After a dunkfest in Game 1, Cavs must slow Warriors at rim

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The first-half list of baskets for Golden State’s Kevin Durant in Game 1 of the NBA Finals went like this: layup, dunk, jumper, dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk, layup, dunk, layup.

Most were easy.

And easy isn’t supposed to happen, especially not at the rim in the NBA Finals.

Forget all the things that Cleveland did wrong offensively in Game 1, the poor shooting and the 20 turnovers and how the bench basically contributed nothing and how Rihanna got – and merited – more commentary from ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy than J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson did.

The Cavs can score. They’ll likely be better on Sunday night in Game 2. That isn’t the issue.

The issue is this: If the reigning NBA champions don’t show some toughness – especially at the rim – soon, they won’t be reigning NBA champions much longer.

“I think that’s how Cleveland is going to approach it, make it a physical game,” Michael Cooper, now the coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream who went through some epic Lakers-Celtics battles as a player in the 1980s, said before the series began. “Golden State wants a finesse game.”

Finesse won Game 1.

And after a team has been blown out in the playoffs, history shows that team typically tries to make a statement in Game 2 that things will be different.

Funny thing is for Cleveland, the Cavs had the answer they needed to just that three months ago in Andrew Bogut. Problem is, they only had him for 58 seconds .

Let’s clear up a misconception: Golden State’s biggest undoing on the way to blowing that 3-1 lead in last season’s NBA Finals was not Draymond Green‘s Game 5 suspension for connecting with LeBron James‘ midsection.

The Warriors lost that series because Bogut – their best rim protector – got hurt in Game 5 .

And this year, it was Cleveland’s turn to lose Bogut.

He started the year in Dallas, got traded to and ultimately waived by Philadelphia, and signed with Cleveland because the Cavs knew they needed – and wanted – another tough guy who could clog the lane and had playoff experience. And there is no doubt he would have been eager to go against the team that jettisoned him to the Mavericks to make room for Durant.

But Bogut checked into a game against Miami for his Cavs debut, collided with Heat rookie Okaro White, and broke his left leg. Season over. So while he was tweeting Thursday about Santa Claus and Australian Rules Football, Durant was dunking on the sort of nonexistent defense typically seen at an All-Star Game and not the NBA Finals.

Durant had six dunks, all in the first half.

– The first came off a great cut to beat James.

– The second, James got no help after he swiped unsuccessfully at the ball.

– The third, James slipped and again no help came.

– The fourth, Kyrie Irving didn’t stop the ball as Durant sailed past.

– The fifth, Shaun Livingston faked the Cavs out and Durant was left all alone.

– The sixth, Durant drove the lane and Smith ran away to cover Stephen Curry.

“We made a lot of mistakes. They capitalized,” James said. “And we get an opportunity to get a couple days to see what they did and see what we did wrong and how we can be better in Game 2.”

To be fair, playing the Warriors is a slew of pick-your-poison decisions. Overcommit to the lane, and their shooters will tee off from 3-point range. Overplay the perimeter, and the rim is undefended. They’ve won 28 of their last 29 games. They’re 80-15 this season. They could post the second-best record in NBA history when counting the regular season and playoffs, behind only the 1995-96 Bulls.

Today’s NBA isn’t the sort of league where someone is going to clothesline Durant or any other Warrior to send some sort of foolish overly physical message, nor should it be. Though Kevin McHale’s aggressive at-the-rim takedown of Kurt Rambis in the 1984 title matchup remains a quintessential moment in postseason lore (and swung that Celtics-Lakers series totally Boston’s way).

And this series is a long way from over. James has been on the losing end of Game 1 of the Finals seven times in eight tries. He was down 1-0 in all three of the series where he went on to win a ring. Not even a 3-1 deficit last year was enough to faze him.

But someone from Cleveland, maybe many someones, had better find a way to make life tougher for the Warriors going forward starting on Sunday.

Or else a lot more dunks are coming.

Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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.