Cavaliers bring intense, active defense, offense follows in 120-90 rout of Warriors in Game 3

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On the first possession of the game, Stephen Curry walked the ball up and was met by Kyrie Irving out higher than he had been all series, just a few steps over half court. Irving got into Curry’s body. It was a sign of things to come — Cleveland brought an energy and, more importantly, constant activity on the defensive end all night. It disrupted the Warriors.

That defense fueled their offense, LeBron James at the four was explosive setting a tone, and back in the comfort of their home — and with a raucous crowd behind them — suddenly Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith were sharpshooters again. Pace and spacing returned to the Cavalier offense, and behind a team attacking the rim and moving the ball Cleveland raced out to a fast 20 point lead in the first quarter. The Cavaliers are a dangerous front-running team, and they were overwhelming a Golden State team that seemed caught off guard by Cleveland’s intensity.

“We weren’t ready to play” Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously, they just punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning. We’re turning the ball over like crazy. Soft, we were extremely soft to start the game, and then they set the tone with their intensity. I think it was 9-0, and we had to call timeout. Steph got beat back door, couple turnovers. Just a horrible way to start.”

Still, the question remained: How would the Cavaliers respond when the Warriors went on a run? Which Golden State did in the second half to cut the lead to eight at the half.

Cleveland responded like a team worthy of a ring. They opened the second half on a 7-0 run, stretching the lead out to 22 again and running away with the game. This series (and these playoffs) have had a lot of blowouts.

Cleveland won Game 3 120-90, making this a 2-1 series in favor of Golden State. This was the most lopsided Golden State playoff loss since Steve Kerr took over as Warriors’ coach.

Game 4 is Friday night in Cleveland — it will tell us a lot about both teams. And how long this series might go.

“I just think it’s two words, physicality, and aggressiveness,” Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought we were very physical defensively, and I thought we were aggressive offensively, attacking the basket, getting out in transition, running the floor. We talked about it before, that opens up shots for J.R. Smith and those guys in transition. So that’s how we have to play.”

The Cavaliers were without Kevin Love, who is sidelined with a concussion, and with Richard Jefferson starting in his place the Cleveland defense was far more active and alert. It leaves Tyronn Lue with some challenges if Love is cleared to return Friday for Game 4 (Love needs to come off the bench or at least play much short shifts, this series is not a good matchup for him).

It was the Cavaliers starters that won them this game. Kyrie Irving had 16 points in the first quarter and 30 for the game, LeBron had 32, and Smith added 20. It literally was just them — through three quarters the Cavaliers bench had zero points.

Stephen Curry was just terrible in this game. He finished with 19 points and for a stretch in the fourth found his three point shot again, but he was 3-of-9 from deep overall. He started slow, with just two points in the first half. More troublesome was his six turnovers on the he. And his poor defense, which Cleveland attacked all night (and got him in foul trouble). Things were so bad for Curry that at one point that Kerr benched him for Shaun Livingston.

“He did not start the game well,” Kerr said. “Turned it over, got beat back door, and he was not his usual self. Now, it happens sometimes. I mean, that’s what everybody was saying about them the last two games.”

Klay Thompson had 10 points, Draymond Green 6 — that combined 35 was the lowest output from the Warriors big three all season.

Credit the Cavaliers defense for that, which was much better from the opening tip.

Cavaliers much more energy defensively to start, Warriors offense is aimless — Curry and Thompson both had airballs — and the Cavaliers were moving better on offense. Race out to a 9-0 lead. That lead stretched out to 15 as the Cavaliers attacked the rim and the Warriors started 0-of-6 from three.

Kyrie Irving was hot early, 16 first quarter points and started feeling it with the Uncle Drew side steps and hitting threes. He looked far more comfortable.

Meanwhile, Curry and Thompson had zero points in the first quarter, and it was 33-16 Cavs after one.

Early in the second, it was the Warriors bench — as it has been all series — the Warriors bench was their spark. They opened the second on a 7-0 run and pushed the lead down to nine at one point. Warriors defense settles down, and the Cavaliers opened the second half 3-of-17 to start the second half, they also were just slow getting in their offense, again letting Warriors set. Golden State cut the Cleveland lead to 51-43 at the half, just eight points.

“I thought tonight even when they made runs, we kept our composure,” Lue said. “We stayed with it, we stayed physical, we continued to play hard, and we didn’t let it deflate us.”

The Cavaliers opened the second half on a 7-0 run with the starters again, and they stretch the lead back up to 19 thanks to a much better defense and hitting their threes in transition, taking the lead up to 22 on a LeBron three.

Later in the third the Warriors started to find a bit of an offensive groove when they went small (why was Anderson Varejao in at all?) but by this point the Cavaliers were full of confidence. LeBron was hitting jumpers (which he missed the first two games), Smith was feeling it, and the Cavaliers were flying around on defense. The Warriors could not close the gap.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.