Westbrook, Durant find the perfect balance in Game 4 win over Lakers

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During the Thunder’s playoff run last season — one that ended in a loss in the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Mavericks — there were constant questions about whether or not Russell Westbrook was a good long-term fit to play alongside Kevin Durant.

One year later, now on the verge of taking down the Lakers after a come-from-behind Game 4 victory, the only question now is which one of the Thunder’s stars you want to beat you, and at which time.

Westbrook finished with 37 points, while Durant finished things off with a game-winning three-pointer to lift OKC to a 3-1 series lead — one that gives their team a chance to return to the Conference Finals with a win at home Monday night.

The Thunder can feel as good about this victory as any thus far in the postseason, for the simple fact that they took the best shot that this Lakers team had to give, and they were able to not only withstand it, but overcome it. And much of the credit for that should go to Westbrook.

“KD got his numbers, but Westbrook had a heck of a game,” Lakers head coach Mike Brown noted afterward. “I thought he stepped up and he made plays. He imposed his will on the game and he made plays, especially when it counted in the fourth quarter.”

The Lakers got a monstrous performance from Andrew Bynum (10 points, 5-of-5 shooting) in the game’s first 12 minutes that sparked them early. Kobe Bryant then got going midway through the second period, and put on a clinic during the third, scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting, often while double-teamed, and always while making the conversion of tough shots seem effortless.

As the Lakers built a lead that hung around 10 points for most of the night, Westbrook made sure it never got out of hand. He had eight points to help match Bynum’s 10 in the first, and 13 to go with Bryant’s 15 in the third.

“My job was to try to keep us in the game, regardless of what was going on” Westbrook said. “I was kind of upset because we weren’t able to get a stop. It kind of felt like, we’re down 10, eight, 10, eight … we just kept going back and forth. So it was kind of frustrating at the same time.”

As recently as a few short days into this lockout-shortened season back in December, Westbrook was frustrated not with his opponent, but with Durant in particular — or maybe, in the grander scheme of things, with his perceived position and role on his team.

There was the so-called “altercation” between Westbrook and Durant, the one where reporters caught them jawing during a timeout in a sideline huddle where the two reportedly had to be separated. That caused quite a stir at the time, and had even the most respected writers wondering if Westbrook playing alongside Durant would ever work in OKC.

It appeared to be an evolution from the previous season — one where the questions of whether or not Westbrook shot too much to his team’s detriment, or whether he deferred enough to Durant were constant topics for discussion.

On this Saturday night in May in Los Angeles, those questions may have once and for all been put to rest. Because even as Westbrook was the one who scored consistently from wire to wire to keep his team close, Durant happily stepped in when his opportunity came to close the game out.

The two worked masterfully together, and coexisted to perfection. There was no exasperation from Durant when he didn’t see the ball for extended stretches, as Westbrook delivered time and again with an array of pull-up jumpers and lightning-quick bursts of speed to the rim for bucket after bucket.

Westbrook wouldn’t be able to take this position of leadership on the team — even if only for games or stretches within them — if not for Durant’s mentoring him along the way.

“It’s definitely helped me,” Westbrook said of the criticisms he’s received in the past. “Last year we got put out in the Conference Finals, I was definitely disappointed in that. Coming into this year, I wanted to try to help my team and become a better leader. Kevin’s done a great job of helping me out and staying positive, regardless of what’s going on throughout the game; giving me confidence, and that’s just how I feel during the playoffs.”

The reason the Lakers lost this game was due to a complete offensive breakdown in the fourth quarter. There was too much of Bryant taking tough, contested shots, while the offense that was so fluid for most of the night turned stagnant.

With Westbrook and Durant, it was the opposite.

Simply put, Durant stayed ready and engaged while Westbrook went to work. And having two incredible athletes who are equal parts scorer and playmaker are a deadly one-two punch that now looks like a combination that will need to be reckoned with by any team with championship aspirations.

The questions being asked in Oklahoma City will no longer involve Westbrook and Durant, and whether or not the two can successfully make things work. All fans want to know now is whether the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals will come this season, or if they’ll have to wait just a little longer for the inevitable to take place.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.