LeBron’s heroic end spoiled by standard (for him) start and Tony Parker

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LeBron James looked loose during his post-game news conference – smiling as he described the Spurs’ final play as “the longest 24 seconds that I’ve been a part of,” repeatedly asking reporters how the box score could give the Spurs 21 second-chance points on six offensive rebounds, admitting the third quarter had taken so much out of him that he request to rest early in the fourth quarter.

I’m not one to criticize LeBron for lacking a killer instinct, and I won’t start now, but LeBron can be prone to spurts of passiveness, and he had one tonight.

In the first 8:30 of the fourth quarter, LeBron scored zero points. To be fair, he spent the first three minutes on the bench, but he should have asserted himself sooner once he hit the court. LeBron knows his talent allows to him to make plays his teammates can’t and plays accordingly, but he doesn’t always recognize how wide the gap is – especially when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren’t performing at even an All-Star, let alone superstar, levels.

Finally, Erik Spoelstra demanded his Most Valuable Player to play like one. With 3:30 left, Spoelstra pulled Miami’s other point guards, forcing LeBron to dominate the ball even more, and had LeBron guard Tony Parker, who had been giving the Heat fits.

In his new roles, LeBron immediately stepped up.

He ran a pick-and-roll with Chis Bosh, setting up Bosh for a quality look in the paint. Bosh missed, but LeBron converted the putback. On the ensuing defensive possession, Parker missed a jumper over LeBron. The play before Spoelstra pulled Mario Chalmers, Parker made a similar look over Chalmers.

LeBron then drew a foul on Parker, though it wasn’t a shooting foul, and LeBron missed a 3-pointer later in the possession.  A Parker-Tim Duncan pick-and-roll went nowhere with LeBron defending, but Danny Green made a 3-pointer as Mike Miller was slow to close.

LeBron drove for a left-handed layup and grabbed a defensive rebound on San Antonio’s next possession. He pushed the ball upcourt and passed to Ray Allen, who was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer and made all three free throws. Back on defense, LeBron provided excellent help on a rolling Duncan, but Bosh, after falling badly for a pump fake, fouled Duncan.

LeBron then penetrated and kicked to a wide open Bosh, who missed a 3-pointer. LeBron grabbed the defensive rebound on the next possession, took the ball all the way himself, drew a foul and made both free throws.

Finally, Parker scored his only points in the final 3:30 on a circus shot made even more ridiculous by how closely LeBron defended it.

In all, LeBron had six points and three rebounds during the final 3:30 – numbers that would project to 72 points and 36 rebounds in the 42 minutes he played tonight. Obviously, those numbers are unsustainable in a larger sample, but they speak to how dominant he was in those crucial moments.

In that closing stretch, the Heat outscored the Spurs by two points, but it was all for naught. Miami was down by six before it even began.

Parker was too good, and LeBron wasn’t quite good enough before that. Keep in mind, LeBron had a triple-double before his dominant final minutes began. We’re talking about one of the all-time greats playing a great game in the NBA Finals.

It just wasn’t great enough tonight.

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, but he 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.