Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett

Four teams that could head off a Lakers vs. Heat NBA final

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It’s the consensus of prognosticators (and me as well) — the NBA finals will be the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. You can already sense David Stern drooling like a Pavlovian dog thinking about the television ratings.

What teams could destroy David Stern’s dream?

There are four. While we could argue that each of these four need a little luck or for the Heat/Lakers to come back to them, we could say the same for the Heat and Lakers. Fact is you don’t win an NBA title without some breaks going your way.

So here are the four most likely teams to get in the way, two West and two East.

Oklahoma City Thunder. They remain the next best team in the West, even after the James Harden trade. (I think they take a step back after trading away a key playmaker, the Sixth Man of the Year and an Olympian and trying to fill his minutes with Kevin Martin. Long term with the picks and Jeremy Lamb we can debate the trade impacts, but the Thunder did not get instantly better Saturday night with this move.)

The Thunder have improved each year because their players have improved and gotten more experienced. That will happen again. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to take steps forward after their Olympic experience — and the Lakers will struggle to stop Durant, even with Dwight Howard in the paint. OKC gets Eric Maynor back and that gives them depth at the point guard spot and another playmaker. They have Kendrick Perkins to match up with Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka to slow Pau Gasol. Westbrook can hamper Steve Nash.

The Thunder are not as good a team without Harden, but they are still very good and still match up with the Lakers as well as anyone.

Los Angeles Clippers. You can argue the San Antonio Spurs should fit here, but the last couple seasons showed me that while they are awesome in the regular season you can scheme for their weaknesses come the playoffs. The Clippers are a team on the rise. They have the single best pure point guard in the game in Chris Paul, and he is in a contract year so expect big things. They added some depth with Jamal Crawford, and while I’m not his biggest fan he is an upgrade over what they had. Eric Bledsoe is coming into his own off the bench. They have solid veterans like Caron Butler and — once he gets in shape — Lamar Odom. Oh, an they have the force of nature that is Blake Griffin. Paul is just figuring out how to use all those pieces.

The key for the Clippers in the playoffs is DeAndre Jordan. Last season he got benched for Reggie Evans when the going got tough. That’s not good. The Clippers need Jordan to take a huge step forward because they need his athleticism to combat Howard if they face the Lakers. If Jordan is in foul trouble or just plain old ineffective, the Lakers would run them over without slowing. But Jordan and his growth — scoring and putting pressure on Howard on both ends of the floor — changes the dynamic. He makes it possible. But it’s asking a lot of him to make that leap.

Boston Celtics. They came within a game of getting the Heat last season, and while they racked up a 3-2 lead in the series with Chris Bosh out it still shows they were close. Then Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is better right now than Ray Allen. Not over their careers, maybe not now as a pure shooter, but Terry brings far more shot creation and versatility to the Celtics. Boston also gets Jeff Green back and he gives them real depth off the bench. Jared Sullinger should let Kevin Garnett rest more.

Boston must have a healthy and rested Garnett to have a shot at the Heat — he is the heart of their defense has to play as well or better than last year to have a shot. Rajon Rondo has to step up his game and get his squad more easy looks offensively against a swarming Heat defense. Boston cannot show their age. The good news for Celtics fans is Boston matches up well with Miami considering its defense, Paul Pierce and his ability to score, and now some punch off the bench. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have a puncher’s chance in a series with Miami.

Indiana Pacers. If you’re going to beat the Heat, the best way to do it is with size — Indiana has that in Roy Hibbert. One of the key turning points in the playoffs last season was when the Heat fell behind the Pacers because of the play of Hibbert and they had to adjust their style and step up their play. The Heat had that other gear.

To best the Heat Pacers need George Hill and Paul George to take steps forward with their game (both would be key in the finals, particularly on defense), David West to keep being himself, Granger to be steady in the big moments and Hibbert to become a dominating force. The Pacers lack the kind of superstar player the Heat have two (or three) of, but they have great balance, good depth and the size that could give the Heat fits. They just have to play nearly flawless basketball (and hope the Heat do not).

Trail Blazers advance to face Warriors after 106-103 victory over the Clippers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 28 points and the Portland Trail Blazers advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by beating the resilient Los Angeles Clippers 106-103 on Friday night to claim the first-round playoff series 4-2.

Portland will open the second round against the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday.

CJ McCollum added 20 points for the Blazers, who became the first team to overcome a 2-0 deficit since Memphis came back against the Clippers in the first round in 2013.

Jamal Crawford had 32 points and Austin Rivers added 21 points and eight assists despite having 11 stitches above his left eye from a collision in the first quarter. But the Clippers could not recover from injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in Game 4 of the series.

Los Angeles didn’t surrender easily in the final game, never allowing Portland a double-digit lead.

“We didn’t panic when they put up a fight,” Lillard said.

The Blazers appeared to pull away when McCollum’s 3-pointer made it 98-91 with 4:49 left, but the Clippers persisted. Already plagued by injuries, the Clippers lost DeAndre Jordan to what looked like a sprained right ankle before Los Angeles closed to 98-95 on J.J. Redick‘s jumper.

McCollum’s 3-pointer put Portland up 101-95 with 2:16 left. Again the Clippers clawed back, pulling within 103-101 on Redick’s layup with just under a minute left. Crawford tied it with free throws but Mason Plumlee was fouled by Jeff Green under the basket for free throws to make it 105-103.

Crawford missed a 6-foot jumper and Plumlee made the second of two free throws with 1.5 seconds left for the final margin. Rivers’ 42-foot hurl at the buzzer fell short.

“It’s mixed emotions right now,” Rivers said, his left eye swollen shut. “I’m very sad, I’m very disappointed, but I’m also very proud.”

Portland will face a Golden State team that is dealing with its own injury issue: Reigning MVP Stephen Curry continues to rehab his sprained right knee. There is no official word on when he might return.

The Clippers were ultimately doomed by untimely injuries to their top two scorers.

Paul broke a bone in his right hand in the third quarter of the Clippers’ Game 4 loss at Portland. The Clippers’ nine-time All-Star was averaging 23.8 points and 7.3 assists in the series before he was hurt. He had surgery the next day and the Clippers declared him out indefinitely.

In the same game, Blake aggravated the left quad injury that sidelined him for 41 games this season. He was averaging 15 points, 8.8 rebounds and four assists in the playoffs.

After dropping the first two, the Blazers took a 3-2 lead with a 108-98 victory at the Staples Center on Wednesday night. Clippers coach Doc Rivers tinkered with his starting lineup in the absence of Paul and Griffin, inserting Crawford, Rivers and Paul Pierce.

On Friday, he started Luc Mbah a Moute and Jeff Green, while Crawford and Pierce went to the bench.

“This team had more heart than any other team I’ve coached,” the elder Rivers said.

The Clippers got another scare midway through the first quarter when Austin Rivers sustained a cut above his left eye in a collision with Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu midway through the first quarter. Rivers returned before the end of the half after getting 11 stitches.

Crawford picked up the slack in his absence and had 22 points in the half. But Lillard and McCollum countered with a combined 25 and the Blazers led 50-48 at the break.

Redick hit a 3-pointer that put the Clippers up 58-53 early in the third. Aminu and Lillard countered with 3s and neither team could push the margin to more than five points.

Rivers’ 3-pointer put the Clippers ahead 77-75 late in the third, but the lead was short-lived when Lillard hit a 3 for Portland. Crawford’s jumper and Jordan’s dunk gave Los Angeles an 81-78 lead.

TIP INS

Clippers: Redick started all six games despite a heel injury that has reportedly bothered him throughout the series.

Trail Blazers: Pro golfer Peter Jacobsen, a Portland native, made three straight free throws for a contest during a first-half timeout. … Toronto FC and U.S. national team forward Jozy Altidore was among the fans at the game.

Austin Rivers gets 11 stitches after elbow to face, returns for Clippers

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 29: Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers walks off the court after Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on April 29, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 106-103. 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 Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t intentional, Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu and the Clippers’ Austin Rivers were both going for the rebound, but Aminu’s elbow caught Rivers clean in the eye.

That was nasty.

Rivers required 11 stitches, and after the game looked like Glass Joe after a rough day.

But you have to be impressed — Rivers came back into the game. He finished with 21 points and played hard, but the Clippers fell to the Trail Blazers 106-103 and were eliminated from the playoffs.

Pacers force Game 7 against Raptors with 101-83 win

of the Toronto Raptors against the Indiana Pacers in game six of the 2016 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  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.
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George scored 21 points, Myles Turner added 15 and the Indiana Pacers beat the Toronto Raptors 101-83 on Friday night to force a Game 7 of their series.

That will be played Sunday in Toronto, and the winner will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Indiana scored 18 straight points in the second half to pull away from the second-seeded Raptors, who haven’t won a postseason series since the first round in 2001.

DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph each had 15 points for the Raptors.

Kyle Lowry (4 for 14) and DeMar DeRozan (3 for 13) struggled again, and now the Raptors will head home and hear again about their troubled playoff problems: a Game 7 loss at home to Brooklyn in 2014, Washington’s four-game sweep last season and no series wins in a seven-game series. And there 15-year victory drought is the longest active streak in the league.

Indiana trailed by as much as 12 early, never led until early in the third quarter and had to fend off a late third-quarter charge from the Raptors before blowing it open in the fourth.

After Toronto cut the deficit to 65-64, Indiana responded by scoring the last six points of the third and the first 12 of the fourth to take an 83-64 lead.

The Raptors never recovered.

For Indiana, it was a dramatic turnabout.

Three days after blowing a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead, they came out flat. The Pacers struggled to make baskets, struggled to defend and played catch-up the entire first half after Toronto took an 18-6 lead just 6 1/2 minutes into the game.

But once the Pacers got righted, they took control and pulled away.

Indiana rebounded from a 44-40 halftime deficit with a 10-2 run to take its first lead, 49-48 on Ian Mahinmi‘s tip-in with 9:33 left. They extended the lead to 63-55 before Toronto charged back to get within 65-64 in the final two minutes of the quarter.

Indiana scored the next 18 points to seal it.

GOLDEN CROWD

Indiana handed out gold T-shirts to fans at the game and it caused a bit of a stir because the wording on the shirts read: United State of Basketball, We The Gold. It was a twist on Toronto’s motto – We The North. Raptors coach Dwane Casey didn’t seem to mind that Indiana stole the idea. “I know that they have a great home court. You know you’re in Pacers territory because of all the gold shirts,” he said. “But what happens between the lines for 48 minutes is what I’m concerned about.”

TIP-INS

Raptors: The Raptors wound up getting outrebounded 44-40 after dominating the post in the first half. … Jonas Valanciunas had 14 points, Lowry had 10 and DeRozan finished with eight. … Bismack Biyombo grabbed 10 rebounds. … Toronto gave up 20 points on 17 turnovers. … The last time the Raptors led a series 3-2 was in 2014 against Brooklyn. But the Nets won 97-83 on their home court before clinching the series with a 104-103 victory in Game 7 at Toronto.

Pacers: Turner blocked four shots, giving him 19 in the series to break Antonio Davis’ previous franchise rookie record in a six-game series. … Indiana started the second half by making five of its first seven shots. … Actor-comedian Mike Epps, who lives in Indy, attended the game. … The Pacers have won four straight elimination games on their home court.

Heat hang on with Wade’s heroics, force Game 7 vs. Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 29:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat directs teammates against the Charlotte Hornets during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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“It’s a make-or-miss league” has been a worn-out cliche in the NBA for years, but it was never more apt than Friday night. Dwyane Wade, a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter who hadn’t hit a shot from beyond the arc in the calendar year of 2016, knocked down two threes late to help the Miami Heat hold on and beat the Charlotte Hornets, 97-90, to force a Game 7 on Sunday.

Wade finished with 23 points on 10-for-20 shooting along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists to lead Miami, and had a key block in the closing minute to stave off a Charlotte comeback. The Heat held off Kemba Walker‘s 37-point explosion, which kept Charlotte in the game for much of the second half even as they never led in the third or fourth quarters.

Neither team got much out of their benches, and Miami overcame a rough night from Goran Dragic (6-for-17 from the field) and Hassan Whiteside fouling out in just 28 minutes of action. A three by Walker cut Miami’s lead to 90-88, the closest the Hornets got in the second half.

The two teams will now play a Game 7 in Miami on Sunday, with the winner facing the winner of that same day’s Game 7 between the Raptors and Pacers.