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Three things we learned Monday: Portland’s defense against the Clipper offense is combustable

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Here’s what you would have picked up watching a night around the NBA rather than focusing on Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things…

1) Portland drops fourth in a row, this time to Clippers, due to poor defense, blown chances.
Portland had its chances Monday night. This loss is going to eat at them. But once again, poor defense that is at the core of their troubles, and costly mistakes with the game in the balance late, earned the Blazers a fourth consecutive loss, 121-120 to the Clippers. Which stings. The Blazers came into this season high off making the second round of the playoffs last year and spending a lot of money this past summer, but the team clearly has taken a step back (and at 12-14 are only a playoff team in the West because the Kings/Lakers/Nuggets/Pelicans are worse).

Of course, the problems start with Portland having the league’s worst defense, surrendering 109.9 points per 100 possessions. Their guards are undersized and not strong defenders, their healthy bigs aren’t very mobile, and combined that gets a team in trouble in today’s NBA. Monday night in Los Angeles — against an efficient Clippers’ offense — they surrendered 119.4 per 100. Portland has struggled to defend the pick-and-roll all season, which is bad news against the “point god” Chris Paul, and it explains why 46 percent of the Clipper possessions ended up with a shot directly off that play (stat via Synergy Sports). The thing is, this was one of Portland’s better defensive efforts, the hustle was there, they just did it against an elite offense that is going to hit a lot of shots even if if they were contested (L.A. shot 43.3 percent on contested shots, 53 percent on uncontested, according to NBA.com). CP3 ended up with 21 points and 14 assists in the game as he found room to work, and the Portland guards are not going to slow him. Also, Blake Griffin had 26.

At the end of the game, Portland still had its chances but made costly mental errors. That starts with coach Terry Stotts, who was angry at a foul call on C.J. McCollum on a J.J. Redick three, and earned himself a technical for it — Portland was up 2 at the time and there was 4:14 left, but with the technical and then three free throws it was a four-point play. Portland was down two. It was a turning point — and obviously that point mattered in a one-point loss.

Another point that mattered: Portland was down one with 7.9 seconds to go, when McCollum fouled Redick before the ball was inbounded — meaning the Clippers got a free throw and retained possession of the ball. Redick hit the free throw, then when the ball was inbounded McCollum rightly fouled Redick again, and he again hit the free throws, making it a four-point game. Damian Lillard would hit a three at the other end, but that one point was the difference.

Portland went 1-4 on this now-completed road trip. They had this painful late loss, another close loss to Memphis, they blew a 20-point lead to Indiana, and fell apart in the third quarter in Milwaukee. It’s a tough trip, but it speaks to where this team is at right now. It’s a lot of things, such as the defense, or Evan Turner and Mason Plumlee needing to be better. But what this trip shows more than anything is how far the Blazers have to go before April to not only make sure they are a playoff team, but to be any kind of threat once they get there.

2) Raptors get win thanks to secret weapon lineup. Toronto got out early on Milwaukee Monday night and eventually cruised to a 122-100 win. Toronto’s starting lineup — DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Siakam Pascal, and Jonas Valanciunas — played a strong 14 minutes, shot 59.1 percent when on the court together, and were +6 as a unit.

But that’s not the lineup doing the most damage for the Raptors this season, nor in this game. Lowry plus the bench players of Cory Joseph, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross were +22 in 13 minutes, shooting 65 percent when on the court together. That group dominated the Bucks — and that’s not a fluke. As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Raptors’ Lowry-plus-the-bench lineup is outscoring opponents by 32.2 points per 100 possessions this season — the best five-man lineup rating in the league (of any that has played at least 100 minutes). Yes, better than the Warriors’ death lineup. Or the Clippers’ starters. Or the Cavaliers’ starters. Or any other power lineup you can think of. If you want to know why the Raptors are 17-7 and a clear second best team in the East, that five-man unit has a lot to do with it — and coach Dwane Casey is leaning on it more and more.

3) James Harden was amazing. Again. Houston wins. Again. The Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA, having won seven in a row, and there is no secret weapon lineup here — it’s all about James Harden. He is a perfect mesh in the Mike D’Antoni offense. Harden had 36 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds in the Houston win over Brooklyn Monday, 122-118.

Just watch the man go to work.

No motivational material: LeBron James, Cavaliers respectful when asked about Warriors

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The rubber match. The trilogy. Whatever you want to call the historic third meeting between the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals — never in NBA history have two teams met three years in a row in the Finals — it’s what fans have been waiting for. The inevitability of this Finals matchup sucked some of the drama and fun out of the postseason so far, but now these two teams are ready to go.

It’s the best rivalry in the NBA, two teams not afraid to mix it up with each other, but when Cavaliers players were asked about the Warriors after eliminating the Celtics Thursday night, there was nothing but respect.

“We just got to play defense,” LeBron James said in a televised postgame interview. “We’re going to face adversity. That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult. So they’re gonna challenge us a lot: offensively, defensively, mentally, physically, but we’re going to have to be ready for that challenge.”

LeBron stuck to that theme in his postgame press conference.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not really in the right mind to even talk about Golden State right now. It’s too stressful, and I’m not stressed right now,” LeBron said cracking a smile. “Golden State, they’ve been the best team in our league the last three years, then they added an MVP. That’s all I can give you right now, because I’m happy and I don’t want a lot of stress, and they cause a lot of stress.”

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had yet to start any prep for the Warriors.

“Of course I watch every game, because I’m a basketball junkie, and they’ve been playing great,” Lue siad. “But you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.”

“The Celtics and Brad Stevens, the team they have, they throw a lot of different lineups at you and a lot of different stuff on the offensive end, so as far as how they play I think it definitely prepared us for what’s ahead,” Kevin Love said, discussing how the Celtics prepped the Cavaliers for the next round.

The Cavaliers are veterans on this stage, and they both respect the Warriors and don’t need the distraction of a war of words, so they stayed on message all night.

But with a week to go before Game 1, you can bet someone will say something inflammatory. We’re looking at you, Draymond Green.

Watch 36-year-old James Jones throw down a putback dunk vs. the Celtics (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is on his way to his 7th-straight Finals after the Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics, 135-102, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night.

The game was out of hand from the beginning, with the Cavaliers scoring a franchise playoff high 75 points in the first half.

At one point in the fourth quarter, Tyronn Lue emptied out his bench and we got to see some of the Cavaliers garbage time guys get run. One of those guys was James Jones, 36, who has been around so long he was a rookie with Reggie Miller in Indiana.

He also dunked!

Via Twitter:

Let’s all just bask in the glory that is that putback dunk and in our little vacation until the Finals start on June 1.

LeBron James, Cavaliers advance past Celtics to meet Warriors in 2017 NBA Finals

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Let’s line it up and run it again. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are going to meet in the 2017 NBA Finals after LeBron James and the Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 5 on Thursday, 135-102.

It wasn’t much of a contest from the outset as Cleveland looked determined to put away their opponent. The Cavaliers played strong, shot well from 3-point range, and forced the Celtics into 18 turnovers over the course of the game.

The Cavaliers set a franchise playoff record in the first half, scoring 75 points in the first two periods. LeBron had 20 before the third quarter started, putting him just inches away from passing Michael Jordan to top the list for most points scored in NBA playoff history.

That moment came in the third quarter, with James dropping in a sweet 3-pointer from the left side of the arc to push him past Jordan. LeBron finished the game with 35 points, going 4-of-7 from 3-point range will adding eight assists, eight rebounds, and three steals.

Kyrie Irving was another bright spot for the Cavaliers, scoring 24 points to go along with seven assists. Kevin Love added 15 points, and Deron Williams had a rejuvenation off the bench with 14.

For Boston, yet another game without Isaiah Thomas forced their offense into stagnation. Avery Bradley — who had a considerable series in an effort that should not be overlooked — scored 20 points on 10-of-20 shooting. Gerald Green was Boston’s second-leading scorer in a bench role, adding 14 points.

Now we get to wait until June 1, when what seemed an inevitability way back in training camp has indeed come to pass. The Warriors get their shot at redemption after the worst breakdown in NBA playoff history, and the Cavaliers get a chance to solidify themselves over their peers and galvanize LeBron’s position as the best player of a generation.

The Finals don’t start for anther week. We’ll all be champing at the bit to see if Cleveland really does have what it takes to guard the Warriors offense. Likewise, a top defensive team in Golden State will need to prepare themselves for the LeBron that showed up against the Celtics in Game 1 and 2.

LeBron James on passing Michael Jordan: “I fell in love with the game because of Mike” (VIDEO)

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LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for most points scored in NBA playoff history on Thursday night during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ win over the Boston Celtics, 135-102.

After the game, LeBron and his teammates took to the podium to speak on their accomplishment of making it to yet another Finals as they settle in for a rematch with the Golden State Warriors.

LeBron was humble about his accomplishment, crediting Jordan for driving him to play the game of basketball as well as shaping his own game.

“I wear the number [23] because of Mike. I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike,” said James. “When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god.”

James and the Cavaliers will take on the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 1.