Eleven guys who came out of London Olympics big winners

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The USA is the big winner in London — in our “winner take all” society they won the gold medal, they get the spoils. And no doubt they were the best team in the games.

But a number of players came out of London as winners in the reputation game. Eric Freeman nailed a great look at what the gold means to the members of Team USA over at Ball Don’t Lie, but I want to broaden the list — a number of players from around the globe leave London big winners.

Here are my 11 players who came out on top individually from London.

• LeBron James. You don’t have to like him, but you have to admit he has cemented his place as the most dominant player in the game today. For most people the fact he is NBA MVP, NBA champ and Olympic gold medalist at the same time helps move the needle on his perception and legacy. Him saying after the gold medal game that this was all about the USA just helps reinforce a perceived change.

Four years ago in Beijing, when things got tight against Spain in the fourth quarter, it was Kobe Bryant who took over. That was his team. This time, there was no mistake throughout the London tournament that this was LeBron James’ team — he was the guy that took over games, he was the guy setting players up, he was making big buckets (the three over Marc Gasol in the Gold Medal game was the last of many). Doug Collins had a good line about all this on the NBC broadcasts — LeBron’s fingerprints were all over these games. He had the first ever Olympic triple-double to prove it.

• Pau Gasol. Shortsighted Lakers fans (and some basketball fans in general) like to rip the guy as a soft Euro (forgetting how he stood up to Dwight Howard in the NBA finals, for one of many examples). That has always been shortsighted. Gasol is a finesse player who can use power in the right situation, but that is different than soft. He remains the most skilled scorer in the low post in the game today. Mike Brown hurt Gasol last year, trying to take advantage of his variety of skills (passing, mid-range shooting) and moved him out of the post most of the time. It was a mistake. Hopefully with a more fleet-footed Dwight Howard at the other big Brown can start to get Gasol the post touches he deserves.

• Chris Paul. Simply put, the best pure point guard, the best floor general in the game and the Olympics showed it. Deron Williams is good. Derrick Rose is explosive and good. But nobody controls the tempo and flow of a game like Chris Paul. Nobody. I’ve already written an ode to him, so I move on.

• Manu Ginobili. If LeBron James was the single best player in this tournament, Ginobili was second. He scored 19.4 points per game, shot 44 percent from three and more than that really controlled the flow of the offense for Argentina. He helped set up Luis Scola (18 points a game). Manu looked young in transition and deadly in the half court. At 35 the Spur has a few years left.

• Kevin Durant. In case there was still any lingering doubt, he is the best pure scorer walking the face of the earth. If you want points, he’s the guy who can get them with threes, off the drive, in transition, cutting, whatever you want. The LeBron/Durant two-man game the USA ran (LeBron with the ball handing off or not to Durant coming off his screen) was simply the USA’s best and most unstoppable play.

It feels even more and more like he will get his soon.

Andrei Kirilenko/Alexey Shved. Minnesota Timberwolves fans had to love these Olympics. Over the summer it seemed GM David Kahn overpaid for Kirilenko (well, he did), but in the Olympics he was the best player on the bronze medal winning Russian team, averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The question with AK-47 has always been consistency of effort, but he looked good in London. Shved and his shaggy hair were a hit in the games as he averaged 11.5 points and 5.9 assists per game. He looked like the perfect backup point guard to Ricky Rubio.

• Andre Iguodala. He played a key role with Team USA as a defensive stopper on the wing and a guy asked to score in transition and with space in the half court. In the middle of the Olympics he gets traded to Denver where he will be asked to do what he did for Team USA (just on a slightly expanded scale). Let me put it this way, I would move Iggy way up your fantasy boards.

Juan Carlos Navarro. He had one unhappy season in Memphis and was back to Spain. We NBA fans lose out because of it, that guy can flat out play.

• Anthony Davis. The question with the No. 1 overall draft pick of the Hornets is not does he have the talent but can he develop said talent. Starting out your NBA career by getting to hang out with and watch the work ethic of Kobe, LeBron, CP3 — really everyone on this team — gives him a huge head start on the learning curve. Plus, he gets a gold medal.

• Linas Kleiza. He can fall out of pubic consciousness up in Toronto, but consider this a reminder the Lithuanian forward can play — 13.8 points per game as the leader of Lithuanian team.

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.