NBA Playoffs: Saturday is the last stand

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G_Wallace.jpg8 teams play today, 4 in Game 3’ss, and 4 in Game 4’s. But for the underdog in each of these contests, this will be their last stand in the hopes of a competitive series. If these teams want to force a Game 7, forget about the elimination game, whenever it comes. Today is their last stand. Here’s a look at what they need to do if they don’t want to wind up like Custer.

Charlotte (hosting Orlando): The Bobcats have done everything to make this a competitive series, and still the Magic have held them at arm’s length. Playoff basketball returns to Charlotte for the first time in a long time today and there’s no way to anticipate what kind of crowd will be on hand for the Bobcats’ playoff debut. They need an emotional crowd, because this team has to surge behind it, play with intensity, and capture every loose ball.

 The Magic are in high gear right now, and burying the Cats at home would make a sweep very likely. As feisty as the Cats have been all season, they have also been known to mail in their fair share, as veterans are wont to do. Going down 3-0 would put the Cats in a hole they would probably be unmotivated to climb out of.

The key is going to be Raymond Felton. Felton was considered a wash against Jameer Nelson before the series started, and now it looks like a complete mismatch. Nelson has been efficient from three, proficient at point, and devastating on the drive. Felton not only has to contain Nelson, but figure out how to get a few buckets of his own. From there, it’s the luck of the three pointer behind a home crowd they need.

Portland (hosting Phoenix): And everything looked so good after Game 1, too. No series’ momentum has swung like this one, with the Suns looking unstoppable in the last two games once they switched Grant Hill on Andre Miller and started defending like they gave a crap. Portland hasn’t just seemed outmanned (and they are, with injuries to Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, and Nicolas Batum), but outclassed. They haven’t responded at all to a raucous home crowd, and have let the Suns dictate the tempo.

A loss tonight would mean three in a row, headed back to Phoenix for an elimination game, potentially coinciding with the announcement of an extension for Amar’e Stoudemire. That’s a lot that can go wrong for the Blazers in that situation, so they need a win today to even the series and force at least two more. They have to adjust to Jason Richardson who went off for 42 points last game and has torched them from the perimeter in transition. They’ve got to slow the ball down, and while they need to stop the ball in transition when Nash is leading the charge, he’s much deadlier when finding open three pointers. They’ve got to keep their heads on, or they might as well start packing up the Rose Garden.

Milwaukee (hosting Atlanta): Another potential sweep series. The Bucks haven’t played badly. That’s the killer. They’ve gotten Brandon Jennings to contribute consistently.They’ve had Ersan Ilyasova step up as a big man. And they’ve gotten good team play. And they just haven’t come close to scratching the Hawks. Milwaukee is going to have to get this done dirty if they want to win, otherwise, this will be a sweep.

The key is going to be turning this game into one of those ugly, slow affairs. While the Hawks run at a slow pace, they have the talent advantage, so more possessions favor them. The Bucks need to turn it into a low possession game and try and connect from the arc, something they’re not great at. John Salmons is going to need the game of his career. A game 4 with a chance to rest up before meeting Orlando is going to be a big carrot for the Hawks.

Thunder (hosting Lakers): Okay, OKC. You got the first playoff win in the first playoff game. And you were loud as hell. But now you have the Lakers’ attention. And while your crowd will likely be close to as loud as they were Thursday night, you’ve got to imagine the Lakers will probably come out with a little fire after facing defeat. The Lakers know a Game 4 win effectively ends this series, with three closeout games in a tight series left, two at home.

If the Thunder can take this game and put LA back on their heels a bit, they’ve got a three game series in which anything can happen. They’ve played well in LA, falling short both times but remaining competitive, so they’d have a lot of hope to pull the miracle. But first thing’s first, they’ve got to win today.

The key is going to be to follow the same formula as the last game. Attack inside, rely on Kevin Durant to have a hot night, have Russell Westbrook destroy whoever is “guarding” him, and swarm on defense. Most important is going to be the defense on Pau Gasol. Gasol has been killer in this series, with everything from off-ball movement leading to dunks, to that patented rainbow fader of his. Jeff Green can’t handle him, neither can Nenad Krstic.

The Thunder have to get Andrew Bynum in foul trouble so they can put Serge Ibaka on Gasol. Another option that may seem crazy would be to go to Etan Thomas, who hasn’t played much at all as the season wore on, to match Gasol’s length and range. Thomas can impact the boards, and might be a better defensive matchup. Then again, it’s Etan Thomas.

This game will say a lot about where both franchises are.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.