Holding Court – OKC avoids 3-1 hole but Rockets, Bulls could not

Bert A. Ramirez
Holding Court – OKC avoids 3-1 hole but Rockets, Bulls could not
Columnist Bert Ramirez takes a look at the opening round of the NBA playoffs, where underdog teams are stepping up big to shake matters up


Reggie Jackson simply made a world of difference for Kevin Durant to have so much to thank him for. On a night when the all-but-confirmed league MVP found it too tough to find the basket, Jackson scored a career-high 32 points, saved the night for Durant, and, most of all, prevented the Thunder from sinking into a 3-1 hole from which only eight teams in playoff history have come back and won.

The 6-foot-3 Jackson, one of our bets for the Most Improved Player plum that Phoenix guard Goran Dragic eventually won, almost singlehandedly brought back the Thunder from the sure claws of defeat in Game 4 when they trailed 80-75 with just one minute, 20 seconds left on a 15-foot jumper by Memphis center Marc Gasol. Jackson scored a 26-foot three-pointer with 59 seconds remaining, then drove in and nailed a nine-footer with 30 seconds to go to tie it up and eventually force an overtime, the third straight OT game in the series. The third-year guard out of Boston College then scored eight more points in the extra period, including four clutch free throws in the last 12 seconds as the Grizzlies tried to stop the clock and get a shot at tying the game.

Durant showed how grateful he was to Jackson, who earned his spurs substituting for the other half of the Thunder’s certified A-bomb scorers, Russell Westbrook, while he was out for 36 games with knee injuries during the regular season. Durant hugged Jackson tightly after the game, certainly thinking that the one big goal he had in his career – winning an NBA title – was a minute away from being messed up had they lost to the Grizzlies. And that couldn’t have been prevented without Jackson’s heroics.

“We told each other we love each other,” Jackson said on what he and Durant said to each other after the game.  “Just happy to get this win, but we know we have to move past it. Three-game series now.  We’re back to having home court advantage. I think this is a great matchup for TV ratings. Neither team really goes away.  It’s just a great battle.”

“Reggie Jackson played an outstanding basketball game and he was able to attack and finish around the rim like he’s done all year,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, whose own job itself could have been in jeopardy if they lost this series to the Grizzlies, not exactly far-fetched had OKC gone 3-1 down.  “I knew he would bounce back. That’s what he’s done for us when he started and he’s done a great job of coming in and giving us that lift offensively when we’ve needed him as a sixth man.”

This was especially true in a game where Durant, who shot more than 50 percent from the field in the regular season, was making less than one-fourth of his attempts (5-of-21) and scoring less than half his season-leading average of 32.0 points with just a total of 15. Former Boston Celtic defensive ace Tony Allen has hounded the 6-9 Durant to 12-for-41 shooting (29 percent) when guarding him in the series, including 1-for-9 in the fourth contest.  Overall, Durant has shot just .396 from the floor (.235 from three-point range) and .758 from the stripes while averaging 28.5 points. 

Westbrook, meanwhile, has also been in a shooting funk of his own, making exactly just one-fourth of his floor shots (6-of-24) while scoring 15 points in Game 4. Critics have been all over James Harden of Houston for having missed too many shots for the Rockets in their own series against Portland, but Westbrook has also been abysmal so far.  He has shot only .351 this postseason in the more than 24 attempts he has taken from the floor, including a horrendous .194 from three-point zone, even as he averages 24.3 points per outing.

If the Thunder are to tame the Grizzlies and take this series, both Durant and Westbrook have to produce the way they had in the regular season, particularly Westbrook whose absence probably gave him the opportunity to rest up and soak in the nuances of the Thunder’s system for him to become more effective.  The 6-foot-3 Westbrook has not done that so far, as playoff veteran Derek Fisher, the team’s senior statesman, had expected. The onus therefore is on Westbrook to become a more effective second option next to Durant. The Thunder would have the decisive edge going back to the Chesapeake Energy Arena on April 29 (Wednesday in Manila) if he does.

Other playoff series

Oklahoma City might have avoided a 3-1 hole but Houston and Chicago, two higher-seeded squads that lost their first two games at home to their playoff opponents, could not and must now win the next three games of their series if they’re to stay alive   

The home teams have actually taken a beating in this year’s playoffs to this point going into the April 28 games. The teams playing on enemy courts have won 17 of 29 games or 58.6 percent of the games on the road, contrasting sharply with the norm this past regular season where road teams won just 516 games out of a total of 1,230 contests played for a .420 winning percentage.  

The prevailing disparity in success on the road was particularly true in the Houston-Portland series in the West and the Chicago-Washington matchup in the East, where the first three games were won by the teams visiting enemy courts. That is, until the Wizards beat the Bulls at home this morning 98-89 and the Trail Blazers followed suit with a 123-120 overtime victory at home over the Rockets to erect a formidable 3-1 series lead.

Both Houston and Chicago had to prevail in the third contest on the road to avoid falling into a 3-0 hole from which nobody has ever recovered.  With the Bulls’ and the Rockets’ loss today, however, they have to do it the hard way if they are to come back and win a series after having been down 3-1, a feat only eight teams have ever accomplished.

The Rockets, who just won the third game 121-116 in overtime with an adjustment made by coach Kevin McHale designed to contain the revelation of the postseason thus far, LaMarcus Aldridge, could not make it two in a row and tie up their series with the Blazers with today’s loss.  Aldridge torched the Rockets for 46 and 43 points in the first two games, both Trail Blazer victories. McHale thus decided to start Omer Asik in Game 3 to have somebody bigger to defend Aldridge fulltime as Dwight Howard concentrated fully on protecting the paint.

The ploy worked with help from unheralded rookie Troy Daniels, who banged in all three of his three-point shots in his first playoff stint even as Aldridge went 8-for-22 from the floor this time for a more mundane 23 points.  But the Rockets could not keep it up after leading most of the way in the fourth contest.  Although Daniels continued with his hot shooting by going 5-of-7 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from downtown area, for 17 points, Portland’s own hot shooting that saw four players score more than 20 points each proved to be too much to overcome for Houston.

Aldridge had 29 points, Nicolas Batum 25, Damian Lillard 23 and Wes Matthews 21 to offset the 28, 26 and 25 of Harden, Chandler Parsons and Howard, in that order.  With the Blazers capitalizing on several lapses by the Rockets down the stretch, particularly by Jeremy Lin, they were able to pull it out in the extra period, the third time in the series a game had to be decided in OT.  The OKC-Memphis series has also had three games necessitating an extra period.

The Wizards, meanwhile, continued with their surprising play by winning Game 4 of their series with Chicago despite the one-game suspension of Nene Hilario for headbutting Jeremy Butler in the third contest.  Trevor Ariza waxed hot with 30 points, while All-Star John Wall orchestrated the Washington attack with 10 assists while combining with backcourtmate Bradley Beal for 33 points.  The Bulls, meanwhile, were led by Taj Gibson, who took up the slack on the Bulls’ offense with a game-high 32 points.  

The Bulls’ lack of a consistent go-to guy who can manufacture points for Chicago, however, has proven to be the Bulls’ greatest weakness so far.  Mike Dunleavy Jr., who had a series-high 35 points built around a club playoff-record eight three-point shots in Game 3, served as that man in that game won by Chicago, but the Bulls have to find enough firepower to complement their defensive play if they are to extend this series, much less win it.

San Antonio also tries to avoid a 3-1 pit when it plays the surprising Dallas Mavericks tomorrow (Manila time) while Indiana tries to take a 3-2 lead when it goes back at home on the same day against Atlanta.  Only the Miami-Charlotte series appears to be on the verge of being settled with the defending champion Heat trying to pull off a four-game sweep against a gallant Bobcats squad, whose main man Al Jefferson hurt his foot right in the opening game in South Beach.

Both the LA Clippers-Golden State and Toronto-Brooklyn series, meanwhile, are tied at two games apiece, with the Clips, embroiled in a furor created by owner Donald Sterling (see below), going back to LA and the Raptors to their own home at Air Canada Centre.


Just as when people thoughtLA Clippers owner Donald Sterling has reformed himself, here comes a serious faux pas that could yet spell his demise as an NBA owner more than any of his past transgressions in the eyes of the public could.

Sterling supposedly told his Mexican-black girlfriend, V. Stiviano, in a conversation caught on tape not to broadcast her association with black people or bring black people to games.  The man specified Magic Johnson, with whom Stiviano posed in a picture that she posted in her Instagram account, on the recording, saying “don’t bring him to my games, OK?”

Johnson quickly reacted to the supposed banter by Sterling, saying, “I will never go to a Clippers game again as long as Donald Sterling is the owner.”  Magic added the alleged comments are “a black eye for the NBA” and rued that such friends as Clippers coach Doc Rivers and All-Star guard Chris Paul had to work for Sterling.

The tape posted by TMZ was complemented by a longer version furnished Deadspin, an American sports website, which revealed the following conversation allegedly between Sterling and supposedly his girlfriend:

Man: It’s the world!  You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.

Woman: So do you have to treat them like that too?

Man: The white Jews, there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?

Woman: And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?

Man: A 100 percent, fifty, a 100 percent.

Woman: And is that right?

Man: It isn’t a question – we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society.  We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.

Woman: But shouldn’t we take a stand for what’s wrong?  And be the change and the difference?

Man: I don’t want to change the culture, because I can’t.  It’s too big and too (unknown).

Woman: I don’t understand, I don’t see your views.  I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.

Man: Well then, if you don’t feel – don’t come to my games.  Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.

Woman: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black that plays for you?

Man: You just, do I know?  I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses.  Who gives it to them?  Does someone else give it to them?  Do I know that I have – who makes the game?  Do I make the game, or do they make the game?  Is there 30 owners that created the league?

Sterling then supposedly went on to chide his girlfriend, who is being sued by Sterling’s longtime wife, for supposedly embezzling $1.8 million of the Sterling family’s funds.  Finally, a statement supposedly from Sterling showed the man’s views on women: 

Man: I don’t want to change.  If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl.  I’ll find a girl that will do what I want!  Believe me.  I thought you were that girl – because I tried to do what you want.  But you’re not that girl.

The racial comments supposedly coming from one of major pro sports’ team owners has stirred such a big hornets’ nest that even President Barrack Obama, the first African American President, has weighed in on it: “When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk… The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation, that’s still there, the vestiges of discrimination. We’ve made enormous strides, but you’re going to continue to see this percolate up every so often.  And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it, teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why statements like this stand out some much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”

Amidst the universal condemnation of the racist comments, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league was initiating an investigation into the tape so as to determine its authenticity and thereby be able to take the appropriate action on the person responsible for it. “We are in the process of conducting a full investigation into the audio recording obtained by TMZ. The remarks heard on the recording are disturbing and offensive,” the league office said.

But the firestorm resulting from the offensive remarks can no longer be put out.  The NBA community has been one in condemning the racial slurs, and they include Sterling’s own players and coach, who thought about boycotting the fourth game of their ongoing series against Golden State but ultimately decided against it, eventually wearing their warmup shirts inside out to express their protest but eventually losing their focus and the game 118-97 to the Warriors.

Michael Jordan, who now owns majority of the Charlotte Bobcats, expressed his disgust at such racially-motivated remarks. “I look at this from two perspectives – as a current owner and a former player.  As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views.  I’m confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I’m completely outraged.  There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed.  I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport.  In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level,” Jordan declared.

Celtics guard Jerryd Bayless might have spoken for his fellow players when he said he’ll never play for Sterling’s team.  “I also wouldn’t put on that jersey with Sterling still as the owner,” he said. “So he doesn’t want his African American/Mexican GF associating with African Americans. Even though his NBA franchise is a revolving door of players who are predominately African American who make him richer?”

Many fans, like Filipino Celtics diehard Andy Detroit Auxtero Baga, also condemned Sterling’s ill-advised comments: “Hey Sterling!  We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race, and we all share the same basic values!”

US-based fellow Celtics fan CroMag Olivenza has this to offer: “None of us are in a position to do anything about it.  The Clippers players, however, are. They could definitely send a strong message but as far as people within the NBA go, I think it’s more important that the other owners and Adam Silver act.  There is no need for this scumbag to run a major sports team.  Action is needed.  They can’t turn the other way and just wait until he drops dead.”

Another fan, Nick S’cento of Tampa, Florida, meanwhile, has a different take: “We should all be conscious of what the owners of our favorite sports teams do with the profits they earn from your ticket money and your merchandise money… I posted something about the owners of the Miami Heat supporting attacks on Palestinians but it got me banned so I’ll let y’all research it for yourself.”

There’s no doubt that Donald Sterling’s bigoted mindset, as undoubtedly shown by his remarks, will be dealt with severely by Silver once it is proven he was indeed the one speaking on the tape.  Hopefully, this will serve as a lesson to people in prominent positions in sports who may have a similar attitude to Sterling’s, and not because they’d want to avoid any penalty that such an act may merit, but simply because it’s not right to discriminate on the basis of a human being’s color, nationality, faith and creed. – Rappler.com  

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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