NBA Playoffs: Durant + Defense = Date with Dallas for Thunder

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No doubt, Kevin Durant was special Sunday. In the biggest game of his NBA career he remained undaunted through a slow start and hit 11 of his last 16 shots on his way to 39 points. He played smart, used back-door cuts to get easy baskets, and once he got rolling everything fell.

But that’s not what won the Thunder Game 7 — it was their defense.

And they’re going to need more (and actually better) defense like that against Dallas. But for a night they can celebrate that defense and a 105-90 win that gave the Thunder a 4-3 series win and a trip to the conference finals.

Memphis, whether due to the tightness of the situation or the tightness of the Thunder defense (or likely a little of both), could not buy an outside shot in this game. On shots outside of 10 the Grizzlies shot just 34 percent. They were just 5-of-15 from three. (Stats via Hoopdata.)

That allowed the Thunder pack the paint with defenders and contest everything close to the basket, where the Grizzlies like to make their music. The Thunder had 11 blocked shots in the game. They had a hand up on everything. No quarter was given. The result there was the Grizzlies shooting 6-of-25 outside the restricted area out to 9 feet. (That makes it 29 percent total shooting for Memphis when they were outside the restricted area in this game.)

The Thunder defense bottled up Zach Randolph, who had just two shots inside the restricted area. Fantastic defense by Nick Collison off the bench helped hold Randolph to 2-of-9 shooting from 3 to 9 feet (Collison had three blocks in the first half). With his struggles the Grizzlies started to more and more go away from Randolph as the game wore on. Then, when he would get the ball back, you knew he was going to force up the shots because he wasn’t getting the touches he wanted, all of which made him easier to defend.

That opened the door for Durant to be the hero … although didn’t look like he was going to walk through it early on. He went 2-for-9 to start, but then he got two dunks on back cuts and lobs from Russell Westbrook, and that seemed to wake him up. He shot 11-of-16 the rest of the way.

In the later parts of the third the Thunder went on a 13-2 run that was a whole lot of Durant (with some James Harden thrown in), including Durant blocking a Mike Conley shot at one end then coming back and draining the three in transition. The Grizzlies could never recover from that.

Russell Westbrook, who took a lot of heat this series for at times shooting too much and passing to little, but he recorded a triple-double with 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Westbrook has this kind of game in him and he does it during the season, if inconsistently. But he did a great job of hitting Durant on back door cuts and he left the ball to him as a trailer in transition that led to a three. Westbrook can score almost at will, and there will be games the Thunder need that, but when he gets everyone involved like this the Thunder are almost unbeatable.

Harden was so hot his beard was about to catch fire. He and 17 points and hit 4-of-8 from three.

Sunday could be the kind of big, statement game from the Thunder that says they have arrived as contenders. But they will need to prove that against a well-rested Dallas team starting Tuesday night. There is no time to rest.

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Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.