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Three Things We Learned Monday: Spurs look like contenders, Cavaliers look lost in rout

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Maybe you were busy Monday night having flaming food shoved in your mouth and didn’t have time to watch the night’s slate of NBA games. We’ve got you covered, here are the big takeaways.

1) Spurs look like title contenders, Cavaliers look overwhelmed in rout. Cleveland falls to second in Eastern Conference. Is it time to worry yet, Cleveland? Because it’s feeling a lot like it’s time to worry. Not full on hit the panic button mode, more make sure you know where it’s located level of worry.

Last season the Cavaliers went 13-7 over their last 20 games, and that includes some meaningless losses with guys resting to close out the season — they had flipped the switch and found a groove that they carried into the postseason. Starting at the same point this season they are 5-6 in their last 11 (with nine games left). They are 8-10 since the All-Star break with the second-worst defense in the NBA in that stretch (allowing 113.2 points per 100 possessions, barely better than the tanking Lakers). Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers say they can flip the switch, that getting guys rest is the priority. They hint that when they play good teams they are playing vanilla offenses so as not to give anything away. Lue and company want it to sound like this slump is nothing, it can be easily overcome, that it’s almost part of the plan.

Was the plan to fall behind Boston and become the second seed in the East?

Was part of the plan to get thrashed by the Spurs on national television?

Both those things happened Monday night. San Antonio looked like a contender getting in a playoff run groove. Cleveland looked like a guy standing in the middle of the street in Pamplona trying not to get run over by the stampede. San Antonio routed the Spurs 103-74 in a game that was never in doubt after the second quarter. The Spurs did whatever they wanted, check out this 10-0 run at one point in the second quarter.

The Cavaliers offense was a big problem in the first half – they had an offensive rating of just 85.1 at the half — but the larger issue became those bad shots led to the Spurs getting out and running, exposing the Cavaliers lackluster transition defense. Another problem was the Cavs’ bench, the Spurs won that first-half battle 28-0.

With the loss the Cavaliers fell half a game back of Boston for the top seed in the East.

If the Cavaliers are playing like the Cavaliers can, extra road games are not a problem. Maybe there is a switch to flip, an adjustment here or there that changes everything. Cleveland’s defensive issues, and to a degree offensive ones as well, seem to be about effort. There is a sense of boredom as the team waits for the playoffs to start. Maybe that’s the case. But during the wins at the end of last season the Cavaliers were building good habits to fall back on when things did get tough in the postseason, these Cavaliers are doing no such thing.

It’s still tough not to pick Cleveland to come out of the East. But if things get tough against the Wizards in the second round, or against Boston or Toronto at some point in the postseason, those teams will be ready and think they know where they can find another gear. Will Cleveland?

2) Russell Westbrook makes an MVP statement: He racks up another triple-double, dominates end of game in Thunder’s comeback win. What made this game an impressive part of Russell Westbrook’sMVP resume was not his 37th triple-double of the season — 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists — but rather how he showed his value to the team at the end.

The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 on OKC with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The game looked over. Then Westbrook happened — he scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, capping it off hitting the game winner. On that shot, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender — because nobody was going to stop him.

It was an MVP-level performance. Whether that is enough to get him the award is another question.

3) Is Sam Hinkie possibly making a return to the NBA? With the Sacramento Kings?
With the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings will be counting on fan loyalty, an amazing new building, and hope for the future to sell tickets the next few seasons. That’s because the Kings are in full on rebuilding mode… can you call it rebuilding if you haven’t been to the playoffs for a decade? Whatever you call this round of bottoming out, the Kings are restructuring their roster, Sacramento is doing it.

Do they trust Vlade Divac to lead that rebuilding?

They probably shouldn’t, based on track record. Plus stability at the top of the organization is not something owner Vivek Ranadive apparently considers important — again, based on his track record — and it’s been coming up on two years since there was a front office shakeup. So it wasn’t a shock when a report surfaced Monday night that the Kings were talking to former Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie about coming on board.

The Kings quickly denied this.

Which led to the Tweet of the night from Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

A few things here. First, the number of times the Kings have said “we’re not doing” something then turn around and did it would require a spreadsheet to track, with the latest being trading DeMarcus Cousins. Second, the Kings are a leaky organization, so I don’t doubt the reports. Third, there has been a push from some minority owners to make changes at the top of the Kings basketball operations side, and Wojnarowski said the league has suggested the same thing because they want the Kings to be more professional.

Starting this summer, the Kings need someone in charge who understands rebuilding a team — that doesn’t have to be Hinkie, there are numerous other qualified candidates — but it needs to be someone. It shouldn’t be a big flashy name or personality, not someone a star-struck owner likes sitting next to and talking with, but someone who knows how to do the job. What the Kings need most of all, however, is to hire this person then have Ranadive get completely out of the way. Give the basketball person power, then get out of the way for four or five years. Let the rebuilding happen, and at that point assess what, if any, changes need to be made. Because the system going on in Sacramento now isn’t working on the court.

PBT Extra: Pressure falls on James Harden, Rockets’ bench with Chris Paul out

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Chris Paul is out for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals with a strained hamstring, and that almost certainly will sideline him for Game 7 as well.

That changes the feel of this series.

The Rockets still just have to win one of the next two games to advance to the NBA Finals, and one of those is at home. However, without CP3 a couple of things need to happen. James Harden needs to find his shooting stroke. Gerald Green and the Rockets’ bench needs to step up. And Houston has to keep defending the way they have the last two games.

It’s not going to be easy (especially on the road in Game 6), but the Rockets still have a real opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.