James Harden, Sebastian Telfair

James Harden scores a career-high for the second time this season against the Suns

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Before the Suns faced the Thunder on Wednesday, Alvin Gentry had some high praise for Oklahoma City’s James Harden.

Phoenix’s head coach said that he and his staff were talking about Harden in preparing for this matchup, and once they got past Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, they were hard-pressed to name a two-guard in the entire league who has played as well as Harden has this season.

Maybe it was a premonition, or maybe it was simply observation, based on the way Harden torched the Suns for what was, at the time, a career-high of 30 points. But Harden once again had a career night against the Suns, this time pouring in 40 points in the Thunder’s 109-97 win in Phoenix — one that kept OKC just a half-game from the top spot in the Western Conference standings, and one that, for now, has Phoenix on the outside of the playoff picture entirely.

Harden’s night was as efficient as it was effective. His 40 points came on just 17 shots, and they actually came on 12-of-15 shooting before he missed his final two attempts with the game having already been decided. Harden added seven rebounds, three assists, and four steals, and impacted the game every moment he was on the floor.

Things started slowly for the Thunder before Harden sprang into action. The Suns came out aggressive, and ran out to a 21-8 lead in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes. Steve Nash had three quick assists during that span, and Phoenix was hitting open shots that were loosely contested, at best.

Then, the Thunder brought the intensity. Or more to the point, they brought Harden.

The bearded one checked in with five minutes left in the first, and sparked a monster 18-4 run to end the period, scoring 10 points during that span to put his team up four after they had trailed by as many as 13.

Harden continued to score from inside and out, but the Thunder weren’t able to pull away until late. The game had a playoff-style pace to it, but it never felt like one the Suns would be able to win. That’s because the Phoenix offense, which had been so prolific in recent weeks, especially at home, was unable to find a rhythm for much of the night.

Nash is usually unstoppable no matter what the defense throws at him, but the Thunder were able to contain him with excellent pick-and-roll defense. After those three early assists, Nash, who leads the league in that category, tallied just two more for the rest of the game, finishing with just five — to go along with five turnovers.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks attempted to explain how his team was able to shut Nash down.

“We wanted to be able to jump the ball and really have him see a crowd and see four hands,” he said. “And our bigs and our guards did a good job of doing that and not allowing those easy passes. You can do that, and the next game he could have 12 assists and 15 points, that’s how good he is. But we did a good job on it. Our rotations were on point; we rotated quickly and got out to the shooters, also.”

It didn’t help that Nash’s main pick-and-roll partner, Marcin Gortat, struggled to find the basket, and finished just 2-of-13 from the field. He was clearly bothered by the length of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka inside, but he also missed some close shots that he usually gets to go down.

The Suns didn’t let this one get away without showing some visible signs of frustration — Steve Nash and Alvin Gentry picked up consecutive technical fouls late in the third while the game was still in reach, and Sebastian Telfair was playing a little extra-physical with Harden in the fourth, and let his words get away from him enough to pick up a technical, as well.

The loss temporarily dropped Phoenix to ninth in the standings, a half-game behind Utah and two games behind Denver, both of whom they’ll get a chance to play head-to-head before the season is through.

Thankfully for the Suns, they won’t have to face Harden anymore in the regular season. Two games, two career-highs in points for Oklahoma City’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate off the bench.

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” he said. “It’s not particularly the Suns, I just had two good games. Especially coming off that bad second half (in Monday’s loss to the Clippers), we wanted to bounce back, and I just tried to spark some energy off the bench.”

LeBron James leads Cavaliers back to Finals doing it his way

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LeBron James is the first NBA star of the social media age, and with that has come a volume of criticism that the greats before him — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan — never had to deal with.

Even these playoffs, there have been chattering voices knocking LeBron for how he worked more to set up teammates — particularly Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — more than seeking out his own shot. Some people have always wanted him to be more Jordan, when he was always more Magic. Or Oscar Robertson.

And this playoff he knew that he could carry his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals through a diluted East, but if he wanted a ring he was going to need those other players to be confident, ready, and believing in the team.

You could see that all come together for LeBron James in Game 6. He attacked early and set a tone, then got everyone involved on his way to 33 points and 11 assists in what became a 113-87 win sending Cleveland back to the NBA Finals.

“I just had to bring my game,” James said in his on-court postgame interview on ESPN. “I had to bring my game, I had to be in attack mode from the beginning, trust my shot, and once my shot start going I can get my teammates involved and they was able to carry me down the stretch.”

LeBron James was getting to the rim with those attacks, check out his shot chart:

LeBron shot chart

LeBron also keyed the fourth-quarter 22-7 run that put away the game.

“There is only one LeBron James, and he makes a difference on any team he plays on, and he’s proven that,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said postgame. “It’s six Finals (in a row for LeBron), to compare him to our team — and I love our players, I wouldn’t trade any of our players — but you put him on any team and he’s a difference maker.”

LeBron’s critics will not be silenced. The man has made six straight finals, a feat not accomplished by anyone since a few legendary Celtics of the 1950s-60s (Bill Russell’s teams). It speaks to LeBron’s focus, skill, durability, and ability to lead teams.

Critics will point to LeBron being 2-4 in the Finals. That misses the point — making it to six straight is an amazing accomplishment, and LeBron did it his way. Not trying to be MJ or Magic or Oscar, just being LeBron James.

We should savor watching this guy play while we still can.

James scores 33, Cavaliers reach second straight NBA Finals

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TORONTO — LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It’s the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it’s his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

“I had to bring my game,” he said. “I had to be in attack mode from the beginning.”

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith had 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday’s Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered “Let’s go, Raptors! Let’s go, Raptors!” throughout most of the final three minutes.

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland’s nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

TIP INS

Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. … Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

Reports: P.J. Carlesimo to join Sixers staff as Brett Brown’s lead assistant

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 02:  Head coach P.J. Carlesimo of the Brooklyn Nets watches as his team take on the Chicago Bulls in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 2, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Nets defeated the Bulls 95-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Last season, when new president Jerry Colangelo started shaking things up in Philadelphia, he brought in Mike D’Antoni to be a lead assistant next to Brett Brown. This led to all kinds of speculation around the league that the Colangelos were trying to bring back the old Suns brain trust (especially when Jerry hired his son Bryan to be GM).

However, D’Antoni jumped ship to be the head coach of the Houston Rockets.

Enter, P.J. Carlesimo.

Carlesimo is a good fit, but that’s not going to quell the rumors that the Colangelos are not comfortable with Brown (despite giving him a contract extension). The Sixers need to give Brown a legitimate shot — he’s been like a contestant on Chopped the past few seasons, given a ridiculous basket of ingredients and told to turn Mango, octopus and graham crackers into a four-star meal. He’s gotten them to play defense (at times) and started to build a culture. He has earned the chance to show what he can do with a better lineup.

Which is what the Sixers will have next season.

Nuggets’ Jusuf Nurkic likes idea of two-bigs lineup with Nikola Jokic

DENVER, CO - APRIL 5:  Jusuf Nurkic #23 of the Denver Nuggets controls the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Pepsi Center on April 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Thunder defeated the Nuggets 124-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Late last season, Nuggets coach Mike Malone tried something out of the box the way the NBA is trending — playing two young bigs together. Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, the latter of whom finished in third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Small ball may be in vogue, but going big has worked pretty well these playoffs for Oklahoma City with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter (and Serge Ibaka).

It didn’t work all that well for Denver — in just 92 minutes together the Nuggets were outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions, mostly because the offense was terrible.

But Nurkic wants to try it again next season, he told the Nuggets’ official Web site.

“I’m happy about the big lineup [with Nikola]. “Basketball has kind of changed. The NBA has gone smaller because of [the] Golden State [Warriors]. In the [Western Conference] semi-finals, look at [Oklahoma City’s Steven] Adams, [Enes] Kanter, and [Serge] Ibaka. They played all those guys and they see the difference. Me and Nikola have great communication because we played in the same league, we played against each other.”

He’s referring to their time in the Serbian league where the two played before going to the NBA.

While it could only be used situationally, expect Malone to experiment with this lineup more. There are some serious defensive questions (neither is exactly fleet of foot), and there could be spacing issues. But if the league moves one way, the smart teams and coaches think about counters.