Suns successful in avoiding media circus around Nash’s impending free agency

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The Suns held their annual media day on Friday, and overall, things were pretty quiet. Too quiet, even. Especially when you consider that the face of the franchise, heart and soul of the team, and two-time MVP Steve Nash is playing in the final year of his contract, and will be an unrestricted free agent once this shortened season comes to an end next summer.

There was only an average amount of media in attendance — save for an unusually large contingent of local hip-hop radio stations, for some reason. But no one from the local or national side seemed interested in pressing anyone on the team or in the organization for answers regarding possible future plans to deal Nash at any time before his contract runs out.

The non-news is news. And you need to look no further than Orlando, New Orleans, or Los Angeles to see what we’re talking about.

The constant barrage of questions regarding the status of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Pau Gasol — whose names all surfaced in substantive trade reports over the past couple of weeks before the Paul deal to the Clippers was finalized — has to be detrimental to these teams’ efforts to focus on the preparation for the upcoming season.

In Phoenix, though, it hasn’t been an issue, thanks to the way that both the front office and Nash himself have gone about their business since training camp has begun. Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby told NBCSports.com that it’s at least a little bit by design.

“My view of it is — and I’ve communicated this to Steve, and he knows how I feel about it and he knows how our franchise feels about it. He’s an iconic part of this community and an iconic part of this team and still an elite, elite player,” Babby said. “That’s the idea — that he is our most important player. He knows he can stay here as long as he wants.”

That means the Suns aren’t shopping Nash, and the decision, at this point, is entirely his. So, no rumors are out there from anonymous sources that would put blood in the water that would cause the media to go into a frenzied attack. Nash only fielded one question about his status during his brief media session on Friday, and casually brushed it aside.

“I’m not really thinking about it,” Nash said of his contract situation. “I just want to try to make this team into a playoff team. At this stage of my career, I’m not thinking about tomorrow. I’m just thinking about today.”

And that was that.

Babby admits he has thought about the future, but in his mind, it’s one where Nash re-signs in Phoenix. He spent some time over the summer brushing up on how some other Hall of Fame point guards spent their final seasons, with the hope that he can paint a similar and convincing picture for Nash when the time comes.

“I pointed out to him, you know, John Stockton and Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, some great point guards who all went to the Hall of Fame, all stayed with one team until the very end,” Babby said. “Over the summer I read articles about John Stockton’s retirement day, and I tried to portray that to Steve a little bit. He hasn’t been here the whole time, but effectively he has; we try to ignore the time he wasn’t here. So he knows that opportunity is there.”

Whatever does end up being the final decision for Nash and the Phoenix franchise, it doesn’t appear that it will come at any time before the end of the season. That could all change, of course, should Nash wake up one day and tell the organization that he’s decided not to come back and wants to be traded, in which case the team would certainly start listening to offers. But for now, both Nash and Babby seem content to let the season play out, and not talk about what the future may or may not hold until it’s absolutely necessary.

“We’re coming to the end of a cycle, we understand that,” Babby said. “But hopefully he and I together will succeed and avoid allowing this to become any kind of a distraction, because that’s not fair to the team and I’m really going to do everything I can to avoid that. “

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, but he 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. 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.