What’s next for the Houston Rockets?

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The Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs in dramatic fashion on Friday, when Damian Lillard’s incredible three splashed home at the buzzer to allow the Blazers to advance.

But Houston being ousted in the first round was no miracle. The Western Conference is as deep as ever, and Portland was simply a terrible matchup for the Rockets. LaMarcus Aldridge was too nimble and successful in the mid-range for Dwight Howard and Omer Asik to deal with, and the guard play of Lillard and Wes Matthews throughout the series — in terms of both quickness and shooting ability — was too much for Houston’s weak perimeter defense to deal with.

None of that makes being bounced in the first round any easier to accept, however, and the first season where Howard and Harden were paired to contend for a title will undoubtedly go down as a disappointment.

So, where does Houston go from here?

Target another big star via trade or free agency: Carmelo Anthony is the highest profile free agent on the market, but is more scoring really what Houston needs? The offense was rarely the problem this year, as the Rockets finished fourth in the league per 100 possessions. There is something to be said for simply outscoring people, however, and Anthony would certainly help if that’s the way Houston wants to go.

There’s Kevin Love to discuss, too, but it remains unlikely that Minnesota would trade him unless he essentially demands it by deciding well ahead of time he won’t be re-signing once his contract is up at the end of next season. ESPN’s Marc Stein also reports that Houston’s GM will revisit Rajon Rondo’s availability in a trade with the Celtics, just in case Boston decides to go in a different direction.

Does Kevin McHale return as head coach? McHale technically isn’t under contract yet for next season, but he has an option for one more year that the Rockets are able to pick up. Being one of the greatest low post players to ever play the game, McHale is a natural choice to remain on to continue to work with Howard on developing his offensive game. But when a team underachieves, everyone’s job is in jeopardy, and McHale’s is no different.

Anytime you look to replace a decent head coach, you better have some options in mind that will make things significantly better. Depending what happens to the roster, McHale seems likely to return — but it’s far from guaranteed until his contract for next season is in place.

Upgrading from Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik: Asik was on the trading block earlier in the year, due to a combination of his unhappiness with a reduced role and the team realizing that the fit wasn’t the best with Howard now in place. But Houston’s asking price remained high, so Asik played out the season.

It’ll be even more difficult to trade him this summer, and the same goes for Lin, thanks to the way their contracts are structured. And because of that, Houston may have to part with an additional asset in order to get something done.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

Teams are likewise said to be telling the Rockets all the time, when Morey is shopping either Asik or Lin, that it will also cost you Parsons if you’re expecting us to take on one of those infamous balloon payments scheduled to lift both Asik and Lin to the brink of $15 million in annual salary next season … albeit with a salary-cap number of just $8.4 million.

Parsons is not someone Houston wants to lose, so it’ll be interesting to see how, exactly, the Rockets go about overhauling the roster. They need to improve a defense that was ranked just 12th this season, while providing enough of an upgrade around Harden and Howard to help the franchise reach its championship aspirations.

There are more questions in Houston than answers right now, which should certainly make for a fascinating summer.

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.

Raptors’ ‘culture reset’ shines in Game 5 win over Wizards

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The Raptors promoted ball movement. They emphasized 3-point shooting. They empowered their reserves.

This was why.

Backups Delon Wright and C.J. Miles and starting center Jonas Valanciunas – who was benched in previous postseasons due to his old-fashioned style, but expanded his game beyond the arc this year – scored Toronto’s final 18 points in a 108-98 Game 5 win over the Wizards on Wednesday. Stars DeMar DeRozan (0-for-4 from the field) and Kyle Lowry (0-for-1 from the field, 0-for-2 on free throws) struggled down the stretch, as the Raptors burst open what had been a one-point lead.

Though DeRozan (32 points) and Lowry (17 points and 10 assists) were good overall, they succumbed late in previous playoff games. Toronto didn’t want that duo stuck with the burden of creating so much in a stagnate offense.

Hence, Masai Ujiri’s famous “culture reset.”

The results have been mixed so far against a tougher-than-average-eight-seed Washington. But at least the Raptors – up 3-2 entering Friday’s Game 6 in Washington – are on 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.

Raptors honor victims of van attack before Game 5 (photos)

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TORONTO (AP) — The Toronto Raptors honored the victims the deadly van attack Monday with a moment of silence Wednesday night before Game 5 of their playoff series against the Washington Wizards.

Players from both teams held up banners with the hashtag #TORONTOSTRONG as they stood on the court during the tribute and the national anthems that followed:

The Raptors, the Wizards and the NBA will make a donation to a fund for victims and those affected by the incident.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri spoke about the attack after the Raptors practiced Tuesday.

“What we do doesn’t really matter sometimes,” Ujiri said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on that sidewalk.”

Guard Kyle Lowry said he was impressed by the actions of Const. Ken Lam, who earned international acclaim for peacefully arresting of suspect Alek Minassian.

“In America he would definitely have been shot up,” Lowry said. “He did an amazing job of making a judgment call. I think more people could learn from that.”

Coach Dwane Casey was struck by how close the carnage occurred to his own Toronto neighborhood,

“It’s not too far from up the street from where I live,” Casey said.

Casey and his coaches were in the midst of a meeting Monday afternoon when assistant Rex Kalamian’s phone buzzed with someone informing him of the tragedy. The coaches stopped their meeting and turned on a television to find out what had happened.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Casey said. “Just this weekend I was talking to people saying how safe Toronto is, how it’s a melting pot and you don’t have the same crime. Hopefully though, sport can offer a relief, some reprieve.”

Like Casey, Ujiri said he is proud of Toronto’s reputation as a safe, welcoming place.

“Everywhere I go, I brag about this city,” Ujiri said. “It’s the safest place in the world. It’s the best city in the world and it’s going to continue to be the best place and the best city in the world.”

Toronto police said the 10 people killed and 14 injured in the attack were “predominantly” women, but have declined so far to discuss a motive. The 25-year-old Minassian has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.