Thunder let Game 3 get away in NBA Finals after Miami gave them multiple chances

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown all season that they’re a tough team to beat, but their youth and relative inexperience may have finally caught up to them on Sunday night.

The Thunder, playing their first game as the away team in the NBA Finals, looked like they might be on the way to running the Miami Heat right out of their own building at one point in the third quarter, but they were unable to execute down the stretch and lost 91-85 as Miami took a 2-1 series lead.

Miami entered halftime with a contentious one-point lead, but the Thunder — a team full of young players without the vaunted “playoff experience” — came out of the locker room looking like they were well on their way to avenging the loss they suffered on their homecourt in Game 2 of the series. Thanks in large part to Kevin Durant, who scored eight of the Thunder’s 14 points to begin the second half, Oklahoma City began the second half with valuable momentum and an eventual double-digit lead with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Unfortunately for OKC that lead wouldn’t last, though, as Durant took a seat on the bench after picking up his fourth foul — a foul which would also wind up taking the wind out of the Oklahoma City’s sails. With Durant on the bench due to foul trouble, Russell Westbrook subbed out a bit later to apparently get some rest and James Harden once again inexplicably ineffective on the offensive end, Miami turned the tides to take a 69-67 lead with 12 minutes left to play.

Durant returned to the court for the start of the fourth quarter and, for awhile, the Thunder again looked like they might cause another photo-finish in the Finals as the momentum shifted back and forth throughout the final stanza. In fact, Oklahoma City’s finest looked like they might even be able to come out as victors when they caught lighting in a bottle en route to a 6-0 run, cutting a seven-point Miami lead down to just one with 1:30 left on the game clock. LeBron James set up Chris Bosh in the post, resulting in a pair of free-throws and an end to the Thunder run, but the momentum had yet to shift considering the Thunder were still down just three — and the NBA’s best scorer was still in the game despite his trouble with fouls.

Durant didn’t score on a drive around James on the next possession, but the momentum still stuck when LeBron bricked a fadeaway on the ensuing possession. Through this point, it still seemed as though the Thunder would  (at least) end up tying the game considering they had the ball and were down just three points with 45 seconds remaining. More mistakes manifested on the next couple of possessions, though, as Russell Westbrook was unable to connect on a wide-open three and then James Harden committed a bad foul after allowing 14 seconds to come off of the clock, giftng King James a pair of free-throws and Miami a six-point lead.

Even then, though, the Thunder still showed signs of life … especially when one remembers the incredible almost-comeback the Thunder pulled off to end the second game of the series. It apparently wasn’t meant to be once again for OKC on Sunday night, however, because Thabo Sefolosha and Westbrook suffered a communication error of epic proportions that ended in a turnover and allowed Miami to hammer the final nail in to the coffin.

It’s tough to put the blame on the Thunder considering how well the Heat, sans Dwyane Wade — it wasn’t as though Miami was outright handing Durant and Co. the keys to victory — but a young team like Oklahoma City needs to take advantage of every opportunity that opens up in the NBA Finals. They were unable to do so again on Sunday night, though, and now find themselves in a 2-1 hole and an uphill battle considering they’ll need to win one of the next two games in Miami.

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.