Once again Clippers/Grizzlies play it close. Once again Clips have too much Chris Paul.

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Again it was physical and nasty game. Again it was close at the end. Again the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies fought like two evenly matched teams that just don’t like each other. This time it went all the way to overtime.

And Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said it was the same thing that was the difference in the end.

“Chris Paul.”

He is right. Paul had eight of the Clippers’ 14 points in overtime — he would come off the high pick, go right at the Memphis big man, get him backpedaling, then pull up for an elbow jumper. He was the reason the Clippers won 101-97 and have a commanding 3-1 series lead heading to Memphis for Game 5.

“(Paul) made three straight jumpers, got to the basket, got fouled, I mean come on,” Hollins said. “Chris Paul won that game for them down the stretch.”

As he has all series. He has dominated late. CP3 has been the best player on the floor. But there were other keys for the Clippers as this team continues to learn how to win in the playoffs.

Los Angeles played its best defense of the series, holding Memphis to 43.4 percent shooting — and if you take away the Grizzlies’ 20 second-chance points (19 offensive rebounds), they shot just 41.8 percent. Or, look at it this way: Remove Mike Conley — who was fantastic with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting — and the rest of the Grizzlies shot just 38.8 percent. Or count their starting front of Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, who combined to 35 percent.

The Clippers defense cut off Grizzlies’ preferred angles, taking away clean passes to the post, and that threw the Memphis system off balance. When Gasol does not get the ball in his preferred spots, the Grizzlies’ offense can stall out and become isolation-heavy — he is key to their ball movement. But Gasol had just 4 shot attempts and 8 points all game. Gay tried to attack and find his spots and had 23 points but needed 25 shots to get there.

Meanwhile, a Blake Griffin that was more aggressive getting to his spots on the offensive end had 30 points on just 15 shots, plus 7 assists. It was his best game of the playoffs, while CP3 added 27.

Then there were good contributions from the Clippers bench again. Reggie Evans had a key offensive rebound off a missed Griffin shot in overtime to set up a CP3 bucket. Mo Williams had 9 points. Nick Young hit a key three — one Griffin assisted while sitting after slipping on a drive.

Despite all that, the Clippers could not pull away. In part because they shot only 33 percent for the second quarter and the front line of Memphis does not make anything easy, they are physical right back with the Clippers and were not getting their points. Conley was on fire and Memphis was scrappy. They fought back from 10 down and made it a game.

But in the end the Clippers had Chris Paul.

To a man after the game the Grizzlies said this series was not over — if they had not blown a 27 point lead in Game 1 the series would be tied. If they could find a way to stop Chris Paul.

“We are confident,” Rudy Gay said. “We’re a tough and resilient team. I think we can bounce back.”

“We’re going to try and shut down Chris Paul a little bit,” Hollins said. “He’s the problem and we’ve got to solve the problem.”

Chris Paul has won just one playoff closeout game in his NBA career — he has only once advanced to the second round. It’s going to be hard to get that win Wednesday night in Memphis. These Clippers are not young but they are young as a core being together and they are figuring things out still. These Clippers are still learning to win as a team.

But they are making a pretty quick study of it.

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.