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Three things we learned on Tuesday: Paraphrasing Nuggets’ Mike Malone, “My kingdom for a leader”

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We know you weren’t keeping up on Tuesday night’s NBA games because you were watching a Burmese Python and alligator fight, so we’ve got you covered. Here are the big takeaways of the night.

1) Flat Nuggets fall to Kings, fall out of playoffs, leave Mike Malone searching for leaders. It is just game 35 of 82, it’s just January, and the Denver Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back. Which is to say, there are plenty of reasons not to read too much into this one game.

However, for Denver that one game Tuesday was against Sacramento — the team the Nuggets were tied with for the final playoff spot in the West. And Denver came out flat. They struggled to slow DeMarcus Cousins — they put Wilson Chandler on him early, but he was overpowered by Cousins’ inside and struggled to stay in front of guards when the pick-and-roll was switched — who finished the game with 31 points. Darren Collison added 26. The Kings got the 120-113 win relatively easily, which for a day gives them the lock on the eight seed in the West.

What frustrated coach Mike Malone wasn’t just the loss, it was his team coming out flat in a game that had meaning. He looked at his young team and said it lacked veteran leadership.

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He’s not wrong, Denver is inconsistent and at some point that stability and professionalism has to come from the players, not just the coach. Malone seemed to make a call to Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Danilo Gallinari to step it up.

As for the playoff chase in the West: are seven teams in the West that look like playoff locks if they can stay healthy — Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis. After them it’s a 5.5 game drop to teams: Sacramento is the eight seed right now, Portland is one game back, Denver 1.5 games, and the Pelicans are are just two back. All those teams are in the mix for one playoff spot, so when they face each other it matters. Denver didn’t play with that sense of urgency.

There are seven teams that look like playoff locks if they can stay healthy — Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis. That group has separated itself, it’s a 5.5 game drop to the teams battling for the last ticket to the dance: Sacramento is the eight seed right now, Portland is one game back, Denver 1.5 games, and the Pelicans are are just 2 back. If I had to place my money on one team in that group it would be Portland, just because they have the talent and have reached that stage before. But in fact, it will come down to health and which team makes the smart moves at the trade deadline.

Malone’s point is valid — when one of those four teams going for one spot face each other it is the kind of game your team needs to be up and focused for. Tuesday night Denver didn’t play with that sense of urgency. They looked young and inconsistent. He can rant all he wants, but some of that has to come from the players, not top-down from the coach.

2) Play of the night goes to Sixers, game-winner to beat Minnesota. It was a wild ending in Philadelphia. Minnesota — which has played better, if not consistent, defense of late — held the Sixers to just 14 fourth-quarter points and made a comeback. Joel Embiid tried to put the dagger in the Timberwolves with six seconds left, but Karl-Anthony Towns rejected him.

That set up a Ricky Rubio three that tied the game at 91-91 with 1.6 seconds left. Brett Brown drew up a clever little play — the SLOB play, which starts to look like the “elevator doors” play the Warriors love to run but ends with Robert Covington rolling to the rim relatively uncontested for the bucket. Sixers fans, give some love to Dario Saric for that pass.

3) Spurs thrash Raptors, which leads to the question “will Toronto be buyers at trade deadline?” Tuesday night the Raptors completed their six-game, West Coast road trip and they went 3-3. Teams often fall flat in the last game of a long trip and the Raptors lived up to that, getting thrashed by the Spurs 110-82, with Kawhi Leonard scoring 25 to lead San Antonio. The result here isn’t a shock regardless of the timing, the Spurs are the better team. But this does lead to another question:

Do the Raptors need to be active buyers at the trade deadline?

On this road trip, the Raptors got thrashed by the Warriors and Spurs. Toronto is 0-3 against Cleveland this season. As we have said in this space more than once, the Raptors have a defined spot in the NBA hierarchy right now — they are the second best team in the East, but a clear step or two behind the elite of the NBA.

The Raptors have a window to challenge the Cavaliers at the top of the East, but they need one more star player — ideally at the four. Which is why if the Hawks actually are making Paul Millsap available — and that is not certain, it’s being debated internally in Atlanta — Toronto needs to be buyers. That comes with the questions of what are the Raptors willing to surrender (All-Stars don’t come cheap) and are they willing to give him a max contract this summer to keep him? Or, to cut more to the chase, are the Raptors ready to go all in? Or does GM Masai Ujiri want to save his chips and see if there are better options available this summer? Toronto went hard after Pau Gasol last summer and thought they were in the mix, but he chose the Spurs. Do they want to take that risk again this summer?

This is the golden age of Raptors basketball — this is the best teams they have ever had, and last season was the franchise’s first trip to the Conference Finals. Toronto is very good. But they are in the conference with LeBron James. If they want to compete for it all, they need to take one more step. Will they be able to do that at the trade deadline is the question.

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.