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Associated Press

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook has heroics, Cavaliers have collapse

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There’s only a handful of days left in the NBA season, and the key games Sunday had meaning — either in the standings or personal. It was a wild day around the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook breaks Oscar Robertson’s record with 42nd triple-double — and he wasn’t done being amazing. Russell Westbrook has played with a ferocity this season that is just hard to fathom. Yes, we all knew he’d put up numbers — he scored 50 points and put up an NBA record 42nd triple-double this season on Sunday in a win over Denver — but his relentlessness has been mind-blowing.

“To do what he’s done — both he and Harden, and to do it every night,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said shaking his head. “It’s a credit to him, and just being around him with Team USA, the spirit and competitiveness that he has, that drive, to do all the things that he has done and to still have that hunger and drive every year is amazing, it’s what makes him special.”

Here’s the thing — that 42nd triple-double may not have been the most impressive thing Westbrook did on Sunday. By the time he set the record the Thunder were mathematically locked into the sixth seed, and remember he had locked up averaging a triple-double for the season before this game even started. There was literally nothing left to play for and the Thunder were down by 13. Nearly every player in the league would have packed it in at that point.

Not Westbrook. He sparked and 18-4 run that included him scoring the final 13 points in the game, capped off by this game-winning three.

Go ahead and say he’s chasing stats, but the Thunder are 33-9 when Westbrook gets a triple-double and 13-25 when he doesn’t. He’s been clutch for them all season — he’s had nothing short of a legendary season.

BONUS THING WE LEARNED: The playoffs are now set in the West, because Westbrook’s three eliminated Denver from playoff contention. Your matchups are:

1. Golden State vs. 8. Portland
2. San Antonio vs. 7. Memphis
3. Houston vs. 6. Oklahoma City
4. L.A. Clippers vs. 5. Utah (home court in this not formally decided)

Yes, that means Harden vs. Westbrook in the NBA playoffs. Which means who should be MVP in the minds of a lot of fans will be influenced by a series that took place after the voting deadline.

2) How did the Cavaliers blow that lead? Cleveland was in cruise control, up 26 early in the fourth quarter and coasting in for a win over the Hawks. And then the wheels came off. Cleveland took its foot off the gas and Atlanta started to chip away. The Hawks got good bench play, once again that has proven a weakness for the Cavaliers.

Still, Cleveland was up 14 points with just 3:37 left, but the Hawks went on a run and the Cleveland starters fumbled. And still the Cavaliers were up five with 10 seconds left when LeBron James — who had a triple-double — was called for the foul on a Paul Millsap three. He sank all three free throws making it a two-point game with 8.3 left. Cleveland inbounded the ball to Kyrie Irving but the Hawks trapped him in the corner and Kent Bazemore was able to tie him up forcing a jump ball with 4.8 seconds left. In a scramble after the jump ball Mike Muscala came up with it, Millsap gut the shot and tied the game at the buzzer forcing overtime.

From there, the Hawks got the win.

After the game, the Cavaliers took issue with the officiating, but that’s not what cost them the game. Their bench, their lack of ability to focus for 48 minutes cost them. They flat-out were outplayed for a quarter. And it’s games like this that make you question if they can flip the switch in the postseason.

3) Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell drains game-winner, dedicates bucket to his grandmother who passed away that morning. D'Angelo Russell spent the day trying to book a flight to Louisville, playing for the Lakers Sunday night was the last thing on his mind. He found out that morning his grandmother had passed away in Louisville, and he said he looked into booking a flight and going to be with family. Except he couldn’t get one he could make. Eventually, at the urging of his family, he decided to play Sunday night and head out Monday.

The Lakers needed him — Russell’s game-winning bounced through the rim just as time expired, giving the Lakers the win, 110-109. After the shot, Russell ran over to hug his family.

“I knew (playing was) what my grandma would have wanted,” Russell said. “My dad, brothers, and everyone wanted me to play. I wanted to get away from basketball. I didn’t want to express myself through basketball but it was the only option I had and I tried to take advantage of it.”

“I get goosebumps even talking about the way the game ended,” coach Luke Walton said. “How awesome for him on such a tough day where obviously basketball is nothing in the big picture of what he’s dealing with.”

D’Angelo Russell’s dedicates lucky-bounce game winning three to grandmother who died (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — D'Angelo Russell almost didn’t play on Sunday night for the Lakers. His grandmother had passed away in Louisville, and when Russell found out Sunday morning he said he looked into booking a flight and going to be with family, but he couldn’t make the flight today so decided to play Sunday and fly out Monday.

The Lakers are happy he was there.

Russell drained a game-winning three that fell through the rim on a bounce just as time expired, giving the Lakers the win, 110-109. After the shot fell Russell ran over to hug his family. Russell said he dedicated the shot to his grandma.

“I knew (playing was) what my grandma would have wanted,” Russell said. “My dad, brothers, and everyone wanted me to play. I wanted to get away from basketball. I didn’t want to express myself through basketball but it was the only option I had and I tried to take advantage of it.”

“I get goosebumps even talking about the way the game ended,” coach Luke Walton said. “How awesome for him on such a tough day where obviously basketball is nothing in the big picture of what he’s dealing with.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this play.

Ricky Rubio has been fantastic since the All-Star break, but he had a rough night against the Lakers (after setting his career high in points the last time they played), and that included getting stuffed by Larry Nance Jr. on an off-balance layup. Andrew Wiggins (41 points) and Karl-Anthony Towns (40 points) had the hot hands, they needed to get the rock here.

Metta World Peace got a clean look at a potential game-winner from the corner first but missed it. The best part of this, watch his leg shake as he hesitates and lines up the shot. Jordan Clarkson said the team gave MWP a hard time about that in the locker room after the game.

Julius Randle chased down the odd-bounce rebounds off MWP’s miss. If you wanted to see Tom Thibodeau’s blood pressure rise postgame, all you had to do was him about the handful of offensive rebounds the Timberwolves gave up late. He said Minnesota got what it deserved in this game the way they rebounded and came out flat.

• Three Timberwolves defenders were crowded around Randle — shooting 27.9 percent from three this season — and left open Russell, shooting 35.4 percent from deep this season.

• That’s as lucky a bounce as you are going to see. Maybe grandma gave that one a little tip.

James Harden on MVP race: “I thought winning was what this is about”

Associated Press
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Russell Westbrook put the exclamation point on his MVP case Sunday, racking up his NBA record 42nd triple-double, then hitting the game-winner to end the Nuggets season.

Also Sunday, James Harden had his own triple-double with 31 points, 15 assists, and 11 rebounds. That improves Houston to 54-26 0n the season, eight more wins than Westbrook’s Thunder.

After the game, the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen asked Harden if team record should factor into the MVP voting.

If it’s the “most important thing” then Harden just made a nice case for Kawhi Leonard, his Spurs have 61 wins.

What makes the MVP debate fun is that there is no strict definition of who should get the award. Is it the most valuable to his team, regardless of record? How much does team success factor in, and with that how do you balance out the quality of players around the candidates? How much do you rely on advanced stats vs. the eyeball test? For most voters it’s a little of all of those, and the blend is more art than science. There is no simple answer.

And this year, if you vote for Harden or Westbrook or Leonard you’re not wrong — a compelling case can be made for any of them. And LeBron James. It’s what makes the debate that much more entertaining.

John Wall with chasedown block off backboard, out of bounds (VIDEO)

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That is a chasedown block with authority.

Washington’s John Wall tracked Miami’s Josh Richardson down and turned his layup attempt into an emphatic rejection, sending it off the backboard so hard it went out of bounds before anybody could get to it.

That wasn’t enough, the Heat beat the Wizards 106-103. That loss puts Washington in the four seed in the East, a full game back of Toronto for the three seed, which means Washington likely finishes fourth (and would have to face Cleveland in the second round). The win has the Heat in a tie with Chicago for the final playoff slot in the East.

DeAndre Jordan is throwing it down and Kawhi Leonard isn’t going to stop him (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s going to get plenty of votes this time around.

He made the right rotation on this play, getting across the lane and in the way of the guy driving the lane with his feet outside the restricted area — and it wasn’t going to matter. DeAndre Jordan was going to dunk and there was no stopping him.

The Clippers beat the Spurs 98-87, which when combined with a Jazz loss to the Trail Blazers has Utah and Los Angeles tied for the four seed in the West and home-court in the first round.