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Three Things to Know: Did Durant foul LeBron? Probably, but that’s not why Cavs lost.

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on a late drive? Twice? Probably, but that’s not why Cleveland lost. First things first: This was no NBA Finals preview on Christmas Day when Cleveland traveled to Golden State. Not because these two teams will not meet again in the Finals — I would put the odds at a little better than 50/50 they do — but because both will be different teams come June. The Cavaliers will have Isaiah Thomas starting at the point, and Stephen Curry will be opposite him, that alone changes a lot of dynamics and we’re not even getting into trades, players’ shifting roles, and more.

What we did get on Christmas Day was a great show — a 99-92 Warriors win that ended in controversy that consumed Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the broadcast, not to mention NBA Twitter.

Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on his drives to the rim late? On this play he did if you ask me.

Shockingly, LeBron said he was fouled after the game, Kevin Durant said no.

I have a long-running belief about controversial calls at the end of games: If a team puts itself in that position, it has to live with referee mistakes. Don’t want that play to matter? Then be better before and take it out of the officials’ hands. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, not this day). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. The Cavs lack of depth and the fact they have guys on this roster who can be exploited in a playoff series was evident. Frankly, Cleveland lost because right now the Warriors are the better team. LeBron almost changed that, because he’s LeBron, but it wasn’t enough.

There were interesting takeaways from this game, especially looking ahead to a potential NBA Finals rematch (for a fourth straight year). First, Jae Crowder did a respectable job guarding Durant for much of the game. Yes, KD had 25 points on 19 shots, but he’s one of the great scorers the game has ever seen, he’s going to get his. This was manageable for Cleveland. Crowder made him work for his buckets. Crowder has been a disappointment to start the season, but in recent weeks has looked healthier and rounded into form (not so coincidentally when the Cavs went on a winning streak). Having Crowder on Durant opens up a lot of other defensive options for the Cavs.

Also interesting was Steve Kerr going small from the opening tip, starting rookie Jordan Bell opposite Kevin Love and sitting Zaza Pachulia. We will see more variations of this as things heat up for Golden State.

If this is the NBA Finals matchup again, we are going to have an entertaining series. One with controversy.

2) Thunder make a statement in beating Rockets, but the bigger question is what has happened to Houston’s defense? How long have we been saying “once Oklahoma City gets it together…”

Looks like they have. Five straight wins now, the latest came over the Rockets on Christmas Day, 112-107 against Houston. Russell Westbrook had 31 points and 11 assists, and it felt like a coming out party as the big three (Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony) combined for 75 points. As a team, OKC shot 54.4 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. Andre Roberson was crucial down the stretch making big plays. The Thunder earned this win with their play late.

Houston has lost three in a row, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three losses, the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. What has fueled the Rockets rise to look like a legit threat to the Warriors is not just an elite offense — on pace to be the best in NBA history in points scored per possession — but the fact the defense was top 10 in the league (currently eighth). They have done a good job on the glass, not fouling, and putting weaker defenders (Ryan Anderson, James Harden) in positions to mitigate the damage. But the last three games the Rockets have been a mess defensively, and that’s what they have to clean up to turn this thing around.

3) Sixers show they are all about Joel Embiid, get win over Knicks. This was a quality win for a Sixers team that had been stumbling. Going into Madison Square Garden on Christmas and beating the Knicks is no simple task, and this showed the team can win (even when Ben Simmons is just okay, 8 points on 8 shots).

What this game really showed is now much Philadelphia relies on Joel Embiid. When Embiid was on the court Christmas Day, Philadelphia outscored New York 90-65. They won 105-98 in a close game. Embiid was a force at both ends: he defended well and protected the paint with three blocks, hit a couple of threes, and was the one Sixer consistently attacking and getting to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds.

Philly shoots itself in the foot with turnovers every game (they lead the league in turnovers by a wide margin) and did it again late on Christmas, with three straight turnovers at one point when they should have put the game away. They let the Knicks hang around.

All that played out Monday, too. The game also was close because of a big night from Enes Kanter, who was a beast inside with 31 points and 22 rebounds — 11 offensive.

The Knicks are currently the eighth seed in the East (tied with Miami for that spot), but they need to now start winning on the road to keep it. New York has had 21 home games and is 15-6 there, but just 12 road games where they are 2-10. Stan Van Gundy conspiracies aside,  this is a team that needs to start winning on the road, or they will be home for the playoffs. Again.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.