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Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook has heroics, Cavaliers have collapse

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There’s only a handful of days left in the NBA season, and the key games Sunday had meaning — either in the standings or personal. It was a wild day around the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook breaks Oscar Robertson’s record with 42nd triple-double — and he wasn’t done being amazing. Russell Westbrook has played with a ferocity this season that is just hard to fathom. Yes, we all knew he’d put up numbers — he scored 50 points and put up an NBA record 42nd triple-double this season on Sunday in a win over Denver — but his relentlessness has been mind-blowing.

“To do what he’s done — both he and Harden, and to do it every night,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said shaking his head. “It’s a credit to him, and just being around him with Team USA, the spirit and competitiveness that he has, that drive, to do all the things that he has done and to still have that hunger and drive every year is amazing, it’s what makes him special.”

Here’s the thing — that 42nd triple-double may not have been the most impressive thing Westbrook did on Sunday. By the time he set the record the Thunder were mathematically locked into the sixth seed, and remember he had locked up averaging a triple-double for the season before this game even started. There was literally nothing left to play for and the Thunder were down by 13. Nearly every player in the league would have packed it in at that point.

Not Westbrook. He sparked and 18-4 run that included him scoring the final 13 points in the game, capped off by this game-winning three.

Go ahead and say he’s chasing stats, but the Thunder are 33-9 when Westbrook gets a triple-double and 13-25 when he doesn’t. He’s been clutch for them all season — he’s had nothing short of a legendary season.

BONUS THING WE LEARNED: The playoffs are now set in the West, because Westbrook’s three eliminated Denver from playoff contention. Your matchups are:

1. Golden State vs. 8. Portland
2. San Antonio vs. 7. Memphis
3. Houston vs. 6. Oklahoma City
4. L.A. Clippers vs. 5. Utah (home court in this not formally decided)

Yes, that means Harden vs. Westbrook in the NBA playoffs. Which means who should be MVP in the minds of a lot of fans will be influenced by a series that took place after the voting deadline.

2) How did the Cavaliers blow that lead? Cleveland was in cruise control, up 26 early in the fourth quarter and coasting in for a win over the Hawks. And then the wheels came off. Cleveland took its foot off the gas and Atlanta started to chip away. The Hawks got good bench play, once again that has proven a weakness for the Cavaliers.

Still, Cleveland was up 14 points with just 3:37 left, but the Hawks went on a run and the Cleveland starters fumbled. And still the Cavaliers were up five with 10 seconds left when LeBron James — who had a triple-double — was called for the foul on a Paul Millsap three. He sank all three free throws making it a two-point game with 8.3 left. Cleveland inbounded the ball to Kyrie Irving but the Hawks trapped him in the corner and Kent Bazemore was able to tie him up forcing a jump ball with 4.8 seconds left. In a scramble after the jump ball Mike Muscala came up with it, Millsap gut the shot and tied the game at the buzzer forcing overtime.

From there, the Hawks got the win.

After the game, the Cavaliers took issue with the officiating, but that’s not what cost them the game. Their bench, their lack of ability to focus for 48 minutes cost them. They flat-out were outplayed for a quarter. And it’s games like this that make you question if they can flip the switch in the postseason.

3) Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell drains game-winner, dedicates bucket to his grandmother who passed away that morning. D'Angelo Russell spent the day trying to book a flight to Louisville, playing for the Lakers Sunday night was the last thing on his mind. He found out that morning his grandmother had passed away in Louisville, and he said he looked into booking a flight and going to be with family. Except he couldn’t get one he could make. Eventually, at the urging of his family, he decided to play Sunday night and head out Monday.

The Lakers needed him — Russell’s game-winning bounced through the rim just as time expired, giving the Lakers the win, 110-109. After the shot, Russell ran over to hug his family.

“I knew (playing was) what my grandma would have wanted,” Russell said. “My dad, brothers, and everyone wanted me to play. I wanted to get away from basketball. I didn’t want to express myself through basketball but it was the only option I had and I tried to take advantage of it.”

“I get goosebumps even talking about the way the game ended,” coach Luke Walton said. “How awesome for him on such a tough day where obviously basketball is nothing in the big picture of what he’s dealing with.”

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.