Nuggets, motivated by Bynum’s words, avoid elimination with Game 5 win over Lakers

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The Nuggets were facing elimination heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 at Staples Center, and as if seeing their season come to an end wasn’t motivation enough, Lakers center Andrew Bynum provided them with a little something extra, courtesy of comments he made at one of the team’s practice sessions before this one.

“Closeout games are actually kind of easy,” Bynum said. “Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning.”

Nothing was easy for the Lakers, and we’ll never know what might have been had L.A. actually played hard from the start. They did not, and now the series will head back to Denver for a Game 6 after the Nuggets played with a sustained fire and energy for 48 minutes that earned them a 102-99 victory.

Andre Miller was masterful with the way he ran Denver’s offense, finishing with 24 points and eight assists in 28 minutes off the bench. JaVale McGee was an absolute monster, getting loose around the rim seemingly at will while finishing with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, to go along with 14 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.

Denver held the lead for most of the night, and ran it up to 15 points — its largest of the game — with six-and-a-half minutes left. L.A. made a furious rally at that point behind four largely ridiculous three-pointers from Kobe Bryant, but ultimately couldn’t make it all the way back.

Bryant finished with 43 points, Bynum had a quiet 16 points and 11 rebounds, and no other Laker was able to impact this game on either end of the floor.

The Lakers, to a man, didn’t have an explanation for not coming out with enough energy and focus to match that of their opponent and close this series out. The Nuggets, however, were unified in detailing their motivation. And they agreed that Bynum’s comments provided just that.

“His feeling on closeouts is a little different than my history of being in them,” George Karl said afterward. “So I told my players that. ”

Mike Brown admitted what his All-Star center said could be construed as “bulletin-board material,” but didn’t necessarily have a problem with Bynum’s comments.

“It is bulletin board material,” he said. “If a guy wants to say that, in my opinion, he’s got to back it up. But we all have to get his back and try to help him back it up. We did not as a team.”

McGee admitted Bynum’s comments were motivational, but being in the playoffs for the first time in his career was likely a bigger reason for the way he came out and dominated in a potential elimination game.

“Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” he said, referencing the fact that he played the past three and a half seasons for the dismal Washington Wizards, before the mid-season trade that brought him to Denver in March.

“My last game is usually, if it’s a regular season, in April,” he added. “I definitely didn’t want tonight to be my last game.”

He played like it. And so did his teammates, especially defensively. Denver stuck to its principles, sending hard double teams at Bynum all night long, doing the same against Pau Gasol, and daring the Lakers to be efficient with their ball movement before knocking down mid-range or three-point shots.

Until Bryant’s barrage late in the fourth, L.A. couldn’t hit anything from outside, so Denver was able to continue to pack the paint, making life miserable offensively for the Lakers’ bigs.

Kobe, as you might imagine, didn’t have a problem with Bynum’s comments that wound up being that last thing the Nuggets saw in their pregame film session. But ultimately, he knows that his team can’t pull a no-show in the playoffs, no matter where the other team’s motivation is coming from.

“That’s true, closeout games can be easy sometimes,” Bryant said, in temporary defense of his teammate. “But tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Bryant said. “Did it pump them up? Probably. Were they going to come out and play with that kind of energy anyway? Probably. We didn’t execute and they obviously played harder than we did, so it’s a lesson to learn. You never want to give anybody bulletin material to begin with, but if you’re going to be a champion, you’ve got to play through that type of stuff.”

Bryant also didn’t believe that as a team, their energy magically appeared at some point late in the fourth quarter. He’s had performances like that too many times, and he’s been the one who’s had to personally drag his team back from the dead many more times than that.

“I wouldn’t say our energy kicked in in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I almost bailed us out. That’s what happened. It wasn’t an energy switch, I started making shots left and right and got us back in the ballgame. That’s not something that we can use to rely on to get us to a championship. It can’t be that. We all have to step up and we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that kind of energy and a sense of urgency.”

It’s better for the Lakers to get a grip on this now, in the first round, while they still hold a 3-2 lead in the series with two more chances to close out the Nuggets if absolutely necessary. Bryant pointed to the inexperience on his team as a possible reason for Tuesday’s poor showing, while mentioning the opportunity to gain that experience on the road in Game 6 in the very next breath.

“I’ve been in this position before, but a lot of guys on the team haven’t been in that position before,” he said. “It’s important to remind them that yeah, this sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to go up there in a tough environment, gain some experience, and earn your stripes.”

The Nuggets know they’ve competed in all but one of the first five games of this series, and coming off a huge road win to save themselves from elimination — while having the opportunity in front of them to force a Game 7, where anything can happen — will likely be more than enough to get them going for Thursday’s Game 6 back in Denver.

Andrew Bynum and the rest of the Lakers would be wise not to give the Nuggets any additional motivation.

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.