Game of the Night: Spurs oust Lakers with a great play at the end

48 Comments

On a night where Kobe Bryant was brilliant and the best player on the floor, it was the Spurs and a great play design by Greg Popovich that was the difference at the end.

With the Lakers up by a single point with 19 seconds left, the Spurs inbounded the ball in the back court and walked the ball up with Tony Parker.

When he crossed half court he passed the ball to Tim Duncan who then handed the ball off to Kawhi Leonard. After giving the ball up, Duncan slid down the right lane line and set another screen for Danny Green who had just set a pick for Stephen Jackson along the baseline. Green popped free outside the three point line, got the pass in rhythm, and knocked down the jumper as Kobe couldn’t get out to him in time.

With the Lakers now trailing they had their own shot to win but couldn’t come up with nearly as creative a play to get off a good shot. Pau Gasol got the inbound in the corner, looked for Kobe to break open, and when it didn’t happen he fired up a three pointer of his own that bounced harmlessly off the rim. Ball game, Spurs.

While the final possessions will get most of the attention, this game was about much more than those last 20 seconds.

The Lakers fought hard in looking to get their third straight win. If they’d played this hard for Mike Brown, he still might be pacing the Lakers’ sidelines.  Instead, Bernie Bickerstaff benefitted from the defensive effort to stifle the Spurs’ offense (San Antonio shot 38.9% from the floor) and the board work his team provided (the Lakers outrebounded the Spurs 48-38) to give his team a shot to win the game.

The Spurs also played well on defense and that’s reflected in the 84-82 final score. San Antonio crowded the paint and dared the Lakers to hit shots form the outside. But when the Lakers had trouble hitting their jumpers, it only encouraged the Spurs to double team the Lakers’ big men more. Dwight Howard (6 turnovers) struggled with the extra defensive attention and Pau Gasol couldn’t hit enough shots (3-10 from the floor, 10 points) to make the defense pay for leaving him open.

That led to Kobe Bryant having the carry the Lakers’ offense and he did a fine job of it. Kobe hit 12-19 shots from the floor to score 28 points (chipping in 8 assists too) and did a great job of breaking down the Spurs defense all night. Multiple defenders got their shot at Kobe but one by one he mowed them down with an array of drives and made jumpers that had Greg Popovich frustrated and his Lakers’ teammates celebrating from the bench.

It wasn’t enough, though. In the second half the Spurs clamped down on defense and started to pressure the ball more and force the Lakers to use up the shot clock and take tougher shots. They started to blitz ball handlers coming off the pick and roll while flooding the strong side with extra defenders. The Lakers needed to knock down jumpers when the ball was swung to the opposite side but simply couldn’t do it.

And in the end, this was the difference. The Spurs found a way to keep the game close through effective defense and timely shot making. In the second half, they found enough scoring (Tim Duncan scored 12 of his 18 points in the final 24 minutes while Stephen Jackson’s two 3 pointers were also big shots) and hung close. Meanwhile, the Lakers couldn’t get the stops they needed nor hit the big basket that could have given them the separation to outlast their opponent.

So the Spurs improve their record to 7-1 and remain at the top of the western conference alone. The Lakers, meanwhile, can’t get to .500 and can only stew over a game they could have won while they wait for their new head coach to arrive later this week.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
3 Comments

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

Getty Images
2 Comments

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

Getty Images
7 Comments

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)

11 Comments

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.