson to Kenneth Faried picked up "cred points" for helping the team win gold.

The shock of the trade that sent Harden from Oklahoma City to Houston in 2012 has worn off. Their meetings are no longer so emotional.

Before he took some practice shots an hour prior to the game, Harden chatted with Thunder assistant coach Rex Kalamian, then assistant general manager Troy Weaver stopped by to say hello. Then, he blitzed the Thunder with 15 points in the first quarter.

"For me, it's just a normal game," Harden said. "A lot of great memories there. But it's been a couple of years now, and I'm adjusted very well here. So, um, yeah."

When 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds against his ex-team feels like a "normal game," it shows just how far Harden's game has progressed. So, um, yeah.

Steph Curry or James Harden for MVP?

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Abbott By Henry Abbott
No more LeBron vs. Durant. This season, Stephen Curry and James Harden lead the pack.

BIG Number: The Return of Dwight Howard

January, 7, 2015
Jan 7
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Tom Haberstroh goes inside the numbers to show how Dwight Howard has returned to being one of the best defenders in the NBA.


Free agency winners and losers

July, 16, 2014
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz and Zach Lowe run through some of the winners and losers of the free agency period, and discuss why so many people are gleeful about Houston's misfortunes.

Failure to launch for Rockets

July, 15, 2014
By Jason Friedman
Special to
RocketsBill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesInstead of adding a final piece to the puzzle, Houston ended up losing rising star Chandler Parsons.
“It was a tough weekend. … We were very close to what we thought was maybe the best team in the NBA.”

Daryl Morey made his way through the sports radio circuit Monday morning, dutifully expressing the heartache attached to a mind-bending 48-hour stretch that saw his Houston Rockets go from the edge of title contention to taking, at least for now, an agonizing step back in their tireless attempt to scale the NBA mountain.

And yet, Morey’s mood was neither morose nor downtrodden. It was borderline defiant. Surely the Rockets general manager would rather be preparing for a press conference welcoming Chris Bosh to Houston after a years-long pursuit and feting the return of Chandler Parsons. But with Bosh staying in Miami and Parsons heading to Dallas, Morey seemed ready to move on and begin the plotting yet again.

The Rockets have been here before. In December 2011, the Rockets were up in arms over the vetoed Chris Paul trade that would have landed them Pau Gasol. Two summers ago, Houston was branded a team incapable of acquiring superstar talent when the club’s efforts to trade for either Dwight Howard (fresh off back surgery and with no desire, at the time, to come to Houston) or Andrew Bynum fell flat.

But Morey never stopped maneuvering, and all of those trades and draft picks and failed trades ultimately ended with both Howard and James Harden ending up in Houston.

That is the silver, or at least pewter, lining surely being peddled by those at the helm of Houston’s mission control today. It is not unreasonable. This team should still be very good. Howard and Harden remain the best players in the league at their respective positions. The newly acquired Trevor Ariza should fit nicely alongside them, supplying sorely needed wing defense and 3-point shooting at a price far more palatable than Parsons’ new deal. Young talent like Pat Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas ought to continue to improve. 2014 second-round selection Nick Johnson has acquitted himself quite nicely during summer league so far. And the first-round pick acquired from the Pelicans (with protections guaranteed to make it fall somewhere between selections 4-19) in the Omer Asik deal and the $8.4 million trade exception courtesy of the Jeremy Lin trade with the Lakers are valuable tools now at the Rockets’ disposal. They have and continue to value most the things that lie at the heart of the formula that has brought them to this point: asset accumulation and flexibility. Prepare to hear Houston’s name connected to Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge approximately 1.8 million times between now and the moment those players are either locked up or shipped elsewhere.

For now, though, the Rockets must live with their misstep. And given the belief in some circles that Houston’s brain trust routinely exhibits a confidence bordering on arrogance, rest assured there exists a sizable faction of NBA execs and insiders who could not be happier at how this past weekend’s events unfolded. Comments such as, “You have to be the one to find the Chandler Parsons, not the one that gives the Chandler Parsons the max contracts,” which Morey said Monday morning during a radio interview, don’t exactly help in that regard.

To some, Morey’s wings just got burned to smithereens by the twin suns of Bosh and Parsons. After all, it was the Rockets’ calculated roll of the dice that allowed the newest member of the Mavericks to hit restricted free agency this summer instead of holding on to him for another discounted season and letting him hit the unrestricted free-agent market next year. Now they have nothing to show for their efforts after being force fed the same sort of bitter pill they made New York and Chicago swallow two years ago because of the creatively structured contracts they conjured for Lin and Asik, respectively. Morey called Parsons’ contract “one of the most untradeable structures I’ve ever seen” Monday during an interview with KBME-AM.

[+] EnlargeMorey
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesIntroducing two draft picks is hardly the summer celebration Daryl Morey was hoping to have.
The loss of the 25-year-old forward deprives Houston not only of a versatile secondary playmaker, but also a valuable voice in a locker room that wasn’t always on the same page a year ago. Parsons is a uniter, a player with a gift for bringing different groups together and making everyone he comes in contact with feel valued. His loss in that respect is by no means catastrophic, but it does place even more responsibility on the shoulders of Howard and Harden to grow, mature and prove that they are capable of creating a culture that is all about winning – and not just about winning their way and on their terms.

Yes, it’s only mid-July and we’re still two-and-a-half months away from the start of training camp. We can’t yet see anywhere close to the complete picture. But from today’s vantage point it’s clear the Rockets face big questions -- questions they likely didn’t envision having to tackle a week ago -- both on and off the court. Making matters more difficult, they will be forced to find solutions while toiling with the NBA’s most demanding division. The Spurs are the Spurs, and Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans all appear bigger and better than they were when last we saw them.

But perspective is important here. Remember: the Rockets were a mere “yes” from Bosh away from having what no less an authority than Jeff Van Gundy declared “the best starting five in the NBA.” A yes from the Heat center would have yielded Houston an All-Star talent for a third consecutive summer. The same maddening, capricious and uncontrollable twists and turns that can ruin even the most flawless play call on the court can just as easily wreak havoc with team building off of it. Failure doesn’t mean you ditch the plan if you believe it remains the best path to ultimate success. Houston’s patience and predatory instincts are what put the franchise in position to land Harden and Howard.

Like 28 other teams in this league, Houston sees San Antonio as the benchmark for team-building, culture and sustained excellence. When an unfathomable twist of fate left the Spurs reeling 13 months ago, provoking shouts that their title window had closed for good, they never wavered in their response. In their own way, the Rockets’ reply to excruciating misfortune will be no different: For better or worse, through well-placed belief or misguided hubris, they will faithfully stick to their vision and continue the quest to build a lasting NBA empire, hoping all the while that their story eventually mirrors that of the fairy tale that seemingly never ends in San Antonio.

Jason Friedman is a writer living in Houston. He previously wrote for the Rockets' official website.

The back of the envelope guide to Las Vegas Summer League: The West

July, 11, 2014
By D.J. Foster
Special to
Julius Randle, Dante ExumGetty ImagesWelcome to the NBA, rooks. High-profile picks Julius Randle and Dante Exum finally hit the pro stage.
There's something for everyone at Las Vegas Summer League. For all the prized rookies in this year’s draft class, it’s a chance to get their feet wet. For the prospects who haven’t found luck in the league yet, it’s an opportunity to jump-start a career. For others, it’s simply a shot at getting on the radar.

The following is our annual "back of the envelope" guide to the Las Vegas Summer League teams, highlighting some of the more promising and intriguing prospects who will take the floor. The West guide is below, and the East guide is here.

Dallas Mavericks

Gal Mekel: Perhaps it was a show of confidence in Mekel’s abilities that the Mavericks were willing to send both Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin to New York. Raymond Felton may be the worst projected starter at point guard in the league right now, so there’s a clear path to playing time for the Israeli point guard. A great summer league could go a long way.

Ricky Ledo: The mystery is no longer there, but the appeal still will be. Ledo came into Vegas last year without a minute of college or international playing time under his belt, but he’s showed glimpses of being a capable wing scorer. He plays with blinders on sometimes and can chuck a bit, but the talent is there.

Ivan Johnson: He’s the only player in Vegas with the distinction of being “banned forever” from the Korean Basketball League, but Johnson can really play despite some dustups over the years. In two seasons for the Atlanta Hawks, Johnson averaged a 15.1 PER and was solid on both ends. After playing in China last season, he’d make a nice bodyguard for Dirk Nowitzki off the bench.

Denver Nuggets

Quincy Miller: One play he’ll look like Kevin Durant, the next he’ll look like Austin Daye. Miller is a 6-foot-10 wing with guard skills and a sweet stroke from deep, but he’s a little too slow and a little too soft to really put it all to good use. You’ll fall in and out of love with him multiple times over the course of a game.

Gary Harris: He had one of the more surprising falls on draft night, but the Denver Nuggets were smart to snatch up a young 3-and-D wing for Arron Afflalo to mentor. Afflalo, on his second tour in Denver thanks to a pre-draft trade with Orlando, suffered a similar fate on draft night in 2007 despite a strong pedigree, but he turned himself into something much more with his great work ethic. Harris should take notes.

Erick Green: Last year’s second-round pick struggled a bit in Italy last season, and this is still one of the league’s deepest rosters. Green has a knack for creating space and finding his own shot, but with Harris and Miller needing to be fed and the Nuggets probably looking for a third point guard, he should focus more on distributing.

Golden State Warriors

Travis Bader: There have been a lot of great shooters in college basketball history, but Bader holds a spot above them all as the NCAA Division I leader in 3-pointers made, with 504. With shooting coming at a premium (here’s looking at you, Jodie Meeks) in free agency, smart teams may opt for a cheaper, younger specialist like Bader.

Nemanja Nedovic: Being dubbed the “European Derrick Rose” has been the highlight of Nedovic’s career thus far. He couldn’t find playing time under Mark Jackson last season, but with Steve Kerr taking over, Nedovic will get a clean slate and a chance to unleash some of the much heralded athleticism.

Rob Loe: After the Warriors missed out on acquiring Channing Frye and shored up the backcourt instead, the big man from Saint Louis might get a long look to fill the Warriors' need for a stretch big man with legitimate size. Although his percentages weren’t great in college, Loe’s mechanics are literally perfect when he parks himself on the 3-point line.

Houston Rockets

Nick Johnson: Most expected the Rockets to go with an international draft-and-stash candidate in this year's draft to avoid taking on salary, but Daryl Morey and company liked the Arizona guard enough to take the plunge. Early returns have been positive -- Johnson’s nasty throwdown in Orlando is the early favorite for the dunk of the summer.

Omar Oraby: Plenty of countries are represented in Vegas every year, but Oraby is looking to become the first player from Egypt to play in the NBA. The USC grad has size on his side (7-foot-2), but he’ll need to show he can protect the rim without fouling before warranting any serious consideration.

Isaiah Canaan: He got a little bit of burn with the Rockets last season, but Canaan was most impressive with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the 3-happy D-League affiliate of the big club. Canaan hit a whopping 3.7 3s per game on 38.7 percent shooting with that squad, and after teammate Troy Daniels temporarily saved Houston’s hide in the playoffs, Canaan could find a role.

Los Angeles Clippers

Delonte West: It’s no secret that Doc Rivers has an affinity for veterans and his former players, and West qualifies as both. Since 2010, West has worked for a furniture store, been arrested for carrying guns in a guitar case "Desperado" style, and has played in the D-League, China and the NBA in stints. This would be quite the career revival.

Keith Benson: The Clippers could probably stand to add some more depth in the frontcourt even after the signing of Spencer Hawes, and Benson might fill a need. After seeing what he did with DeAndre Jordan, a similar big man in terms of size and athleticism, Rivers may decide to take on another project big man with all the athletic tools and very little polish.

Jon Brockman: A summer-league tradition like no other. Brockman made his debut way back in 2009, and for years now he’s provided dogged offensive rebounding and physical play in the paint in this setting. The proceedings wouldn’t feel quite right without him here.

Los Angeles Lakers

Julius Randle: Randle will have a leg up on some of the other post prospects in town, as he’ll get a buffet of touches thanks to Kendall Marshall. The seventh overall pick should be able to put on a nice show for the always-present Lakers contingency as a magnet for the ball with superior motor and athleticism.

DeAndre Kane: If you tuned into an Iowa State game last season, it was tough to keep your eyes off Kane. His age (25) and lack of a true position kept him out of the draft, but Kane plays a very similar style to Lance Stephenson and can make his impact felt all over the court. He’s a serious sleeper.

Kendall Marshall: Great tweeter, better distributor. Marshall averaged 11 assists per 36 minutes last season for the Lakers, and while some of that is inflated by noted point guard whisperer Mike D’Antoni, Marshall also knocked in 39.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He’ll have questions to answer in a new system, but he has staying power.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Zach LaVine: Minnesota is just going to keep acquiring UCLA guys to try and placate Kevin Love, apparently, as LaVine is the third Bruin (Shabazz Muhammad, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to join the roster in the last year. With a ridiculous 46-inch vertical leap and a stylish flair, the raw singman’s dunks should set the internet on fire. Unless there’s an up-and-comer out there named Putmeon LaYouTube, LaVine is probably the most appropriately named prospect we’ve ever had.

Shabazz Muhammad: The Las Vegas native returns for a second run at summer league, this time with a year of NBA experience under his belt. With a new coach in Flip Saunders and a possible youth movement taking place in Minnesota, Muhammad’s sturdy under-the-basket post scoring could be an asset. Question is, can he do anything else?

Gorgui Dieng: One of the lone bright spots in an otherwise lost season, Dieng burst onto the scene late and averaged 12.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Although he’s stuck behind Love and Nikola Pekovic for the time being, Dieng’s ability to play out of the high post and protect the rim puts him in pretty exclusive company among fellow big men.

New Orleans Pelicans

Josh Howard: Yes, that Josh Howard. At 34 years old, the former Dallas Mavericks forward is hoping to follow in Rasual Butler’s footsteps by performing well in summer league and landing another NBA contract. Injuries have ravaged his career, but given the need in New Orleans for a glue guy at small forward, Howard should get a fair shake if the body is willing.

Russ Smith: The lightning bug Louisville point guard should perform pretty well here, as he’s been blowing by elite opposing point guards for quite some time now. Unlike a few other guards in attendance, the frantic pace Smith played at with Louisville should transfer over nicely.

Patric Young: The Florida big man is a real grinder, and watching him lock horns with other big bodies in the frontcourt is always a treat. Young has some nice role-player potential behind Anthony Davis and Omer Asik in New Orleans, even if he’s limited offensively.

Phoenix Suns

T.J. Warren: NC State gave him all the possessions he could handle, but it’s hard to say how well Warren’s high-usage attack will translate to the next level. He’s a throwback scorer who lives primarily off the in-between stuff like floaters and below-the-rim finishes, but can he survive as an efficient offensive option without a more reliable jumper and better range?

Alex Len: It’s easy to forget that Phoenix battled for a playoff spot without the fifth pick of the 2013 draft involved, but there’s still hope that Len will become the skilled, mobile rim protector the Suns need in the middle. The fight for playing time with Miles Plumlee, who isn’t on the summer league roster, starts right now.

Tyler Ennis: Canada can trot out a pretty dangerous Olympic team all of a sudden, can’t it? Ennis was a somewhat surprising pick since Phoenix has Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe to run the point, but he has the kind of distributing ability and shake off the dribble that could make him a dangerous player down the line. The point guard rich look like they got richer.

Portland Trail Blazers

C.J. McCollum: If McCollum can stay healthy, it’s not hard to imagine him winning a sixth man of the year award in the near future. At the very least he fits the typical profile - a combo guard with the ability to shoot the lights out and create for himself off the dribble. He could be the answer to Portland’s bench woes offensively.

Thomas Robinson: It feels like Robinson should have already moved on from playing in the summer league since he’s bounced around so much, but the fifth pick in the 2012 draft is still just 23 years old and raw enough to justify another appearance. He’s an elite rebounder, but he needs to bring something else to the table to earn real minutes.

Meyers Leonard: Do you trust recently signed big man Chris Kaman to stay healthy for a full season? Me neither. At some point in the near future, Leonard is going to need to soak up minutes at the 5 for a team with legitimate playoff potential. With that in mind, it would be nice if he didn’t float in the background again this summer.

Sacramento Kings

Ben McLemore: It’s been a while since an otherwise legitimate prospect has been crippled by tunnel vision this severe. Last year’s seventh overall pick seems to be lacking a basic feel for his surroundings, but he’s still trouble in transition when he can make straight line drives to the rim. If the jumper starts falling, there’s some 3-and-D potential here.

Nik Stauskas: The problem in Sacramento, as it always seems to be, is that there might not be enough distributors on the roster. We know Stauskas can shoot and shake and bake, but Sacramento may need him to take on more of a creating role, especially if Darren Collison: Starting Point Guard, ends up being a real thing.

Sim Bhullar: Vegas serves as a home for plenty of P.O.U.S (players of unusual size) this time of year, and New Mexico State big man Bhullar is the biggest of them all. Don’t adjust your screen -- Bhullar is really 7-foot-5 and 360 pounds, and he’s a serious threat to crush a cameraman under the basket at some point. If he’s going down, I’m yelling timber. Also, I’m so sorry.

San Antonio Spurs

Kyle Anderson: How did the rest of the league let this happen? Allowing a young Boris Diaw clone to learn from the real Boris Diaw could have serious consequences for the rest of the league down the line. Yes, Anderson is slower than molasses, but his playmaking, size, ballhandling and intelligence are top notch. This is how the Spurs stay the Spurs.

Deshaun Thomas: He can get buckets in a hurry. It’s a little surprising that Thomas hasn’t found a C.J. Miles-type role for an NBA team yet, but at 22 years old, there’s still plenty of time for that to happen. San Antonio’s roster is understandably crowded, but this guy is too good offensively to ignore for much longer.

Vander Blue: Marquette has a history of pumping out pesky perimeter defenders, and Blue certainly qualifies. If his 3-point stroke finally starts to cooperate, Blue could hold down a steady roster spot. For teams that miss out on Kent Bazemore in free agency, Blue should be an option worth considering if his mechanics are cleaned up.

Utah Jazz

Dante Exum: No more chopped up footage from four years ago -- we’re finally getting the real thing. The Australian guard and fifth overall pick in this year’s draft certainly appears to have all the natural tools you love to have from a lead guard, and he could take on a role in the same vein as someone like Brandon Roy once occupied. That kind of star power is exactly what a franchise like Utah needs.

Trey Burke: How’s the potential backcourt of the future going to co-exist? On paper it seems like a good fit, as both Burke and Exum can swing the ball side-to-side and attack against recovering defenses. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship if the two play off each other instead of simply taking turns, which is always tempting in these types of games.

Rudy Gobert: After exploding onto the scene last season in Orlando Summer League by showing surprising mobility, good hands and natural shotblocking ability, it’s easy to dream on what Gobert might look like with a little more seasoning. Big men typically develop a little slower, but here’s hoping he gets unleashed yet again in the Jazz’s first ever summer-league appearance in Las Vegas.

D.J. Foster is an NBA contributor for, ClipperBlog and others. Follow him, @fosterdj.

Melo Ball goes back to the future

July, 7, 2014
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Carmelo AnthonyAP Photo/Seth WenigOnce a poster boy for an outdated, iso-based game, Carmelo Anthony is a face of change in the NBA.
There was a time when it didn’t look as if Carmelo Anthony would be so sought after at age 30. When he was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in February 2011, he was the bane of the advanced-stats community, his reputation sliced sharpest by cutting-edge analysis.

With his less-than-super-efficient high scoring average, Anthony might well have symbolized how casual fans get snookered into worshipping false idols. His volume shooting was the past, and players of more balanced yet subtle skill sets were the future. That iso ball that the "eye test" loves was so early Iverson era. It had no place in the NBA’s version of a Moneyball revolution.

Less than four years later, Anthony plays host to a vigorous recruitment effort from advanced-stats godfather and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Melo is the missing piece in Chicago, the foundation of a new era in Los Angeles. Yes, there are still concerns over whether Anthony will be worth a five-year max contract, and there remains criticism of Anthony's defense. But ultimately, Anthony’s New York adventure has seen a rehabilitation of his game, if not his reputation.

It took some unfortunate injuries to Amar'e Stoudemire, but the Knicks managed to stumble upon a Carmelo Anthony better suited for this era. Playing power forward, Anthony received better spacing, and he ultimately started making better choices. In the season before his trade to the Knicks, fewer than 14 percent of Anthony’s shots were 3-pointers. Last season, 25 percent of his shots were from behind the arc.

By shifting his shot selection from the dreaded “long 2” zone out to where shots count for an extra point, he moved to the forefront of basketball. Shooting is in, "stretch-4s" are in. The game had seemingly left isolation scorers behind, but Melo, one of the shiniest examples, has persevered.

After a shaky, injury-addled first full season in New York, Anthony notched his two best seasons according to player efficiency (PER) and win shares. Not only did the numbers look better, but his game got more aesthetically pleasing. Decisions were quicker, the ball stuck less often. He turns the ball over far less than he did back in Denver. There are still bouts of grinding iso-ball, but it’s not like the old days, when Anthony would average more turnovers than assists.

You can blame him for the lack of options (the Knicks were strip-mined because Anthony forced a trade to New York), but it’s getting harder to find fault with his offensive approach. His game has matured from headstrong to nuanced. Guard him with a mobile wing and he can post that guy into some pain. Guard him with a burly big and he can lose that guy for many an open 3-pointer.

“Olympic Melo” is the nickname for that sweet-shooting forward we’ve seen in international competition. He thrives in an environment where the ball is shared around the arc and shot from behind it. That’s where basketball is heading, if this latest, emphatic San Antonio Spurs championship is any indication. The NBA is trending toward a drive-and-kick international style that just so perfectly fits the guy who, earlier in his career, was the caricature of American-style hero ball. Melo was the past before he took a few steps back and became the future.

James Harden an errant All-NBA selection

June, 4, 2014
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
James HardenBob Levey/Getty ImagesFrequently falling down on defense? James Harden's woeful effort didn't matter to All-NBA voters.
James Harden’s selection to the All-NBA first team is a wrong choice that an intelligent person could easily make. On the (bearded) face of things, he’s a perfect selection.

He puts up 25 and 6, raw totals befitting a superstar. And unlike some other ball-dominant stat-stuffers, Harden’s points come efficiently at a 61.8 percent true shooting clip. Sure, he takes a bunch of terrible, Nick Young-esque step-back jumpers, but all those free throws erase the debt of his bad decisions. He is not the enemy of Advanced Stat America in the way that, say, Monta Ellis was.

So what’s the problem?

Let’s start with what happens on the other side of the court. The man with the Rip Van Winkle beard perpetually plays defense like he just woke up. It’s difficult for a perimeter player to become an Internet sensation because of bad defense, but in this instance the fame is well earned. Harden isn’t just mediocre or even flawed as a defender, he’s corrosive to his team’s efforts on that end, a saboteur to Daryl Morey’s continuous goal of building a top-10 defense.

I could point you in the direction of Harden’s Real Plus-Minus (77th on defense among shooting guards), but the eye test might be even more indicative. Spend a few games watching Harden lose his guy off the ball, waddle around screens and bystander to blow-by layups. For long stretches, his only nod to the art of defending will be a late attempt to poke the ball from an opponent dribbling past.

It’s easy to dismiss this flaw in Harden’s game by pointing out that other guards have defensive issues too. But that justification reveals the defense conversation as too binary, split between simple categories of “bad” and “good.” There are degrees, and Harden is an awful defensive guard to the degree that he’s different from the others. All-NBA second-teamer Stephen Curry certainly isn’t a defensive plus for the Warriors, given his slight build, but it’s a mistake to conflate that with Harden’s nightly trudge of apathy.

I wish I weren't making Curry’s case from the Bay Area, because assumptions of homerism might distract you from how Curry beat Harden in player efficiency ratings and win shares. You might dismiss the strategic boon of teams altering defensive game plans to reckon with Curry’s 3-pointers off the dribble, and you might dismiss how Golden State was far more dependent on Curry (+14.9 points per 100 possessions when he played) than Houston was on Harden (+7.6). It’s a shame, because there just isn’t a great case for Harden against Curry beyond Houston winning three more games. He’s a worse defensive player, and he had a slightly inferior offensive season.

Speaking of Harden’s offensive season, it was good but hardly transcendent. He cleaned up against bad defenses, averaging a 114 offensive rating against bottom-20 defenses and a 105 offensive rating against the top 10. There’s nothing wrong with racking up stats against bad defenses (all stars do it to a certain degree), but speaking subjectively, I think it speaks to how Harden’s game lacks dimensions that other elite perimeter playmakers can claim, a reality that has been exposed in the past two playoff series in which Harden was the primary focus of the defensive game plan. He dribbles well and passes decently but suffers from a lack of facility with his right hand. He’s a good shooter -- not a great one -- and far from an elite athlete.

Many possessions are “get-fouled-or-bust” for Harden, who (not that it should matter in the voting) presents one of the least aesthetically pleasing styles among the NBA's stars. He takes flopping to the “difference in kind” degree he takes bad defense, bending rules until they comically break like splintered cork bats on a baseball field.

At the slightest hint of contact, he’ll conjure more fake whiplash than the shadiest personal injury lawyer and fling his beard to the sky like he’s trying to stab the Jumbotron with it. Many of his scoop layups are just pretexts for raking an extended arm into some sucker who’s just trying to play defense. Harden is not opposed to leaping at a defender while shooting, as though his jumper is naturally taken with a sideways, midair lean.

His dribble-heavy style could be described as “cynical Lance Stephenson.” Both shooting guards dominate the ball, and both like to shoot off the dribble, but Harden’s foul drawing allows him to be a far better player. Well, that and his relative sanity.

How did this happen, then? How did someone with such an unseemly style prevail in the voting? Harden’s case was aided by a few external factors. Russell Westbrook played at an All-NBA level but didn’t log enough games due to injury. Kobe Bryant might have had a (sentiment-based) shot were it not for his leg nearly atrophying into something as thin and bendy as an actual mamba snake. Chris Paul won a deserved first-team selection but probably lost some votes to Harden on account of missing 20 games.

Harden also likely benefited from that SG listed by his name. For whatever reason, we feel an attachment to the distinct category for players who are slightly taller than most point guards yet slightly shorter than the average wing. That, however, could soon be outdated thinking -- just like lumping the entire league into categories of “bad” and “good” defense. Today, though, the cynical shooting guard triumphs. He just drew a foul on us all.

Gift of Love: 29 trades for 29 teams

May, 21, 2014
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to
Kevin LoveBrad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports
The end is nigh. Or so it seems. Reports about Kevin Love’s uncertain future with the Minnesota Timberwolves are coming out left and right. Every team in the league is positioning itself to capture the star power on the market right now.

With the draft a little more than a month away, it would behoove the Timberwolves to maximize the trade market now while cap flexibility, draft picks and crushed lottery night dreams are fresh in the minds of the potential suitors.

The Wolves don’t have the upper hand in this situation, but they do have the ability to leverage ravenous front offices against one another and create a trade-market bidding war. As team president Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor face a gut-check moment of whether to risk Love leaving for nothing in summer 2015, here are the deals I would blow up their phones with if I were in charge of one of the 29 teams in the league.

Atlanta Hawks

The deal: Trade Machine

Hawks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, the rights to Lucas Nogueira, No. 15 pick in 2014

This is a big haul for the Hawks to give up, with three rotation guys plus the pick going to Minnesota. But pairing Love and Al Horford together in Mike Budenholzer’s offense would be an alien invasion without Bill Pullman and Will Smith to fight it off. For the Wolves, Millsap is a nice option you can win with now and flip if he isn’t happy; Schroder is the backup point guard they crave; and Nogueira would give the Wolves a tandem with Gorgui Dieng that makes Nikola Pekovic and his contract expendable.

Boston Celtics

The deal: Trade Machine

Celtics receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Phil Pressey, Vitor Faverani, Nos. 6 and 17 picks in 2014, Celtics’ first-round pick in 2016

Here, the Wolves are basically getting the picks and then a bunch of cap filler and former first-rounders. There’s no reason to pretend Olynyk and Sullinger would be pieces for the Wolves at all. Being a Wolves fan since they've come into the NBA, I am pretty good at recognizing overvalued first-round picks who won’t be as good as you hope they are. This is about the picks, and with Nos. 6, 13 and 17 in this draft, they could load up or move up.

Brooklyn Nets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: The 2003 Kevin Garnett

Look, I don’t know how owner Mikhail Prokhorov got his hands on a time machine, either, but billionaires have access to things we don’t. Let’s just take advantage of the opportunity to grab 2003 Kevin Garnett and get this team back into the playoffs.

Charlotte Hornets

The deal: Trade Machine

Hornets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Gary Neal, Nos. 9 and 24 picks in 2014

The Wolves never got to truly test out the Al Jefferson-Love big man tandem because Love wasn’t that great yet and Jefferson hurt his knee. They get a redo in Charlotte in this scenario, and with coach Steve Clifford’s defensive stylings, it could actually work.

Wolves would get a former No. 2 pick with potential; Zeller, whom they were enamored with before last year’s draft; and two first-round picks. The Pistons conceding the No. 9 pick to the Bobcats makes this a very attractive deal.

Chicago Bulls

The deal: Trade Machine

Bulls receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Nikola Mirotic, Ronnie Brewer, Nos. 16 and 19 picks in 2014

Of the most realistic trade scenarios for the Wolves in unloading Love for assets, cap relief and picks, this is probably the best move they could make, unless Phoenix is willing to be bold. You could also swap out Boozer for Taj Gibson, but his long-term money isn’t ideal for a rebuilding team. The Wolves could flip him to a contender later. The Bulls would be giving up a lot, but a big three of Joakim Noah, Love and Derrick Rose (assuming he's healthy) is an amazing way to battle whatever the Heat end up being after this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The deal: Trade Machine

Cavaliers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, No. 1 pick in 2014

Why would the Cavaliers possibly trade the No. 1 pick in a loaded class, plus three rotation players, for Love? Because they seem to have a pipe dream of bringing LeBron James back to Cleveland this summer and this is the way to do it. It’s not stockpiling a bunch of young role players for James to play alongside. He wants to play with stars, and having Love and Kyrie Irving in tow would go a long way.

Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: 2011 NBA championship banner and one free pass for a business idea on “Shark Tank”

I’ve always had a problem with teams hanging up “division title” banners in an arena because it seems like a lower-level franchise thing to do. Considering the Wolves are about to lose their best player and potentially miss the playoffs for an 11th straight season, it’s safe to consider them on that lower level right now.

It would be nice to take down the 2003-04 division title banner and replace it with a championship banner. And the extra revenue from getting a business idea funded through “Shark Tank” could give this organization a little extra money to play around with during the next few years. The Wolves are renovating their arena, so they could use the cash.

Denver Nuggets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nuggets receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur, Randy Foye, No. 11 pick in 2014

Coach Brian Shaw gets his coveted big-time power forward and a nice offensive complement to Ty Lawson in the backcourt. While Martin isn't even close to being a defender, he at least has some size to utilize on offense.

The Wolves get a lot of quality players and a couple of veterans (Arthur and Foye) they can flip. They could even add a lottery pick here in this draft, although this sort of feels like a lot in return. Oh, who cares? The Wolves get to be greedy here.

Detroit Pistons

Pistons receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Stan Van Gundy

I don't want your horrible Josh Smith contract and shot selection that makes most government agencies look like well-oiled machines. I don’t want an improbable sign-and-trade deal with Greg Monroe. I don’t want any of the young players. I don’t even want the pick. I want SVG in all of his coaching glory and I’m willing to relinquish this fake GM power to him when the trade is completed. I’m going full-on Veruca Salt on this one. I want Stan Van Gundy to coach the Wolves and I want it now!

Golden State Warriors

The deal: Trade Machine

Warriors receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, right to swap picks in 2015 and 2016

I don’t actually think this is a good trade, but it allows me to bring up a point. I get the mindset of wanting to maximize the value you receive in a trade versus what you’re sending out. But there are Warriors fans worried about giving up Thompson and Barnes in a deal for Love, while ridding themselves of Lee’s contract. Back when the Clippers were trading for Chris Paul, there were fans and writers who thought it was a bad idea to include Eric Gordon. Think about that now. Sometimes it can get out of hand for players who probably won’t be All-Stars.

Houston Rockets

The deal: Trade Machine

Rockets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Jordan Hamilton, first-round picks in 2015 and 2017

This is an incredibly tricky situation because while the Rockets have lots of assets to move, the inclusion of Parsons makes the deal really difficult. The Wolves would need to pick up his team option for next season, but that means he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2015. How likely is it that he will want to stay in Minnesota?

Lin’s contract will cost more than owner Glen Taylor wants to pay for a non-winning team. Motiejunas would be the best prospect in the deal and you’re taking late first-round picks in the future. Can we just forget this deal and ask Hakeem Olajuwon to be an adviser to the Wolves instead?

Indiana Pacers

The deal: Trade Machine

Pacers receive: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Wolves receive: Roy Hibbert, David West

I want to see just how good of a coach Frank Vogel is. The Wolves were 29th in defending the restricted area this season, and I would guess the only reason they weren’t the worst is because of Dieng’s late-season rim defense. The Pacers were the best at defending the rim this season. Can Vogel keep that defensive prowess with these non-shot-blockers? Can the Wolves defend the rim with these two big men? These two teams don’t match up at all in the trade department, so we might as well experiment.

Los Angeles Clippers

The deal: Trade Machine

Clippers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford

I don’t know why the Clippers would ever do this trade, but it’s unfair for other fan bases to have all of the fun and none of the depression. Griffin gets to receive alley-oop passes from Ricky Rubio while Crawford dazzles the media members with his dribbling and charm.

The Clippers get another shooter to stretch the floor to allow DeAndre Jordan to further develop. Martin wouldn’t exactly add anything to what the Clippers do now, but again, I’m sick of all the depression in these scenarios, so just take one for the team, please.

Los Angeles Lakers

The deal: Trade Machine

Lakers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Nick Young, MarShon Brooks, No. 7 pick in 2014, future first-round pick, Flip Saunders gets a statue outside Staples Center, Minneapolis Lakers’ title banners

In this scenario, I suffered a head injury when I tried to pull off one of those 360 layups Swaggy P loves to do so much and I fell into the celebrating elbows of Sacre. It left me a little woozy, but I think I came up with a good deal to finally get Love to Los Angeles. Nash's deal is expiring, Sacre and Ronny Turiaf form the greatest bench-cheering duo ever, Young gets to teach me that layup and Brooks is cap filler. Those Minneapolis Lakers banners will look great at Target Center, too.

Memphis Grizzlies

The deal: Trade Machine

Grizzlies receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Zach Randolph, James Johnson, Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin, first-round pick in 2017

This does one thing that’s pretty cool: It gives a Grizzlies team that struggled to score in the half court two very good half-court scorers. They lose some toughness but they can actually round out their overall game quite a bit. For the Wolves, it gives them the potential for a Pekovic-Randolph-Johnson frontcourt, which, if Randolph opts in this summer, will protect Minnesota when the zombie apocalypse happens. Nobody is taking out that frontcourt.

Miami Heat

The deal: Trade Machine

Heat receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, right to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2018

The Wolves are torn between a full-on rebuild (try selling that to the fans again during this decade-long playoff drought) and trying to still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Granted, Bosh has to agree to this deal by not opting out of his contract this summer, but the Wolves would at least remain hyper-competitive on the playoff bubble. They’d also grab a backup point guard who isn’t as erratic as the incumbent, J.J. Barea.

The Heat get younger and give LeBron the chance to really have a great second scorer with him in his next deal in Miami.

Milwaukee Bucks

The deal: Trade Machine

Bucks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, No. 2 pick in 2014, Wisconsin has to pretend the Vikings are the best team in the league

Sure, Sanders has the potential to be a nice defender in this league for a long time, Mayo would be a possible cap-relief trade chip in a year and the No. 2 pick, whoever it ends up being, could be a major star in this league. But the win here for Minnesota is Wisconsin having to pretend the Vikings are the best. A fan base that was 27th in attendance in the NBA and 13th in attendance in the NFL doesn't really care how they make out in any Love deal. They just want the football win. Vikings fans aren't used to getting a lot of those.

New Orleans Pelicans

The deal: Trade Machine

Pelicans receive: Kevin Love, Chase Budinger
Wolves receive: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon

Sure, you guys are laughing at me and how ridiculous this is, but in my head the deal has been made and I’m doing a little dance of celebration. Have your laughter, and I’ll have my delusional mind, and never the twain shall meet.

New York Knicks

The deal: Trade Machine

Knicks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: [processing ...]

The Knicks gave up a first-round pick to get Andrea Bargnani. Comparable value means they’d have to give up the entire Wall Street district for Love. I can’t even pretend there is a combination here that works for the Wolves. Maybe they could do a double sign-and-trade and swap Love for Carmelo Anthony? Someone ask cap guru Larry Coon if this is allowed. Can we get a reality show just recording La La’s face when Melo has to tell her they’re moving to Minneapolis?

Oklahoma City Thunder

The deal: Trade Machine

Thunder receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet, Mavericks’ first-round pick in 2014, Thunder’s first-round pick in 2017

I’m not going to be unrealistic and pretend Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook are in play here, but there’s no reason the Wolves can’t ask for Ibaka, while also unloading Martin’s deal (three years, $20 million left) and picking up young talent in Lamb and Jones, a first-round pick this year and an unprotected pick in 2017. Why 2017? Let’s pretend this Thunder thing doesn’t work out and Love and Durant both leave in 2016. In this scenario, the Wolves position themselves to take advantage of a team falling apart. It’s like what every team does to Minnesota every single time it trades a draft pick.

Orlando Magic

The deal: Trade Machine

Magic receive: Kevin Love, No. 13 pick in 2014
Wolves receive: Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Jameer Nelson, No. 4 pick in 2014

I recognize that the Wolves getting the No. 2 pick from last year’s draft plus the No. 4 pick in this draft seems like a lot, but Love is a lot better than Oladipo and it’s not all that close. Even if Oladipo maximizes his potential, he’s probably not reaching Love’s status. Flip was enamored with Oladipo heading into the 2013 draft and would probably be willing to swap firsts with the Magic this year in order to complete this trade.

Philadelphia 76ers

The deal: Trade Machine

76ers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Nos. 3 and 10 picks in 2014

The Wolves get a young asset, cap relief and two lottery picks in this draft in exchange for Love and getting rid of Martin’s deal. It sounds like the Sixers are giving up a lot here, but they have assets to spare. You’re teaming Love with a defensive-minded center in Nerlens Noel and a pass-first point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. Plus, the Sixers still have room to add another major player.

Phoenix Suns

The deal: Trade Machine

Suns receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Eric Bledsoe, Timberwolves' first-round pick in 2015

This is the dream scenario. The Wolves would have to convince Bledsoe to want to play in Minnesota, and then execute a sign-and-trade. Most likely, they’d have to max out Bledsoe in the process. The Suns do it because of the knee concern for Bledsoe, and Love is a much better player who fits coach Jeff Hornacek’s style of play. Getting their top-12 protected pick back for dumping Wes Johnson in Phoenix helps, too. It’s a risk by the Suns and a concession by the Wolves, but this is the “fingers crossed” scenario.

Portland Trail Blazers

The deal: Trade Machine

Trail Blazers receive: Kevin Love, medium-quality bike lanes from Minneapolis
Wolves receive: LaMarcus Aldridge, second-best bike lanes from Portland

This needs to happen and it doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. I just want to see both fan bases reverse course on the vitriol thrown each other’s way when discussing which power forward is better. The Blazers fans would have to embrace Love as the top PF while the Wolves fans pretend they never meant the things they said about Aldridge’s rebounding.

The bike lane aspect of this trade would really help Portland take back its title as top cycling city in the country.

Sacramento Kings

The deal: Trade Machine

Kings receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Williams, Jason Terry

This one doesn't even involve a draft pick because Cousins has so much potential. The Kings can take a big man with the No. 8 pick this year and pair him next to Love. Martin returns to Sacramento and doesn't have Tyreke Evans to hog the ball and make him want to get out of town. Terry is salary-cap relief for the Wolves, and they can to try a do-over with Williams. This trade can’t happen until after July 1, so that and reality are the only two hang-ups right now.

San Antonio Spurs

Spurs receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Gregg Popovich

This works out perfectly in a couple of ways. Let’s say the Spurs win the title this year and we see Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ride off into the sunset. Love would immediately be the replacement for Duncan and give the Spurs a bridge from this era into the next successful one.

For the Wolves, I don’t even want to subject Popovich to coaching the team. He should just be a consultant for a month and let the organization know all of the awful ways in which they do things and the way the Spurs “would never consider something like this.” He’d essentially be The Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" for Minnesota.

Toronto Raptors

The deal: Trade Machine

Raptors receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, John Salmons, No. 20 pick in 2014, Knicks’ first-round pick in 2016

It would leave the Raptors searching for a big man to protect the paint, but in today’s NBA, you could get away with a Love-Amir Johnson frontcourt against a lot of teams. The Wolves get the young assets they crave, the draft picks they need and the cap relief necessary to keep their options open. They’d have to move Pekovic next, and they don’t get rid of Martin's contract in this scenario, but it’s a good start to the rebuilding plan. This might be a lot for the Raptors to give up, but general manager Masai Ujiri can just fleece the next four trades he makes and even it all out.

Utah Jazz

The deal: Trade Machine

Jazz receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans, John Lucas III, Rudy Gobert, No. 5 pick in 2014

Requesting the Jazz’s top big man and the fifth pick is asking Utah to do the Wolves quite the ... Favor(s) ... you know? No? Wait, where are you guys going? I still have one more team to poach players from!

Washington Wizards

The deal: Trade Machine

Wizards receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Bradley Beal, Nene

This would be an incredibly tough decision for the Wizards to make. They have one of the best young shooting guards in the NBA, and pairing him with John Wall would produce an awesome tandem for a decade. And yet, they could upgrade for Love while still keeping a scorer at the shooting guard position. In the process, they’d rid themselves of the long-term money owed to Nene. They would owe long-term money to Martin, though.

It’s not an ideal scenario in a few ways, but you’d be making this team a big threat. Plus, it would give coach Randy Wittman a chance to apologize for telling a young Love that he should abandon the 3-point shot.

Houston, um, we have a problem

April, 30, 2014
Serrano By Shea Serrano
Writer and illustrator Shea Serrano and his collaborator, Sean Mack, put their spin on the NBA.

Rockets CartoonShea Serrano and Sean Mack
Previously: Don't wake up Kevin Durant »

Blazers' lesson plan continues into playoffs

April, 26, 2014
By Daniel Nowell
Special to

PORTLAND, Ore. -- With the Rockets and Blazers tied and the clock under 35 seconds in Friday's Game 3 in Portland, the Rockets had the ball for the game’s penultimate shot.

James Harden took a high screen from Dwight Howard, and another, and another still.

Throughout, Nicolas Batum stayed on Harden's hip, fighting through the screens and steering the bearded guard into trouble. Dorell Wright tipped the ball loose, and Williams dove on it. But Houston’s Jeremy Lin careened in just a half second later, corralled the ball and threw a wild overhead pass to rookie Troy Daniels, wide open and all alone on the opposite wing.

Daniels, in his sixth NBA game and just weeks removed from playing in the D-League, cashed in.

It was a broken play, and a perfect one. In a series with two overtime games in its first three, it was the sort of play that has a way of seeming inevitable, a manifestation of how fickle the bounces can be and how razor thin the margin between two teams. Batum had played it perfectly. Williams had all but recovered the loose ball.

But the result was three points the other way.

The Blazers entered the NBA's second season four months removed from playing their best ball and with a reputation as a high-variance, eminently beatable team.

For as much as they had to prove that they could adjust to the intense focus of playoff defenses, that their stars could raise their games to match the stakes, and that they could get the crucial stops in crucial games, the playoffs are new territory for an overachieving team.

Mostly, they were up to the task. Yes, they were operating on thin margins and eking out close victories, but Portland showed it is capable of putting forth better-than-expected performances in the most meaningful games. LaMarcus Aldridge dismantled the Houston defense from outside, and crucially, from inside, and Damian Lillard proved that his preternatural confidence would extend into the playoffs with an impressive debut.

After a 121-116 loss at home on Friday night, the Blazers are forced to learn anew.

This series settled into itself for Game 3. The Rockets responded to Aldridge's two-game rampage by starting Omer Asik in place of Terrence Jones, and Asik spent his time hounding Aldridge before and after every catch. Houston also, as many predicted, made more extensive use of Dwight Howard-James Harden pick-and-rolls, stretching Portland's defenses in ways the Rockets hadn't over the first two games. A series that had been about Aldridge's otherworldly scoring became about Houston's ability to counterpunch. And though the Blazers made enough runs to send the game into overtime, the Rockets dictated the competition for much of the game.

Early, with Asik blanketing Aldridge, the Blazers turned to Lillard and an aggressive Batum; with Aldridge on the bench in the first half, Portland took a lead with a 16-0 run.

Later in the game, when the Rockets began trapping Lillard off of screens, the Blazers were left with open looks from beyond the arc. A nine-point Mo Williams barrage brought them back from double-digits and shook the team out of a bizarre hesitance to pull the trigger from deep. Always a step behind, but always just quick enough to make it up, the Blazers fought their way into overtime.

Now, the Blazers face an interesting growth challenge. They remain in the catbird seat, still in possession of home-court advantage, but they lead the series by a margin of only four points. The evidence suggests these teams have played to a standstill, but Portland's victories still define the series. The Blazers now face the task of investing in their successes and moving on from this loss, though the difference is almost indistinguishable.

In a sense, they have to learn to make meaningless the types of plays that felt so meaningful for the first two games.

That's life on the knife's edge of the playoffs. In the first two games, the with the bounces going the Blazers' way, they became a changed team, a team ready to take a step forward, with a bona fide superstar and a point guard ready for the bright lights. Their job going forward is to invest in that perception until it becomes a reality, all while treating Friday night as if it were just a bad bounce.