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Game 2 deja vu: Cavaliers race out to big lead early, get 39 from LeBron, rout Raptors

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The Cavaliers raced out to 19-9 start and were an offensive force early — they hit their first eight shots from three and shot 71 percent as a team in the first quarter, which earned them an offensive rating of 148 (points per 100 possessions). Toronto was missing shots and those were becoming transition buckets for the Cavaliers going the other way.

Cleveland also played focused defense, like trapping DeMar DeRozan hard and forcing him into a 2-of-11 shooting night with five points for the game. Meanwhile, LeBron James was getting whatever he wanted on his way to 39 points on 10-of-14 shooting, attacking the rim and getting to the line 21 times. All of this led to Cleveland being up 62-48 at halftime, which was identical to the halftime score of Game 1.

The rest of the game felt like Game 1, too, as the Cavaliers cruised to a 125-103 win where most of the fourth quarter was garbage time.

Cleveland now leads the series 2-0 as it heads to Toronto for Game 3 on Friday night.

“We’re not a complacent team,” LeBron said postgame, which might run counter to some of the malaise we saw from the team during the regular season, but this is the playoffs and the Cavs have looked sharper this series. “We know that their home court can be very dangerous, we found that out last year, we had a 2-0 lead and dropped two in a row on their floor, so we’ve got to learn from that experience and get better going into this year.”

After watching the first two games, it’s hard to see how Toronto makes a serious comeback without a lot of help from Cleveland. Yes, this is what happened a year ago — two blowout wins by the Cavaliers at home, then Toronto won on their home court — but that series never really felt in doubt either. Toronto has to defend better and that’s in the paint, at the arc, and in their rotations. Everything has to be crisper and at a new level to win a game at home.

“We should be embarrassed, we should be angry, we should be pissed off, mad,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said postgame.

The Cavs offense has been spectacular — Cleveland had 18 threes in the game, but a lot of those were fairly well contested — and their defense is improved this round.

The Cavaliers are taking what the defense gives them, and that was getting inside and getting fouled in Game 2 (LeBron had more free throw attempts, 21, than the entire Raptors team, 19, which speaks far more to aggressiveness than officiating).

This game also saw LeBron pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second on the all-time playoff points scored list.

For the Raptors, DeRozan has to get going at home Friday. He is 9-of-27 shooting through two games, and he is too crucial to their offense not to have him making a bigger impact.

“No, we can’t. To be honest with you, we can’t (win if DeRozan doesn’t get his usual number of points),” Casey said. “They’re into him, bodying him, and he’s got to vault up and make his shots, I’ve got to do a better job of getting him open looks.”

Casey tried to shake things up starting Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell again, going smaller, but it didn’t have a huge impact. Toronto did get a boost from Jonas Valanciunas is punishing the Cavs second unit inside — at one point he had 18 points on 9-of-10 shooting, and he finished the game with 23 points. However, his inability to guard on the perimeter allowed to the Cavaliers get some buckets as well, there was a tradeoff.

There just aren’t a lot of good answers for the Raptors if LeBron is on his game and the Cavaliers care about defense. That’s what happened through two games in Cleveland, we’ll see if the dynamic changes in Toronto.

 

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.