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Three things we learned on Christmas: Can we just skip ahead to Warriors/Cavs Finals?

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I hope Santa (or Hanukkah Harry, or the creepy but well-meaning gift-giving myth of your choice) was good to you this year. More importantly, I hope you got to spend time with family and loved ones, and savor what is good in this world for the holiday. As for the NBA, here are the takeaways from Sunday.

1) If it’s going to be like this again, can we just skip ahead to the Cavaliers vs. Warriors NBA Finals? With all due respect to the fine folks in Toronto, San Antonio, wherever Los Angeles Clippers fans live, or other places where fans may harbor long-shot NBA Finals dreams — we know what matchup we want to see again in June. Warriors vs. Cavaliers. Yes, again. And can we petition Adam Silver to make that Finals best of 11? 13?

Christmas Day’s NBA Finals rematch/preview felt familiar: the Cavaliers can still crank up the defense, disrupt the Warriors, come from behind and beat them. It was different from last June, and yet the same. Kevin Durant was dropping 36 and reminding everyone not to leave his name out of “best player on the planet” discussions. However, in the end, there was still too much LeBron James, the Cavaliers defense can still disrupt the Warriors’ rhythm with the game on the line (particularly Stephen Curry, who shot 4-of-11 on the night), and there was Kyrie Irving hitting the big shot that decides it all (despite great defense from Klay Thompson).

There were so many things that came together to decide this game. Richard Jefferson was turning back the clock with a fourth quarter dunk over Thompson that sparked a 14-3 run by Cleveland. The Warriors were struggling to hit the shots they rely on in the fourth quarter — Golden State shot 7-of-8 in the paint in the fourth quarter but 1-of-11 outside it. There were three turnovers by Draymond Green in the fourth (and there was his first-quarter near meltdown after what should have been a no call went against him and got him his second foul). The Cavaliers were grabbing the offensive rebound on 32.7 percent of their missed shots. And Warriors’ fans, was Durant tripped by Jefferson on the final play? Yes. But don’t blame the officials, that’s not why you lost — if you don’t blow a 14-point fourth quarter lead then you don’t need to get that call to win.

Golden State has been the best team in the NBA most of this season. Sunday the Cavaliers reminded everyone that — just like last year — all those wins does not an NBA title make. LeBron and the Cavaliers can go stride-for-stride with these Warriors and beat them in a seven-game series. And it looks like they will get the chance to do that again come June.

2) Seriously, just rewatch the last couple minutes of Warriors at Cavaliers. On a loop. That should be all the Christmas presents you need. The end of this game was just so much fun.

3) Elsewhere on Christmas, the Celtics are playing better and Russell Westbrook is still putting on a show. While the Warriors/Cavs was the game of the day, it wasn’t the only game. Here are quick notes on the other four:

• Boston has won 5-of-6 and look like a team figuring it out after a slow start to the season. Isaiah Thomas had 27 points, Al Horford had a strong all-around game including a key blocked shot late, and the Celtics beat the Knicks 119-114. Boston held on despite a Kristaps Porzingis-led 16-3 run late by the Knicks that made it a game — the Unicorn reminded everyone just what a special player he is going to be. And is now, for that matter. But right now, Boston is the third best team in the East (and closing in on Toronto fast).

• Russell Westbrook is an unstoppable force of nature, and Lord knows the Timberwolves defense isn’t going to slow him. You knew it was going to be a bad night for the Timberwolves when Steven Adams was out-hustling Karl-Anthony Towns down the court all game long. Westbrook had 37 points and 15 assists in a 112-100 win.

LaMarcus Aldridge would like to remind everyone he is very good at basketball. Maybe he and a bunch of the Spurs — Pau Gasol, certainly Tony Parker — are a step slower than they used to be, but they know how to play the game. Aldridge started the game on a personal 8-0 run, and he and Kawhi Leonard combined for 58 on 22-for-34 shooting for the game, which was more than the Bulls could match and San Antonio got the 119-100 win.

• The Clippers without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are not very good. As in, not good enough to even beat the Lakers, with the hosts getting the 111-102 (this was officially a Lakers’ home game). Nick Young had 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting to lead the Lakers offense.

Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.