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Magic President: Season has been ‘incredibly disappointing’

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Orlando Magic president Alex Martins entered the season believing this was the franchise’s best chance to break into the playoffs for first time in the post-Dwight Howard era.

With 23 games remaining, Martins realizes that’s a longshot at best.

“The season to date has been incredibly disappointing,” Martins told The Associated Press. “We didn’t expect to be in mix for one of the top seeds by any stretch as we are progressing. Our hope was to get in there and make the playoffs.”

The team brought in two key veteran front-court additions to fuse with a young nucleus and hired an experienced playoff coach in Frank Vogel. The pieces seemed in place to end a five-year playoff drought.

But Orlando has the third-worst record in the NBA at 21-28 and have scrapped their dominant front-court plan, shipping Serge Ibaka to Toronto. Their slim postseason chances are quickly fading.

It’s other setback for 34-year-old general manager Rob Hennigan, who has not delivered on putting Orlando back into the playoffs during his nearly five-year tenure. The roster has been consistently re-made and three different head coaches have been hired during Hennigan’s tenure.

Martins expressed his excitement about the future of a young nucleus of players that includes Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier and now nearly acquired swingman Terrence Ross. He also spoke highly of Vogel, who was hired last May after a successful run with the Indiana Pacers .

But Martins didn’t mention Hennigan, who has one more year remaining on his contract.

When asked about the GM, the president said Hennigan’s future will be evaluated at the end of the season, along with the rest of the basketball operations staff.

“We feel that you have to have the complete book of business for the year to be able to evaluate them and we are going to do that,” Martins said. “Everybody is accountable to all of the results and we will evaluate our basketball operations staff extensively at the end of the year and make any decision that we need to make.”

Hennigan has not shied away from discussing his job security, acknowledging that things have not worked out as he had hoped to this point.

“The seat is always hot,” Hennigan said last week. “That’s something that comes with the territory and it’s just something that comes with the job. It’s a difficult job with a lot of complexities. We feel like we are figuring it out.”

But the results don’t seem to support Hennigan’s assertion that they are any closer to figuring it out than when he came aboard in June 2012. Draft picks haven’t panned out, free agents have been brought in and shipped out as quickly and there has seemed to be a revolving door at the head coaches’ office.

The latest fallout was the Ibaka acquisition that fell apart quickly. The Magic gave up a promising young player in Victor Oladipo and other assets in order to get Ibaka from Oklahoma City.

Ibaka, who entered the season on the final year of his contract, turned out not to be a good fit for the two-big men defensive scheme and wasn’t giving indication he would be willing to re-sign with the Magic this summer.

“We certainly didn’t want to put ourselves in that position if Serge were to make a decision to go elsewhere and not have anything to show for it,” Martins said. “We wanted to protect ourselves against that.”

There were reports Orlando would be active in trade market before Thursday’s deadline, but the only trade they ended up pulling off was the Ibaka-Ross deal. Martins said the team had hoped to add what it considered to be significant pieces as late as Thursday, but that it all fell through.

“As they say it takes two trade partners to make a deal happen but unfortunately nothing came to fruition,” he said.

Now the focus becomes finishing strong, eyeing what is being touted as one of the deepest drafts in years and then free agency. Martins anticipates having as much as $30 million in salary cap space to spend in free agency.

“If we can get lucky for the first time in several years in the lottery and get up into the top 3, obviously you have a difference maker in this draft,” Martins said. “We also expect to be aggressive in free agency this summer. So we will see.”

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.