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NBA Playoffs: Incredible comeback has Dallas one game from the NBA Finals

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The Thunder had this.

They did just about everything they had to do from the opening tip to secure a series-evening victory against Dallas in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

OKC jumped out to a fast start, got a superstar-level performance from its best player, and played active team defense for the vast majority of the game. The team built a lead of 15 points with 5:06 to play after what seemed like a dagger of a three-pointer at the time from Kevin Durant.

But then, and so quickly, it all came crashing down. Dallas finished regulation on a blistering 17-2 run to send it into overtime, and finished the comeback it started by pulling off an incredible 112-105 victory to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

A slow start doomed the Thunder in Game 3, so they made sure to begin strong in this one. Oklahoma City came out firing, and made its first nine shots, on the way to an early double-digit lead. But Dallas was able to hang around thanks to 22 first-half points from Dirk Nowitzki, and after shooting almost 67 percent from the field in the second quarter, the Mavs trailed by just five at the break.

The Thunder continued to play well, however, all the way up until that fateful point in the fourth. They were aggressive defensively, and were absolute monsters on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, where they grabbed 20 rebounds compared to just five for Dallas.

But things fell apart late for Oklahoma City, seemingly right at the point when backup playmaker James Harden fouled out of the game. From 4:34 left in the fourth until the final overtime buzzer, the Mavericks outscored the Thunder 26-6.

All of a sudden, the ball movement stopped for the Thunder offensively. Shawn Marion forced Durant into difficult, heavily-contested shots. Russell Westbrook forced shots, but the blame for the collapse is far from his — there was plenty of standing around by his teammates, and the team defense of the Mavericks was simply outstanding.

And of course, there was the play of Nowitzki.

Dirk has been simply incredible this postseason, and he finished this one with his second performance of 40 points or more in this series. He had 11 of his team’s final 13 points in regulation to close the gap, scoring on a variety of ridiculously tough shots over the tight and largely solid defense of Nick Collison.

As good as Nowitzki and the Mavs were during that huge fourth quarter run, the Thunder had two chances at the end of regulation to seal it, but the execution on those possessions was just atrocious.

The first play came out of a timeout with Oklahoma City still leading by two. There was actually player movement on this possession as the team got into a set play, but the only shot the Thunder were able to get was a corner three-point attempt from Thabo Sefolosha.

The look was clean, and the pass from Durant was a good one in that situation. But it’s unconscionable with the game, and maybe the series on the line that coming out of a timeout, something can’t be drawn up to get the ball into your best player’s hands for something that resembles a decent shot.

On the Thunder’s following possession with the game tied and 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation, they got it to Durant this time, only they did so more than 30 feet from the basket. Durant panicked, and launched a contested three that Marion got a piece of, and to overtime we went.

Jason Kidd and Nowitzki finished things off once they got there, and will likely do the same to the Thunder on Wednesday in Game 5. Only this time, it will be for good, and the veterans will head to the NBA Finals, while the youngsters head home to try to learn from the experience.

Give all the credit in the world to Dallas, but really, it’s too bad for Oklahoma City. True, it’s a young and inexperienced team that has suffered from below average coaching in this series, especially on the offensive end of the floor. But with a 15-point lead, at home, with under five minutes remaining?

The Thunder had this.

Damian Lillard gets tested by Warriors, looks for rebound

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 03:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers stands on the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 3, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) First it was a chest cold, then it was a fourth-quarter dry spell. The start of Damian Lillard‘s playoff series against the Golden State Warriors has been rough.

And as Lillard goes, often the rest of the Trail Blazers follow.

Portland is down 2-0 in its Western Conference semifinal series against the defending NBA champions. And it certainly won’t get much easier when the series shifts north Saturday – even though presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry is unlikely to return from a knee injury.

But Lillard and his team have a history of stepping up after getting knocked down. In fact, that’s been the theme of their whole season.

“I know the kind of guys I’m running with. Besides that, we’ve answered the call all season long. We’ve been in bad positions time and time again, and we’ve never shied away. We’ve never not answered the call. I don’t see why this time it would be any different,” he said.

Lillard, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists during the regular season, scored 25 points in the Blazers’ 110-99 loss in Game 2 on Tuesday night, including 17 points in the third quarter. But the Warriors held him scoreless (0-for-3 from the field) in the crucial final period when they came from behind to win, outscoring Portland 34-12. Portland only scored six points over the last 5:21.

With a day off on Wednesday, Lillard let the loss digest.

“After the game I was pretty frustrated by not being able to finish that game. Yesterday I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” he said. “I wasn’t even gonna watch the playoff game until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of 3s. So I wanted to see for myself, but I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball after that game.”

In the series opener, Lillard started cold but eventually scored 30 points in a 118-106 loss. The Oakland native admitted later to battling a cold afterward. On Thursday, he said he was healthy.

Lillard made a playoff splash in 2014 when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Rockets sent the Blazers into the second round for the first time in 14 years.

But he was the lone starter left with the Blazers this season after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews. Some expected the Blazers to only win about two dozen games.

Lillard tends to rise when he’s the underdog, however. Led by Lillard and backcourt teammate CJ McCollum, a first-year starter, the Blazers overcame a 2-10 stretch in November to wind up the fifth seed in the West.

A two-time All-Star, Lillard was snubbed this year. How did he respond? By dropping 51 points, including nine 3-pointers, in a 137-105 victory over – wait for it – the Golden State Warriors. Lillard shot over Curry at will in that Feb. 19 victory, one of just nine losses for the Warriors in a record-setting 73-win season.

Knowing the Blazers are capable will be key Saturday night.

“We’ll have bounce. We came back after 0-2 against the Clippers (in the opening round) and came with a lot of energy in Game 3. We know how important Game 3 is,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Having energy, having bounce, at the Moda Center, with our crowd? That’s the least of our concerns.”

Lillard also struggled in the opening two games against the Clippers in the first round. Portland came back to win the next four to win the series, but the Clippers were hurt when their top two scorers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, were knocked out with injuries.

The Warriors also get credit for Lillard’s struggles after making defensive adjustments on both Lillard and McCollum, particularly the play of Festus Ezeli.

“They are so explosive and they run really good stuff, I mean, it’s hard to guard. You have to cover a lot of floor against Portland, and I thought between Festus and Draymond (Green), those guys did a great job of protecting the feed and moving and handling the pick-and-roll on top,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Lillard said the Blazers would learn from it.

“It hurts to go back in the locker room after you play so well for so long and you come back in there with the L. But it is a part of growth,” he said. “The entire season has been growth for us.”

Erik Spoelstra calls Frank Vogel’s firing “disturbing”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 28:  Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat reacts as he coaches in the first half against the Indiana Pacers during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 28, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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One thing that’s a constant in the NBA: coaches always stick up for each other. That’s what happened on Thursday, when Pacers president Larry Bird announced that he was letting Frank Vogel go. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who coached against Vogel in three memorable playoff series during the big three era, was unhappy to hear the news of Vogel’s fate and lamented the state of coaching, which has very little job security.

Via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

“I think it’s really disturbing, actually. I’ve only been a head coach for eight years. So what am I, the second-longest-tenured?” Spoelstra asked, with Casey in his sixth season as Toronto coach and only Gregg Popovich, in his 20th season with the San Antonio Spurs, on the bench longer. “That’s a sad state of where the coaching profession is right now and stability of organizations.”

Spoelstra and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle are the second longest-tenured coaches in the league, behind only Gregg Popovich. Already this offseason, there have been five coaching changes in addition to Vogel’s: Luke Walton replaced Byron Scott with the Lakers, Tom Thibodeau replaced Sam Mitchell with the Timberwolves, Scott Brooks replaced Randy Wittman in Washington, and the Rockets and Kings jobs are still unfilled. The Knicks job could potentially turn over as well, if Phil Jackson opts not to bring back Kurt Rambis.

This is on top of five coaches who were fired during the season: Kevin McHale in Houston, Derek Fisher in New York, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn and David Blatt in Cleveland. That’s a third of the league since the 2015-16 season began. Spoelstra is right about the instability, but that’s part of the business.

Photos: Bucks unveil interior of new arena

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 25:  Jabari Parker #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks runs down court during the third quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on February 25, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Milwaukee Bucks are set to open their new arena in time for the start of the 2018-19 season, and now they’ve unveiled the first renderings of the inside of the building. They’re pretty nice.

Here’s the court:

There will also be several public bars out in the concourse:

It’s decidedly more modern than the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center, although that building is one of the most fun atmospheres in the league to watch a game in. Hopefully the new place can recapture that vibe.

Who is next Pacers’ coach? Here are five names being mentioned early

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns reacts to a score against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on April 29, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. The spurs would win the game 92-87 and the series 4-1.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Who wants to be the Pacers next coach for three seasons? Five tops.

In explaining why he let a popular and well-respected coach in Frank Vogel go, Pacers president Larry Bird says he doesn’t think a coach should be with a team more than five years because the voice and message gets stale. You hear that Gregg Popovich, your message is stale. As a side note, no doubt that coaches’ agents heard Bird’s words — they want a place their client can succeed and stay long term, Bird seemed to take part of that equation off the table.

So who is up next in the big chair for the Pacers? Not Kevin McHale, but besides him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Indy Star had five names she has heard, let’s take a close look at them.

• Mike D’Antoni. Forget the year’s thing, the real reason Frank Vogel is out in Indiana (and about to make another team’s defense much better) is he wouldn’t play small and fast lineups as much as Bird wanted. That will not be an issue with Mike D’Antoni, who is currently under contract as a Sixers assistant. Before you say “his team’s stink on defense” remember that his Suns teams were middle of the pack in defensive rating (back then fans and most media members were just starting to talk about pace and per-possession stats, all they saw was the points allowed per game by the Suns). Yes, his first two seasons with the Knicks and his Lakers teams struggled defensively, and that is certainly not D’Antoni’s focus, but part of the issue with those teams’ defense was the personnel.

I believe D’Antoni can coach a contender in this league, but it comes with the caveat that you have to give him his players to fit with his system. He needs to win his way (he tried to adjust in Los Angeles, but that was a disaster all around). If Bird brings him in, he needs to put together a D’Antoni roster.

• Mark Jackson.
The former Pacers star guard helped develop the talent that is winning championships and setting records in Golden State. And he certainly was willing to play fast while getting them to defend. However he comes with concerns: How involved he was in the details of running the team was questioned by Warriors management, he clashed with multiple assistants, and he created an “us against the world” locker room mentality where “the world” included management. Bird has to be sure this someone he can work with.

• Brian Shaw. His Denver teams played fast — third and fourth fastest in the NBA his two seasons there. Of course, they didn’t defend very well, didn’t execute well, and Shaw struggled to relate to younger players, but they did play fast. The Nuggets let him go to bring in someone they thought could develop a better culture (Mike Malone). His assistant coach resume is impressive (being on Phil Jackson’s staff with the Lakers), did he learn and gro from his first time in the big chair?

• Randy Wittman. This is a head scratcher. Not because the gruff Wittman can’t coach — he knows the game and got his teams to defend — but he prefers to play big and slow, and when forced to go smaller and faster this season in Washington his team struggled. If Bird wants to play fast, Wittman is an odd choice. But if he wants and old-school coach, this is his guy.

• Mike Woodson. Another bit of a head scratcher if Bird wants to play fast, but Woodson’s Hawks teams got better each season he was there. The offenses weren’t creating — remember “iso Joe?” — but his teams defended and played smart ball. He could get the job done; the Pacers would play smart under him.

If I were a betting man, I’d have my money on Pacers’ assistant Nate McMillan, a former NBA head coach and someone comfortable with the Pacers players and organization. It would be a smooth transition, and his teams would play faster.

But is he — or any of these guys — an upgrade over Vogel?