NBA Finals Game 5 preview, Heat at Spurs: Miami tries to put River Walk party on hold

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SAN ANTONIO — The Miami Heat were relaxed.

The day after a Game 4 loss that left them bewildered Ray Allen spent the day on a bike ride, going 14 miles or so from his Coral Gables home, picking up some lunch along the way, just getting outside and clearing his head. The rest of the Heat did something similar, whatever it was it was not basketball. Friday they took a day off.

Miami is down 3-1, on the brink of elimination at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs heading into Sunday night’s Game 5, but when they showed up in San Antonio Saturday afternoon they were surprisingly relaxed and confident.

Last year they faced two elimination games in the Finals against the Spurs, yet won them both. This year it will take three in a series that feels different after San Antonio won the last two games convincingly. But the Heat acted like a team that has been through plenty of adversity and been to four straight Finals. They acted like they have been there before.

That means either they have found their groove, their energy that they can bring for 48 minutes this time, that they are ready to fight for this series.

Or they are resigned to their fate.

“Why not us?” LeBron James asked. “History is broken all the time. And obviously we know we’re against the greatest of odds. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, but there was a point where no team came back from a 2-0… There was a point where no team came back from a 31 deficit in the Western Conference Finals, and then Phoenix did it. One of our teammates was on that team, James Jones….

“So history is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great.”

“What we talked about is we’re not so entitled or jaded that we’re above having to fight for it, and that’s what it is right now,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said.

As it has been throughout this series, the questions for Miami in Game 5 at the defensive end — their pressure and rotations have not been able to keep up with the Spurs ball movement.

“Regardless (of how we played the pick-and-roll) it felt like we were a step slow on all our rotations, closing out to the three point, the low man getting to the big on the rolls,” Rashard Lewis said. “We was just always late, they were a step faster.”

Even when Miami did make the right rotations it didn’t matter — San Antonio shot 64.7 percent on contested shots in Game 4, 61.5 percent in Game 3 (stats via the NBA’s player tracking SportsVU cameras). San Antonio just is not missing.

One thing Miami is counting on to come back is a regression to the mean — San Antonio can’t keep shooting like this, can they? No, not over a long stretch of games they couldn’t, but that’s also not what the Spurs need. They just need one more.

Miami’s problem is after 13 games between these teams since the start of last year’s Finals the Spurs have grown accustomed to and comfortable with the Heat defense — Miami tries to use their athleticism to overwhelm, force turnovers and rushed shots. The Spurs have seen it — and they saw the same tactics from Dallas and Oklahoma City these playoffs — and it doesn’t faze them anymore. Plus, an older, banged-up Miami team doesn’t dial up the same pressure it did the past couple playoffs.

In the face of that pressure the Spurs no longer lose their offensive balance and unpredictability — all five guys are live, all five guys are a threat on every play.

“Everybody’s dangerous on our team,” Boris Diaw explained. “Everybody can score at any time. It’s not like a pattern, like some times you do scouting on a team and you say ‘Who’s the head of the snake, who’s the guy who’s going to score?’ You keep them from scoring and you’re going to win the game. With us it’s a little bit different, anybody can score on any given night. You saw that during the whole regular season. One night Patty Mills is the leading scorer on our team, some times it’s Danny (Green), sometimes it’s Tony (Parker), sometimes it’s Manu (Ginobili), sometime’s it’s Tim (Duncan). It can be anyone.”

Tony Parker leads the Spurs in scoring in the Finals averaging 18.5 points a game on 50.9 percent shooting — those are not gaudy numbers. The Spurs have talent — Tim Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward ever to play the game, Kawhi Leonard is a Finals MVP favorite exploding on the scene, Manu Ginobili just keeps making plays — but they all put their ego aside for the team.

When you asked Miami players what they need to do differently you got variations of their standard answer — we just need to do what we do better. We likely will see some rotation changes — Ray Allen started the second half of Game 4 and expect he starts Game 5, we also could see some Shane Battier — but the fact is Miami’s depth is limited. Plus guys they count on to step up, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen in particular, have not. That’s not even mentioning Dwyane Wade aging before our eyes and Chris Bosh needing to be more aggressive when he gets his chances. It’s pretty much been LeBron James against the world, and no team ever won the Larry O’Brien trophy that way. Just like no team has ever come from 3-1 down in the Finals to win.

“But you can’t start thinking about two games ahead, three games ahead, all of that,” Spoelstra said on Saturday. “It’s just about tomorrow.”

If the Heat don’t there will be a parade down the River Walk just a few tomorrows after that.

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.