DeMarcus Cousins is only responsible for being DeMarcus Cousins

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We tend to treat NBA players as action figures. Fun to look at and watch do whatever actions they do, ultimately hollow, and easily classifiable.

“This one is a hero.”

“This one is a villain.”

The problem is that these are people. I’m not imploring you to be more considerate of their feelings; that’s a futile pursuit. But we should at least recognize the huge gap between people who share one characteristic and those that share multiple characteristics, and the fact that they are not all systemic. I’m talking about DeMarcus Cousins.

Paul Westphal was fired this week after a 2-5 start. Immediately, this became about DeMarcus Cousins. He was labeled as a coach killer. That this was about him. To do so ignores the fact that Tyreke Evans had said earlier in the week that the Kings literally did not know what offense they were running. That there was no cohesive strategy to the Kings’ approach to personnel deployment. That their defense was atrocious. That players had not only not developed under Westphal, but actually regressed. This isn’t to make Paul Westphal responsible for all the Kings’ problems. The guy who steered the Titanic into the iceberg didn’t put the iceberg in the water, didn’t build the ship, didn’t manage the evacuation procedures. But the Kings’ problems being pinned on DeMarus Cousins is like blaming one compartment that was flooded for the entire thing going down.

What’s worse it that there’s an immediate subtext to the conversation about Cousins. “He’s just one of those guys.” That’s code for “thug,” a phrase that’s been used for decades in the NBA and represents the worst of outside examination of the NBA from those who don’t pay attention. “You know what kind of guy he is.” This kind of approach seeks to attach characteristics to Cousins which are not representative of who Cousins has been.

Cousins hasn’t been arrested in the time he’s been playing organized ball at Kentucky or in the NBA. He hasn’t failed a drug test. He isn’t known to run with people of concern in the locker room. And yet people want to attach elements of the worst disappointments and character issues in the NBA to him. That’s not who Cousins is.

Just because you buck at any attempt by coaching to try and control you, to wrangle your play, that doesn’t mean that you have no respect for authority and are a loose cannon. Just because you don’t get along with teammates (and multiple people I’ve spoken  to as well as a dozen published reports indicate that Cousins is about as popular in the Kings’ locker room as a polka mix would be), that doesn’t mean that you are likely involved in criminal activity. And being known to get physical and berate officials on the floor doesn’t mean that you have an anger management issue off of it.

It just means you’re a jerk.

And by all accounts, Cousins is kind of a jerk. Much like 80% of 21-year-olds in the eyes of those older than 25. And Cousins may not grow out of it. There are certainly enough jerks in the world over the age of 25. He may not develop into a respectful young man, may never be able to control his problems with coaching and reach his potential. He may wind up involved in drugs or guns or violence. He may get arrested. But those issues aren’t tied to him yelling on the floor with his coach or teammates, or dogging it on the defensive end. His problems are the problems of DeMarcus Cousins, and don’t involve anyone else’s issues or context. His life is is his own.

DeMarcus Cousins is only responsible for the problems of being DeMarcus Cousins.

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.