Lakers hold off Nets in D’Antoni’s head coaching debut

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Mike D’Antoni made his long-awaited debut as Lakers head coach on Tuesday, but the team’s previous win over the Rockets looked much more like his style. Nevertheless, the substance was there as L.A. overcame some mistakes to get a 95-90 win over the Nets that pushed the team over the .500 mark for the first time this season.

The first half of this one looked like what we might expect to see when the Lakers face quality teams while running this new system. There was plenty of trading baskets, and the Nets were able to get a lot of good looks as L.A. was slow in its defensive rotations, when they bothered to rotate at all. Brook Lopez was the main beneficiary of the New Jersey offense, getting 12 first-quarter points and ending up with 17 by halftime, scoring both inside and out.

Deron WIlliams did the damage for the Nets in the second quarter, straight up abusing Lakers guard Darius Morris for 10 points in less than six minutes. But after scoring 34 points in the second to take a one-point lead into the locker room at the half, the Nets managed just 33 points the rest of the way, thanks to a combined 5-of-21 shooting from Williams and Joe Johnson in the final two periods, and a dismal team shooting of under 33 percent.

As is going to be the case more often than not, while New Jersey struggled to manufacture offense, the Lakers had too much talent to ultimately be stifled. L.A. got huge games from Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace — the four combined to go 29-of-54 from the field, good for 53.7 percent, and good enough to beat just about anyone.

There were some bumps along the way, however. The Lakers were outrebounded, and gave up 14 on the offensive end. The reserves are still giving way too much of the game away when the starters try to get some rest, and over the course of the season, heavy-minute efforts like this one where four of the five starters play 38 minutes or more (with Howard surpassing 40) are going to add up.

And of course, we have the free throw shooting. A horrific 19-of-37 night from the line, led by Howard going 7-of-19 (including an airball) is certainly cause for concern. Avery Johnson tried to exploit the problem further by intentionally fouling Howard sporadically in the fourth quarter, but didn’t fully commit and picked an extremely curious time to do so.

Brooklyn trailed 77-73 with 10:32 to play in the game. The Nets went on an 11-1 run to lead 84-78 with 5:22 to play, holding the Lakers without a field goal for over five minutes, the last two while L.A. had its starters back on the floor. That was when Johnson first called for the “Hack-a-Dwight,” and did it once more a few possessions later. Howard made one of two free throws each time, getting the Lakers a free point with no time having run off the clock, which is pretty important when a team is losing and there’s only a few minutes left to play.

Bryant took over for L.A. down the stretch, scoring his team’s last eight points — six of which came from the free throw line — in the game’s final two minutes to close this one out.

This was a good win for the Lakers, their first over a quality team on the young season, and their first while facing adversity under their new head coach. It wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as their last outing, or as run-and-gun as it could be under D’Antoni once Steve Nash returns and the team has some time to get clicking under the new system. But wins are beautiful no matter how they come, and that’s especially true for a team as talented as this one that began the year with such a rocky start.

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.