Spain pushes USA, but too much LeBron, CP3, Durant makes USA golden

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Spain had what they needed — spark plug Juan Carlos-Navarro couldn’t miss early and would not let the USA run away with the game. Pau Gasol took it right to the USA’s weakness in the second half and had 15 points in the third quarter to put his team ahead at one point.

But the USA had what they needed. They had 30 points from Kevin Durant who was so hot Spain was forced to go to a box-and-1 defense to shut him down. Chris Paul pressured on defense and controlled the tempo, then made key buckets late. Then LeBron James capped off as great a year as a basketball player could have — NBA MVP, NBA champion, gold medal — with key baskets to help the USA seal the game in the fourth quarter.

It ended 107-100 and the USA didn’t just win the gold medal, they had to earn it.

It was a fun, entertaining game for fans from the start — both teams started out shooting well. For Spain it was former Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro knocking down threes (12 of first 16 points for Spain). On the other side Kobe Bryant (who finished with 17) and Durant were knocking down buckets. Both teams were working the ball inside-out. Spain played a zone but early the USA drove down the lane and shot over the top of it.

So when Spain started to miss a little the USA went on a 10-2 run and they were up nine quickly. The USA hit 7-of-10 threes in the first quarter and they cannot be beat by anyone when those shots are falling. Kevin Durant finished with a game-high 30 points and 156 for the entire Olympics — the most any single player has scored in an Olympic tournament. Ever. Durant has cemented himself as the best pure scorer on the planet right now.

But when the USA’s threes don’t fall, the USA can be caught. Especially when they don’t defend well. Spain answer on a 14-2 run early in the second quarter and Spain kept it a one-point play at the half because their guards hung with the USA’s guards. Some overzealous officiating helped Spain as well as there were 22 fouls called in the second half, destroying any flow to the game. The USA needs that flow.

In the third, Pau Gasol showed all of us why he is so deadly in the post (Lakers fans should hope Mike Brown was watching and realizes he needs to get Gasol post touches, not have him live at the elbow). Gasol hit a running hook over Tyson Chandler, he spun and dunked around Kevin Love. Gasol had 15 points in the third quarter and finished with 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

It was 83-82 USA after three quarters. But Spain rested Pau and the USA went on a 12-4 run to stretch out their lead, a lead they never relinquished.

In part because Chris Paul was probably the best player on the floor in the second half. (Even with all the additions he may well be the best player in Los Angeles next year.) He pressured the Spanish guards up high on defense — Spain hit no threes in the second half after 7 in the first half. CP3 controlled the tempo of the game and late hit a three and had a nifty little drive for a bucket. But he controlled the flow, he was the floor general.

Then when Spain would make a push, LeBron pushed back. He hit a three, he played a two-man handoff game with Durant that led to a dunk (their two man handoff pick-and-roll was the USA’s best play through the Olympics). Durant didn’t have a big fourth quarter but because he had been so key earlier Spain focused their defense on him and that opened things up. Then there were good plays by Kobe and others.

It was too much. Spain played well but their problem was they were not the better, deeper, more talented team. They needed the USA’s help to win and the USA’s best players wouldn’t give it to them. They stepped up.

And so for the 14th time since Olympic basketball started, the USA is golden.

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.