Bulls barely, and we mean barely edge Magic without Dwight Howard

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Bulls 102 Magic 99.

This was a fantastic ballgame that will be overshadowed by narratives about the MVP. The questions will be about how the Magic nearly beat the Bulls with Dwight Howard spending a one-game suspension for hitting 18 techs, and what that says about Howard’s MVP candidacy. The other side will respond with how another brilliant game from Rose nearly resulted in a loss due the defense, which many say is the real MVP of the Bulls, and what that says about his MVP candidacy. In reality, both of those questions are stupid. It was a great game for Rose, an example of why he’s probably winning MVP, and shows that the Magic have some teeth left in them.

Perhaps most notable in the game was how the Bulls were undone by an effective defense and how the Magic’s ability to create ball movement inside led to cuts. The Bulls’ normally tenacious defense was pretty meek today, allowing cuts inside and Ryan Anderson to be active at the rim. On the flipside, the Magic played solid defense in terms of bringing doubles in the post. This gave Bulls fans a full look at what they’re getting from Carlos Boozer in the playoffs. Boozer was terrific in the first quarter, using a nice array of moves to create points in the post. In the fourth, he was mostly a disaster, including a terrible pass out of a soft double that led to a transition bucket from Jason Richardson.

But all the doubles the Magic brought? None of them were committed to keeping the ball out of Rose’s hands on the perimeter. Time and time again Rose caught a kickout pass with a defender trying to recover, ball faked and went right around the defender. The result was a blistering 39 points, 5 assists performance. Though Rose did have five turnovers to those five assists, he also scored those 39 points on just 17 shots. Crazy efficiency. And that was the difference in the game. Well, that and about .000001 seconds.

Jameer Nelson had a shot to tie the game at the end of regulation. He caught and had to pump fake to free himself from Rose. He rose, and fired from 38 feet, making it. The ball left his hand just a tenth of a second late. Waived off, Bulls win.

A great game that showcased that if these two meet in the second round, this could be tougher than most people are counting on.

Provided that Gilbert Arenas doesn’t get minutes. Yeesh.

Some notes:

  • Chris Duhon actually played really well in limited minutes to keep the Magic in it late. Then Gilbert Arenas came in and, well, yeah.
  • Joakim Noah played terribly in the first quarter and was benched for most of the game. Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau each took turns screaming at Noah early. Strange.
  • Taj Gibson hit a three loooong two. Actually happened.
  • The Magic still needed that player everyone says they need, who can create perimeter penetration to open up lanes. Turkoglu did some, but wasn’t fast enough and the drives wound up bogging down.

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 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).

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

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. 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 focus than they brought against the Timberwolves, because unlike Minnesota those teams will make Houston pay a steep price.

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.

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.