Big second half from Chris Paul powers Clippers to win, forces Game 7 vs. Spurs

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This series had to have a Game 7.

It’s been too good not to — two of the three best teams in the NBA right now (sorry Cleveland, Houston) forced to face off in the first round when this could have been a conference finals.

Game 6 lived up to the hype. In a series where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had often struggled late in games, they flipped the script Thursday night. Paul had 15 points and seven assists in the second half, while Griffin added 18 and had a key block on Tim Duncan with 5:50 left in the game.

“I thought Chris and Blake took the game over. We didn’t stop them, and they were tremendous,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Those two did enough to power the Clippers to a 102-96 win in San Antonio Thursday night. This forces a Game 7 back in Los Angeles Saturday night (8 p.m. Eastern on TNT).

The way this series has gone, that game may be more entertaining than the Mayweather-Pacquiao that follows.

“I’ve been saying this all year, this team is mentally tough,” Doc Rivers said after the win.

“We lost because the Clippers were determined, physical, focused, played harder than we did,” a smoldering Popovich said postgame. “We were soft on loose balls, we’d get a rebound they’d knock it out of our hands, hard time getting open — I thought their physicality in that regard was great. We were just soft. I’m not sure how we stayed in the game to be honest with you.

As you would expect in a closeout game, the Clippers came out with a sense of urgency. Their pressure defense looked quicker than it had all series and forced eight first-quarter Spurs turnovers, which led to easy buckets in transition. Those points plus DeAndre Jordan altering shots inside, and J.J. Redick starting 4-of-5 shooting, made this what should have been a perfect start for the Clippers, who led by as many as seven in the first. But, as it has been all series, the Clipper bench came in and things instantly tightened up. By the end of the first it was 26-26. The Clippers could not create separation.

The second quarter became the Marco Belinelli show for the Spurs as he came in and went 4-of-4 from three, part of a 9-0 run. Then the Spurs went to hack-a-DJ, and it helped open the lead up to 10, although that was more about the Clippers missing 19 three pointers in a row (across two games). However, with the intentional fouling Tim Duncan and Tony Parker picked up their third fouls and went to the bench, the Clippers brought their starters back in, and the Clippers went on an 11-4 run.

The score was 51-51 at the half. Yet the Clippers had to feel fairly good about that considering CP3 was 0-of-7 while as a team they were 1-of-9 from three.

The Clippers came out hitting their shots in the third quarter to take a 10-point lead. Doc Rivers went with his shooters and had his small lineup doing damage, led by CP3 making plays — six games into the series and the Spurs have not come close to solving the Clips double high screen play. Paul had help from  Griffin, who had struggled in the fourth quarter throughout the series was 3-of-3 in the final frame plus had some big defensive plays down the stretch.

Of course, there were close calls late. Jamal Crawford got away with a walk late. Boris Diaw got caught on an offensive shot interference call tipping in a missed shot while it was over the cylinder. A lot of things could have gone another way, befitting this series.

The Spurs got 23 points off the bench from Belinelli — he was 7-of-11 from three on the night and hit a shot in the final minute to keep the Clippers on edge. Borris Diaw added 17 points. Kawhi Leonard had a rough night, shooting 3-of-15 and not being his usual self on defense.

J.J. Redick had 19 points for Los Angeles; Paul had 19 points and 15 assists, Griffin had 26 points.

It was not all good news for the Clippers. Glen Davis had to leave the game — and be wheeled back to the locker room — for what was officially called a sprained ankle but looked to be something worse with a foot he had broken a couple years back.

Game 7 could go either way — four of the six wins in this series have come on the road. All the games save one have been decided late because these are two evenly-matched teams. Two title contenders standing toe-to-toe, trading blows.

This series had to have a Game 7.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.

Veteran NBA official Monty McCutchen to be head of referee development, training

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After 25 seasons running up and down the NBA hardwood and refereeing more than 1,400 games, NBA official Monty McCutchen got a promotion.

He officiated his last game Thursday night in Minnesota and will move to a desk at the league office where his new title is Vice President, Head of Referee Development and Training.

“Monty has earned the respect of players, coaches and his peers during an exemplary career as an NBA official,” said Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Operations Michelle D. Johnson (who started on the job in October).  “He understands as well as anyone what it takes to be an outstanding referee and how the league can best support its officials.  With his wealth of insight and experience, Monty is uniquely suited for a leadership role in our officiating program.”

“I’m excited for the opportunity to channel my passion for the officiating profession in a new way,” McCutchen said.  “While I’ll miss officiating games, I’m grateful to continue working with our incredibly talented referee staff as part of an organization so dedicated to excellence and innovation.”

Despite what some fans like to blast on Twitter (especially during the playoffs), NBA officials are the best trained and flat-out best basketball referees in the world (if you don’t think so, watch the college/scab referees from the last lockout of the refs, it was painful). Could they improve? Sure. Hopefully, McCutchen can help do that in his new position.

Kristaps Porzingis officially day-to-day, questionable vs. OKC

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Knicks fans can exhale now.

There was understandable concern after face of the franchise Kritaps Porzingis had to leave the game in Brooklyn Thursday night following a non-contact injury.

Turns out there is nothing to worry about. After the game, Porzingis spoke to the media and was standing on the leg, a good sign. By Friday, after a day of treatment, he was doing well. Officially Porzingis is day-to-day and may sit out Carmelo Anthony‘s return to Madison Square Garden Saturday, but the injury is nothing serious. Ian Begley of ESPN has the details.

Porzingis’ knee was “worked on” on Friday and the discomfort in his knee decreased, league sources told ESPN. It is unclear if Porzingis underwent an MRI or had X-rays to further determine the extent of the injury but sources say he did not undergo significant testing because it wasn’t warranted based on the state of the injury.

Good. We don’t need another star down with a major injury this season.

Especially Porzingis, who has led the Knicks to a 15-13 record (sixth in the East, in the playoffs) while putting up All-Star numbers: 25.5 points per game, shooting 39.5 percent from three, plus grabbing 6.6 rebounds a game. Maybe more impressive is how he has anchored a solid Knicks defense this season with his rim protection. Stay healthy and he should make his first All-Star team this season.