Heat, Cavaliers enter Twilight Zone; Miami emerges with 24th straight win. Barely.

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Strangest. Game. Ever… or at least this season. Rod Serling should have done the play-by-play.

In the end, Miami escaped Cleveland with a 98-95 win that extends their winning streak to 24 games. That’s what the history books will show. But like life, this game was not about the results, it was about the journey.

And the journey was wild.

To start, the opening tip was delayed for nearly 45 minutes because the scoreboard was leaking coolant onto the court and had to be lowered to be fixed.

Then once the game did start the undermanned Cavaliers — no Kyrie Irving, no Dion Waiters, no Anderson Varejao — the Cavaliers not only hung in but also went on a 23-2 run to close out the half and lead by 21. The Cavaliers played harder and were more physical than a Heat team that was cold and seemingly disinterested. Tristan Thomas led the way 12 points and 5 rebounds in the first half (he finished with 18-8)

That Cleveland lead climbed all the way to 27 early in the third quarter, 67-40.

Then the Heat came back with a vengeance — a 43-12 run fueled by pressure defense threes (the Heat opened the second half hitting 8-14 threesm Mario Chalmers hit 4-of-5 from three on his way to 17 points for the game). Miami had come out trapping on defense and pressuring the ball, and over the course of the half the Cavaliers were starting their offense farther and farther away from the rim. Miami was playing like the team that won 23 in a row and it overwhelmed the Cavs.

Then a Cavs fan wearing “LeBron 2014 Come Back” T-Shirt rushes the court and is taken off by security. (If you’re trying to convince LeBron to return, being the crazy guy running on the court mid-game is not helping your cause. Just sayin’.)

After that Miami looks like they are going to run away with it and cruise to a win. The Heat lead gets up to 8… but then the Cavaliers answer with a 7-0 run of their own.

It was a one-point game with :44 seconds left. Both teams had a chance to win it (or ice the win) but both teams missed jump shots — Dwywane Wade with a 20-foot step back miss off a Chris Bosh pick, then a Wayne Ellington isolation missed three over Ray Allen (Ellington led the Cavs with 20 points). As the game got tight both teams played too much hero ball and only Alonzo Gee — who had some great baseline drives and dunks around LeBron on his way to 10 points — seemed to have any success that way.

In the end, LeBron hit a couple free throws to add to his triple-double — 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. As it has been on this streak, he is the guy at the heart of it all.

“We had to dig deep for this one,” LeBron said in a televised post-game interview. “We already know, like I said this morning, every team is going to give us a good shot no matter their record, no matter who is on the floor, we are going to get their best. And we should enjoy that, we should embrace it because it picks up our level of intensity as well.”

There would have been something fitting about the Heat winning streak dying in Cleveland, something cathartic for Cavaliers fans. The reason it’s still alive is the maturity and additions to LeBron James’ games that he has added since leaving the Cavs. Which is a tough pill to swallow in Cleveland, despite playing the kind of game they can be proud of.

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”

 

Wilson Chandler leads Nuggets past Cavaliers, 126-113

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DENVER (AP) — Wilson Chandler scored 18 points in his return from a four-game absence with a pulled groin and provided stellar defense on LeBron James in the Denver Nuggets’ 126-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets bounced back from consecutive heartbreaking last-second losses to Houston with a signature win that increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Will Barton scored 20 points, Kenneth Faried added 17 and Jamal Murray had 15 off the bench for Denver, which also got 21 points from Gary Harris and 16 from Nikola Jokic.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.

The Nuggets took a 101-90 lead into the fourth quarter after an entertaining third quarter that included a James-fueled 15-4 run by the Cavs and a 15-3 response by the Nuggets that included nine points from Faried.

But the arena-rocking basket in the Nuggets’ big run came not from Faried but from Jokic, who backed down James during a particularly physical possession. His basket gave Denver a 99-83 lead.

Denver grabbed momentum midway through the second quarter when Murray swished three 3-pointers that gave the Nuggets a 50-40 lead.

The Nuggets doubled that cushion thanks in part to Richard Jefferson‘s face slap of Juancho Hernangomez for a flagrant foul. Hernangomez sank both free throws and then Barton swished a 3-pointer on the inbounds, capping a 7-0 spurt that gave Denver a 61-47 lead. The Nuggets pushed their lead to 69-49.

Chandler showed fresh legs and little rust in his return to action.

“He hasn’t played in 10, 11 days,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “At least going into the game I feel that we have a body that can match up with LeBron’s physicality. He’s just such a versatile defender for us, so that’s going to be great to have him back.”

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: The Cavs, who fell to 18-17 on the road, had limited the Nuggets to an average of 99 points in their last three trips to the Pepsi Center, all wins. … The teams combined to miss just one free throw in the first half – by James. … Irving, who had 19 points in the first half, topped 20 points for the 19th consecutive game, extending the longest current streak in the NBA.

Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee. … Denver already had 120 points by the time Deron Williams’ three-point play put the Cavs in triple digits at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter.

 

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Triangle offense will be in Knicks training camp next fall. Jeff Hornacek not sure core players will be.

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The Knicks are a train wreck this season. A lot of that falls on Phil Jackson and Knicks management: They said they wanted to be a triangle team, then hired a coach in Jeff Hornacek that wanted to coach a more open system, Jackson and company filled the roster with older, stop-gap players — Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah — who don’t really fit what Hornacek wants to do or the triangle, and all season long they bounced between the emphasizing the triangle and emphasizing a more modern offense. It’s hard to see a coherent vision, and that’s at the heart of the reasons the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs again this season. The lack of one cohesive offensive plan hurt the team, coach Jeff Hornacek has said.

Next year’s vision appears to revolve around more triangle offense.

Kristaps Porzingis says he likes the offense, and he’s on his rookie contract, so he certainly will be back. But what about Rose? Carmelo Anthony? Hornacek didn’t sound so sure when asked by Marc Berman at the New York Post.

“There’s a lot of guys who do good things,’’ Hornacek said on whether he knows whom he wants to return. “We got to make sure whoever is on the team next year, we get guys who play as hard as they can every play. The defensive intensity obviously has to be picked up for guys next year. Scoring the basketball – we have the guys who can do that – but do we have the right fit who are running the system?

“If we can think with a fresh start of training camp, going to it right off the bat, if that helps us and Phil and Steve [Mills, the GM] think the same guys on the team can have a different outlook on it, they stay the same. If not, they’ll look at other guys.”

Reports are the Knicks are going to talk to Anthony and his agent after the season about finding a trade to another team that works for everyone (you know, the way Jackson should have handled it at the deadline rather than play mind games). Anthony is no fan of the triangle, a deal likely can be worked out with the Clippers, Cavaliers, or some other spot Anthony likes.

Rose is a free agent, the Knicks can just let him walk, and if they’re running the triangle they should let him. Rose is a pick-and-roll point guard who does not fit the system.

If the Knicks can find the right free agents to come in and run the triangle remains to be seen. Some veteran players may be interested, but plenty are turned off by the offense.

LeBron James: Resting became a problem only because I’m involved

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1. The Cavaliers rested LeBron James against the Clippers on Saturday (and also sat Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love).

2. NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to teams threatening to crack down on how they rest players.

How related are those events?

LeBron, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“I love what Adam is doing for our league but I don’t see how that (would help),” James said Tuesday. “I don’t understand why it’s become a problem now, because I sit out a couple games?”

When a reporter suggested to James that Silver’s reasons for sending the memo may stretch beyond his not playing in Cleveland’s 30-point loss in a national TV game Saturday, James disagreed.

“That is the case. It’s absolutely the case,” James insisted.

And when it was mentioned that the week before, in a game that, like the Cavs’ loss to the Clippers was televised on ABC, Warriors coach Steve Kerr sat Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala from a game against the Spurs, James said: “Come on, man. You guys know the real.”

“Listen, Pop’s been doing this for 10 years, 12 years, 15 years and everybody was like, ‘You know what? That’s the smartest thing Pop has ever done,” James said. “Give his guys a couple games off and here they go and win five championships. That’s the smartest thing.’

But some of our coaches in our league don’t have the stature that Pop has and our head coach doesn’t have it so he gets killed for it. So, I got to keep winning to help my coach be able to have a reason why he can sit his players.”

Gregg Popovich resting players got the Spurs fined $250,000 in 2012. The San Antonio coach certainly hasn’t drawn universal lauding for his resting strategy.

This remains a contentious issue, and the battle lines aren’t drawn around LeBron – at least not as much as he suggests here.

The same people who praise Popovich for resting players supported Tyronn Lue (and Steve Kerr and every other coach who has rested players). The same people upset about LeBron resting were also bothered by Popovich resting players. LeBron is comparing two disparate sets of observers.

That said, there is a difference with LeBron involved.

This hasn’t taken on an enhanced profile because other coach’s lack Popovich’s stature. It’s because LeBron is such a big star.

LeBron attracts attention unlike any Spur, and when he sits, ratings suffer. The league’s TV partners dislike teams resting players, and those companies are paying enough to have their voices heard. LeBron – the NBA’s highest-profile star since Michael Jordan – resting adds urgency, but this issue has been percolating for years.

This didn’t suddenly become a problem because of LeBron. He was just the spark that turned an occasional issue into one that suddenly feels much more pressing.