Anthony Davis steps into spotlight, is Team USA’s lynchpin

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LAS VEGAS — Monday was the first day of scrimmages for Team USA in its preparation for the World Cup and Anthony Davis was in the heart of the action for the white team. He got the ball on a cut to the rim but missed a contested shot in the paint. The other blue team got the ball and as Team USA wants to do was off to the races with an outlet pass and an attempt to score in transition before the defense sets. Davis sprinted back on defense, eating up ground with his long strides, and as a guard rose up for what he thought was an open midrange jumper five seconds into the clock Davis came flying through and swatted it out of bounds with authority. It was the kind of block maybe only a couple players in the world could have made.

It was exactly what Team USA is counting on Davis to do. Every game.

The USA is going small in its run for World Cup gold, playing a lot of Kevin Durant as the four, and that puts Davis in the spotlight — he is the big man who must protect the rim on defense, he must own the glass, and also get points in the paint on offense.

Davis is the lynchpin for Team USA’s plan and for casual fans could be the breakout star of the World Cup.

“We think he’s one of the top players in the league and we need for him to be that five that nobody has,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said praising Davis. “Everyone talks about things we don’t have, well they don’t have him.”

“Kevin’s at the four, so of course we have four guys now who can play on the perimeter, so we need somebody in the paint,” Davis said of his role. “So I’m just trying to make sure I run to the front of the rim, set screens and do everything a five would do for the team. I’m not trying to get outside my lane here, just trying and do what Coach K asks.”

Look for Davis to end up on a lot of highlight reels — the floor is spaced with shooters and slashers such as Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall among others and when they get in the paint the big watching Davis is going to have to slide over and block that drive. When he does Davis is going to roll to the rim.

“With the shooters the lob to him has got to be used,” Krzyzewski said.

Wednesday Davis got a couple of those alley-oops in a late scrimmage courtesy Wall and you could see how this could be all over SportsCenter when the real games start.

“It’s good to see the ball go up in the air,” Davis said with a smile.

His biggest impact, however, is going to be at the other end of the floor — he has to own the paint. Davis said he has bulked up, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle, and is ready for the more physical brand of basketball played internationally.

“There’s nothing really different except the physicality,” Davis said of playing international ball compared to the NBA (where he primarily is a power forward). “There’s no defensive three seconds which really helps be because I like to block shots.”

Davis’ shot blocking, versatility and athleticism allows Krzyzewski play the aggressive, trapping style he wants on the defensive side of the ball. Team USA has better athletes than any team in the world and the system of pressure and fast breaks is set up to take advantage of it. Davis lets that happen, blocking shots on one end and rim running on the other. Davis has a midrange jumper and the ability to put the ball on the floor that lets him work as a pick-and-pop big or rolling to the rim.

In fact, Krzyzewski wondered aloud how the USA’s offense would change when Davis had to go to the bench and his backup — likely DeMarcus Cousins or Andre Drummond — came on the court. Do they have to tweak what they do because there isn’t another Davis?

Davis was a raw late addition to Team USA for the London Olympics two years ago, where LeBron James and Kobe Bryant took Davis under their wings and tried to teach the rookie to be about the work and mentality needed to be a superstar in the NBA. Davis heard them — Wednesday after practice, when most guys at Team USA camp were icing their knees or taking part in half court shooting contests, Davis and USA assistant coach Monty Williams were working on post positioning and movements in the offense for Davis. There has been a lot of post-game work by Davis.

Davis hasn’t been seen much by casual hoops fans these past couple seasons, playing in the small market of New Orleans for a Pelicans team that didn’t make the playoffs and doesn’t get a lot of national television games. But Davis is poised to break out, with Durant saying he thinks Davis is a future MVP.

That breakout could happen in Spain, on the World Cup stage.

If Team USA is going to defend its gold medal this summer, it will happen because Davis was a big man no other team in the world could match.

That he really was the five nobody else had.

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.