NBA Playoffs: Heat destroy Pacers, take 3-2 series lead

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The Miami Heat are just one road loss away from facing a Game 7 in the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs, but they sure did look like a championship team on Tuesday night, when they absolutely dominated the Indiana Pacers en route to a 115-83 win.

There’s really only one way to describe this game: everything went exactly right for the Heat. The Heat haven’t been getting much help from their supporting cast or been able to implement their “Pace and Space” offense throughout this series, but they got contributions from all of their rotation players, made their threes, got out on the break, played great defense, and got great performances from both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade while playing suffocating defense. This is the Miami Heat team that we all imagined when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade announced that they were joining forces. This is the team that looked like an absolute juggernaut. Even though the Heat have a long way to go before they get out of this series, let alone get to the Finals, but on Tuesday night the Heat looked like they can beat either the Spurs or the Thunder.

Let’s go through it: The game started off with the slumping Shane Battier hitting a few wide-open threes, which was the best possible thing that could have happened for them. Battier was in full “No-Stats All-Star” mode on Tuesday, making 4 of his 5 three-point attempts and playing great defense on David West, which allowed the Heat to effectively mitigate the loss of Chris Bosh for at least one night.

LeBron James was in MVP mode once again — he had every aspect of his game working, and finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists on 12-19 shooting from the field. He made outside shots, he worked in the post, he punished the Pacers on the fast-break, he made pinpoint passes, and he crashed the boards hard on both ends. He also made what could be the best pass of the playoffs when he grabbed an outlet pass one-handed, and, while falling out of bounds, hit Wade with an absolute laser beam pass right on the numbers for an easy fast-break dunk.

Dwyane Wade was in rare form as well — he slithered to the basket at will, made some impossible shots around the basket, and even mixed in some outside shots.

There are times when it looks like the offensively challenged Joel Anthony looks like a waste of a roster spot for the Heat, let alone deserving of the 5-year contract they gave him, and there are times when Anthony looks like one of the best bargains in basketball. Tuesday night was an instance of the latter. Anthony showed and recovered brilliantly on pick-and-rolls, kept the Pacers from getting the ball to their bigs in good positions, got 4 blocks, and even made 3 of his 4 shots from the field.

Udonis Haslem has his mid-range shot working again, and gave the Heat great energy, but was a source of controversy after the game. In the 1st half, Haslem delivered an extremely hard foul on Tyler Hansborough shortly after “Psycho T” was called for a Flagrant-1 foul on Dwyane Wade. Haslem was called for a Flagrant-1 foul and was not ejected, but if his foul on Hansborough wasn’t a Flagrant-2, then I’ve frankly never seen a Flagrant-2 foul in my life, and there may be a possibility that Haslem will be suspended for Game 6.

It was a physical game all-around — Dexter Pittman will almost certainly be suspended for a brutal elbow on the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson in the waning moments of the game, and Danny Granger missed most of the 2nd half after he twisted his ankle after landing on LeBron James’ foot after launching a jump shot. (Some Pacer fans may say that LeBron pulled a “Bowen” on Granger to cause the injury, but it certainly looked unintentional to me — if LeBron slipped his foot under Granger’s foot intentionally, he’s the league’s best actor as well as its best player.)

The Heat shot 61% while holding the Pacers to 34% shooting from the field — the Pacers kept themselves in the game early by making some long jumpers, but they were never able to establish their big men against the Heat’s swarming defense, and the offense fell apart completely after Granger had to go to the trainer’s room.

One game can change everything in the playoffs, and the Heat aren’t done with the Pacers yet, and there are no such thing as “statement games” in the playoffs. Still, this was a darn impressive performance from the Heat, and the Pacers definitely need to find some answers before Game 6.

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.