LeBron has mastered art of first-round playoff knockouts

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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James is a perfect 10 in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

As he enters his 11th postseason in 13 years, James, who is seeking a sixth straight appearance in the Finals, has a spotless record in the opening round while playing for Cleveland and Miami. And the four-time league MVP figures to continue his streak of first-round knockouts when the Cavaliers take on the Detroit Pistons starting Sunday.

Although the top-seeded Cavs are heavily favored over the eighth-seeded Pistons, James isn’t taking anything for granted.

“They got a well-coached, balanced team and they’ve fought their way into the playoffs and we have to respect them,” he said.

Returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the young-and-talented Pistons won’t be intimidated by the matchup after winning three of four – both teams rested their starters in the finale – against the Cavaliers in the regular season. Detroit’s future is bright, but it’s hard to imagine a team with little postseason experience taking down James.

Overall, James is 40-7 in the first round and only had one series extended to six games.

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who has faced James before in the playoffs, knows his squad has a tough task.

“It will be difficult,” Van Gundy said. “They’re the No. 1 seed in the East. They’re a team that went to the Finals last year. They’ve got three All-Star-caliber guys, one probably the best player in the world. And their complementary guys are very good.”

Of course, the Pistons’ primary objective will be to slow James, who had a fabulous finish to the regular season and is focused on returning to the Finals.

James, who has also won 13 straight first-round openers, can’t be guarded by one player, which presents Van Gundy and the Pistons with the dilemma of how much help to bring when he has the ball.

Van Gundy, a baseball junkie, said it’s like pitching to Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.

“It’s like major league hitters,” he said. “If you have a hole somewhere and people find out about it and they can hit it, you’re not going to be very good. If you’re Miguel Cabrera and you don’t have a hole – good luck. Pitch him the best you can, he’s still going to hit the (snot) out of it.”

Here are other things to watch as the Cavs and Pistons meet in the postseason for the first time since 2008-09, when Cleveland won in four games.

WELCOMED BACK: Injuries derailed Cleveland’s championship chase last year, when Kevin Love was knocked out in the first round with a shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving went down with a serious knee injury in the Finals. Love and Irving are eager for their second tastes of the postseason.

“I just feel like I’m in a good place,” Irving said. “And last year, going through the playoffs injured, obviously it’s still in my head. But I’m way past that point, which I’m happy about.”

Love and Irving are playing well lately, which should ease the burden on James, who can carry the Cavs by himself but is even more dangerous with a strong supporting cast.

LUE’S DEBUT: For the second straight year, the Cavs enter the playoffs with a first-year coach. Tyronn Lue has postseason experience as a player, but this is his first foray as the man in charge. Lue took over in January when David Blatt was fired and guided the Cavs to a 27-14 record and top seed in the conference.

James doesn’t know if his coach’s familiarity with playoff pressure will serve him, but he’s confident in Lue.

“We’re going to find out, but he’s our coach and we love him,” James said. “We trust the system that he’s put in. We trust the process that he’s put in, and the game plan going into Sunday we trust. So I think the fact that he’s been a part of big playoff games as a player and as a coach benefits our team – for sure.”

ACTION JACKSON: Pistons starting point guard Reggie Jackson should be close to 100 percent after being kept out of the final two games with an abdominal strain. Jackson averages 18.8 points and Detroit’s counting on him to provide offense to counter Cleveland’s firepower.

Jackson scored 23 points in two of the Pistons’ wins over the Cavs, and his matchup with Irving will be entertaining.

BOARD BATTLE: Lue’s recent decision to move Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup ahead of Timofey Mozgov gets an immediate test as the Cavs try to keep Pistons big man Andre Drummond – the NBA’s leading rebounder – from dominating the boards.

The 6-foot-11 Drummond averaged 14.8 rebounds, one more than DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers.

“We have to do our best to keep him off the boards and have it be a team effort,” Love said. “He’s a load down there.”

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.