NBA Playoffs: Atlanta shocks Chicago in Game 1

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It’s time to go back to the drawing board, NBA world. These Atlanta Hawks apparently aren’t ready to crumble under the Chicago Bulls’ might just yet, as the underdog club — predicted by most to win but a single game in this series (or less), and predicted by yours truly to be overrun by Derrick Rose — stole Game 1 on the road, 103-95.

Although the focus will largely be on how the top-seeded Bulls fell short in the inaugural game of their second round series, let’s not forget that the Hawks won this thing. Atlanta was the unmistakably better team on Monday night, and though the sustainability of the Hawks’ offense will understandably be questioned, public doubts don’t make Joe Johnson’s jumpers count for any less. So long as Johnson and Jamal Crawford and the entire Hawks crew can continue to hit their shots, the reliability of Atlanta’s methods is a non-issue. For now, the Hawks were good enough on both ends to control their first game against the Bulls, and each contest from here on out will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Atlanta can’t and won’t win them all, but we should be past the point of devaluing the Hawks’ makes for probability’s sake. Their weaknesses are well known, and there’s no use reinforcing them until the clock finally does strike midnight.

Like it or not, Johnson was spectacular. He took some tough shots and broke free from the offense at times, but he scored 34 points on 18 shots, and went a tremendous 5-of-5 from beyond the arc. Johnson helped build the lead in the first quarter, hit timely shots that broke the Bulls’ momentum in the third, and closed despite facing plenty of traps down the stretch. Call it the hot hand, call it random chance, or call it a quality shot maker converting on his tough looks, but Johnson was far and away the game’s most effective offensive player. The fact that Tom Thibodeau saw it fit to run aggressive ball pressure at Johnson in the fourth at all speaks volumes, as does the Hawks’ victory in spite of that pressure. Crawford also connected on half of his field goal attempts — in spite of his shot selection — and finished with 22 points.

Atlanta deserves a ton of credit for their collective defense against Derrick Rose. Jeff Teague worked his tail off to stay in front of Rose, but it was a team-wide effort that forced the league’s MVP into bad passes and deterred his drives into the lane. When Rose did manage to get to the basket, the Hawks contested effectively; Atlanta pestered Rose into 4-of-9 shooting in his attempts at the rim without fouling him in the act of shooting a single time, an even more impressive accomplishment when considering the boost to Rose’s shooting from transition and semi-transition opportunities. In the halfcourt offense, Rose had no means to create efficient shots, and he settled for too many threes (seven attempts with just two makes) as a result. Honestly, Rose is as deserving of blame as the Hawks are of praise; both contributed to Rose’s inefficiency with their decision-making in Game 1, but it should be interesting to see the Game 2 response from both parties.

Larry Drew has to be pleased with Teague’s work on offense in addition to his defensive work against Rose. Five assists to just one turnover is pretty solid for a young guard seeing his first meaningful action of the playoffs, but Teague also impressed with his creative intermediate game. Teague’s 10 points were mostly off of floaters and runners, carved out from that fluffy middle ground between the protected interior and the preventative perimeter front. Being able to manufacture makes in that space is quite valuable, and Teague’s patience was essential in creating those opportunities.

The rest of the series will write its own story, but this first game belonged to Atlanta. They held their own on the boards despite the surrendering a considerable advantage to Chicago in that regard during the regular season. They took a nice performance from Luol Deng (21 points, 8-12 FG, six rebounds) in stride, and still won regardless. They kept Derrick Rose out of the paint, and scored at a rate of 118.4 points per 100 possessions. That — along with the shooting of Johnson and Crawford, and the sturdiness of Teague, for that matter — could change overnight, but this is the world as we know it. The Atlanta Hawks are up 1-0, and everything that will be, will be.

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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.