Lindsey Hunter introduced as Suns head coach, details emerge on reasons the team made a change

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PHOENIX — Lindsey Hunter met the media on the Suns practice court Sunday, just hours after formally being offered the position of interim head coach and running the team through practice.

Almost two full days after Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby held a press conference but didn’t offer up a lot in terms of reasons why Alvin Gentry and the team parted ways, GM Lance Blanks hinted at some internal things that were going on behind the scenes that led management in that direction.

When asked how Hunter’s success would be measured the rest of the season, Blanks pointed to off-the-court ideals rather than wins and losses as things the team is looking to see improve under its interim head coach.

“Some of the success will be in ways that you may not be able to see with the naked eye,” Blanks said. “First off, we’ve got to look at the culture and the environment, which you may not be able to see when you’re watching the game. Because I think the team has played pretty hard for most of the season. but at the same time, in the back we’ve seen guys become more disappointed than we would like.

“We’ve seen a culture where the guys haven’t been as responsive as we would like, so we’ll be measuring that right out of the gate,” Blanks said. “We saw an uptick already in practice with the way that things were conducted [this morning].”

Hunter’s first practice was full of all the team’s players, but noticeably absent were two prominent assistant coaches under Gentry in Elston Turner and Dan Majerle. While Blanks said that all of Gentry’s assistants were offered the opportunity to stay through the end of the season, only Igor Kokoskov and Noel Gillespie, along with player development coach Ralph Sampson were seen in the gym putting players through workouts.

Turner was Gentry’s lead assistant, so it would be understandable if he was upset about being passed over for the interim spot in favor of someone with zero NBA coaching experience. And while Majerle may not have been the favorite to replace Gentry, if he does have future head coaching aspirations, it would be tough to see him being pleased with the decision to go with someone who he may not be able to learn as much from as as he would from a more tenured head coach.

As far as the reason given for the selection of Hunter, Blanks said they needed to go in a direction that would shake things up.

“The simple answer is that the organization needed a jolt,” Blanks said. “We needed something that would shock the systems of us, the players, and risk trumps safety in this business. And we felt this was the right person to take the risk on.”

There’s no question that Hunter will be learning on the job, and Blanks mentioned that the team will look to add a veteran coach either on or behind the bench to assist Hunter through the transition. But the Suns feel that his strong personality will hold players more accountable than they’ve been in the past, and that will lead to a positive culture the team can build around.

When asked what qualities he possesses that make him a good coach, Hunter was honest and humble in his response.

“We don’t know if I’m a good coach yet, right,” he said. “It remains to be seen. But I just think playing as long as I did and growing up around the game, I think that in itself has prepared me. Being a basketball junkie my entire life has prepared me. When I got here Lon and Lance were like, you have a Ph.D. in basketball. And that’s kind of how I look at it. My entire life has been surrounded by this game.”

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.