The Inbounds: Kevin Durant says his time is now. It had better be.

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In an interview with the Washington Post, Kevin Durant takes the subtle leap forward from “all humble all the time” in interviews to “No, really, I’m exceptional at basketball.” Specifically, Durant says that he’s done with people talking about how eventually he’ll have the league in his grasp, that it’s here, it’s now. The future and present are one, and no matter what happened in June, it’s Kevin Durant’s world.

“I’ve heard a few times, in three or four years, this league is going to be yours. . . . I don’t like that. Because I think I’m established now. My time is now,” Durant said. “I feel as though I’ve proved myself these last five years that I can be one of the top players in the league. I’ve got a long way to go to being the ultimate best, but I think my time is now. And I’m starting to enter my prime.”

via Kevin Durant: ‘My time is now’ – The Washington Post.

It’s true that Durant can be considered “there.” This is the prime of his career, he’s just now getting there, and he’s got such a long way to go with it at just 23 years of age. But there’s a subject that should probably be gently unearthed here. It’s just the Thunder’s third season in the playoffs. It’s just their second of title contention. They’ve moved closer each year, taking significant steps forward.

But if they don’t get it done this season, there’s a very real possibility the window closes.

That concept sounds preposterous considering they were just a few good quarters away from stealing the Finals. The Thunder are going to have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka together for the next four years at least. They could very well have James Harden as well. They have no albatross contracts. Kendrick Perkins’ is pretty close, but they have retained their amnesty clause in the event they need to use it there. The four primary members of the core are only going to get better.

But how many times have we seen a young core never get there in their first few seasons, and then have the future robbed? You have to make the climb, and you have to reach the summit. Victory serves as a pacifist for things that can derail a team; unrest, injury, the desperation trade and the like. Sam Presti has been exceptionally patient with this group, but there’s now going to be the lure of that which has ruined so many young cores, the chance at a superstar gamble, a major move, a huge upgrade. The fact that the Thunder are so good guards against that to a degree, but eventually , the pendulum swings and teams find themselves looking “to make a change” for whatever reason.

The Blazers in 2008, the Magic in 2009, the Bulls in 2007, the Wizards in 2007. None of these teams look now like they’re in the same league as the Thunder and in many ways, they aren’t. But their falls were not foreseen. They had either young or stable cores, limitless potential, and players in the elite ranks. They and countless teams before them seemed destined for great things, if not a championship. That’s how quickly these windows close. Yes, you have the Spurs and you have the Mavericks, who kept cores essentially intact for over a decade but those teams stand out precisely because of that longevity, not as standard bearers.

Durant could wake to find himself as the best player on the planet in three years, but surrounded by talent that cannot get it together to compete. This is not built as an “anything is possible” kind of postulate, but as a simple reminder that contending teams that do not win a title seldom are able to keep the core together. Things fall apart, so to speak. Durant can talk to any number of stars about the situation. Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Brandon Roy, it seemed all would inevitably win a title (Garnett later would — when he was traded to another team). The Thunder play in a small market, and while Clay Bennett has been the very model of a modern major owner for OKC (not so much for Seattle), there’s still a lot to learn about how Bennett will react if the luxury bills start piling up.

Durant will be great no matter what, barring injury, knock on wood. He’s going to get better in every phase of the game. But the kind of youthful “golly, we’re just excited to be here” enthusiasm in the Thunder locker room is already shifting to a more focused, determined desperation to win the title, to get over the hump. Most stars don’t win a title before 27. Experience wins, traditionally, in this league. The Thunder are trying to buck that, and they have a great chance. But they have to get past that final hurdle. They needed to make the playoffs, then they needed to advance in the playoffs, then they needed to make the Finals. They’ve done that, but the last step is hardest to climb, especially with how the Heat have built themselves and the Lakers’ standing in the West ready to cause mayhem.

Durant said over the weekend that the Lakers are impressive “on paper.” But think back to how many teams thought they were great the season after they made the Finals only to discover that it was a fleeting moment in the sun, and that the league passed them by. Durant doesn’t have to go down like that, to toil for years. But he’s got to get there. Winning begets winning, stagnation begets change.

The expectations have caught up with Durant. His time is now. It has to be. It better be.

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.