Sixers beat Pacers… can Philly win the Atlantic division?

16 Comments

We’re only eight games into the season — about 12 percent of the way —so drawing broad conclusions is tough. But it was hard not to look at a couple games Monday night and not have one particular question pop up.

The game first was the 76ers taking on the Indiana Pacers, two of the rising teams in the East. Indiana was without Danny Granger and the entire game had the sloppy feel of so many early season contests this year, but the 76ers controlled most of the second half and won handily, 96-86. They looked pretty good doing it, with quality offensive looks and solid defense —they looked like a team that could be dangerous as the season wears on.

Next the New York Knicks needed a whole lot of Carmelo Anthony and a few breaks down the stretch to beat the struggling Charlotte Bobcats.

Taken together it was hard not to wonder — can Philadelphia win the Atlantic division over New York and Boston?

Maybe. Before the season that seemed a real long shot, but now… they look as good as anyone else. If not better. As of Tuesday Philadelphia at 6-2 is a game and a half ahead of 5-4 New York and two games ahead of 4-4 Boston.

More than that, Boston and New York have really struggled at moments this season. The Knicks look like mismatched pieces not fitting a system, the Celtics look old at times and not as deep a team as they were.

Philadelphia looks solid. Especially on defense. They came into the game allowing just 90.2 points per 100 possessions, best in the NBA. The Pacers scored at a 92.3 points per 100 pace in this game. They do it by not letting the other team shoot well or get into their offense and that happened to a Pacers team that has previously looked good this season. The Pacers shot just 36.6 percent, with David West going 6-for-14 and Darren Collison 2-of-11.

On offense, the 76ers are looking to get out and run a little more, which suits them. If they get some easy buckets to go with that defense, it works. Andre Iguodala is looking more to facilitate, driving to draw the defense then kicking out for assists when the defense collapsed. Iggy had 20 points and nine rebounds to go with five assists.

Philly also got good play from their role players. When Spencer Hawes got in foul trouble trying to deal with Roy Hibbert, rookie Nikola Vucevic came in with 11 points and eight rebounds.

The Pacers will have better nights. They had strength inside but when the Sixers defense collapsed the Pacers didn’t make them pay on the kickouts, shooting just 4-of-13 from three. Hibbert finished with 19 points on 12 shots.

The Pacers were more balanced, with Lou Williams having 13 off the bench and six players in double figures.

We will have to see if Philly can keep up this level of defense for an entire season, how they deal with adversity when it eventually arrives as it does for all teams. But right now, eight games in, they look as good or better than anyone in the Atlantic division.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
4 Comments

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

Getty Images
2 Comments

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

Getty Images
8 Comments

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)

11 Comments

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.