What has to happen Friday for NBA to have labor peace

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We are close. Very close.

By Monday we could be talking about what the Heat/Lakers/Celtics need to do in free agency, not luxury tax details. There are real signs of hope. David Stern watched the NBA players’ union press conference Thursday from the back row of the room, and both he and union head Billy Hunter were laughing and saying to each other “tomorrow.”

So what has to happen? What has to be covered Friday for there to be a handshake and a deal?

Here are three key hurdles.

• Basketball related income (BRI). This is the elephant in the room — how you divide up the league’s revenue. How you split up the money. It has not been discussed the last two days and Hunter said it will be the first thing discussed Friday morning. Pray it is a long meeting, because if it is a short it means they discussed BRI and remain so far apart they walked away from the table.

BRI is the league revenue, all the money that flows into the league from ticket sales and national television contracts, as well as part of the money from luxury suites, local television and radio, even parking and concessions. In the old deal, the players got 57 percent (of what is left after the owners take a cut off the top for expenses).

Last we left off, the players came down to 52.5 percent, the owners were at 50 percent. That’s looks close but it is still about $100 million a season. If neither side will budge off their line then the talks are dead again. But if the owners gave in on some system issues — for example softening the luxury tax and keeping Bird rights (so teams can go over the cap to resign free agents) — would the players come down closer to 50 percent? Will the owners come up a little? Can they agree to a band that slides up and down depending on revenue? They are close, there are ways to make this happen.

But how to split up the money is what this whole thing is about in the end. It’s not going to be easy.

• Exceptions for luxury tax teams. One thing the owners want in the new agreement is a way to rein in big spending teams, to level the playing field (or so they think). One is a new luxury tax that increases the more teams spend, one that would escalate fines the more years teams are paying the tax.

The remaining stumbling block here is what are the exceptions to the tax, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo.

Before tackling the revenue split, the biggest hurdle left to solving the system issues appears to be with the use of midlevel and bi-annual exceptions for tax-paying teams.

While details were still unclear how a punitive luxury tax system would work for teams exceeding the salary cap, one league source involved in the talks told Y! Sports on Thursday night: “The tax is not the issue. The exceptions are where the fight is.”

• The hardliners not messing things up. This is what has happened when deals have been close before — Kevin Garnett comes in and stares down the owners and says the players will not go below 53 percent of BRI; or owners like Dan Gilbert and Paul Allen push for more from the players and don’t give any more. Even keeping the union’s attack-dog lawyer Jeffrey Kessler out of the room the last few days seems to have mattered (he is in Russia on other business). Keeping those guys at arm’s length until there is a handshake matters — you can sell this deal once it is in place, but those guys could mess it up before we get to that point.

There are other little things to be covered — for example the draft age limit has not been a topic yet — but those are relatively minor and not deal breakers. The three above are the reasons we would not see a deal in the next 72 hours or so.

And if we don’t see a deal then, it may be a long, cold winter without NBA hoops.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.