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Play vs. Rest: For many NBA teams, it’s still a real battle

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MIAMI (AP) — There are 27 games remaining on Cleveland’s regular-season schedule, and perhaps only one person over that stretch will be able to stop LeBron James.

That would be Cavs coach Tyronn Lue.

He has to protect James from himself.

Finding the right time to rest players is a conundrum that many NBA coaches have wrestled with for years, even more so now given the ways teams have been able to apply technology to the formula and use personalized data to help their medical and athletic training staffs determine when someone simply needs a break. The rest topic seems to become more prevalent as the season winds down, particularly after the All-Star break, with teams in the playoff race trying to ensure top players are healthy for the postseason.

As James nears 50,000 minutes for his NBA career – a milestone that he’ll likely reach during the upcoming playoffs – he abhors the idea of taking nights off. Yet there will almost certainly be nights over the next few weeks where James’ uniform stays on its game-night hanger, and fans who plunked down big money to see him play will have to deal with disappointment.

“Me being a competitor, me loving the game that I’ve loved every single day, I don’t always have the right assessment of me playing a lot of minutes,” James said. “That’s why I have coach Lue and the coaching staff and the training staff to be like `Hey, LeBron … let’s take it easy today.’ Me, I don’t ever want to take a day off.”

Only seven players appeared in all 82 of their teams’ regular-season games in 2015-16. It is becoming more and more of a rarity; in 2005-06 there were 14 players who appeared in 82 games, in 1995-96 the number was 25.

“At times, it may be necessary for a guy to rest whether if it’s on the road or it’s at home,” Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s a thin line.”

Some coaches make no secret about their desire to rest players. Foremost among them, of course, is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, he who famously sat Tim Duncan for a game in 2012 citing “old” as the official reason, and who decided that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili needed rest in the third game of this season – which just happened to be the Spurs’ home opener.

“It’s ridiculous,” Popovich said of the Spurs having to play four games in the season’s first six nights.

The schedule starting next season will have the 82 games played over a longer stretch of time, which NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hopes relieve some of the rest issues. When the Cavs sat James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for a game at Memphis earlier this season, even some Cavs fans in attendance expressed their disappointment .

“The science has gotten to the point where there is that direct correlation that we’re aware of between fatigue and injuries,” Silver said. “And as tough as it is on our fans to miss one of their favorite players for a game, it’s far better than having them get injured and be out for long periods of time. So we’re always still looking to strike that right balance.”

Memphis coach David Fizdale said he listens to the Grizzlies’ medical staff when deciding when the time is right to give one of his players a break. Unfortunately, if there are many Marc Gasol fans in Minnesota, his nights to sit included the ones that fell on both of Memphis’ trips to visit the Timberwolves this season.

“Fans pay their hard-earned money to see you play,” Golden State guard Klay Thompson said. “The young guys like me, I don’t need to rest, but the old guys, the old superstars, they need a game or two off here and there. . Yeah, you feel for the fans.”

The vast majority of players polled at All-Star weekend said if it were up to them and they weren’t dealing with an injury, they’d play every night. Houston’s James Harden, who last missed a game two years ago and that was because of suspension, said he takes pride in not only playing every game but playing particularly well on the second night of back-to-backs.

No one has played more games since the start of the 2010-11 season than James, in large part because he rarely sits and because each of his last six seasons have all gone until the NBA Finals.

He ranks No. 2 in average minutes per night this season – topped by only Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, by a mere 9 seconds.

“I’m comfortable with whatever coach wants me to do out on the floor,” James said. “Whatever he gives me to do, I can figure it out.”

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.