Kurt Helin

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Timberwolves let Sam Mitchell go as coach

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It had been rumored that Sam Mitchell was on shaky ground as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach — when the owner gives the GM a public vote of confidence saying he will be on the job at least through the summer, but won’t do that for you, it’s not a good sign.

But Minnesota moved more quickly than expected and let Mitchell go just hours after the team’s final game this season (a 144-109 victory against New Orleans).

Minnesota was 29-53 under Mitchell this season, who had to step in as head coach when Flip Saunders had to step away due to the illness that, not much later, took his life. The Timberwolves had a solid offense and improved over the course of the season — highlighted by a late-season victory over the Warriors — but the team had a bottom five defense.

This is going to be one of the most sought after coaching jobs in the NBA this summer because Minnesota has the best young core in the NBA with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and more. This team is poised to be very good in a few seasons.

Minnesota will be able to get interviews with the biggest name coaches available — Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau would take a long look at this job if offered, for example. Owner Glen Taylor also is rumored to like the idea of giving that kind of coach final say on player personnel, ala Stan Van Gundy or Doc Rivers. GM Milt Newton will stay on in his job, but depending on the coaching hire could have a new boss.

Kobe Bryant exits NBA stage in most Kobe way possible, drops 60 points in finale

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LOS ANGELES — One last time, the chant reached a thunderous volume inside Staples Center as 18,997 fans embraced and exhorted their basketball idol in his final game:

“Ko-be Ko-be Ko-be.”

The fans — some of whom paid exorbitant amounts to be inside Staples Center — wanted one more Kobe Bryant memory.

They got it.

Boy, did they get it.

Kobe Bean Bryant walked away from the NBA in about the most Kobe way possible — he scored 60 points, he shot the ball fearlessly (contested or not, just like always) and hit the dagger shots (a three to give the Lakers a lead with 59 seconds left), leading the Lakers to a win over Utah.

“The thing that had me cracking up all night long was the fact I go through 20 years of everybody screaming to pass the ball, then on the last night they’re like ‘don’t pass it,'” Kobe said with a laugh, addressing the crowd after the game.

It was a night about passion in Los Angeles. It was where Kobe’s passion for and dedication to the game was celebrated. And it was a night that Lakers’ fans’ passion for Kobe was abundantly evident — from the volume inside Staples Center, the signs and the people in tears, to the thousands outside the building on the street who just wanted to be in the area on this night.

“I can’t believe this happened, this is crazy to me,” Kobe said of his final evening in a Lakers’ uniform. “There’s no way I could possibly imagine this happening. I’m just deeply honored by the fans, to be able to put on that kind of show for them, for them, because of all the support they have given me, because of how we grew up together, fans who have been coming here since Day 1. So to give them this type of show in the last one means everything.”

Those fans wanted to celebrate one of the greatest Lakers of all time and one of the greatest players of all time — five titles, third all-time on the NBA scoring list, an MVP and two Finals MVP, 18 All-Star Games, and the list goes on and on. It was the night where a guy who had spent a 19-year career fostering a reputation as a villain was celebrated as a hero. Kobe said for all of his career, at least up until this season when the smiles came out, he embraced that hatred from opposing fans (and a few in L.A.).

“(The hatred) was extremely necessary, because that is what I fed off of,” Bryant said. “At that time, to be embraced, that would have been like kryptonite for me. The darkness, those dark emotions, that’s what I used to drive me.”

This night, he rode the wave of love to one of his highest scoring games ever. Who cares if it took 50 shots, this wasn’t about efficiency, it was about the spectacle and the story. People wanted to see vintage Kobe — the pull-ups, the jumpers over a double-team that would get a normal player benched. This was a 37-year-old man who by the end of the game was completely gassed, but was still taking over an NBA game.

His final game was Kobe’s sixth 60-point game of his career, but it didn’t feel like it would be anything like that early. Kobe seemed off, and the game itself was just a sloppy mess.

The fans were desperate to cheer anything Kobe, groaning with every miss when he started 0-of-5 from the floor, his jumper hitting the front rim. But defense sparked offense — he stripped Gordon Hayward, which was followed by a bucket on the other end — and the building erupted. After that Kobe knocked down a jumper. Then drew an and-1 driving the lane.

That’s when the “Ko-be, Ko-be” chants started.

Soon after came a couple of threes and it sounded like an NBA Finals game in Staples.

The fans only wanted one thing — and Kobe was more than willing to oblige. Especially as his teammates kept feeding him the rock and setting screens to get him space.

“We switched a lot of things, and he got some good looks, he got some tough looks,” Utah’s Gordon Hayward said. “I think for the most part we played pretty decent defense on him. He didn’t get too many easy buckets, but that’s Kobe.”

“I’ve never seen it, never witnessed it, never been a part of something like that…” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “That man gave everything he had for 20 years, and he did it again tonight.”

In doing so, Kobe created a new part of his legend.

Which is all the fans had wanted to see one last time.

Watch Kobe Bryant’s farewell address to fans at Staples Center

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant was laughing and smiling.

A man who had spent 19 seasons cultivating and embracing a villain persona clearly was enjoying the positive, love-filled vibes that overflowed in Staples Center as Bryant dropped 60 on Utah in his final game in the NBA. It was a storybook ending, one that seemed too perfect.

You can see how Kobe is soaking all of that in as he addressed the fans at Staples Center following his final game. He thanked them — and they reciprocated the feeling.

Reports: Randy Wittman already fired by Wizards, shortly after final game of season

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Well, that escalated quickly.

It was widely expected that after a disappointing season where the Washington Wizards missed the playoffs, coach Randy Wittman was going to be let go. Even the players expected it. But this was fast.

Hours after the Wizards’ final game of the season, he was informed he was released, according to Marc Stein of ESPN and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

As for who is next, Wojnarowski has said former Thunder coach Scott Brooks is at the top of their list.

There had been some movement within the Wizards to pursue Brooks during the regular season, but that Wizards are expected to be aggressive in the marketplace with Brooks, league sources said.
Brooks isn’t the only candidate on the list, which will include interest in former Suns coach Jeff Hornacek and Philadelphia 76ers assistant Mike D’Antoni, league sources said.

Brooks would be a good fit, and the Wizards are smart to be aggressive because he will be in demand. The Lakers could lead a charge for Brooks, and Houston likely will want an interview with him as well.

Rockets clinch playoff berth with 116-81 win over Kings

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HOUSTON (AP) — After it looked as if they’d be heading home early just a week ago, the Houston Rockets are in the playoffs after securing the final Western Conference playoff spot on the last day of the regular season.

“A lot of people wrote us off, thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs and here we are,” James Harden said.

Harden scored 38 points to lead the Rockets to an easy 116-81 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night for the playoff spot.

The Rockets never trailed and had a 64-44 lead at halftime behind 16 points from Harden and 10 each from Dwight Howard and Michael Beasley.

They won their last three games to sneak into the playoffs after losing three of the previous four to fall behind Utah and into ninth place in the West. Houston will meet top-seed Golden State in the first round of the playoffs this weekend.

“We … sat here at the beginning of the year thinking the playoffs wouldn’t have been this big of a struggle, so we had expectations of making the playoffs,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “So, now we have to get busy.”

Ben McLemore had 24 points for the Kings, in what was likely coach George Karl’s final game with the team amid reports that he could be fired as soon as Thursday. Karl went 44-68 since taking the job in February 2015, and this season is the 10th straight season in which the Kings did not make the playoffs.

Karl didn’t address his job status directly, but did reflect on his time with the Kings and said he thinks they built a good foundation for the future.

“There were many, many more good days than bad days, but there’s no question this season had a lot of negative to it,” he said. “But I think I’m proud of how we’ve persevered and fought through it and actually became a stronger team as we finished the year.”

The Rockets are in the postseason for the fourth straight year, but they certainly didn’t have the regular season they had hoped for after reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1997 last season. They returned most of the pieces from that team that won 56 games, but weren’t able to build on last year’s success.

Things went wrong early this season and coach Kevin McHale was fired after the team won just four of its first 11 games. He was replaced by Bickerstaff, but it didn’t lead to more consistent play and the Rockets were never able to keep pace with the elite teams in the West.

After a loss to the Suns on Thursday, it seemed likely that Houston would miss out on the playoffs. Instead, Utah dropped two of its next three games and the Rockets got back on track to win the remainder of their games and lock up the last postseason spot.

“We needed some big wins and guys got those,” Harden said. “Tonight we played really well. Even though the Sacramento Kings were short-handed, we went out there and just took care of business. It’s about us from here on out.”

Sacramento was overmatched in this one from the start with Houston racing out to a 10-2 lead by the first media timeout. It wasn’t surprising considering the Kings dressed just eight players, with DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Darren Collison, Rudy Gay and Caron Butler sitting out for rest, and Omri Casspi (strained right hamstring) and Marco Belinelli (sore right foot) missing the game with injuries.

Houston led by 21 in the third quarter when Harden scored the next 10 points, with two 3-pointers, to push it to 88-57.

That spurt gave Harden his fourth straight 30-point game, which ties a career high, and it was his 38th game this season with at least 30 points. He played less than a minute in the fourth quarter, and he and the rest of Houston’s starters went to the bench for good after his 3-point play with about seven minutes remaining made it 103-71.

Harden set career marks in points (29), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1) to join LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a season.

TIP-INS

Kings: Eric Moreland did not play in the second half because of a sore left foot. … James Anderson added 13 points. … Willie Cauley-Stein had six points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.

Rockets: Howard finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. … Patrick Beverley had nine points and his six steals and 12 assists were both career highs. … K.J. McDaniels added 11 points with four rebounds. … Clint Capela had a career-high 17 rebounds.

HOWARD HELPS OUT

Howard hosted a blood drive on Wednesday to honor Turner sideline reporter Craig Sager, who is fighting acute myeloid leukemia. Howard visited donors at the drive after shootaround, and those who gave blood received a T-shirt featuring illustrations of Howard and Sager. Sager, who is receiving treatment in Houston, attended the game and received a loud ovation when he was introduced in the first quarter.