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Pelicans searching for right plan with DeMarcus Cousins in fold

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — As Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins hoisted up extra shots near one another after practice, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry stood in a far corner of the club’s practice gym, trying to explain why New Orleans hasn’t won in three games since the All-Star big men became teammates.

“We have to become more consistent, and the only way you can become more consistent, I think, is that you’ve got to consistently have the same people out there so that you’re learning the ins and outs of a system and learning the ins and outs of each other,” Gentry said Monday.

“I do feel good about the progress we’ve made the last three games, and I think we’re just going to continue to get better,” Gentry added. “Unfortunately for us, we’ve got to do it on the fly. That’s really tough to do in some situations.”

The trade that brought in Cousins last week sent three guards – Tyreke Evans, Buddy Hield and Langston Galloway – to the Kings. New Orleans then added two free agent guards – Hollis Thompson and Jarrett Jack – to the regular rotation in the past week.

“We’ve just got to stay with it,” Pelicans forward Solomon Hill said. “Minutes change for people, and we have new roles that we have to learn.”

That seems to be the case for everyone but Davis and Cousins. Davis has averaged 35.3 points and 10 rebounds in the past three games. Cousins has averaged 23.3 points and 13 rebounds despite being limited to less than 30 minutes per game by foul trouble. During a loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday night, Cousins had 31 points and 10 rebounds in only 21 minutes before fouling out.

However, Gentry has noticed instances when Davis and Cousins may be trying too hard to defer to one another.

“They are producing in the team concept, but unfortunately right now, after three games, they’re much better when one or the other one is off the court,” Gentry said. “We have to find a way to make that work when both of them are on the court.”

That might not be an issue on Wednesday night, when Cousins is expected to serve a one-game suspension for receiving his 18th technical foul this season Sunday night in Oklahoma City. He’ll only play if the league rescinds that technical on appeal from the club.

Cousins’ arrival also seems to have affected point guard Jrue Holiday‘s game in unexpected ways. Holiday averaged 21.4 points and eight assists in the 10 games before the trade. Since, he has averaged 10 points, six assists and 5.3 turnovers.

Davis said part of Holiday’s problem is that “he’s looking to be a pass-first point guard.”

“We don’t need him to come out and try to be a guy who’s getting 15 assists. That’s not who he is,” Davis said. “He’s a great scorer and a great defender. … When you’ve got two guys that you want to give them the ball as much as possible, you just overthink a lot.”

Holiday said he appreciates the advice but added that it’s hard to ignore the temptation to pass to Davis or Cousins when “they’re so dominant in the paint.”

“We’re trying to figure something out that’s new to us and trying to get as good at it as possible as quick as we can,” Holiday said.

The Pelicans often don’t practice the day after ending a road trip, but Gentry decided to bring them in on Monday and instead give them off on Tuesday, which is Mardi Gras, a state holiday in Louisiana. Davis and Cousins were invited to ride in the historic Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade – the same one in which Louis Armstrong rode in 1949.

Gentry thought it was important to encourage participation in Mardi Gras, suggesting that those who’ve never experienced it in person don’t have “any idea of the magnitude of what it means to the city and what it means to the people.”

Perhaps the chance to celebrate Mardi Gras like a local will inspire the Pelicans to make Lent, which starts Wednesday, more festive than usual for area basketball fans.

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.