What the Knicks should do when the lockout ends…

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This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Miami Heat. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

Last season: Quite the wild ride for ye old Knickerbockers last season. They started out gangbusters, and truth be told, their team before the trade was a lot more fun. Felton figured out how to run with Stoudemire, Gallo was a firecracker, Wilson Chandler was this odd piece sticking out of the side like an extra Lego piece, and they were a team of emotion, style, and fallible fun. Just what a Knicks team should be.

Naturally, that got blown to Kingdom Come.

Dolan listened to Isiah, and Melo was bought for a King’s ransom. The core was detonated and Mike D’Antoni looked down at his team’s roster sheet one morning and found that he had an aging, non-distributor point guard, two players who both like to work in ISO sets and need the ball about 25 percent of the time if not more, and Shaun Williams is now a starter. May God have Mercy on his soul.

The Knicks had some big wins with Melo, most notably against the Heat. They played well enough to make it into the playoffs which was a big step forward and might not have happened if the previous core had continued to slide. But there was an innocence lost. Regardless of that, Melo made a huge appearance in the playoffs, but without Billups and Stoudemire due to injuries, they couldn’t get it done. Plus, you know, Jared Jeffries.

It was a good season. Not a great one, but a good one, and the start of something special in New York.

Since last we saw the Knicks: Since over $50 million of their salary is locked up in three players, it’s not like there’s a lot of wiggle room. But the Knicks have seen some changes. They have some supporting cast members and bench scrubs cleared off the books. But the biggest changes are up top. Donnie Walsh stepped down as the Big Guy but remains as a consultant. Mike Woodson has joined Mike D’Antoni’s staff as a defensive assistant.

And Isiah Thomas continues to hover. Waiting. Watching. Ready for the moment to strike and return to where he feels he belongs. But seriously, he’s just friends with James Dolan. Just friends.

When the lockout ends, the Knicks need to…

One of the biggest problems with the NBA and its management is that it rarely adheres to a plan 100 percent. It mixes ideologies. Say you’re a rebuilding team, and a veteran sub-star comes available. Teams will throw money and assets to acquire the player, despite it having no real place in the overall design of the team. Similarly, the question is not whether the Knicks will try to do too much at once, it’s how badly they will.

The Knicks have two distinct goals. Provide supporting role players for Melo and Stoudemire (and Billups, if that’s your cup of tea), and obtain a third superstar (Chris Paul, if your cup of tea is called “Isiah’s special blend”). Now, even under the most imaginative of circumstances, the odds of the Knicks having much room after the new cap is put in place are pretty slim. But there will be room somehow someway to add Chris Paul, should he make good on his little toast a year ago.

If that’s what they want to do, however, they have to pay for it, and not just in dollars. They have to not go hog wild in free agency. That means no J.R. Smith, no Wilson Chandler, no… I’ve run out of Nuggets in China, but you get my point. If you want to make room for Paul, you have to clear some more space. It’s just like 2009-2010, only you’ll still probably make the playoffs.

On the flip side, if you want the team to go forward in the playoffs immediately, you have to go forward. Ronnie Turiaf is not going to average a double double. Boris Diaw isn’t walking through that door (mostly because he can’t fit, but still). Toney Douglas has to improve, and if not, the Knicks need a distributor playmaker. Ramon Sessions works well in that capacity. There are options.

The Knicks have all the promise in the world and two superstars. If they get Chris Paul (or Deron Williams, or Dwight Howard) in 2012, they’ll have changed the landscape in the biggest way since the CBA and before that the Heat. They’ll also probably be in violation of about fifteen different degrees of collusion, but still. It’ll be exciting. The Knicks have enough to compete next year, but whether they compete for 2012 or 2013 is the question.

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.