Tony Parker goes MIA in Game 5, but Spurs advance to Western Conference Finals

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Where’s Tony Parker?

That question dominated the first half as the San Antonio Spurs point guard left the court and bench without suffering an obvious injury. Turns out, his hamstring tightened, and the Spurs ruled him out at halftime – potentially a real concern going forward.

But there were no questions about Kawhi Leonard’s whereabouts.

He was everywhere.

Leonard (22 points on three 3-pointers and two dunks, seven rebounds and five steals) made plays all over the court to lead the San Antonio to a 104-82 series-closing win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

With their 4-1 series victory, the Spurs join the Heat as the only teams to make the conference finals each of the last three years. But whether San Antonio returns to the NBA Finals, let alone wins them, might hinge on Parker.

Parker’s backup, Patty Mills (18 points, three steals, zero turnovers in 26 minutes), filled in admirably. But winning with depth, as the Spurs have done to this point, gets much more difficult when the field narrows. Parker is a true star, someone who has repeatedly elevated his game as the playoffs go deeper. That’s whom San Antonio needs.

And there’s reason to believe the Spurs will get Parker back soon.

“I think it’s more precaution than anything,” said Tim Duncan, whose 16 points and eight rebounds helped ensure the Spurs could comfortably rest Parker on Wednesday. “Just don’t want to get him any more hurt.”

At least San Antonio will get extra rest before facing the Thunder or Clippers, and that can only help Parker heal.

In wins in Games 1-3, the Spurs led at halftime by 26, 19 and 20 at halftime. In their Game 4 loss, they trailed by two at the break.

Wednesday, they led by just seven at halftime – a comfortable position to be certain, but one indicative of a team no longer possessing an unbreakable lock on the series. The only other time the Trail Blazers got this close after two quarters, Game 4, they ran away with it in the third.

“We might have ran out of a little energy in the last game,” Duncan admitted.

San Antonio quickly ensured that wouldn’t be repeated in Game 5, opening the third quarter on an 8-0 run. Thanks to Danny Green making all five of his second-half shots on the way to 22 points, the Spurs led by double digits the rest of the way.

The Trail Blazers’ run ends here, and they were an exciting team that got in over their heads – way over their heads. But this season was a resounding success for Portland, which reached the playoffs for the first time in three years and won a postseason series for the first time in 14.

Portland’s stars – Damian Lillard (17 points and 10 assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (21 points and 10 rebounds) – had double-doubles in the season ender, but neither really gave San Antonio much reason for concern. They’re not quite good enough to beat a great team like the Spurs, especially with so little bench help.

Next season, the Trail Blazers can get better. They’re young enough to expect significant internal growth, and using the mid-level exception wouldn’t take them into the luxury tax.

But the West is tough, and breaking into the upper echelon is a daunting task. Again and again this series, the Spurs proved that.

“Tired” Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest. Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game, at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.