Celtics aim to ride home-court edge vs. Wizards in Game 7

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BOSTON  (AP) — Will the banners, the history, save the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals?

Or will the Washington Wizards, who are trying to reach the conference finals for the first time since 1979, come into TD Garden and record the first road win in 11 games this season between two teams that have exchanged all kinds of unpleasantries throughout the year?

The answer will come Monday night, when the series comes down to one game. The winner moves on to oppose the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East finals beginning Wednesday.

“We believe we should be playing against Cleveland, and beat Cleveland and go to the championship,” Boston’s Avery Bradley said.

Celtics great Bill Russell, arguably the greatest winner in the history of the four major sports, never lost one a winner-take-all game. In fact, he was 10-0 in Game 7s in the NBA and also won two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal — and his banner will be looking down on the Red Auerbach court for this rather important contest.

The Wizards pulled even with a 92-91 victory Friday that was easily the best game of the series. It came down to the final seconds, and the NBA admitted that the Celtics should have had an extra second for a final shot.

That can’t be fixed — so Boston, aiming for its first conference finals appearance since 2012, will have to win it at home.

This is a week that is fairly important in the current and future history of the Boston franchise. In addition to Game 7 on Monday, the draft lottery in which the Celtics will receive no worse than the fourth pick via the Brooklyn Nets is Tuesday, ahead of what they hope will be Game 1 of the conference finals against the champion Cavaliers.

The Wizards, who won Game 6 after the Celtics showed up at the arena wearing black funeral clothing, have other ideas.

They come in determined to win at TD Garden for the first time since 2014. Washington has endured eight consecutive losses, five this season, on the Celtics’ home floor.

The Wizards go as their two guards — John Wall and Bradley Beal — go. Wall has overcome some shooting droughts to be outstanding throughout, and he hit the 3-pointer that won Game 6. He is averaging 27.9 points in the playoffs, and Beal is averaging 23.8 points. Both are tough to stop.

“Now those guys are not babies anymore. They’re closers,” teammate Ian Mahinmi told the Washington Post. “They’re proven closers.”

Mimicking what the Wizards had done before a regular-season game, the Celtics wore black into the Verizon Center for Game 6, and it may have backfired and helped add fire to the home team. Still, the Wizards were facing elimination and needed a 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left and the added drama of the final seconds to finish it off and bring it back to Boston.

“Don’t come to my city wearing all black talking about it’s a funeral,” Wall said on ESPN after that game. “We worked too hard for this.”

And there’s more work to be done by both of these teams. One will advance Monday night, the other will go home and watch.

“Man, I don’t believe in pressure,” said Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who has ridden an emotional and physical roller coaster while averaging 25.1 points in the playoffs. “I work too hard to be scared of any type of pressure.”

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.