Injuries, defensive woes have Timberwolves playoffs hopes fading

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Early in the season it was impressive — without stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio the Timberwolves were winning enough games to stay above .500. They were defending. The schedule was helpful, but it felt like once they got Kevin Love back from his broken hand and Ricky Rubio back from injury they would bolt up the standings.

Instead, they 5-10 in their last 15.

Kevin Love had hand surgery Tuesday and you can expect to see him again in eight to 10 weeks. Rick Rubio is still on a minutes restriction. Their defense over that span is 26th in the league.

Suddenly, the Timberwolves looks like teams such as the Lakers and Mavericks that need some massive turnarounds and strong runs to even make the playoffs. Minnesota is 16-19, three games out of the playoffs, and dropping like a rock.

The basketball fates have been cruel to Minnesota this season. Love broke his hand in preseason in a fluke — doing knuckle pushups — and he was back for 18 games before he broke the same part of his hand requiring surgery. Rubio is back but as you might expect coming off ACL surgery he is not 100 percent, doesn’t fully trust the knee yet (and says he has a little pain) and is just not the guy from his rookie season.

But as John Schuhmann noted at NBA.com, the defensive fall off is even more confusing.

The Wolves survived that first month and a half because they had a top-five defense. They ranked fifth in defensive efficiency through Dec. 15, allowing just 98.6 points per 100 possessions. Since then, the Wolves have a bottom-five defense, allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions….

The problems seem to start with big man Nikola Pekovic. The Wolves have allowed an atrocious 110.6 points per 100 possessions in Pekovic’s 436 minutes since Dec. 16. But they haven’t been any better (110.4) with Greg Stiemsma playing center either.

It’s not just the bigs, the Minnesota defensive collapse has been complete — the guards aren’t stopping penetration either. It’s a team effort of bad.

And it’s very unlike a Rick Adelman team.

Unless the Timberwolves have a pretty sudden and dramatic reversal of fortune, they will be back in the lottery again. Which was far from the goal they started the season with. But that goal seems to be fading fast.

LeBron James flips elimination-game game on its head

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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His Cavaliers down 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, how does LeBron James assess his situation?

"I don’t enjoy being in the position where it’s you lose and go home," LeBron said before Game 6 tonight in Cleveland.

He might not enjoy this position, but he’s pretty good in it.

Since he first reached the playoffs in 2006, other teams have won 26% of their elimination games. LeBron’s teams have won 57% of theirs.

Of course, LeBron hasn’t gone 12-9 in elimination games just because he’s lucky. He has willed his team off the mat numerous times.

LeBron has scored 40 points and/or had a triple-double in six straight elimination games, winning five of them. His line in his last elimination game before that streak? Just 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

A full history of LeBron’s elimination games:

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Rockets played with fire with Chris Paul, got burned

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Chris Paul played 79 minutes in three days.

Prior to Games 4 and 5 of these Western Conference finals, he hadn’t done that in more than two years. He hadn’t done it without both games going to overtime in more than three years.

The Rockets leaned heavily on the 33-year-old Paul, and they’ll pay the price.

Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow. Given how quickly Houston ruled out Paul with a strained hamstring, he seems unlikely to play in a potential Game 7 Monday.

Injuries are somewhat – but not completely – random. Players are more susceptible when worn down. After missing the close of the 2016 postseason, Paul missed 45 games the last two regular seasons. He has accumulated a lot of mileage in his 13-year career.

Yet, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni drastically shortened his rotation, anyway. Not only did Paul play big minutes in this series, he shouldered a huge load. He took the reins of the offense at times, allowing James Harden to conserve energy for defense, while maintaining his own strong-two way play. That’s never easy, especially in these high-intensity games.

This was the risk.

We can feel bad for Paul and his predicament. We can also acknowledge Houston got this far by gambling on Paul’s health.

That’s not to say it was a bad bet. This is what you save him for, the biggest playoff series of his career and maybe one of the last before he exits his prime. The Rockets would have been far worse off to this point resting Paul extensively and protecting him. Even with such a heavy workload, an injury was never fait accompli. And Houston got plenty from Paul before he went down. He was instrumental to wins in Game 4 and Game 5 that gave the Rockets a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Now, they just must hope that’s enough of a head-start into a world of playing without Paul.

Chris Paul out for Rockets-Warriors Game 6

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The Rockets bought themselves margin for error by earning home-court advantage and taking a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

They’ll need it.

Chris Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow with a strained hamstring.

Rockets release:

The Houston Rockets announced today that guard Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s game at Golden State with a right hamstring strain that occurred during the fourth quarter of last night’s game against the Warriors. He will be re-evaluated after the team returns to Houston.

Golden State was already heavily favored at home. This will tilt the odds even further in its favor.

But the Rockets aren’t completely incapable without Paul. They went 15-9 without him this season. James Harden and Eric Gordon can assume extra playmaking duty.

Still, this is a massive loss. When Harden is overburdened offensively, his defense suffers. Gordon is already playing a lot of minutes, so greater responsibility will come in role, not playing time. To fill Paul’s minutes, Mike D’Antoni will have to expand a rotation he had masterfully tightened. Gerald Green could play more. Luc Mbah a Moute could return to the rotation.

A Game 7 looks increasingly likely. Will Paul return for that? The 2018 NBA title might hinge on that question.

Given how quickly the Rockets announced Paul would miss Game 6, there isn’t much reason for optimism about Paul’s availability three days from now, either.

Report: Chris Paul’s hamstring injury ‘not good’

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The question looming over the Western Conference finals: How is Chris Paul?

The Rockets revealed little last night about Paul’s hamstring injury. Time to see how his body responded would provide clarity.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

That stinks. It’s also a fairly expected development. Paul appeared to be in rough shape before leaving the court.

The Rockets have bought themselves margin for error, but a sidelined or even hobbled Paul would sap a lot of it.

If Paul can’t play in Game 6 tomorrow, expect Eric Gordon and James Harden to receive a larger offensive roles (though not necessarily more minutes). Gerald Green could play more, and maybe Luc Mbah a Moute gets back into the rotation.