Los Angeles Clippers v Atlanta Hawks

The Extra Pass: A big test for the Clippers; plus Thursday’s recaps

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Pressure reveals character, and the last minutes of the Clippers road matchup with Portland did just that.

Down the stretch, both teams played perfectly to their strengths. The Blazers ran everything through LaMarcus Aldirdge (32 points) on the left block, surrounding him with three-point shooters and daring the Clippers to double. The Clippers, meanwhile, put the ball in Chris Paul’s hands, gave him a simple ball screen and let the magic happen.

None of Paul’s 34 points appeared bigger than his fading jumper on the baseline to give the Clippers a three-point lead with about eight seconds left in regulation. After a frustrating loss to Golden State the night prior, it looked like the Clippers would exact some revenge on another Western Conference foe.

But then Portland did what they’ve been doing to every team around the league. In need of a bucket, Terry Stotts drew up a beautiful sidelines out of bounds play to get a clean look for Nicolas Batum, who buried the open three at the top of the key to tie the game and eventually send it to overtime.

So here the Clippers were, on the second night of one of the toughest back-to-back sets imaginable, playing on the road in overtime against one of the league’s hottest teams.

And right at the beginning of the overtime period, there was Blake Griffin on the floor. Not from exhaustion or the kind of flop he’s most closely associated with now, but because there was a loose ball to go after. Then it was Matt Barnes on the floor, chasing that same loose ball.

There were many moments or highlights to sum up the game for the Clippers, both positive and negative, but this was the one to remember.

I know what you’re thinking. Can a title contender really have moral victories? Isn’t that for, you know, the teams who can’t pull off actual victories?

It’s a fair point, and it didn’t help that the Clippers had their flaws exposed (defense on the perimeter, frontcourt depth) once again.

But still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there were multiple opportunities for the Clippers to pack it in. The excuse of a back-to-back was readily available, and there were a few plays the screamed “it’s not your night.”

For as encouraging as a win this is for Portland in their ongoing quest to prove their sustainability, it was equally positive for the Clippers. It’s important to know just how deep you can dig as a team, both physically and mentally.

It’s a long season, but the Clippers may not be tested like this again. Chances are, they needed that experience more than they need the win.

—D.J. Foster

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Hawks 127, Cavaliers 125 (2OT): What a fun battle of point guards. Kyrie Irving went off for 40 points on 33 shots, plus he dished out 9 assists — he looked like a guy who deserves to start in the All-Star Game. He single handedly had the Cavs up five to start the second overtime. But that is when — with Al Horford having left the game with an injury — it was Jeff Teague who made the plays. He had 12 of his 34 points in the overtimes. He played maybe his best game of the season, plus he drained the game winner.

Rockets 100, Grizzlies 92: Second night of a back-to-back, coming off a signature win on national television, down 13 in the third quarter — if the Rockets had lost this game we would have shrugged and blamed the schedule and the Rockets inconsistency. Instead the Rockets cranked it up in the fourth quarter, held the Grizzlies to 27 percent shooting, got 14 points from Jeremy Lin and 11 from James Harden (27 for the game) to storm back and win. That’s the sign of a team that is maturing, growing together.

Spurs 116, Mavericks 107: This was vintage Spurs. Just a day ago after the Spurs lost to the Rockets on national television, I noted that San Antonio had struggled some against teams over .500. Thursday night they came out against a more rested Mavericks team, went on a 12-2 rum late in the first to take the lead, one they never relinquished. Tim Duncan was brilliant with 21 points and 13 rebounds, including four straight points in the fourth when it looked like Dallas would make a little run. Tony Parker added 23 points. They are still the Spurs and they still execute.

Trail Blazers 116, Clippers 112 (OT): Tonight it was the Clippers turn — the Blazers have done this to teams all season at home. They looked beaten, down three with eight seconds to go after a Chris Paul baseline jumper. But then a clever play freed up Nicolas Batum and he nailed the three, and we were headed to overtime. LaMarcus Aldridge had a big night — he had barely eaten for four days after having his wisdom teeth pulled, yet he went out and dropped 32. Chris Paul had 34. In the end we had another thrilling Trail Blazers game, and once again they found a way to win.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.

Drake congratulated LeBron James in hallway after game

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Drake is a Toronto native and a huge Raptors’ fan. He’s officially the team’s “global ambassador,” although nobody knows what that actually means.

Drake is also tight with LeBron James.

As LeBron is running down the hall to get to the locker room and celebrate making a sixth straight trip to the Finals Drake stops him to congratulate him. And Drake is one of the handful of guys LeBron will stop and talk to.

Nothing wrong with this, either. Drake has walked a line the whole series — he’s a Raptors fan, he’s trolled LeBron and Kyrie Irving on social media after Toronto wins, but he’s close with Cleveland’s players and has been seen in the Cavaliers locker room plenty the past few seasons.

Some fan bases (we’re looking at you, Philly) would flip out over this kind of divided loyalty, but not Canadians who will just forgive and move on.

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.