Lakers get huge double overtime win over Thunder…. without Harden

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The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday, 112-106.

In five years, that’s all that will remain from this game, in searched box scores. Those are the facts. But what happened is such a bigger story.

I’ve been sitting here struggling to find a way to accurately portray this game. Can you deny that the Lakers played a fantastic round of basketball down the stretch, with Kobe Bryant putting in a virtuoso performance even for him? You can’t. Can you ignore the fact that the Lakers not only took out the Thunder’s third best player, but a player who specifically would have helped the Thunder hold on to an 18 point lead late in the game by not committing turnovers and creating offense, as is his role? You can’t. Can you ignore the work of Jordan Hill? You can’t. Can you ignore that MWP’s actions handicapped the Thunder and the Lakers still needed double-overtime, a terrible night from Durant, and an “Oh My God”-awful night from Westbrook to survive? You can’t.

It’s all these things. This is the NBA. It’s complicated, it’s dramatic, and it’s intense. It’s playoff season.

Ron Artest’s elbow to the head of James Harden was part of why the Lakers won. It wasn’t the entirety. Let’s do bullet-points, because honestly, my brain’s fried from that thriller.

  • Again, Kobe Bryant played one of his best games of the season. He went into hero mode, to be certain. There were bad shots. But for the most part, he worked Thabo Sefolosha down and cranked it over him at the elbow or wing. They weren’t hoist-em-up 40-footers. He also posted and re-posted Gasol and found Steve Blake. He shut down Russell Westbrook by forcing him to the worst spots on the floor. When Bryant plays like that, the Lakers are nearly unstoppable.
  • James Harden’s primary contributions are running an efficient offense and thereby limiting turnovers, creating open looks, and being able to score. Down the stretch, the Thunder needed cohesive offense and a few more scores to win in regulation, or overtime. Or double overtime. Harden wouldn’t have stopped Kobe Bryant. A nuclear weapon wasn’t stopping Kobe Bryant Sunday. But he might have given the Thunder a lift in their biggest area of concern, offense.
  • Jordan Hill’s performance speaks volumes. His rebound rate was exceptional. He gave the effort the Lakes needed and did not get from Andrew Bynum. Hill was a toss-in for the Fisher trade and yet made a massive contribution in a key game for the Lakers.
  • Pau Gasol’s mid-range game was highly effective over Serge Ibaka, while attempts to go inside failed.
  • Kevin Durant was off today. He got good looks, took some bad shots, but like Kobe, they’re shots he can hit. 11-34 from the field, the most shots he has ever taken.
  • Russell Westbrook was also off. Bryant did a great job on him defensively, but the pull-up jumpers off the pick and roll are a shot that he’s going to hit at a higher clip than 3-22. The Thunder could have really used another option down the stretch. Like a talented shooting guard who can run an offense, score, distribute, and make plays. Someone with a beard who… oh, right.
  • Steve Blake was massive for the Lakers. When he hits those corner threes, the Lakers’ offense is a different animal.

So to review: The Lakers got a monster win that clinched no-worse-than-4th for them in the West. With Harden, without Harden, it was a win. That’s what matters.

As for a playoff series? If we’re to use Sunday’s game as a model, the Lakers just need to make sure Durant and Westbrook shoot 14-56, that Stave Blake hits monster threes, that Jordan Hill gives a huge performance, that Devin Ebanks makes critical plays, that Kobe Bryant goes off at an even higher than normal level, and that James Harden is knocked out by an illegal elbow shot to the head.

Like everything in the NBA, it’s complicated.

The playoffs start in five days.

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.