What did we learn about the Heat? Lakers?

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On Christmas 2009, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers thumped the Los Angeles Lakers pretty good, winning by 15. Come June, that game was meaningless.

That 2009 game looked a lot like the 2010 Lakers/Heat game. Which is to say, the Heat’s 16-point win has no real predictive value. If these two teams do meet again in the finals don’t point back to this game as an example of what will happen.

But this game was instructive. It was a snapshot of where the teams are right now at this moment, and where they need to improve to get to the title they both crave.

We learned some things.

• For the Heat, we learned that their pressure defense can disrupt more than just the lesser lights in the league. That defense is a force. They took the Lakers out of their rhythm, both cutting off passing angles on the wings and not letting Pau Gasol get to his spots on the floor, making him far less effective. They took the Lakers out of the triangle and into the Gasol/Kobe pick and roll — always a sign the Lakers are struggling. (That pick-and-roll worked for a bit but the Heat adjusted and shut it down.)

I was reminded of what Doc Rivers said back before the start of this season — how far the Heat went was going to be decided by how well they played defense as a team. If that is the case, the rest of the league should be worried.

• We learned that Chris Bosh can ball — he was the best big man on the court in this one. Well, actually we knew Bosh could ball. People ragged on him after a slow start to the season but he was a max guy with good reason. Bosh was slow adjusting to being the third option, but he still can be a force and reminded everyone of it today. He was taking what the defense gave him, hitting the jumper when they pulled back and driving on guys when they came out on him. He was very active on defense as well.

• We learned that when LeBron James is dropping threes he is really tough to guard. But we probably knew that, too.

• For the Lakers, we were reminded how this team be so overconfident as to bring their “C” game against anyone. This is a team acting like it will be able to flip the switch. Kobe said it well on the Land O’ Lakers blog.

“We know what we’re capable of doing, that’s the problem.”

• We learned how much the Lakers miss Andrew Bynum. Yes he played, but not the active, conditioned, reacting well and clogging the lane on drives Bynum that the Lakers need. Some other, slower guy was out there trying to recover from surgery.  The Heat in general and Dwyane Wade in particular were getting into the teeth of the Lakers defense on the pick-and-roll and the rotations were terrible. The Heat had a lot of room to operate (and frankly should have won by more than 16).

• More than all that, we learned that this Lakers team is not yet like the ones we might remember from the playoffs — those Lakers teams still found a way to score on the Celtics and other top defenses. Right now, when they get pushed out of their comfort zone, these Lakers look lost. Gasol was bothered by the long arms and athleticism of Bosh. Gasol wasn’t just not scoring, he wasn’t the hub of the Lakers offense (like he is when they are playing well). This lack of comfort should change for Los Angeles — Phil Jackson’s teams usually find their groove later. But right now the Lakers do not have it.

Then again, last year when the Lakers lot to the Heat they went on a run winning five of their next six. This may spark them again, but with their next game Tuesday in San Antonio it’s not an easy road.

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.