Seeming rash of injuries could shape NBA playoff picture

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On a court in Denver, Knicks fans watched Carmelo Anthony leave early to get to the locker room as his knee was clearly bothering him into another bad shooting night. Later he was on a plane back to New York to get fluid drained from that knee and other procedures to get him back on the court.

On a court in Atlanta, Lakers fans watched Kobe Bryant go down and twist his ankle on a final shot. He limped off the court but afterwards said he was out indefinitely.

Injuries that shape the playoffs are nothing new — remember Derrick Rose last year? — and there are not really more this season than any other. It just feels like it (as it does every year).

But a series of injuries old and new are going to shape the race up to the playoffs and then the playoffs themselves.

• Kobe Bryant’s ankle. This one could potentially keep the Lakers out of the playoffs, although I wouldn’t bet on it. Mostly because the wheels are coming off the Jazz (half a game back of the Lakers on Thursday) and they are not running away with a playoff slot with Utah having a tough schedule ahead. The door opens for Dallas a little, but just a little. Also, this is Kobe, who deals with injuries about like the Black Knight of Monty Python fame (“’Tis a flesh wound”). He will be back on the court as fast as his body allows. That could be a week, it could be three, but bet on the lower end of that scale. Still, in recent weeks the Lakers have run a tight 8-man player rotation and even with that when Kobe sits the Lakers offense has been unimpressive. They need to find some points, fast.

However, the Lakers could be in trouble even when Kobe returns. Los Angeles has been winning lately but the margin for error with this team remains small — it had to come from 25 back on the Hornets and beat the Raptors in overtime. That margin is a whole lot smaller against the Thunder or Spurs. Kobe has taken over the role of playmaker on the Lakers (with Steve Nash playing off the ball) and if he is half a step slow in the playoffs because of his injuries the Lakers will go from “long shot” to “never got out of the starting gate.”

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• Carmelo Anthony’s knee. He walked off the court during another unimpressive outing — much to the delight of Nuggets fans — because as much as he has tried to play through it for weeks, Anthony realized it was time something had to be done about his continuing knee issue. In the short term, he is flying back to New York and will get his knee drained. He’ll miss a couple games. That doesn’t really help the Knicks in their quest to retake the No. 2 seed from Indiana (or even stave off the Nets, the four seed that is 1.5 games back of New York) but it has to be done.

Because come the playoffs, if the Knicks are going to be the team that breaks out of that clump fighting to be the second best team in the East and to challenge the Heat, they are going to need the best of ‘Melo. He has to be healthy, he has to be on fire. Fluid buildup in the knee is a symptom of some other irritation, so if the Knicks stick around in the playoffs Anthony might need to have it drained again. But certainly the status of Anthony’s knee impacts the Knicks.

• Tyson Chandler’s knee. It looked scary when it happened and the tough-guy Chandler had to be helped to the locker room in Denver Wednesday night, but after the game he was walking without crutches and it didn’t seem to be serous. Which is great news for New York — besides Carmelo the other thing the Knicks must have in the playoffs is better defense than they have been playing of late. And that starts with the former Defensive Player of the Year. He has to be a defensive terror in the paint in the postseason for the Knicks to make a run.

• Danny Granger’s knee. The Pacers have a championship caliber defense, but they have a terrible offense. Danny Granger was their leading scorer last year and it was assumed that when he returned to the lineup the Pacers offense would pick up. It didn’t. Then Granger barely played and had to sit out again. Unless Granger can get healthy and the Pacers offense can find steady points — and stop taking those 5 minute breaks mid-game — the Pacers are not breaking out of the pack in the East.

• Derrick Rose’s knee. The Bulls are another strong defensive team whose offense was fully based around the former league MVP. When he went down in the first round of the playoffs last year the No. 1 seed Bulls were pushed aside by the Sixers. Without him all season the Bulls offense has been bottom 10 in the league. The theory goes that with him — even 70 percent of him — and the Bulls offense returning to good, they could be the team that beaks out of the pack in the East and gets a run at Miami. But Rose isn’t coming back until he is over the mental hurdles of trusting his knee, and if that means he misses the season he’s good with that. If he returns, we’ll see where the Bulls stand, they have struggled of late and need to get Joakim Noah and Luol Deng a little rest, too.

• Tony Parker’s ankle. The Spurs are the top seed in the West and Tony Parker was having the kind of season that could have him No. 3 on a lot of MVP ballots at the end of the season (if you put him in front of LeBron and Durant, you’re doing it wrong). As we have seen the last few years, the Spurs execution in the regular season can be countered some in the playoffs, but this year feels different — the Spurs are defending again and guys like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard are not just system guys but quality players. The Spurs have a real shot to beat the Thunder is seven games and get back to the finals, but not without 100 percent of Tony Parker slashing up the OKC defense. He is the guy that makes it all go for them in crunch time and if he is not fully ready for the playoffs the Spurs could see another early exit.

Damain Lillard outduels Russell Westbrook again, Blazers go up 3-1

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Damian Lillard scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers held Russell Westbrook without a basket in the second half in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-98 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their series.

Lillard had another big third quarter after scoring 25 points in the period in a Game 3 loss Friday. In this game, the All-Star point guard was 5 of 7 in the third to help Portland take control for good.

Lillard made his first basket with 1:14 left in the first half after missing his first six shots, but he still had seven assists before the break.

“We’ve kind of come to expect it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He manages the game. He senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. He is going to give it his all.”

C.J. McCollum scored 27 points, Al-Farouq Aminu had 19 points and nine rebounds and Maurice Harkless added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Trail Blazers. Portland can close out the series Tuesday at home.

Paul George had 32 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder added 17 points.

Westbrook scored 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He missed his final 10 shots and was 0 for 7 for one point in the second half.

George missed most of the second quarter with three fouls, but the Thunder hung tough and led for much of the period. Lillard hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half to give Portland the lead, then Aminu hit a 3 with 3.9 seconds left as the Trail Blazers took a 50-46 edge into the break.

“I thought in the first half, we weathered the storm a little bit with Paul picking up fouls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We didn’t close the half very well and gave them momentum going into the locker room.”

Lillard hit deep back-to-back 3s 27 seconds apart to give Portland a 66-54 lead. The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 19 in the third quarter before the Thunder closed the gap. George hit a 3-pointer from the corner in the closing seconds to cut Portland’s lead to 79-68.

A 3-pointer by Schroder cut Portland’s lead to 97-87 with 3:35 remaining, but the Trail Blazers maintained control.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Lillard was just 2 of 8 in the first half and scored seven points. … Made 22 of 23 free throws. … Outrebounded the Thunder 41-38.

Thunder: Donovan was called for a technical in the first quarter for a no-call against Steven Adams. … Shot 37.5 percent from the field. … Westbrook had nine rebounds and seven assists.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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Kawhi Leonard scores 34 as Raptors take 3-1 lead over Magic

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Kawhi Leonard missed the NBA playoffs last season, in multiple ways.

He wasn’t playing the games.

He wasn’t feeling the games, either.

That’s not a problem this season for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP. Healthy and happy, Leonard has the Toronto Raptors one win away from the second round. He scored 34 points and the Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 107-85 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series.

“You just want to be out there on the floor, with your teammates and just feel that team spirit and chemistry, just trying to focus on one goal,” said Leonard, who was out for almost all of last season, his last with San Antonio before an offseason trade to Toronto. “That’s something I was missing, just being out, sitting out. That’s why it’s a blessing this year just to be able to play and be on the floor, regardless of what the outcome is.”

Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell each scored 16 for the Raptors, who can advance with a home win in Game 5 on Tuesday. Toronto has now won three consecutive postseason games, only the third time that’s happened in franchise history.

Aaron Gordon scored 25 for the Magic, making his first seven shots of the second half. Evan Fournier scored 19 and Nikola Vucevic added 11 for the Magic, who committed 17 turnovers that became 21 Toronto points.

“We’re better than what we’ve shown,” Gordon said.

And now the Magic’s season is squarely on the brink. There have been 11 teams to successfully rally from a 3-1 series deficit in a best-of-seven NBA series, and of those, only three pulled it off by winning a Game 7 on the road.

So it’s not impossible – just highly improbable.

“Our guys have fought hard all year,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

He liked the fight on Sunday, too.

Leonard just always had the better counterpunch.

He made 12 of 20 shots, added six rebounds and scored his 34 points in 35 minutes. He was in total control on both ends, and the Raptors shot 53 percent – a franchise record for a road playoff game. Serge Ibaka scored 13 and Kyle Lowry had nine assists for the Raptors.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Leonard said. “And obviously, we all know the job isn’t done yet.”

A flurry at the end of the first half, led by Leonard and Siakam, put Toronto up by double digits and the margin stayed there the rest of the way.

Vucevic missed from close range – the Magic argued that Leonard was guilty of goaltending, the referees disagreed – with about 2:45 left in the half, a disputed play that could have gotten Orlando within seven.

Instead, the Magic went into the break down by 16.

Toronto closed the half on an 11-1 run, with Leonard scoring the first five and Siakam hitting a pair of 3s for the final six. The last of those 3s by Siakam came with 4.5 seconds left, and the Raptors headed into intermission with a 58-42 cushion.

“These series, and the games in the series, are a lot about imposing your will on a team,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

Whenever Orlando flashed some hope in the third quarter, Leonard immediately snuffed it out.

A dunk by Gordon cut the lead to 13? Leonard made a 3.

A 3-pointer by Fournier to get within 12? Leonard made a pullup.

A stepback by Gordon to get within 12 again? Leonard split defenders, absorbed contact and laid the ball in to start a three-point play.”

“He’s a Finals MVP,” Gordon said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. That’s what they pay the man for, to come down here and be Kawhi Leonard.”

And before long, there was no more doubt about the outcome. Magic fans started leaving midway through the fourth quarter. The team’s dancers gathered for a group photo at midcourt not long after the final buzzer, as if they knew the last home game of the season had just ended.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Toronto is 28-2 this season (and 16-0 on the road) when leading by at least 10 points at the half. … Leonard’s teams are 60-31 when he plays in the postseason. Among players in this year’s playoffs with at least 60 postseason wins, only Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry – all Golden State Warriors – have a better winning percentage.

Magic: Orlando, which fell behind 11-0 in Game 2 and 10-0 in Game 3, started Game 4 on a 7-0 run. The Magic started 6 for 6 from the field, and then missed 26 of their next 38 shots – going 1 for 13 from 3-point range during that drought. … Terrence Ross beat the buzzer for the second straight game; it was a midcourt shot to close the first half of Game 2, and this time it was a 35-footer to end the third quarter.

VIRAL MOMENT

Nurse was trending on social media for much of the game, after a fairly nondescript 3-second call on Fred VanVleet with 2:12 left in the opening quarter elicited quite the reaction from him. Nurse stood almost perfectly still on the sideline after the call, his mouth agape for about 15 seconds in some sort of disbelief. “Is that a good thing?” Nurse asked afterward, when told he was a social-media phenomenon.

UNTIMELY

Orlando has dropped three straight, its longest slide since losing four in a row from Jan. 23-29. The Magic have also been held under 100 points in three straight games for the first time since Jan. 6-9.

UP NEXT

Game 5 is Tuesday in Toronto.

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Kyle Korver: ‘I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell’ (VIDEO)

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Utah Jazz wing Kyle Korver has played with some good point yards in his career. Deron Williams, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder… the list is long.

That’s why what Korver said on Sunday impacted so many people.

Speaking to reporters this week, Korver said that he had never seen a young player like Donovan Mitchell take over a team and take responsibility for leadership the way the second-year Jazz player had.

Via Twitter:

Those are some pretty strong words of support by Korver, and Mitchell is going to need them. The Jazz are now down, 3-0, to the Houston Rockets in their first round series.

Draymond Green leaves arena wearing brace on right wrist (PHOTO)

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The Golden State Warriors have a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series. But as it often happens in the playoffs, it appears the Warriors could be starting to get banged up.

After the game on Sunday, Draymond Green was seen wearing a brace on his right hand. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Logan Murdock published a photo after the game of Green sporting his new supporting wrap.

According to Green, it’s nothing to worry about.

Via NBC Sports Bay Area:

The next game in the series isn’t for a couple of days, so Green has a chance to rest up. Still, the idea that Warriors could lose some production value out of one of their most important playoff performers isn’t great.

Hopefully Green will be able to get healthy and the athletic staff will get him some treatment that works so he can play effectively moving forward.