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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Without Durant for Game 6 Warriors face biggest test

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The NBA playoffs are in crunch time and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warriors three-peat dreams now depend on how Warriors respond to Kevin Durant injury. Golden State came into these playoffs with the most feared starting lineup in the league. Now, 40 percent of it is out injured. DeMarcus Cousins tore his left quadriceps muscle in the second game of the playoffs, then late in a critical Game 5 Wednesday night Kevin Durant pulled up with a non-contact injury that looked ominous.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game it was not Durant’s Achilles but that KD would not play in Game 6. An MRI on Thursday will give us more details (for the sake of watching the best player in the game today, let’s hope it’s not as serious as it looked).

How the Warriors respond to this will determine their 2019 title hopes.

The Warriors hung on to win Game 5 at home, in part because Stephen Curry stepped up. Once again Houston went at him when it had the ball and that seemed to transfer over and wear on Curry, slowing him on offense. He was 4-of-14 overall and 1-of-8 from three before Durant’s injury. After Durant went to the locker room, Curry shot 5-of-9 for 16 points including going 2-of-3 from deep. He answered the call.

The Warriors got the 104-99 victory that gives them a 3-2 series lead — meaning two cracks to eliminate the Rockets, at least one of those without Durant. Game 6 is Friday night in Houston.

Game 5 was not without its controversial ending — did Klay Thompson step out of bounds with the ball with about 11 seconds left and the Warriors up three?

A frozen screenshot makes it look like Thompson stepped out with the ball, before making a poor pass that the Warriors were fortunate to ultimately recover. I would argue Chris Paul or James Harden could or should have been called for bumping Thompson out of bounds on that sequence, but we’d need better camera angles than the ones we got to see to be definitive. The Last Two Minute Report for this ending will be interesting.

That report is ultimately moot. The bigger question is Game 6.

Steve Kerr said postgame Durant will not play, I’d be shocked if he’s even on the plane to Houston (whatever the injury is he suffered, better to stay and get treatment). Harden — who had 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Game 5 — and company will come out with an appropriate level of desperation on their home court. This is a prideful Rockets team that believes it would win the series, Durant or no Durant playing.

The question is how the Warriors respond. Golden State needs MVP-level Stephen Curry and big nights from Klay Thompson on offense and Draymond Green on defense. Can Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and the rest of the role players step up for a night. Do the Warriors have one 2015-style, pre-Durant night in them?

The team has leaned heavily on KD these playoffs, how they respond without him will define their 2019 title chances.

2) Boston’s disappointing season ends appropriately at hands of improving, impressive Milwaukee. Too much of the aftermath of Game 5 in Milwaukee has focused on the Celtics — their poor play, their sad effort, their obvious lack of cohesion and trust as teammates that has gone on all season, and what the future now hold for Kyrie Irving and that Boston roster. With good reason, it’s compelling.

However, let’s stop a minute to praise the Milwaukee Bucks.

One year ago, a Celtics team without its two star players eliminated the Bucks in seven games in the first round. Milwaukee took those lessons and adapted — Jason Kidd was out as coach, Mike Budenholzer was in (note to the Lakers… that’s how you run a coaching search). GM Jon Horst knew Coach Bud’s style and went and got him shooting in the form of Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks changed their systems on both ends of the court, evolved and grew up, and became the best regular season team in the league this year.

Plenty of fans and pundits questioned if the Bucks style could translate to the postseason (*meekly raises his own hand*) but they have been dominant. On both ends. It has translated just fine.

In a closeout Game 5 Wednesday, the Bucks held the Celtics to an offensive rating of 82.7 and 31.2 percent shooting for the game. Milwaukee contested shots in the paint — the Celtics shot 6-of-19 in the paint for the first half — and chased Celtics off the arc. Boston played right into Milwaukee’s hands with Irving and his desire to play hero ball. Irving shot 5-of-16 with zero assists in the first half and finished the game 6-of-21 from the floor for 15 points.

Milwaukee had a balanced attack. As expected, Antetokounmpo led the way with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.

However, the Greek Freak had only had 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half, the Bucks won this game because Milwaukee played team basketball. Khris Middleton had 19 points and 8 rebounds for the game, Eric Bledsoe had 18 points, and George Hill had another impressive night off the bench with 16 points.

Milwaukee looks like contenders, they deserve all the praise for that.

We’ve got all summer to watch what Boston does next.

3) Tyronn Lue moves on from the Lakers, which says all you need to know about the Lakers right now. Coaching LeBron James is hard. It’s not that he does not want to be pushed and coached, but he is as high IQ a player as we have seen in the game, and a coach has to earn his trust. It’s not just given. Tyronn Lue has that trust and respect. He can get in LeBron’s face and call him out — and have LeBron come back at him — and their relationship is not damaged.

Which is why Lue as the Lakers’ coach made sense — the man is one of six coaches alive today who have won an NBA title. He may not have been an ideal choice for Lakers fans, but he can coach LeBron and was eager to do it again — and win again.

Rob Pelinka and the Lakers treated Lue like a first-year coach in negotiations. The Lakers would offer no more than three years on the contract — lining it up with LeBron’s deal — while Lue demanded five years. Also, the Lakers were pushing assistant coaches on him, and every experienced coach wants to pick his assistants. Frank Vogel was not someone Lue knows well, but that fit made some sense. Then Pelinka tried to push Jason Kidd as well — no coach with options is going to let a GM put his potential replacement right next to him on the bench and create a power struggle (and Kidd loves a good power struggle).

Pelinka didn’t think Lue had another option, there were no other offers on the table.

Lue did have an option — walk away. Do another season of NBA TV, spend more time with family and friends. Live his life.

Lue wanted the Lakers job but he didn’t need the Lakers job. Pelinka — and Kurt Rambis, and Jeanie Buss, and the entire Laker management team — misread the room and made a mistake.

Now the Lakers are reportedly looking at Frank Vogel, Lionel Holins, and Mike Woodson. Good luck with that.

All that with Kurt Rambis gaining power within the Laker front office. That would be the Rambis who was 32-132 as a coach in Minnesota, and was equally unimpressive as the interim coach in New York (granted, that was a tough situation, but he talked about playing Kristaps Porzingis at the three). Rambis has his skeletons. However, owner Jeanie Buss trusts him, and his wife Linda and Buss go back a long way and she is a trusted advisor.

Buss has stuck within her comfort zone as owner. She has gone with the people she knows, she trusts, people within the Laker family who do things the “Lakers way.” Except, that way has missed the playoff six years in a row and looked a mess the past couple of years. That way had the Lakers mishandle the very public Anthony Davis trade negotiations where they not only didn’t get their man but also fractured their locker room in the process. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ co-tenant at Staples Center looking like the much better run organization, the one that elite free agents are seriously considering this summer (the Clippers are the first choice before the Lakers for a number of them).

The smart play here is for Buss to realize what is not working, step back, and make a major change to the organization. Go hire a top-flight president of basketball operations, give him the power, let him choose the coach and, more importantly, round out the roster around LeBron and said coach. (Tim Connelly in Denver reportedly is making only $2 million a season in that role, well below market value, and is considering a leap to Washington… and notice the Nuggets are young and still playing.)

The Laker organization needs a shake up. If not, the kind of success that Buss wants — and Lakers fans expect — will remain elusive, the victories fleeting. The Lakers need an organizational identity, right now they are just a brand.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.