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Russell Westbrook changes conversation in win over Rockets

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The Great Russell Westbrook Debate can shift topics. “Is he clutch enough” is the new “Is he too selfish?”

Westbrook went 3-of-6 on free throws down the stretch, and the Thunder blew a 10-point lead in the final minutes. But James Harden missed a 3-pointer just before the buzzer, allowing Oklahoma City to escape with a 115-113 Game 3 win over the Rockets on Friday.

“I’ve got to make a free throw,” Westbrook grumbled to begin his on-court interview before seemingly realizing stewing was a bad look and expressed pleasure his team trimmed the series deficit to 2-1.

And, yes, Westbrook clearly cares how he looks, no matter what pretenses he puts up.

His cartoonish fourth quarter of Game 2 – shooting 4-for-18 while his teammates shot 3-for-11 – invited deep criticism of his ball-hogging. Westbrook showed a different approach from the jump tonight, making a concerted effort to find his teammates. He had eight assists in the first half and 11 through three quarters.

Even though Westbrook added no assists in the fourth quarter, he kept looking for his teammates – sometimes to a fault. They just didn’t connect.

Houston cut the margin during an excruciating few minutes Westbrook began the final period during the bench. Even as the Rockets went on a late 15-5 to tie it, Westbrook sought floor balance.

His teammates reveled in his faith in them. They made 9-of-18 3-pointers, and Westbrook — who was 5-for-22 from beyond the arc in the first two games — attempted only one. Steven Adams tipped in a Westbrook miss with 35 seconds left to put Oklahoma City up good, though Westbrook’s dicey free-throw shooting kept it tense.

Like every game in this series, it will be seen as a referendum in the already-decided, not-yet-revealed MVP race. The final lines:

  • Westbrook: 32 points on 24 shots and 10-of-14 free throw shooting, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals, five turnovers, W
  • Harden: 44 points 21 shots and 18-of-18 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, seven turnovers, L

Both players will insist the final letter is most important, but Harden can bank on a couple of those Ws from Games 1 and 2. The Thunder still have their back against the wall.

This felt like a team energized by its first home playoff game of the year, though Billy Donovan made some smart adjustments – mainly tightening his rotation, including deactivating second-string point guard Semaj Christon.

The Thunder will go as far as Westbrook takes them, and tonight, that was to their first playoff win without Kevin Durant since moving to Oklahoma City.

Now, it’s Harden’s turn to answer.

Bucks GM on Jason Kidd firing: “This is a performance-based thing”

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Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six.

This season, expectations were high. Before the season there was talk from the team of a 50-win team (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the under/over at 47.5) that would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, hosting a playoff round. There was hope that the defense would improve, and with that the Bucks would look like a young team figuring it out.

They haven’t looked like that at all — they are 23-22 (with the point differential of a 20-25 team), and their defense is 25th in the NBA. Currently, they have just a one-game cushion for the final playoff slot in the East.

That cost coach Jason Kidd his job, first-year Bucks GM Jon Horst said Monday night at a press conference, as reported by Matt Velazquez at the Journal-Sentinel.

“At the end, this is a performance-based thing,” Horst said. “We believe in this team, we believe in our players and in the talents that they have. We’re looking forward at making playoff appearances in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade and hopefully winning a first-round series for the first time in over a decade. So we felt like at this time, this is the right decision to help this team get there.”

Around the league the move was not a total surprise, but the timing caught people off guard. Horst said it happened “relatively quickly” and explained:

“A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: ‘If something is inevitable, why wait?’ I think we came to the conclusion that this was the best thing for the future of the franchise and this was the time.”

Come this summer this will be the hottest coaching job available because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the potential of this roster. Names such as Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams have been mentioned, but the ultimate list will be longer. Honestly, a few coaches with jobs might rather have the Bucks job (although the challenges between the two owners there can make things uncomfortable at times).

“We have another game on Friday and between that time we have a plan that we’ll put in place that we’ll kind of layout for the rest of the season,” Horst said. “We’ll go into the summer and have an extensive coaching search with an opportunity to hopefully find a great coach for this organization of which (interim coach) Joe Prunty has every opportunity to be a part of based on what happens going forward.”

This is going to a rough adjustment for Antetokounmpo and some of the players, who respected and trusted Kidd. There’s a lot of pressure on Horst with this hire.

That doesn’t make it the wrong move — Horst did the right thing here. The Bucks were going to be moving on, they just did it sooner rather than later.

 

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.

Jason Kidd says Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to save his job minutes before firing

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The stagnant Milwaukee Bucks shook things up by firing head coach Jason Kidd  Monday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was not happy with the news. So much he called up Kidd and offered to help save his job, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo is understandably close to Kidd — he’s been the coach who helped transform the Greek Freak into an NBA superstar. Kidd is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a player, and as a coach had the vision to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands as a point guard. Antetokounmpo trusted Kidd.

However, the Bucks’ growth has been stagnant — this is a team where the players talked about being a 50-win, top-four team in the East with a strong defense, instead they are a team on the way to around .500, barely hanging onto a playoff spot, with the point differential of a team that wins 36 games. They are not taking a step forward, and the Bucks — with the approval of ownership, which was very close to Kidd at one time — approving the move.

There was nothing Antetokounmpo could have done. It’s life in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Gordon Hayward is shooting standing threes in an empty gym. That’s something, I guess.

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Having lost three games in a row at home, doubt seems to have crept into the minds of some Celtics fans. They’re the top seed in the East (and likely finish the season in that slot, again), but just how good are they really? Do they have enough to knock off the Cavaliers and LeBron James when he goes into playoff mode?

In the midst of that self-doubt, the wife of Gordon Hayward, Robyn, posted this.

Still can’t beat me… 🤷🏻‍♀️

A post shared by Robyn Hayward (@robynmhayward) on

For Boston fans still holding out hope Hayward returns this season, this is another sign. No brace, no chair, he’s draining threes. It’s a step forward.

This video also borders on meaningless — he’s not jumping, not moving, not showing us anything about his recovery we didn’t already know. Good to see him up and making progress, but that he can hit stand-still threes in an empty gym is about as shocking as finding out the next Transformers movie is going to suck.

Officially, Hayward is still out for the season. He’s putting in the work, and maybe he returns before the playoffs, but the Celtics are not going to rush him back for this season. Nor should they. The Celtics are on a multi-year plan to be the next dominant team in the East, no reason to push him and risk anything now.