Kurt Helin

Associated Press

LeBron James scores 31 as Cavaliers down Hornets 112-103

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The playoffs are close, just around the corner. LeBron James can’t wait for them to begin.

James scored 31 points, J.R. Smith matched a season high with 27 and the Cleveland Cavaliers knocked down 16 3-pointers while playing without an injured Kyrie Irving in a 112-103 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.

James, who has jacked his game up to another level lately, added 12 assists and eight rebounds and Kevin Love added 25 points. After nearly blowing a big lead, the Cavs held off a Charlotte comeback in the fourth quarter and opened a 3 1/2-game lead over idle Toronto for the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

Cleveland has five games left in the regular season, precious time to work on its offensive efficiency and defensive intensity. Then, it’s time to make another run at an NBA title.

“If it started tomorrow, we’d be ready to go,” James said.

Smith made six 3-pointers, Love dropped five and, along with James, the trio combined for 83 points while Irving rested a sprained ankle.

In his past seven games, James, who claimed several weeks ago that he had shifted into playoff mode, is averaging just over 28 points with 9.0 rebounds and 9.2 assists.

And as he prepares for his second postseason since returning to the Cavaliers from Miami, the four-time MVP is healthy in body and spirit.

“I’m ready for whatever level comes at me,” he said. “I feel great, best I’ve felt in the last couple years and continue to lead this team in the right direction.”

Kemba Walker scored 29 points – 21 in the second half – and Marvin Williams added 22 for the Hornets, who got within 96-92 in the fourth before Smith and Love answered with 3-pointers.

Charlotte clinched a playoff spot Saturday and came in temporarily holding the No. 3 spot in the East. The Hornets are 21-7 since Feb. 1.

“They’ve got so many guys who can make plays,” Williams said. “Starting with LeBron, who is obviously one of the best players in the world. They’ve got Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, and Kyrie, who didn’t play. They have a lot of talent over there.”

Irving injured his ankle late in the first half of Friday’s overtime win at Atlanta. He played in the second half and OT session, but still has some soreness and swelling and the Cavs played it safe and rested their star point guard. Coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t know yet if Irving will sit more than one game.

For three quarters, the Cavs barely missed him.

Cleveland shot 68 percent from the floor in the first quarter and barely cooled off, making eight of 14 3-pointers in the opening half to take a 58-42 lead at the break.

The Cavs pushed their lead to 21 on a 3-pointer by Smith, but as so often has been the case this season, they couldn’t maintain their big advantage.

Walker scored 15 points and the Hornets crept within eight, but Smith made a pair of 3s and Mo Williams knocked down a deep shot to put the Cavs ahead 86-71.

HAMPERED HORNETS

Charlotte was without forward Al Jefferson, who has a bruised thigh. Also, forward Nicolas Batum sprained his knee in the first half and did not return. Coach Steve Clifford said the team will be cautious with Batum with the playoffs approaching.

“It’s not the time of year to be messing with it,” Clifford said. “I don’t think it will be anything long term, but we need him healthy. The priority will be him getting back to 100 percent before he plays again.”

TIP-INS

Hornets: Clifford congratulated his team on making the playoffs during Sunday’s morning shootaround. The Hornets qualified when Detroit beat Chicago on Saturday. “It’s great for our guys,” Clifford said. “That was our goal at the beginning of the season and the guys have done a good job. Like most teams, we’ve had our share of adversity and fought through it.” … Rookie G Aaron Harrison was recalled from Erie of the NBA Development League. He has appeared in 18 games for Charlotte.

Cavaliers: Irving had a wrap on his ankle and did not have a noticeable limp when he came into the Cavs’ locker room before the game. … Matthew Dellavedova started for Irving and added 6 points and 9 assists. … Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and pitcher David Price, who will make his Boston debut in Monday’s opener against the Indians, both attended the game.

 

James Harden’s 41 lead Rockets past Thunder 118-110

Associated Press
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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden had 41 points with nine assists to help the Houston Rockets improve their playoff chances with a 118-110 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

With 30 seconds left, Harden stole a pass from Kevin Durant and found Patrick Beverley for a transition dunk to give Houston an eight-point lead and the Rockets held on for an important victory.

The Thunder led by six early in the fourth until Harden hit back-to-back 3s to tie the game at 93.

The inconsistent Rockets have alternated wins and losses for six straight games as they desperately chase a trip to the postseason.

Oklahoma City lost for just the second time in the past three weeks and had won nine of its previous 10 entering Sunday.

Durant had 33 points and eight rebounds for the Thunder.

After posting seven triple-doubles in the month of March, Russell Westbrook had 23 points, 13 rebounds and fell one assist shy of picking up his 17th triple-double of the season.

Houston closes out the season with games against Dallas, Phoenix, the Lakers and Sacramento.

Both teams started off slow. They missed a combined 10 of their first 12 shot attempts and committed a total of 15 first-half turnovers. The Rockets got going with hustle around the rim.

On a second-quarter possession, Houston missed six shots and gathered offensive rebounds every time until Dwight Howard ended it with a dunk to put the Rockets up 33-30.

Houston held a five-point lead at the end of the first quarter after Jason Terry hit a 3-pointer with one second remaining.

The Thunder finished the second quarter on a 7-0 run, capped by a layup from Westbrook that put Oklahoma City up 53-52 at the half.

Oklahoma City built its largest lead of the game midway through the third quarter, going up 12. Houston briefly regained the lead until Durant closed out the quarter with three consecutive free throws to give the Thunder an 82-80 lead entering the fourth.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Oklahoma City had 21 turnovers, Houston had 10. … Enes Kanter scored 16 points off the bench for Oklahoma City in just 18 minutes. . For the sixth time in the past seven games, Nick Collison did not play.

Rockets: SG K.J. McDaniels played a season-high 18 minutes and scored 10 points. … Andrew Goudeluck played for the first time since March 14, picking up two points and two steals in nine minutes. . PF Terrence Jones was the only active Rocket who didn’t play in the game, as he has been out since Feb. 29.

 

Blake Griffin is back for Clippers, shows Lob City has not lost step with alley-oop

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Blake Griffin is back.

He played 24 minutes, and while he showed some rust (2-of-7 shooting overall), he had a nice spin move for a bucket, made a steal, and oh yeah, threw down an alley-oop from Chris Paul. Griffin finished with six points, five rebounds, but was a team best +22 on the day. He’s going to need a few games to find his rhythm again, but he showed flashes of what he can do.

The Clippers got the win 114-109.

Jazz hope to get Alec Burks back this week, in time for playoff push

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The Utah Jazz are currently tied for the last two playoff slots in the Western Conference, the 7/8 seeds, with the Dallas Mavericks (both teams are 38-38). Both are one game ahead of the Houston Rockets.

While playoff prediction sites like the Jazz’s chances — fivethirtyeight.com has them at 89 percent to make the playoffs because of an easier schedule than their competitors — Utah could use any boost it can get.

Like maybe getting guard Alec Burks back from a broken leg sooner than expected. He could be back this week, reports the Salt Lake Tribune’s Tony Jones.

Barring a setback, injured Utah Jazz shooting guard Alec Burks will make his return to the lineup as early as Tuesday night against the San Antonio Spurs, league sources tell The Salt Lake Tribune….

The Jazz have been cautious with his return, wanting to make sure he is 100 percent healthy and that there is no risk of re-injury. He’s been slowly doing more from a basketball standpoint, and recently has been playing full contact 3-on-3 in a half-court setting.

My man, Jody Genessy of the Deseret News (check out our podcast), was a little more cautious.

Burks will be on a minutes limit at first when he does return, but any minutes he can give Utah at the guard spot would be good ones — this is a team that traded for Atlanta’s third-string point guard Shelvin Mack and then started him and gave him heavy minutes because they are so banged up in the backcourt. Before he got injured Burks averaged 14.3 points a contest (third on the team) and was shooting 38.7 percent from three.

If the Jazz can get Burks back this week, it would be a boost, both on the court and emotionally for the young team trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

 

Video evidence Tim Duncan does joke around, has sense of humor

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Gregg Popovich has said he and Tin Duncan joke around sometimes, that Duncan has a sense of humor.

However, that surfaces about as often as a giant squid. There are the HEB commercials and other odd moments, but Duncan’s prankster side remains hidden from the world.

However, there was a sighting on Saturday.

That’s Duncan messing with former teammate and current Spurs color analyst Sean Elliot. Enjoy watching it; we don’t know if or when Duncan’s humor might surface again.