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Three Things We Learned Monday: East playoff chase will go to final day of season

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There are just two more days left in the NBA season, so you should be paying attention, but if you were busy tweeting to help a kid get free chicken nuggets, we’ve got you covered. Here are the takeaways from a busy Monday night around the NBA.

1) Eastern Conference playoff picture will go down to the final day of regular season. The West playoff matchups are set, with the only question being whether the Clippers/Jazz series starts in Los Angeles or Utah. But out East, we will not know the final standings and who is in until the Wednesday, the last day of the regular season.

Let’s start at the top, where Monday Boston beat the Brooklyn Nets 114-105, while the Cavaliers blew another lead and lost in overtime to a desperate Miami Heat (more on that later, but Cleveland rested LeBron James and Kyrie Irving for that one). That puts Boston in the top slot in the East, one game ahead of Cleveland with one to play. However, the Cavaliers have the tiebreaker between the squads (they won three of four head-to-head), so Boston needs to beat Milwaukee on the final night of the season to secure the top slot — and the Bucks may have something to play for, depending on what the Hawks do in their last two games (Hornets Tuesday, Pacers Wednesday). The Bucks could be playing to get the five seed. Cleveland will play Toronto in the final game and will rest LeBron James again, and considering the Cavaliers have not won this season when he sits it’s good to be the Celtics right now.

Who gets the seventh and eighth seed — meaning will play Boston and Cleveland in the first round — and which team will be the odd-team out in the East also will come down to the final day.

Miami was on the verge of being eliminated, down 11 to the Cavaliers entering the fourth quarter of a must-win game, when James Johnson led a desperation comeback that got Miami a dramatic overtime win 124-121. Tyler Johnson had 24 points to lead the Heat. Also Monday night the Bulls thrashed the Magic 122-75, and the Pacers beat the 76ers 120-111 behind 26 points from Paul George. That leaves Indiana in seventh, a game up on the tied Bulls and Heat tied for the last spot, but nobody is safe yet.

Here’s the Wednesday scenario: Miami has to beat Washington or they are out (the Wizards are locked into the four seed and are expected to rest John Wall and others). Even if the Heat win, they need help in the form of a Bulls loss to the Nets or a Pacers loss to the Hawks. So it’s simple for Chicago and Indiana: Win and you’re in.

It’s going to be a dramatic Wednesday night in the East.

2) Daryl Morey publishes a string of Tweets pushing Harden for MVP based on winning. There has been a lot of momentum toward Russell Westbrook for MVP in recent weeks, and while him getting the triple-double records is part of that it has more been his clutch play, bringing the Thunder back to key wins they had no chance of getting without him.

Supporters of James Harden for MVP (and, for that matter, Kawhi Leonard) argue that the NBA MVP award has traditionally gone to a player from one of the top teams in the league, a team that wins around 55 games or more. While Westbrook has put up numbers and gotten his team wins, the Thunder will finish with 46 or 47 wins, well below the usual threshold, while the Rockets have 54 wins with a game to play. Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out this series of tweets to make the case for Harden:

Of course, all of this brings in the other context to the debate, like the fantastic job Morey did putting a team around Harden that is much better than the one around Westbrook, as we broke down.

I love that Morey is now a fan of convention when it suits him. However, the MVP debate this season, with four qualified candidates, is more of a philosophical discussion of how you choose to define MVP than anything clear cut. Is it just value to a player’s team? How much do wins matter? How much do raw stats matter? Advanced data? Blending all that is more art than science, if there was some hard-and-fast criteria everyone would vote the same way. And the fun of the MVP award in all sports is the debate of what makes an MVP. This season it just may not fall the way Morey and Harden want it.

3) Portland’s Noah Vonleh with a game-winner you and I could have made.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Down one with six seconds left in the game, Portland had the chance to knock off San Antonio at the buzzer Monday night. (For the record, both teams were playing their second units in this ultimately meaningless game.)

The Blazers inbounded the ball to Shabazz Napier, who comes off the pick and drives but has the ball poked away, in the scramble it seems to hit David Lee but ends up rolling under the basket to a wide-open Noah Vonleh, who picks it up and puts in the uncontested layup to win the game.

Napier had a career-high 32 points for the Blazers.

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.