No. 1: LeBron, Cavaliers back in familiar territory -- Another series sweep for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, this time over the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals, sends the reigning NBA champs back to familiar territory. This is the third straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the Cavaliers and the seventh straight trip for a LeBron-led team. It's also the ninth time in 14 seasons LeBron has made the conference finals, a staggering run, as Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer details:
The Cavs are the first team ever to sweep six playoff series (of four or more games) in three years, having now swept six of 10 dating to the 2015 playoffs. They also became the first team in NBA history to start 8-0 in consecutive playoffs.
And from the Elias Sports Bureau, Cleveland tied an NBA record with its 12th consecutive win in series-clinching games, first set by the Lakers from 2000-2004.
"It's not satisfying, but it is rewarding when you can advance," said James, who will play in his ninth conference finals in 14 seasons. "It's not just given to you. You have to go out and earn it. And once again I'm part of a team that's been able to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
"It's going to be my ninth time in 14 years. I'll take those numbers."
The Cavs are of course in the Eastern Conference finals for the third consecutive season. If Boston wins the other semifinal, Game 1 would be there either May 15 or 17. If the Washington Wizards win, Game 1 would be in Cleveland. Boston leads that series, 2-1, with Game 5 set for this evening.
Kyrie Irving contributed 27 points and nine assists. He scored 11 consecutive points in the fourth quarter when the Cavs really needed them.
The Raptors were again without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry (sprained left ankle), but hung in there until the middle part of the fourth quarter when Irving found another gear.
Toronto's Serge Ibaka (23 points) converted a jumper and free throw with 6:38 left, formally erasing what was once a 16-point lead for Cleveland in the third.
Irving responded with a 3-pointer (of the stepback variety), four foul shots and two layups. When James buried a 3-ball with 2:54 left to give the Cavs a 106-95 advantage, it was too much for the Raptors.
"Winning time," Irving said. "Just understanding the magnitude of the game, what was at stake. A lot of our offense was on Bron's shoulders. He'd been playing at least 16 straight minutes 18 straight. It was winning time for the both of us. We understood that."
James shot 11-of-22 from the field and 5-of-13 on 3s. He was 8-of-9 from the foul line and played 46 of a possible 48 minutes.
"A close-out game has always been like that," coach Tyronn Lue said. "(LeBron) tries to go as far as we need him. I know in that fourth quarter I tried to get him out for a couple of minutes, but he said no, I'm fine. Get me a timeout and I'll be OK."
The Cavs' Kyle Korver scored 18 points with four 3-pointers -- with 16 points in the first half. Channing Frye added 10 points. Kevin Love struggled opposite Ibaka with five points on 2-of-7 shooting.
DeMar DeRozan scored 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting. Cory Joseph, starting for Lowry, was excellent with 20 points and 12 assists.
The Raptors finished with the same regular-season record as the Cavs (51-31) but for the second straight year had their season ended by Cleveland at Air Canada Centre in the playoffs.
Last season, it was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals when it was all over.
"Anytime you have No 23 you can flip every switch you want to," Raptors coach Dwane Case said. "What did he play? Forty-six minutes? People complain about that. He is the difference. They did flip a switch.
"They are a totally different team defensively and definitely offensively (since the end of the regular season). Anybody that thinks anything differently doesn't know anything about basketball."
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No. 2: Warriors ready for dogfight against Jazz -- The Golden State Warriors are hunting the same thing the Cleveland Cavaliers have already secured on the other side of the conference divide: a third straight trip to the conference finals. As you might expect, the Warriors are prepared for a dogfight from the Utah Jazz tonight in Game 4 of their conference semifinal series (9 ET, TNT) to get there. Lynn Worthy of The Salt Lake Tribune has more:
The Golden State Warriors look, at least to everyone with a functional set of eyes, like a runaway freight train in the NBA's Western Conference. Even when they're not at their best for stretches like the second quarter against the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, they can pull it together for a double-digit win.
Despite their track record of success in both the regular season (best record in the NBA, 67-15) and postseason (7-0 thus far) as well as what seems to be a predestined rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Warriors haven't taken victories for granted. They're certainly not expecting an easy path to a series sweep when they tip-off Game 4 against the Jazz on Monday night in Vivint Smart Home Arena.
"They don't quit," Warriors forward Kevin Durant said on Sunday. "That's what I love about this team. They have a great coach. They play physical. They don't give up. They've got a great crowd as well so they're going to try to feed off of that. The series is far from over."
Durant led the Warriors to a 102-91 win in Game 3 with 38 points and 13 rebounds on a night when All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined for 15 points while former MVP Steph Curry shot 6 for 20 from the floor. However, the Jazz may be hard-pressed to contain Thompson, Green and Curry that well again in Game 4.
The Warriors, who are attempting to make a third straight run to the NBA Finals this postseason, have already set a franchise record for consecutive wins to start the playoffs (seven). Just twice previously had the franchise won six straight playoff games in the same postseason.
In the previous round against Portland, the Warriors dominated Game 4 on the road as their hosts tried to fight off elimination. The Warriors scored 45 first-quarter points and built up a 24-point halftime lead on their way to a 128-103 win to close that series.
"This team is really tough, especially at home," Warriors acting coach Mike Brown said. "We had a phenomenal start, especially, in Portland and [phenomenal] game all together. You'd love to duplicate that, but I don't know if the Jazz are going to let us do that. They're tough-minded. Quin [Snyder] is a great coach. Their crowd is going to be into it. So it's going to be a tough contest.
"For us to try to go out there [Monday] night and duplicate what we did in Portland is definitely the goal."
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No. 3: Wizards flip switch to pull even against Celtics -- Flipping playoff switches is not only for the like of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Washington Wizards flipped a few switches of their own, 26 straight to be exact in a wild third quarter, to tie their conference semifinal against the Boston Celtics at two games each. Our Lang Whitaker witnessed the Wizards' Game 4 rush and provides some context:
At the half, the Wizards went into their locker room and watched some video clips of the first half. “We were making a lot of mistakes and that’s the way they were scoring,” said Washington forward Markieff Morris. The Wizards hoped to straighten out those defensive errors in the second half.
Did they ever.
After the Celtics scored the first five points of the third quarter, the Wizards ripped off 26 unanswered points. There were steals and rebounds which led to dunks and fast breaks and 3-pointers. By the time the dust settled, the Wizards were sitting on a 73-55 lead, which proved insurmountable. Washington went on to win Game 4, 121-102, evening the series at two wins apiece as both teams will head to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday (8 ET, TNT).
“We played inspired basketball for each other,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks of that third quarter spurt. “We talked about that many times. It’s about playing for each other, and we’ve been doing that all year. It was probably our best stretch of basketball.”
Asked to confirm Brooks’ assessment of that stretch, the Wizards’ backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal agreed.
“It was all our defense, that’s all it was,” said Beal. “We realized at halftime we wasn’t defending the way we were capable of. It was still a tied game and we just came out in the third quarter with a better mindset that everything was going to stem from the defensive end.”
The Wizards’ 26-0 run was a seven minute vicious cycle: The Celtics would turn it over, and the Wizards would capitalize on the other end. It felt like the Wizards were hammering away and hammering away, and with the Verizon Center crowd at full throat and each basket feeling more and more like an inevitability, eventually everything fell apart for the Celtics.
“One of the things is, if you turn the ball over against these guys you prefer to drop kick it into the stands so that at least you can set your defense,” said Stevens. “Their attack in transition killed us. In each of these last two games, I think that our offense and our turnovers in that run separated the game -- last game it was in the first quarter, today it was in the third quarter. They made us pay for it.”
If anything, that Wizards run reinforced the importance of their point guard, Wall. After getting off to a 0-for-9 start from the floor, Wall eventually found his groove, finishing Game 4 with 27 points, 12 assists, five steals and three rebounds. Wall has now scored at least 20 points and recorded seven assists in each of Washington’s ten playoff games. “He’s just as good as it gets in transition,” said Stevens.
“I know I have to be aggressive -- offensively and defensively,” said Wall. “I was getting good looks, I was just missing easy shots and layups kept hitting the rim and not slowing down. My teammates let me keep being aggressive. Just the way we got stops, that kind of got me into a momentum and a rhythm of seeing the ball go into the basket.”
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No. 4: Rockets stay true to their game in rout of Spurs -- The fundamentals are sound. The Rockets drain 3-pointers, they win. They can't find the mark from deep, they lose. So it should have come as no surprise that the Rockets stayed true to their shooting game to rout the San Antonio Spurs Sunday at Toyota Center. Our Fran Blinebury explains:
The Rockets hadn’t yet gotten to the point where they were going to hire a crop duster to seed the clouds or search for a medicine man to make skies open up and start a downpour.
“We know who we are,” said James Harden.
The rain men that can make it come down in buckets. That is, 3-point buckets, if only they would stick to the plan.
Day after day through consecutive losses to the Spurs, they kept telling themselves to stay faithful to their identity and the shots would fall.
It wasn’t true, they insisted, that San Antonio had done a near-perfect job of running them off the 3-point line. Because even in defeat they had gotten off 34 and 39 shots from behind the arc.
Eventually, they believed, those shots would fall.
When it happened on Sunday night at Toyota Center there were not enough umbrellas and galoshes in all of Texas to stop the Spurs from getting soaked to their bones and washed away.
The Rockets shot 19-for-43 from long distance, outscored San Antonio 57-14 on treys and were able to even the Western Conference semifinal series at 2-2 with a 125-104 thumping.
It wasn’t just that the Rockets had to keep taking all those 3s, but how and when they were taking them. Gone were the tentative drives down the lane or along the baseline and the raft of soft, errant floaters from Game 3. In their place were the definitive, determined hard drives to the basket and the sharp kicks back to the perimeter for those open shots. They were shots that were more in the rhythm of the way they want to play — fast, fast and faster.
“We’ve kind of emphasized it the whole series and all year,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “It kicks in sometimes. I thought we did a great job of having patience with drive-ins. Drive-kick, drive-kick, instead of just throwing up a quick floater, which is kind of what they want. We were able to keep moving our people and keep driving until we found the easier shot and it worked.”
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Houston Rockets lost Nene to injury during their Game 4 win over the Spurs and things don't look good for his availability for Game 5 ... Warriors GM Bob Myers wants Steve Kerr to get his life back first and foremost ... The hard decisions on how to move forward in Toronto will rest on Masai Ujiri's shoulders ... No one had a tougher Sunday than Rockets guard Pat Berverley, who lost his grandfather before Houston's win ... Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis swears his Twitter account was hacked over the weekend ...