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Three Things We Learned Sunday: James Harden is good, but so is Rockets’ defense in win

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If you haven’t seen the best video of the year — a professor’s BBC interview crashed by his two children, and his wife’s desperate attempts to get them out of the room — go do it now. Then come back and check out our takeaways from the night around the NBA. But go watch the video first. It’s classic.

1) James Harden’s triple-double and (shhh, don’t tell anyone) Rockets good defense best Cavaliers.
This is what you expected out of Sunday when the Rockets beat the Cavaliers 117-112 (in a very entertaining regular season game): James Harden helped make his MVP case with 38 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. That’s 16 triple-doubles this season for Harden and 31 games where he scored 30 or more.

Here’s what you didn’t expect: Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets are playing good defense, and that was the other big key to this win.

The Cavaliers shot 63.4 percent in the first half, but when the Rockets cranked up the defense that fell to 41 percent in the second half. And this is not an anomaly: since Jan. 1 the Rockets are 11th in the NBA in defense (based on points allowed per possession). Even Harden is getting in on the act.

If the Rockets can carry an above average defense into the playoffs, they are a much bigger threat.

For the Cavaliers, they had 30 points from LeBron James and 28 from Kyrie Irving, but they blew a 14-point third quarter lead on their way to their fourth loss in five games. They are now just two games up on Boston (who won Sunday, keep on reading below) and Washington, and basked on ease of schedule fivethirtyeight.com has the Celtics with a 43 percent chance of getting the No. 1 seed in the West and Cleveland at 42 percent (Washington has the other 15 percent).

It still feels like Cleveland will win enough games, LeBron won’t let his team lose home court, but this team is not defending and playing like a contender of late. Maybe they can get healthy and flip the switch come the playoffs, but only a handful of teams have really been able to do that (the 2001 Lakers come to mind, also a defending champ who battled injuries).

2) Celtics get home after West Coast road swing and thrash struggling Bulls. Boston needed a confidence booster. Some team they could just crush and pick up an easy win after a tough five-game road trip out west where they went 2-3.

Enter the Chicago Bulls.

Boston played one of its best defensive games of the season and held the Bulls’ stars in check: Jimmy Butler shot 2-of-11 for five points, Dwyane Wade was 4-of-11 for eight. Chicago shot 38.7 percent as a team and started the game shooting 0-of-12.

Meanwhile Isaiah Thomas led the way with 22 points and Avery Bradley added 17 for Boston. However, it was Jaylen Brown with the shot of the game.

With the win the Celtics moved within two games of the Cavaliers for the best record in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com says it’s basically a coin flip between the teams for the No. 1 seed (the struggling Cavaliers have a much tougher schedule down the stretch.

As for Chicago, after the game Wade was throwing shade about the lack of direction for the team, which says its wants to make a playoff push but traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott away.

3) Sixers Dario Saric scores 29, extends streak of 19+ point games to 11… is he the Rookie of the Year? If the vote for Rookie of the Year happened today, smart money is on Joel Embiid winning it despite the fact he only played in 31 games. No player had close to Embiid’s level of impact on the game when he did play.

But the fact it’s just 31 games has voters open to alternatives. Enter Embiid’s teammate Dario Saric, who dropped a career-high 29 Sunday night. Sure, it was against the Lakers’ “defense,” but it still counts and he was the Sixer who often had the ball in his hands down the stretch.

This makes 11 straight games Saric has had at least 19 points. Does that put him in the ROY running? None other than Embiid himself crashed Saric’s postgame interview to call him the Rookie of the Year.

Check out some Saric highlights from this run.

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.