NBA Playoffs: Bulls win yet another nail-biter

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It’s hard not to feel for the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers came into the series as heavy underdogs, each one of their games against the mighty Chicago Bulls has come down to the last few possessions, and they still find themselves on the verge of being swept after another heartbreaking loss.

The Pacers needed to do two things in order to turn the series around — make shots and contain Derrick Rose. To their credit, they were able to do the latter extremely well. The Pacers trapped Rose aggressively and used a number of larger defenders on him, and were able to wall off the paint against him. They ended up forcing Rose into five turnovers and a 4-18 shooting night, and only one of Rose’s field goals came from inside of 19 feet.

The Bulls weren’t able to get much offense outside of Rose, either. Carlos Boozer had another terrible game, managing only four points on 2-1o shooting from the field, and Luol Deng required 19 shots to get his 21 points. If it wasn’t for the dead-eye shooting of three-point specialists Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver, who went 5-6 from beyond the arc, the Bulls would have been completely dead in the water offensively in Game 3.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, they completely failed to generate any offense of their own against the league’s top defense. The only thing that really worked offensively for the Pacers was Danny Granger shooting contested two-point jumpers, both in the half-court and in transition, and that is not a formula for sustainable offensive success. Darren Collison and A.J. Price dribbled aimlessly and tossed up shots. Roy Hibbert struggled to get comfortable in the post. The 18-foot jumper Tyler Hansborough had in Game 1 has completely abandoned him. Paul George struggled. Dahntay Jones was able to get to the hoop a few times, but that was about all the Pacers were able to muster on offense.

With the game tied and 55 seconds left to play, the Pacers called a time out to set up a play, but Darren Collison ignored what appeared to be an open Danny Granger and tried a tough floater in the lane, which he missed. On the ensuing Bulls possession, Derrick Rose let the clock run all the way down to five before exploding to the basket and making a left-handed layup over three Pacer defenders to put the Bulls up by two. It was Rose’s first layup of the game. Before Rose’s layup, Kyle Korver was instrumental for Chicago — he scored or assisted on 12 straight Chicago points during one stretch in the fourth-quarter, and kept a key offensive rebound alive that eventually turned into a pair of Rose free throws with 2:31 remaining.

After Rose’s layup, Danny Granger’s contested three missed on the Pacers’ final possession, and the Pacers are now in a 3-0 hole. Indiana should be proud of their effort in all three losses, and clearly has something to build on for next season if they don’t pull of a miracle and come back, but ultimately they didn’t have enough offensive firepower to crack Chicago’s dominant defense.

Chicago has some things to worry about, but ultimately a win is a win in the playoffs, and Chicago has taken three in a row. The Pacers have shown that the Bulls’ offense can be slowed to a crawl if you can trap Derrick Rose effectively and force the rest of the Bulls to beat you, but the next team that Chicago faces may not be able to trap Rose nearly as well as the Pacers have, and there’s a very good chance Carlos Boozer will be a lot more effective than he has been against the Pacers. The Bulls have shown some cracks in their armor, but they’ve yet to give up a game. Until somebody actually beats them, they shouldn’t be taken any less seriously than they were at the end of the regular season.

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.