Westbrook, Durant find the perfect balance in Game 4 win over Lakers

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During the Thunder’s playoff run last season — one that ended in a loss in the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Mavericks — there were constant questions about whether or not Russell Westbrook was a good long-term fit to play alongside Kevin Durant.

One year later, now on the verge of taking down the Lakers after a come-from-behind Game 4 victory, the only question now is which one of the Thunder’s stars you want to beat you, and at which time.

Westbrook finished with 37 points, while Durant finished things off with a game-winning three-pointer to lift OKC to a 3-1 series lead — one that gives their team a chance to return to the Conference Finals with a win at home Monday night.

The Thunder can feel as good about this victory as any thus far in the postseason, for the simple fact that they took the best shot that this Lakers team had to give, and they were able to not only withstand it, but overcome it. And much of the credit for that should go to Westbrook.

“KD got his numbers, but Westbrook had a heck of a game,” Lakers head coach Mike Brown noted afterward. “I thought he stepped up and he made plays. He imposed his will on the game and he made plays, especially when it counted in the fourth quarter.”

The Lakers got a monstrous performance from Andrew Bynum (10 points, 5-of-5 shooting) in the game’s first 12 minutes that sparked them early. Kobe Bryant then got going midway through the second period, and put on a clinic during the third, scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting, often while double-teamed, and always while making the conversion of tough shots seem effortless.

As the Lakers built a lead that hung around 10 points for most of the night, Westbrook made sure it never got out of hand. He had eight points to help match Bynum’s 10 in the first, and 13 to go with Bryant’s 15 in the third.

“My job was to try to keep us in the game, regardless of what was going on” Westbrook said. “I was kind of upset because we weren’t able to get a stop. It kind of felt like, we’re down 10, eight, 10, eight … we just kept going back and forth. So it was kind of frustrating at the same time.”

As recently as a few short days into this lockout-shortened season back in December, Westbrook was frustrated not with his opponent, but with Durant in particular — or maybe, in the grander scheme of things, with his perceived position and role on his team.

There was the so-called “altercation” between Westbrook and Durant, the one where reporters caught them jawing during a timeout in a sideline huddle where the two reportedly had to be separated. That caused quite a stir at the time, and had even the most respected writers wondering if Westbrook playing alongside Durant would ever work in OKC.

It appeared to be an evolution from the previous season — one where the questions of whether or not Westbrook shot too much to his team’s detriment, or whether he deferred enough to Durant were constant topics for discussion.

On this Saturday night in May in Los Angeles, those questions may have once and for all been put to rest. Because even as Westbrook was the one who scored consistently from wire to wire to keep his team close, Durant happily stepped in when his opportunity came to close the game out.

The two worked masterfully together, and coexisted to perfection. There was no exasperation from Durant when he didn’t see the ball for extended stretches, as Westbrook delivered time and again with an array of pull-up jumpers and lightning-quick bursts of speed to the rim for bucket after bucket.

Westbrook wouldn’t be able to take this position of leadership on the team — even if only for games or stretches within them — if not for Durant’s mentoring him along the way.

“It’s definitely helped me,” Westbrook said of the criticisms he’s received in the past. “Last year we got put out in the Conference Finals, I was definitely disappointed in that. Coming into this year, I wanted to try to help my team and become a better leader. Kevin’s done a great job of helping me out and staying positive, regardless of what’s going on throughout the game; giving me confidence, and that’s just how I feel during the playoffs.”

The reason the Lakers lost this game was due to a complete offensive breakdown in the fourth quarter. There was too much of Bryant taking tough, contested shots, while the offense that was so fluid for most of the night turned stagnant.

With Westbrook and Durant, it was the opposite.

Simply put, Durant stayed ready and engaged while Westbrook went to work. And having two incredible athletes who are equal parts scorer and playmaker are a deadly one-two punch that now looks like a combination that will need to be reckoned with by any team with championship aspirations.

The questions being asked in Oklahoma City will no longer involve Westbrook and Durant, and whether or not the two can successfully make things work. All fans want to know now is whether the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals will come this season, or if they’ll have to wait just a little longer for the inevitable to take place.

Tyronn Lue imitates LeBron James’ criticism of reporter (video)

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After the Cavaliers Game 3 loss to the Celtics, LeBron James accused reporter Kenny Roda of showing up/asking questions only when Cleveland loses.

Questioned by Roda after the Cavs’ Game 4 win, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue lightheartedly lobbed the same criticism at Roda.

Coaching LeBron can be tricky. Lue must both challenge the greatest player of his generation and handle LeBron’s passive-aggressiveness. Lue can neither let LeBron walk all over him nor bark orders at him.

In this case, it seems Lue is trying to diffuse LeBron’s pettiness before it turns into something bigger. Considering how silly LeBron’s initial comments were, I bet the star is on board.

Tony Bradley becoming North Carolina’s first one-and-done in nearly a decade

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North Carolina hasn’t had a one-and-done player in eight years.

Since Brandan Wright declared for the 2008 NBA draft after his freshman year, the Tar Heels have emphasized player development over multiple years. That practice has yielded two national titles, including this year’s, in that span.

It also limited freshman center Tony Bradley’s playing time this season, as he was stuck behind seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

But Bradley shined enough in 15 minutes per game to follow Wright as one-and-done from Chapel Hill.

Jeff Goodman of ESPN:

Bradley is a borderline first-round pick, though this late decision when many expected him to return to school indicates he believes he’ll go in the first round. There’s certainly logic in turning pro before scouts pick apart his game over a larger sample.

Bradley is huge – 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan – but he’s not explosive. The hope is someone in the Rudy Gobert mold.

Whomever drafts Bradley will hope his elite offensive rebounding is a harbinger. But why is his defensive rebounding and rim protection so forgettable?

He moves and passes fairly well for his size, but considering he’s so big, those aren’t necessarily skills for him to hang his hat on. If a teammate sets him up, he uses his size to finish well at the rim.

Beyond his size and offensive rebounding, Bradley doesn’t set himself apart one way or the other. Whether that’s good or bad depends how deep in the draft it is.

PBT Extra: What does Boston do with No. 1 pick?

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Option A: Keep the pick, draft Markelle Fultz No. 1, go hard at Gordon Hayward this summer in free agency and if you strike out with him go hard at other guys, maybe in the 2018 class.

Option B: Trade the No. 1 pick for a package that includes Jimmy Butler (or, less likely, Paul George) and put together a roster to make a hard run at the Cavaliers next year.

Those aren’t the only two options on the table, but they represent the two paths the Boston Celtics can go down this off-season after landing the No. 1 pick in the draft. I delve into it more in this PBT Extra.

Expect them to go with option A — the chance to draft a potentially elite player, and have him under contract for years on an affordable rookie deal, is too smart a long-term move to pass up.

Report: Bucks to make Justin Zanik interim GM, do broad search to find

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The Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond is on his way to Orlando, joining a new front office trying to turn the Magic — and their culture — around.

That means the Bucks need a new GM, and it was assumed long-time assistant GM Justin Zanik would step into the role. However, he may not be the long-term answer, according to a couple of reports.

Zanik will have the job in the short term, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Marc Stein of ESPN broke the news on the broader search.

The Milwaukee Bucks have decided to commission a broad search for a new general manager, according to league sources. Sources told ESPN on Wednesday that Bucks consultant and longtime NBA executive Rod Thorn will lead the search on behalf of Milwaukee ownership, which is hopeful of attracting strong candidates given the Bucks’ on-the-rise status….

Current Bucks assistant general manager Justin Zanik will interview for the GM post and be given strong consideration to succeed Hammond, sources said.

Doing a broad search makes sense, the Bucks should explore their options even if they think the best one is the guy already doing the job. More information is a good thing.

The real question in Milwaukee is how much say Jason Kidd has over the roster — is he a de facto GM? There have been rumors of that for a while, and that it led to friction in the organization. How will whoever comes in handle that dynamic with the head coach?

The Bucks are a team on the rise in the East, they have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker and Kris Middleton, it’s a team that needs to add the right pieces around them and develop into an elite team in the conference over the next couple of seasons. It will take a deft hand at GM to do that. Zanik strikes me as a guy who can do that, but the Bucks want to cover their options.