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James Harden has 37 points; Rockets rout Thunder, Westbrook 118-87

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HOUSTON (AP) — Although James Harden is Houston’s undisputed star, he can’t top Russell Westbrook entirely on his own.

As is so often the case, Patrick Beverley was there for support Sunday night.

Harden scored 37 points to outshine Westbrook, and the Rockets pulled away in the third quarter and coasted to a 118-87 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

Harden had nine assists and seven rebounds, and Beverley, who had the unenviable task of guarding Westbrook, had a playoff career-best 21 points along with 10 rebounds.

Beverley’s performance was nothing new to Harden, who has had a front row seat to his work for years.

“That’s the reason we’re in the position we’re in,” Harden said. “He brings it every game. Whether his shot is falling or not, he brings that intensity, that resolve. He was just Pat tonight.”

The best-of-seven Western Conference series continues Wednesday night in Houston.

The third-seeded Rockets were up by 20 when Harden came off the bench with about seven minutes remaining. He went right to work – making two 3-pointers to power a 10-0 run and push the lead to 110-80 with 4 1/2 minutes left. Harden, who along with Westbrook is a front-runner for MVP, went to the bench, and both teams cleared their benches soon after that.

Westbrook had 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, but made just 6 of 23 shots and had nine turnovers for the sixth-seeded Thunder.

“We’ve got to do a better job starting with myself – got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball and making some shots,” Westbrook said.

Beverley refused to take credit for slowing Westbrook down.

“It was a team effort in just trying to show him a lot of bodies,” he said. “He’s one of the most explosive guards in this league, so we were just trying to make it tough on him.”

The Thunder trailed by 15 entering the fourth quarter, and six straight points by the Rockets extended the lead to 100-78 with about 7 1/2 minutes remaining. Lou Williams scored the first four points in that span, and Beverley found Clint Capela on an alley-oop dunk.

The Rockets scored the first five points of the second half to push their lead to 10 early in the third quarter. After a timeout, Oklahoma City scored the next eight points with 3s from Westbrook and Andre Roberson to cut it to 64-62 with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the quarter.

Houston scored the next nine points, capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Beverley to make it 73-64 midway through the period.

Beverley went to the bench soon after that to a huge ovation and a high five from Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, who watched the game from a courtside seat.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan raved about Beverley.

“He played a very, very good game,” Donavan said. “I thought he impacted the game way, way more with his energy, his effort, his hustle, his loose balls, his offensive rebounding, keeping balls alive. That’s where he really did a great job.”

Westbrook ended a scoring drought of almost 3 1/2 minutes for the Thunder with a layup, but Houston used an 8-2 spurt – highlighted by a 3 from Eric Gordon – to push the lead to 81-68 with just more than three minutes remaining in the third.

Harden made a pair of free throws to cap the third quarter and leave Houston up 89-74 entering the fourth.

For Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, it’s the first postseason win since April 27, 2008, with Phoenix. D’Antoni’s teams were swept in the first round in his last two trips to the playoffs in 2011 with the Knicks and 2013 with the Lakers.

Houston’s victory comes after the team went 3-1 in the regular season against the Thunder.

The Rockets led 59-54 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Roberson added 18 points with seven rebounds. … Oklahoma City, which led the NBA in rebounding in the regular season, was outrebounded 56-41. … Jerami Grant had 10 points.

Rockets: Capela missed a few minutes in the second quarter to receive three stitches in his lip. He had 14 points and seven rebounds. … Nene had 15 points. … Houston had 31 second-chance points to just four by the Thunder.

THEY SAID IT

Thunder center Steven Adams on Oklahoma City’s performance: “We were just trash on the reads, on the pick-and-rolls. We were just absolutely garbage. We just have to go back to the drawing board and figure it out before Game 2.”

PUTTING THE WIN IN PERSPECTIVE

D’Antoni wants to make sure that his team realizes it still has a lot of work to do despite its big win.

“All we did is defend our home court, and that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “It’s nice to play well and get the win because you have to, but this is just one little step … in the big scheme of things. I’m sure they’ll bounce back, and we’ve got to be ready to go.”

 

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.