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Three Things to Watch in Playoffs Thursday: Don’t bet on a cold Durant, Westbrook again

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These have been the most lopsided NBA playoffs in history so far. Maybe tonight’s games will bring us some drama. Did you hear that Basketball Gods, we want a close game! What must we sacrifice to please you? Anyway, here’s what to keep an eye out for on Thursday.

1) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not going to go a combined 15-55 again. As Steve Clifford reminded the media — or as Terry Stotts would be happy to tell you as he watches Damian Lillard struggle — it’s a make-or-miss league. In Game 2 Durant and Westbrook missed a lot — missed early, missed good looks late, missed potential game winners. That’s not going to happen again. There’s more drama around if the Mavs will try to break up Westbrook’s pregame dance routine again than there is about whether KD will shoot better. For Westbrook, the bigger questions surround his disinterested and poor late-game defense in Game 2 — when his offensive game was off, he was unfocused (to put it kindly) on key plays down the stretch. Don’t expect that to happen again, either.

The series is 1-1 and going back to Dallas, but the Mavs are going to have to play better because you can be sure the Thunder will. It took a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by the Thunder for Dallas to win by one point — and now the Mavs could be without Dirk Nowitzki who is questionable with a knee injury (although he joked it’s not going to impact his game because he doesn’t move well anyway). Wesley Matthews and Raymond Felton will need to come up big (again). Expect a storm of energy from the Thunder early, but if Dallas can withstand it at home — or just come back on the Thunder in the fourth like everyone does — this series may get very interesting.

2) At home, with their backs against the wall, with maybe no Stephen Curry against them, can Houston play like they care? Through two games, it has felt like the Houston Rockets are treating their first-round playoff series against Golden State like I used to treat the last week of school before summer vacation. It’s a countdown. Nothing more. James Harden is putting up offensive numbers but serving as little more than a traffic cone for Warriors to dribble around on the other end. Dwight Howard is floating through contests and rarely getting touches. Defensive rotations are late to non-existent. Communication is non-existent. The Rockets have just been a mess.

Curry is officially questionable with his ankle injury, and what motivation do the Warriors have to rush him back? There were flashes this season — a half here, a game or two there — where the Rockets would play close to all the talent on their roster. They would look like the team we all thought preseason was a potential contender. That team likely still would not beat the Warriors, but they could challenge them, make them work for it. I would love to see those Rockets for a night. I just fear they have checked out for summer vacation.

3) Can Toronto get DeMar DeRozan going? The Indiana Pacers have a game plan to shut DeMar DeRozan down — put Paul George on him, have help when he drives, and be physical. It’s worked. Through two games DeRozan is shooting 27 percent, is hitting just 44 percent inside the restricted area, has attempted just six free throws, has one more assist than turnovers, and has a PER of 1.7. DeRozan’s lack of a three ball (0-of-5 in two games) invites some of this pressure. Through two games, the Raptors are 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. On the road, in a tough place to play like the Fieldhouse, the Raptors are going to need DeRozan to be better. Dwane Casey needs to come up with sets to get him some space going downhill (they had some success with staggered screens in Game 2).

The Pacers have a different defensive problem — how will they slow Jonas Valanciunas? He has averaged 17.5 points and 17 rebounds a game through the two contests, and the Pacers have no natural matchup to slow him. He’s getting a steady diet of easy shots at the rim because the Pacers’ bigs and help defenders are getting pulled farther and farther out on the floor. The Pacers have options, but each comes with potential consequences — play off screens, have the guard go under, and you better hope Kyle Lowry doesn’t start draining threes. Pre-rotate on plays just leaves another guy open to a smart pass. And on down the line. But the Pacers need to pick a strategy and execute it because JV is killing them inside.

LeBron and Lakers top Tatum’s big afternoon for Celtics 114-112

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LOS ANGELES (AP) LeBron James scored 29 points and put the Lakers ahead on a fallaway jumper with 30 seconds to play, and Los Angeles split its season series with the Boston Celtics with a 114-112 victory Sunday.

James missed a tying free throw moments before he coolly nailed the shot the put the Lakers ahead to stay in a frenetic fourth quarter to cap the latest chapter of this famed NBA rivalry.

Anthony Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth straight win overall for the Lakers, who took a 32-point blowout loss in Boston last month.

Davis hit two free throws with 12.3 seconds left and added one more with 6.7 seconds to play, before Jayson Tatum was called for charging in the final second as he attempted to create one last basket.

Tatum matched his career high with 41 points for the Celtics, who had won 12 of 14 starting with that dominant win over the Lakers in January.

Boston turned the ball over with 15.5 seconds left after James’ big shot, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens got a technical foul for arguing about it. Davis missed that free throw, however.

Grant Williams hit two free throws for Boston immediately afterward, and Davis hit one of two to give a final chance to the Celtics.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points for Boston, but Kemba Walker missed his second straight game with left knee soreness.

The rematch was far more competitive than the teams’ first meeting this season, with both taking small leads in the fourth quarter before the exciting finish.

Davis’ third 3-pointer put the Lakers up 108-105 with 2:08 to play, but Gordon Hayward hit a jumper before Brown’s 3-pointer put the Celtics back ahead 110-108 with 1:17 to go.

With the Lakers’ immediate return to excellence since beating out Boston to acquire Davis last summer, these longtime rivals are both playoff-bound championship contenders yet again.

Los Angeles is comfortably atop the Western Conference standings, while the Celtics sit third in the East. Both teams have a decent shot of meeting in the NBA Finals for the 13th time if they continue to grow from big games like this thriller.

Tatum underlined his growing superstardom by matching the career high he set against New Orleans last month. He scored 16 points in a five-minute barrage alone during the third quarter, finishing the period with 18.

The Lakers hung in with 16 points in the third from Davis after his quiet first half.

Walker scored 20 points against the Lakers last month to beat James for the first time in the stars’ 29 career meetings. The Lakers took their worst loss of the season in that initial meeting while getting just 23 minutes from Davis, who had just returned from a two-week injury absence.

The rematch featured much more defense than the teams’ first meeting, with Rajon Rondo and Brown both making big steals for their respective clubs. Only Tatum made a major offensive impact in the first half with 19 points.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Walker’s injury is “not a long-term thing,” Stevens said. Walker did work in the weight room before the game. … The bench scored just five points in the first three quarters, including only one field goal, and finished with 11 points.

Lakers: James went down in pain early in the fourth quarter when Daniel Theis ran into him under the basket. James stayed in the game after a timeout. … Rondo spent much of the pregame warmup chatting with Kevin Garnett, his longtime Celtics teammate. Garnett then watched the game from the baseline near the LA bench with Lakers part-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. … The matchup is always a hot ticket for celebrities. Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lakers: Host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.