The Inbounds: The Warriors become tank-proof

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The Warriors won’t be able to tank next year if they try. Well, OK, if they try they will. But it’s going to be a lot harder, because all of a sudden, their ten-man rotation isn’t just decent, it’s downright pretty good.

Watching the Warriors’ moves over the past year has been an exercise in intelligent reformation, if not championship recalibration. But at a very basic level, they’ve managed to establish control over what plagued them last year, the disaster when injury was not available, and a lack of acceptable defensive presence. It’s one thing to have the injury issues the Warriors had last year, those are hard to plan for. But it’s another to have those injury issues and have no depth to cover when those players go down. After the Warrior’s moves, though, they have moved into a strong position even in the constantly-strong Western Conference.

Again, they’re a long way from title contention, but they have bolstered the roster enough to make a huge step forward.

The new second line after Monday’s signings includes Jarrett Jack, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry, Brandon Rush,  Andris Biedrins, Charles Jenkins and rookies Festus Ezili and Draymond Green. There’s nothing prolific about that lineup, but Jack, Jefferson, and Landry are capable starters playing in bench roles, and Rush and Biedrins can play well in limited minutes. Their second line is considerably better than the tank-fest they put together at the end of last year. If Ezili makes any noticeable splash whatsoever, everything is there for a playoff run.

So is that a good thing?

The Warriors are kind of an oddity, a team that hasn’t been very good in a very long while in a big market with an adoring fanbase. They’re not on Boston, New York, or L.A.’s level, but they’re located in a large California metropolitan area. Oakland or San Francisco, their location is a better attraction to players than almost any of the Midwest cities, save for Chicago. So the secret here is that while fans can express consternation at a roster that is at the cap, but under the luxury tax, that’s playoff worthy but not playoff-series-win worthy team, the Warriors have the luxury of paying for this team now, and still being able to make moves down the line.

The Warriors haven’t gone Pistons ’09 on us, throwing long-term, huge contracts for players that won’t deliver a title. Even the acquisition of Andrew Bogut and his freak injury concerns (seriously, if Greg Oden has his injuries described as freak injuries, Bogut’s are from some other planet) could be considered an overall liability, which they’re not, considering if healthy Bogut is likely the third best center in the league, his contract only runs two more years. The only toxic asset the Warriors have is David Lee’s deal which has $57 million left over four year. One problem with that, David Lee’s actually good. He’s a power forward who can actually produce and while he’s overpaid, especially given the new financial reality of the CBA (man was amnestying Charlie Bell a mistake on so many levels), he’s still a productive member of basketball society.

Stephen Curry’s a free agent after this season, and so he’ll need the big long-term extension. But it’s clear the Warriors are hedging their bets with Curry to see if he’ll ever get healthy. Having one big deal on a four-year extension isn’t terrible, and while that combined with Lee’s could be bad for their future mobilization, the Warriors’ ownership group and market situation allow for them to get around those issues if they play their hand right. And there are promising signs. Don’t pay the luxury tax if you’re not going to contend. If you can get the big fish, like Dwight Howard, stay in the talks. Eventually, one will come your way and when it does, you’ll have the pieces to immediately move forward. There’s a lot to like about the approach.

But for now, the Warriors just have a good team. Not a fast team, or a quirky team, or even a necessarily interesting team. Truth be told, outside of the Klay Thompson-Harrison Barnes combo, there’s not a lot to get juiced up about this team, because every legitimate possibility of compelling play is tempered by injury concerns. Those players making a leap would change things, Curry and/or Bogut staying healthy would change things. But in the end, they’re just a good team with no chance of being great and almost no chance of being terrible. The Warriors may not be as lovable next year, but they also in all likelihood won’t be losers. There’s something to be said for fielding a professional team, and not every team is in a “tank for No.1” or “overspend to contend” mode. The Warriors have the luxury of short-term success with a longer-term goal. And if this current construct is a disaster?

Well, they’ll cross that bridge when they get to it. But tanking out with this team would be exceptionally difficult.

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.