Kyrie Irving scores a career-high 26 points to lead Cavs to victory over the Suns

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This was supposed to be the soft part of the schedule for Phoenix. Kyrie Irving made sure that it wasn’t.

The number one overall pick in the NBA draft showed why he was taken there, scoring a career-best 26 points and keying a second-quarter run that erased the Suns’ six-point lead, and put the Cavaliers ahead for good on the way to a 101-90 victory at the US Airways Center in Phoenix on Thursday.

Irving started slowly, with just four points in seven first-quarter minutes. But he absolutely took this game over in the second quarter, scoring 12 straight points once he checked back in to turn a six-point deficit into a six-point lead that the Cavs would never relinquish.

“I was basically just feeding off my teammates,” Irving said, being much too humble considering his performance during that stretch. “They were going under the screen, I was just taking what the defense gave me and being aggressive. My teammates had the confidence in me to keep on feeding me the ball and telling me to keep going, so that’s what I did.”

As the Suns went under the screens time and again, Irving made them pay. Only the last basket of his personal run came in the paint; the rest were all jumpers, including two three-pointers. Irving talked about how teams are respecting his drive more, which has led to his being more open for the outside shot. But most importantly, he seemed to realize from the bench that he needed to be the one to provide the spark to turn the game in his team’s favor once he re-entered the game.

“I felt that it was just a time to be a lot more aggressive,” Irving said of his second-quarter offensive explosion. “First quarter is where you feel out what the defense is, second quarter I told myself when I went back in I was just going to be aggressive — for my teammates first, and then myself. It happened to be when I was making a few shots, we got the lead and we never looked back.”

Steve Nash had a typically strong game numbers-wise, finishing with 16 points and 15 assists. But there was only so much he could do as his team was killed on the glass, giving up 15 offensive rebounds that resulted in 20 second chance points. Irving talked about how it felt to go up against one of the league’s best at his position.

“It was definitely fun, playing against a great point guard such as Steve Nash,” he said. “I’ve been watching him for so long, now that I’m finally playing against him, it’s a little surreal. But once you’re out there, you’re in the game. I’m a competitor as well as he is. He’s still doing the things he’s done through his whole entire career — 16 points, 15 assists — it’s impressive. It was an honor playing against him.”

On this night, Irving was even more impressive. He finished 11-of-17 from the field, added six assists, and single-handedly made the plays necessary to turn the game around. From there, Anderson Varejao grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds, the Cavs played some excellent defense (especially against the Suns’ second unit) and forced Phoenix into plenty of bad possessions. Cleveland held the Suns to just 60 points over the game’s final three quarters.

One bright spot for Phoenix was the play of Michael Redd, who made his Suns debut to the tune of 12 points in just over 19 minutes. Redd drained his first two shots, both of which were wide open threes from the corner that he didn’t hesitate for a second to knock down. Redd said afterward he felt great, and that his wind was better than expected. He just needs to continue to acclimate himself to what the Suns are trying to do offensively, and he should be a strong contributor for the team as the season progresses.

Thursday, however, belonged to Kyrie Irving. Phoenix had won three straight at home fairly easily, and hoped to get above .500 with back-to-back home games against Cleveland and New Jersey before heading out on a brutal five-game road trip against some of the league’s elite teams.

Irving’s second quarter changed all 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 (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.