Thunder’s turn for dramatic comeback — down 13 inside 4 minutes OKC comes back to beat Clippers, win Game 5

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That was maybe the most thrilling game of the playoffs.

And it is a complete punch to the gut for the Clippers.

The Los Angeles Clippers were the better team for 44 minutes on Tuesday night. With four minutes left in the game, the Clippers were up 13 points, they had gotten huge games out of Blake Griffin (24 points, 17 rebounds total) and Chris Paul (17 points, 14 assists and 4 steals). Kevin Durant had been ice cold.

Then it all came apart for Los Angeles. Meanwhile the Thunder showed the poise of a team that has been to the Finals, had been on the big stage — they made plays.

First Russell Westbrook hit a driving layup. Then Durant hit a pull-up three. Durant hit big some free throws. Reggie Jackson gets a layup off a Durant pass. Durant hit another three (one where Doc Rivers wanted his team to foul before the shot). Durant hits a layup. Westbrook steals the ball from Chris Paul in the backcourt (when Paul seems to shoot it trying to get an extra free throw rather than accept the intentional foul), then Westbrook passes to Jackson who is fouled by Matt Barnes (no call) and the ball goes out off Jackson but the referees say it is off Barnes — the referees missed the original call with no foul on Barnes, then blew the replay where the ball clearly went off Jackson but it was ruled “inconclusive.”

On the ensuing inbounds play and the Thunder down two and 11.3 seconds left, Westbrook unnecessarily went back and took a three — and Chris Paul fouled him on the shot. On the elbow. It was a terrible foul. Westbrook hit all three, the Thunder were ahead. On the final play Paul tried to drive, Serge Ibaka did a good job cutting off the lane and with a double from Jackson Paul lost the ball.

Thunder win, 105-104, and take a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 back in Los Angeles on Thursday night.

The Thunder were elated post game, the Clippers distraught… well, not Doc Rivers. He was flat out angry… no, not angry, livid. He was ripping the referees for the call with 11.3 seconds when the ball went out off Jackson and was still awarded to the Thunder. Rivers said if the Clippers get the ball as they should have the Thunder have to foul and the Clippers could have won the game.

“That is a game defining and possibly a series defining call. And that’s not right,” Rivers said in a press conference that is going to earn him a healthy from the league.

But he is right, the ball went out off Jackson. And the official explanation from Chief referee Tony Brothers after the game was terrible:

“When the ball goes out of bounds, the ball was awarded to Oklahoma City. We got review the play. We saw two replays. The two replays we saw were from the overhead camera showing down, and one from under the basket showing the same angle but from a different view. And from these two replays, it was inconclusive as to who the ball went out of bounds off of. When it’s inconclusive we have to go with the call on the floor.”

That’s a terrible call.

That’s not why the Clippers lost — Los Angeles was up 7 with :49 seconds left and handed the game over to the Thunder.

They lost because up two and about to be intentionally fouled near halfcourt by Westbrook, Paul didn’t accept the foul but rather went up into a shooting motion to try to get an extra free throw. Paul got stripped instead by Westbrook. It was also Paul who fouled Russell Westbrook on a three with 6 seconds left — it may have been a light foul, but Paul put himself in a position where the refs could make that call.

“Everything that happened there in the end is on me…” a clearly devastated Paul said in his post-game news conference televised on NBA TV. “You got to keep playing, but this one is bad though.”

To open this game the Thunder seemed to have a hangover from the Clippers dramatic 16-point comeback in Game 4 and Los Angeles raced out to a double-digit lead. The Clippers were controlling the pace, moving the ball and looked good, with Paul leading the way

The Thunder came back early in the second quarter and that is what happened for the rest of the game — the Clippers would make a run, the Thunder would respond.

That’s what happened in the final minutes — the Thunder made plays. Durant nailed threes, he finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook made the big steal late but for most of the game he was the best Thunder player and finished with 38 points.

OKC made the plays late, the Thunder kept their poise late, the Clippers collapsed.

We will see if the Clippers can bounce back from that in Game 5 loss. They were clearly devastated after the game, the Thunder were looking like a team that just won the series.

They may have.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.