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Cavaliers, Celtics ready for Eastern Conference finals rematch

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BOSTON (AP) — The jerseys and venues will be the same, but so much has changed since the last time Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics met in the Eastern Conference finals.

Kyrie Irving was dealt to Boston in a blockbuster offseason deal for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. But following a roster upheaval in February, the Cavs were left with only five players from last year’s team that rolled past the Celtics 4-1 to earn a place in the NBA Finals.

Irving will watch this year’s rematch from the sideline after a pair of knee surgeries late in the regular season denied him an opportunity to play this postseason. It was the capstone of an injury-plagued year in Boston that also saw the seasons of Gordon Hayward and rookie Daniel Theis truncated.

The one constant has been Cleveland’s LeBron James, who at age 33 has again found another gear in the playoffs despite the different pieces surrounding him. His 34.3 scoring average in these playoffs is his highest since the 2009 postseason.

James can become the sixth player in league history to play in at least eight consecutive NBA Finals. The five others who have done so all played with the Celtics, led by Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s run of 10 straight appearances.

James hasn’t yet had a chance to reflect on his own run but says he isn’t taking anything for granted at this point in his career.

“You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA and even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered and I think I’ve done that in my career,” he said. “Just trying to add onto it while I can.”

The series starts Sunday in Boston. This is the eighth playoff matchup between the teams overall, with the Celtics leading 4-3.

The Celtics are seeking their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010, when they got past James and the Cavs in the East semifinals.

Since Irving’s injury, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has relied heavily on veteran Al Horford and a youthful corps that includes 24-year-olds Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum.

Horford is averaging career playoff-high 17 points per game, while carrying the leadership torch.

Rozier has flourished in a starting role since Irving was sidelined in mid-March. It’s carried over into the postseason where he is averaging 18.2 points per game. And Tatum is coming of a series against Philadelphia that saw him average 23.6 points per game – the second-highest by a Celtics rookie in franchise history.

“I feel like we more together (than last year),” Rozier said. “Obviously guys been going down all year and it’s like you never know who’s going to down. But we found a way, we pulled together.”

As for Rozier’s prediction for the series?

“Stay tuned,” he said.

 

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

Donovan Mitchell’s putback dunk, passing sparks Jazz to Game 2 win over Rockets

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Donovan Mitchell missed.

Then, he made everyone take notice.

The Jazz rookie clanked a runner midway through the fourth quarter but followed his own miss with a putback dunk that sent shockwaves through Houston.

Even on a poor shooting night, Mitchell helped even Utah’s second-round series with the Rockets, 1-1. He dished a personal-best 11 assists in the Jazz’s 116-108 Game 2 win Wednesday.

When teams split the first two games of a best-of-seven series in one location, the team with home-court advantage has still won 61% of the series. The Rockets were better than the Jazz throughout the season, and one game doesn’t erase that.

But with Game 3 Friday in Utah, Houston must adjust to a rookie whose game looks progressively more well-rounded.

An inefficient gunner early in the season, Mitchell developed into a historically efficient rookie scorer. He even became the rare rookie offensive focal point to lead his team to the playoffs.

With starting point guard Ricky Rubio out injured, Mitchell showed his playmaking chops tonight. Though Mitchell shot just 6-for-21, including 2-for-8 on 3-pointers, he expertly read the Rockets’ defense and spread the ball all over the court.

It also helped his teammates knocked down the shots he helped generate. Led by Joe Ingles (27 points on 7-of-9 3-point shooting), Mitchell’s teammates shot 62% on 2-pointers and 54% on 3-pointers.

So much flowed through Mitchell, though. There’s a reason he was a game-high +13.

James Harden carried an even larger load for Houston with 32 points and 11 assists – many to Clint Capela (21 points and 11 rebounds). But the Rockets shot a dreadful 27% on 3-pointers, including 2-of-10 by Harden. Rudy Gobert played his usual stout defense inside (eventually).

Houston is capable of hitting a high offensive level more regularly. Only Utah did it tonight.

Falling behind by 19 in the first half didn’t help the Rockets. Amid too much defensive miscommunication and offensive laziness, they dug themselves a hole – then climbed out of it. Houston led with eight minutes left.

But the Jazz found a formula that worked tonight. Counting only points scored or assisted by Mitchell, Utah outscored the Rockets down the stretch.

The game featured testiness between P.J. Tucker and Mitchell, Gobert and Harden, Jae Crowder and Harden. This series is turning out to be more competitive than it appeared it’d be after Game 1.

Because Mitchell keeps rising to the escalating challenge facing him.

 

Rockets jump to early lead, cruise in Game 1 win over Jazz

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If you’re the coach of an NBA team, you know what the Houston Rockets are going to try to do to you. Usually, you’re powerless to stop it. That was the position Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder found himself in on Sunday as his team took on the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their semifinal series against each other.

The Rockets played their usual game, putting the Jazz into poor defensive positions as they vacillated between crisp ball movement and devastating isolation play. Utah, meanwhile, just didn’t have the firepower to match Houston. The Jazz had to play without Ricky Rubio after he injured his hamstring, instead calling on Dante Exum to fill some of his minutes.

The result was that Houston played much the way we’ve seen them do all season long. The Rockets ran, getting out on the break and punishing the shorthanded Jazz from the 3-point line. Houston was 10-of-16 from beyond the arc in the first half alone, with PJ Tucker and Harden leading the way. The Rockets put Utah in a tough position, forcing switches and moving the ball. Harden & Co. used an 11-2 run to end the second quarter to take a 25-point lead into halftime.

Snyder made some adjustments during the break, allowing the Jazz to gain seven points on the Rockets in the third quarter. Donovan Mitchell led the charge as Utah concentrated their attack in the painted area. Utah also did a better job defending the 3-point line to open the second half, although even with a redoubled effort they still only kept Houston to 36 percent from deep in the third quarter.

The Rockets stabilized, and although Utah continued to play better in the fourth quarter the visiting Jazz just couldn’t overcome the lead Houston built in the first half. At no point did the Snyder’s team unplug one of Houston’s weapons — the best the Jazz could manage was to turn down the volume.

As such, Harden scored a whopping 41 points to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists. Four of five Rockets starters scored in double figures, and as a team Houston shot 53 percent from the 3-point line.

Utah saw the Rockets concentrate on pushing its guards off the arc. Donovan Mitchell scored 21 points, but went 1-of-7 from the 3-point line. Joe Ingles had 15 points, six rebounds, and five assists, but shot just 1-of-3 from deep. Jae Crowder scored 21 points in a great effort off the bench.

After a thrilling, heartening win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the last round, the Jazz got a quick taste of what it’s like to go up against a championship-caliber team locked into playoff mode. It won’t get any easier for Utah, either. They are likely to be without Rubio for Game 2 according to reports, and Mitchell turned his right ankle with 5:33 to go in the fourth on Sunday. Mitchell’s health will be something to keep an eye on as his tissue responds over the next few days.

Game 2 isn’t until Wednesday at 5 p.m. PST. Hopefully that will give Mitchell and Rubio time to rest up, and for Synder to adjust his offensive gameplan to get his scorers more opportunities. Like everyone else in the NBA, Snyder’s task next time out will be to find a way to stop Houston from bombing away from deep like they did on Sunday afternoon.

The Rockets took care of Utah in easy fashion in Game 1, 110-96.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.