The women’s top seed continued the defence of her title with an emphatic semi-final victory over Elena Vesnina this afternoon.Williams dropped lost just two games on her way to a 6-2 6-0 win.
But Harden knows he needs to break out of his postseason inconsistency. He remains one of the league’s top fourth-quarter players and is capable of carrying the Rockets to late wins by himself. He has surged over the Rockets’ last 15 games: 10.7 points per fourth quarter, on 51.1 percent shooting and 41.5 percent 3-point shooting. He has not missed a fourth-quarter free throw since late January, a string of 27 straight.That’s what the Rockets will need from Harden in the playoffs. The team is playing its best here in the last few weeks, and if it can keep it up, Houston will be as much a threat to the Warriors as last season.And in some ways, the Rockets could be even more of a threat this time around. Even before the Rockets’ demolition of two East contenders on the road, in Boston on Sunday and in Toronto on Tuesday, one Western Conference assistant coach had a warning.”They have a better chance to win a championship now than they did last year,” the coach said. “The adversity has been good for them, I think. They were a good defensive team last year, but they could be soft. That was a fair criticism of them. They’re tougher now. They can take a blow and still win a game. “And they’re deeper. That bench is a much better group now. They can go eight or nine deep if they need to. I give them a better chance in the West than anyone besides the Warriors.”MORE: Three takeaways from Celtics’ win over WarriorsAfter seeing how the Rockets dismantled the Celtics and Raptors to win their fifth and sixth games in a row, withstanding second-half runs in both games, it’s hard to argue the coach’s assessment. Despite the Rockets’ shabby record when compared to last season’s 65-win steamroller (they’re on pace to win 50 games), this team is better and a bigger danger to keep the Warriors from their fifth straight Finals appearance.”It feels good to have mostly everybody back,” MVP candidate James Harden said after the win in Boston. “But we could catch a rhythm. We’ve been having a lot of injuries, a lot of ups and downs, but we’re finally catching a rhythm on both ends of the floor, and it feels good.”It was a hoops lifetime ago when the Rockets were sitting at 11-14, one of the league’s biggest disappointments. Since then, the roster has been overhauled, the team gradually has gotten healthy and Houston has shot from 14th in the conference to third.But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We asked the coach to break down the Rockets lately and explain why they’re a threat to the Warriors. Here’s what we got…1. DepthCoach’s view: “I know everyone was surprised they let (Trevor) Ariza go, but watch the playoffs again last year. He was terrible. He was spent. So I think they’re better because they moved on from him and (Luc) Mbah a Moute. You still have Gerald Green, but now your bench is Austin Rivers, it’s (Kenneth) Faried, it’s (Iman) Shumpert. The supporting cast is that much better.”The facts: Ariza signed with Phoenix this summer, shunning the chance to return to Houston. He was bad in last year’s postseason, though, averaging 8.8 points and shooting 36.0 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from the 3-point line. Faried and Shumpert have been out lately, but Rivers has been solid since coming to Houston on Christmas (10.1 points in 31 games).Overall, the Rockets ranked 30th in bench points (26.0), bench field-goal percentage (39.9) and bench 3-point shooting (30.5) through Feb. 1. In 13 games since then, the bench is averaging 28.1 points, shooting 43.8 percent and making 36.9 percent of its 3-pointers. The reserves are a plus-3.6 over that span, second in the NBA, and the Rockets have gone 10-3.2. Chris Paul in the pick-and-rollCoach’s view: “Houston has two of the best pick-and-roll players of the last 10 years (Paul and Harden). But I think Paul in the pick-and-roll with Harden off the ball and (Clint) Capela as the roll man, that is a devastating play and it exposes some weaknesses with the Warriors. They have to play small against Houston. “I don’t think (DeMarcus) Cousins is much of a factor in a Rockets-Warriors series. Just attack him in the pick-and-roll, and he’s got to come out. That’s how Houston beat them without Harden (on Feb. 23).”The facts: Paul did rack up 17 assists in the Rockets’ win over the Warriors in late February, and the Rockets were up, 3-2, in the conference finals last year when Paul was injured and missed the final two games, both Houston losses.But Paul had struggles against Golden State in that series, shooting 40.7 percent from the field and averaging 19.8 points with 4.6 assists. It’s likely the Warriors will come up with different ways to wear out Paul over a seven-game series, but the more the Golden State defense focuses on Paul, the better it is for the other Rockets. 3. DefenseCoach’s view: “If you look at them start-to-finish last year, they were a good defensive team. But they had holes, and they had some struggles in the playoffs that the Warriors were able to exploit. This team has gotten better defensively as the year has gone on. They’ve gotten better defensive players, tougher guys, and they’ve finally had time to play together.”I think they will be at their peak defensively when the playoffs come. That’s different than last year.”The facts: The Rockets were seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season, with a rating of 105.6. In the playoffs, that bumped up to a defensive rating of 106.4.This year, through the first 59 games, the team’s defensive rating was 112.7, 27th in the NBA. In their last 13 games, the Rockets have a defensive rating of 108.9, which ranks eighth in the league. It’s a small sample size, but the Houston defense does appear pointed in the right direction.4. James Harden (obviously)Coach’s view: “His numbers speak for themselves, but I think you have to worry about his stamina in the playoffs, and that is something that could be trouble. He’s had some terrible shooting games in the playoffs. But, I mean, he is 29, so it is kind of getting to be now or never for him. He has to be more consistent in the playoffs because physical wear and tear is only going to get worse on him.”He’s been really good in the clutch. He makes big shots. He makes his free throws. He has to carry that into the playoffs and keep his consistency going.”The facts: The workload Harden carries in Houston hurts him in the playoffs. He has averaged 27.6 points in 38.1 minutes in six postseasons as a Rocket but has shot only 41.2 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from the 3-point line. He’s failed to crack 30 percent from the arc in his last two playoff appearances (27.8 percent in 2017 and 29.9 percent in 2018), and there could be more of that ahead, as Harden leads the league in minutes per game (37.5) and is on pace to have the second-highest single-season usage percentage of all time (40.5).
Pedro Obiang would be a “perfect fit” for Napoli – but is happy to remain at West Ham, according to his agent Jose Miguel Gonzalez.The Spaniard, who joined the Hammers in the summer, has struggled to hold down a regular place in Slaven Bilic’s starting team.Obiang has made just eight starts for the club this season, which has led to reported interest from Serie A leaders Napoli over a potential January move.“Napoli are very strong, doing well in the league and are looking for reinforcements in midfield,” Gonzalez told Tutto Mercato.“Obiang would be perfect for their needs, but I have not received any calls from Napoli.“He is unlikely to leave West Ham in January. The club want to keep hold of him, he is happy in London and happy with his team-mates.” 1 Pedro Obiang