NBA season preview: New Orleans Hornets

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Last Season: The player the franchise had built itself around, Chris Paul, decided he wanted out before last season began. He did so in a far less-aggravating way than his superstar counterparts (we’re looking at you, Mr. Anthony and Mr. Howard), but he did it just the same. Since the key piece the Hornets received in the deal, Eric Gordon, only appeared in nine games for them before going down with injury, that helped the team to finish dead last in the Western Conference standings.

Lottery luck was on their side, however, as the Hornets were rewarded for their dismal season by receiving the number one overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, despite the fact that they didn’t end the season with the league’s worst record.

Key Departures: Big men Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, and Carl Landry.  Point guard Jarrett Jack, who only led the team in scoring once Gordon went down, though he did appear in just 45 games.

Key Additions: The number one overall pick in the draft, Anthony Davis. Ryan Anderson, a solid offensive threat, was brought in from Orlando. Robin Lopez was traded for, after the Suns decided they had spent enough time trying to develop him into a legit NBA center.

Three keys to the Hornets season: 

1) Developing Davis: By all accounts, Anthony Davis should provide an immediate impact in his rookie season, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The rebounding and shot-blocking ability should be present from Day One. But offensively, it’s not a stretch to use the word “raw” in describing where Davis is in the development process. Turning him into at least a competent player on the offensive end of the floor should be the team’s goal in his rookie season, while enjoying the production he should provide immediately on D at the same time.

2) And your point guard is … Greivis Vasquez? Looks like it, at least initially. Vasquez was surprisingly serviceable in the role for the Hornets last season, posting averages of 12.4 points and 7.6 assists in almost 26 minutes per game. But he’s hardly considered a speedy initiator of the offense with a basketball IQ beyond reproach, so we’ll see how that works out. Vasquez to this point has seemed like someone who would come in and not totally ruin things for you off the bench, rather than a player who you’d want running your team for extended periods. But hey — we’re rebuilding here, right? Beyond that, rookie Austin Rivers may see some time there (even though he’s really a two), and Eric Gordon-if-he-can-stay-healthy can play with the ball in his hands, as well.

3) Eric Gordon, Superstar: Gordon was supposed to be a legitimate trade piece in return for Chris Paul; he’s someone who by almost all accounts is one of the league’s top two-guards. The good news is he’s getting close to returning to action, and is even pushing to be ready on opening night. But when he returns isn’t necessarily all that important; what the team needs from him is superstar production, considering the max contract it gave him in the offseason. Four years and almost $60M is a ton to invest, so no matter how Davis turns out, the team will be in a tough spot from a salary cap standpoint in the future if Gordon doesn’t turn out to be the real deal once he’s back from injury.

What Hornets fans should fear: In the first year of a full-fledged rebuilding situation, patience is the key for Hornets fans. If by the end of the season the development isn’t there, the team doesn’t turn into a cohesive unit, or Davis or Gordon aren’t playing to their expected levels of production, then go ahead and panic. But for now, enjoy the young team that’s been put together and hope they provide some entertainment and show some signs as the season progresses.

Prediction: A second straight year near the bottom of the Western Conference standings seems likely, though there are a few other teams that New Orleans may be able to leapfrog if things go as planned. But playoffs? Yeah, no.

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.