MVP favorites James Harden, Russell Westbrook in first-round showdown

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HOUSTON (AP) — While everyone must wait more than two months for the NBA’s MVP to be announced, the league will showcase the two front-runners for the honor in James Harden and Russell Westbrook when the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder open a first-round playoff series Sunday night.

“I think the league is very prosperous because we’ve got some great players that are doing things that I don’t think any fan has ever seen, or they have seen and they probably can’t remember it because it’s been so long,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Putting up unbelievable numbers, unbelievable seasons and some great story lines. It’s good for the NBA. It’s great for business.”

The Rockets had the third-best record in the NBA and are eyeing a deep playoff run in their first season under D’Antoni after being ousted in the first round by Golden State last year. Oklahoma City is in the unfamiliar role of underdog after reaching the Western Conference finals last season before also being eliminated by the Warriors.

Most expect either Harden or Westbrook to take home the MVP trophy on June 26 after both players had stellar regular seasons. Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game- all career bests – in helping Houston to a 55-27 record.

Harden had 22 triple-doubles and became the first player in NBA history to have 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659) in a single season.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double by scoring an NBA-best 31.6 points a game, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He set an NBA record for most triple-doubles with 42, allowing the Thunder to withstand the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency and secure the sixth seed.

Harden and Westbrook are former teammates in Oklahoma City and remain good friends, but neither seems drawn by the hype that this series is all about them. Harden cut off a reporter before he could finish his question about how the focus entering this series is on him and Westbrook.

“I don’t really care about the talks,” he said. “I just want to win.”

When prodded about what makes Westbrook so good, Harden provided some praise for the fellow point guard.

“Obviously he’s talented, really explosive (and) athletic,” Harden said. “He just goes out there and plays relentless.”

Westbrook acknowledged it will be “cool” to match up against his friend in this best-of-seven series.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “Something that we can talk about later on down the line. Definitely, it’s good.”

Some things to know about the Thunder-Rockets series.

GUARDING THE MVP

Houston’s Patrick Beverley and Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson have perhaps the toughest jobs in this series, as they’ll guard Westbrook and Harden. Both teams will certainly employ various tactics to slow down the other’s star, but Beverley and Roberson will be the first line of defense.

“Pat is probably the unsung hero,” D’Antoni said. “His edginess and what he has to do, he has to guard Westbrook … he is a big, big part of what we do.”

Beverley embraces the challenge.

“It’s going to be hard as hell,” he said. “He’s one of the most explosive point guards probably to ever play the game. But you know me. It will be fun.”

Roberson feels the same way about Harden.

“I definitely like a challenge, and I like to go against the best,” he said. “Go out there and prove we’re just as good, too.”

OKC’S REBOUNDING

The Rockets know a key to success will be limiting Oklahoma City’s rebounding. The Thunder led the league with 46.6 rebounds a game and tied for first by averaging 12.2 offensive boards.

D’Antoni has been drilling those numbers into his players’ heads for weeks, bringing it up repeatedly as soon as it looked like the Rockets would draw the Thunder in the first round.

“You’ve got to rebound,” D’Antoni said simply.

GORDON’S IMPACT

Eric Gordon is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists off the bench in his first season in Houston after five years with New Orleans. Gordon, who has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons, appeared in 75 games, which is the most since he played 78 as a rookie in 2008-09. Gordon ranked fourth in the NBA with a career-high 246 3-pointers, after he hadn’t made more than 141 in a year in the first eight seasons of his career.

He takes pride in being a spark off the bench.

“We’ve got some guys that can make an impact, so we just want to press the gas,” he said. “If our first unit gets the lead, we want to (extend) the lead even more.”

This will be just his second trip to the playoffs after he appeared in just one series with the Pelicans, in 2015.

 

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty: