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Chris Paul is finally heading to the Western Conference Finals

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Chris Paul has finally done it.

The 12-year veteran has played on three teams, been to the playoffs every single season since he was 22, and now he’s going to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in his career after the Houston Rockets beat the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, 112-102.

Paul was spectacular, scoring 41 points, dishing 10 assists with seven rebounds, acting as the catalyst for the Rockets the entire game. James Harden, who did score 18 points but seemed to go through an odd slump in the first half, wasn’t the star Houston needed in the closing Game 5. Instead it was the wily veteran, who gave us glimpses of the Paul we fell in love with early in his career in New Orleans.

There was no ticky tack gamesmanship from Paul, either. This was not a performance marred by dribbling backwards into trailing defenders to draw fouls, or sneaky pulls just out of view of the official on the arm of a rising rebounder for a key board. No, this was CP3 at his finest; snaking the pick-and-roll, dominating from midrange, and in true form for this season, firing away from 3-point range.

It was, without a doubt, a classic.

The first half was largely dominated by the Rockets, although as they have all series Utah’s defensive resiliency helped them go on runs to sustain their chance of avoiding elimination. Alec Burks was the most impressive player for the Jazz, scoring 12 points in 14 minutes off the bench in the first half alone.

The Jazz struggled from the 3-point line in the first two periods as Houston turned up the defensive intensity. For much of the second quarter the Rockets seemed off-kilter, although you wouldn’t know it by the 33 points they racked up. A late push, including a pair of Chris Paul 3-pointers, helped Houston finish the half on an 11-3 run to take a 54-46 lead into the break.

Utah battled back in the third quarter, outscoring the Rockets by 11 as Donovan Mitchell lit a fire under his squad. The Jazz rookie had 22 points in the third period alone, although Houston’s support from Paul allowed them to keep things close as Utah took a lead into the final quarter.

Disappointingly for the Jazz, Mitchell’s night was cut short thanks to a left knee injury. With the Rockets surging and Mitchell trying to fight them off, Harden picked the rookie’s pocket with 7:13 to go in the fourth. Mitchell appeared to bang knees with Harden on the play, and he had to leave the game for x-rays. He did not return.

Meanwhile, Paul was at the center of the Houston offense to close the game. A banked 3-pointer with 2:30 left and the shot clock winding down was the dagger in the heart of the Jazz. Paul then drove the dagger into the bone with 35 seconds left, passing out of a double team to find a wide-open PJ Tucker in the corner for a three that gave the Rockets a 10-point lead.

Houston moves on to the Western Conference Finals, and Utah will go home with their heads held high. The Jazz gave the best team in the West a run for their money, and the final scores tell a tale of stratification a championship-caliber team and a playoff contender. But Utah played team ball, and Mitchell is an all-out baller.

Meanwhile, the Rockets get to see if they can stack up against the best when it matters most. The Golden State Warriors will presumably be their opponent in the next round once they close out the New Orleans Pelicans, and that’s the matchup we’ve been waiting all season to see.

Now that Paul has finally broken through after years of trying, we have to wonder whether a weight will be lifted from his shoulders? He certainly seemed ready to will his team to victory, and the Rockets are going to need every weapon they have to advance to the NBA Finals.

Rockets blast Jazz 113-92 to take 2-1 series lead

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — James Harden had 25 points and 12 assists to lead Houston to a 113-92 win over Utah in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals series on Friday night.

Eric Gordon added 25 points and Chris Paul had 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists for the Rockets. Houston beat Utah in Salt Lake City for the third time this season to take a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 is on Sunday.

Royce O’ Neale scored 17 points. Alec Burks chipped in 14 points while Rudy Gobert added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Jazz.

Utah never got on track on offense. The Jazz shot poorly over the first three quarters and committed 16 turnovers. Houston scored 19 points off those turnovers.

On the heels of a listless first-half effort in Game 2, Houston avoided enduring another slow start. The Rockets picked apart Utah’s defense practically from the opening tip.

Houston opened the game by scoring baskets on six of its first seven possessions. Harden capped the flurry with his first basket to put the Rockets up 15-5. It only grew worse for the Jazz from there. The Rockets led by as many as 22 in the first quarter, taking a 37-15 lead on back-to-back baskets from Harden and Gerald Green.

Houston made 16 of its 26 shots in the first quarter and totaled 39 points in the period. As effective as the Rockets were on offense, their defense proved equally troublesome for Utah. They forced the Jazz to commit six turnovers before the second quarter and scored nine points off those turnovers.

Utah cut Houston’s lead 49-34 midway through the second quarter after O’ Neale scored three straight baskets to fuel a 9-0 run. Clint Capela ended the run with a dunk and the Rockets proceeded to outscore the Jazz 31-9 over a 10 minute stretch extending into the third quarter. They pushed their lead to 80-43 on a driving layup from Ariza with 8:01 left in the quarter.

 

Ricky Rubio out for Game 1, likely 10 days or so, with hamstring strain

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Friday night — thanks to a massive second half from Donovan Mitchell, good ball movement that got other players good looks, and a suffocating defense — the Utah Jazz were able to get by without Ricky Rubio and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Now the Jazz step way up in class to take on the Houston Rockets, and they are again going to have to do it without Rubio for at least a while. Officially, he is out for Game 1 on Sunday, the team announced.

It’s going to be more than one game. Other reports on how long Rubio will be out vary from a week to two, in part because hamstrings heal slowly and are easy to re-aggravate if not right when the player comes back.

Rubio tried to take it in stride.

No Rubio will likely mean Dante Exum starts, with more run for Alec Burks and others.

Rubio had played well against the Thunder, providing a secondary shot creator after Mitchell (on a team that struggles in that area). Rubio averaged 16.8 points and 8.6 assists per game in the last series, although he wasn’t efficient (true shooting percentage of 47.7). Still, his playmaking and willingness to take the shot kept defenses honest.

Without him, it becomes that much more difficult to beat a championship-level Rockets team.

 

Ricky Rubio leaves game with hamstring injury, will not return

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Russell Westbrook is going to get the better of Ricky Rubio in Game 6, but not for a good reason.

Rubio, who has been battling a sore hamstring through much of the series, aggravated it early and went to the locker room. He was ruled out for the rest of the game.

This will mean more Dante Exum and Alec Burks for Utah.

This is a blow to a Utah offense that struggles to create good offense (something that has been a particular problem in the early stages of Game 6). Rubio has averaged 16.8 points and 8.6 assists per game, and while he hasn’t been efficient (true shooting percentage of 47.7) he has scored enough to keep the OKC defense honest and open things up. He outplayed Westbrook, leading to Westbrook saying he would shut Rubio down (then played out of control trying to do so the next game).

Without Rubio, the Thunder defenders can focus more on stopping Donovan Mitchell.

Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

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To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.

Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.

• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).

Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.

We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.

It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.

If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.

Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)

Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.

• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?

However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.

LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).

It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.

• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.

The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.

Simmons lets the Sixers do that.

Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.

Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.

Put the brakes on all that.

Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.

Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?

Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.

If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.

• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.

However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.

In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.

How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.