The Race in the West…. And the Cavaliers in the East

Staff Writer: Preston Stubblefield

The Western Conference is by far the best conference in the NBA. The Houston Rockets clinched the number one seed, while the Golden State Warriors took second place in the standings going into the playoffs. The Warriors will be without star point guard Stephen Curry for the first round of the playoffs until cleared to play. Seeds 3-9 are three wins apart.

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George Hill warming up for the first game of the playoffs. Courtesy of: Creative Commons Gathered by: Maddi Killian

 

Only eight teams can clinch a playoff spot, seven of the nine teams contending have clinched a playoff spot. The two remaining teams contending are the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Which is the last game of the season. The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Denver Nuggets in overtime 112-106. Jimmy Butler, Karl Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins were the ones leading the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004.

The Trail Blazers, after a slow start, are eager to build on the progress they’ve made in the last two years. It would take a drastic collapse in the final 15 games for the Blazers to miss the playoffs. Instead, their focus is on maintaining one of the top four seeds and earning the home-court edge. Damian Lillard has been outstanding during the Blazers’ nine-game winning streak, ranking fifth in the league with a plus/minus of 11.0. He is leading the league in 3-point attempts in that span 10.2 per game and making 4.4 of them, which also leads the league. Damian Lillard is playing the best basketball he has ever played before, especially headed into the playoffs.

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All the Superstars for the playoffs for their respectful teams. Courtesy of: Creative Commons Gathered by: Maddi Killian

 

The Raptors survived an Eastern Conference Game 1 scare from the Wizards with a 114-106 win in Toronto. Leading by just one point entering the fourth quarter, Toronto, carried by Delon Wright, cruised to victory. Wright came off the bench and scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. Serge Ibaka led the Raptors with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting and 12 rebounds. DeMar DeRozan added 17 points and Kyle Lowry had 11 points and nine assists. DeRozan came up with a strong 3rd quarter effort, scoring 12 points for the Raptors.

Taking matters into his own hands, James scored 46 points and added 12 rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back from a poor performance in the series opener by holding off the Indiana Pacers 100-97 to even their Eastern Conference playoff matchup at one game apiece. Dazzling from the start, James scored the game’s first 16 points and had 29 at halftime, ruling the floor as he has done in so many previous postseasons.

“I played my game,” he said.

But in a season in which nothing has been easy for the Cavs, Cleveland was lucky that Indiana’s Victor Oladipo missed a wide-open 3-pointer that would have tied it with 27 seconds left.

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PLAYOFFS BEGIN!!!!!!!!! Courtesy of: Creative Commons Gathered by: Maddi Killian

 

“I got a clean look, I shot, and I just missed,” Oladipo said, shrugging his shoulders. “If I had that look again, I would take it every time.”

Kevin Love scored 15, but Cleveland’s All-Star center jammed his left thumb, the same hand he broke earlier this season while deflecting a pass and sat out the final 3:43 left with the Cavs clinging to a slim lead. Lue said Love could have returned and “he’s fine” for Game 3 on Friday.

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Rudy Gobert posting up Anthony Davis in what could be a preview of the Conference Finals. Courtesy of: Creative Commons Gathered by: Maddi Killian

 

The Rockets will now head to Minnesota for Games 3 and 4 with an easy 2-0 lead over the Timberwolves. Minnesota came out strong to start Game 2 and led early in the second quarter. That was until Eric Gordon and Gerald Green happened. Green came off the bench in the second quarter scoring 12 points and hitting four three-pointers, sparking the Rockets for the rest of the evening. Game three will be Minnesota’s first NBA playoff game since 2004 but it’s not going to be a fun one if the Wolves don’t figure out how to get Karl-Anthony Towns involved. He’s taking 18 shots across both games and on Wednesday night, he scored five points on nine shots. That simply is not going to work if the Wolves want to figure this out. The Rockets have honestly not shot well in Game one or two, but the Timberwolves have not been able to capitalize on it. Meanwhile, the Rockets are finding ways to win despite their struggles from behind the line. While Chris Paul led the way with 27 points, James Harden only had 12, making it a light night for the likely MVP of the season. That’s great news for Houston and not so great for Minnesota.

The Utah Jazz stole home-court advantage from the Oklahoma City Thunder after pulling out a 102-95 victory in Game two of their first-round series Wednesday. After losing 116-108 in Game one, Utah came out eager to even the series. A 9-0 run in the opening minutes created separation early on, but that lead would not last long. Oklahoma City responded with a 9-0 run of its own, foreshadowing how back-and-forth this contest would be all night. As the teams settled into the opening period, big men on both sides quickly racked up fouls. Thunder center Steven Adams (two) and the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert (two) and Jae Crowder (three) all found themselves in early foul trouble.

Minnesota’s slow-to-develop, up-and-down defense has finally started to shine, against this high-octane Houston team no less. There’s been no wait quite like the one for a win by the Timberwolves in the playoffs, though. Jimmy Butler hit four 3-pointers among his 28 points and Karl-Anthony Towns snapped back from a bad start to the series with 18 points and 16 rebounds, leading the Timberwolves past the Rockets 121-105 in Game 3 on Saturday night for their first postseason victory in 14 years. Jeff Teague scored 23 points and Andrew Wiggins pitched in 20 points with another four 3-pointers, helping the Timberwolves match the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team with 15 makes apiece from long range. Minnesota took 27 3-point shots; Houston launched 41.

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The Greek Freak attacking the lane and finishing. Courtesy of: Creative Commons Gathered by: Maddi Killian

 

“I tell everybody all the time, as long as you’re in rhythm, no matter if somebody’s in front of you or not, it’s a good shot for you because we think that you can make that,” Butler said after the Wolves shot 50 percent overall from the floor.

Not to be left out was Derrick Rose and his 17 points off the bench, including 10 points in nine minutes before halftime. The Wolves closed the third quarter with a 26-14 run and produced runs of 15-3 and 11-2 in the final period, perfecting their plan to play at a faster pace.

An infuriated Bradley Beal held his head in disgust and was literally hopping mad at officials who called his sixth and final foul with 4:58 remaining in Game 4 after Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan ran into him chasing down an offensive rebound. With the game and potentially their season hanging in the balance, the Washington Wizards managed to overcome the loss of their leading scorer and what they believed were “soft calls” by the officiating crew to even their best-of-seven series with a 106-98 win over the Raptors. Washington finished the game with a 14-6 John Wall-fueled run to win extend its postseason home winning streak to eight. DeMar DeRozan (32 points), reserve Delon Wright (18 points) and Jonas Valanciunas staved off a feisty Wizards team in route to a 108-98 win and a 3-2 series lead after losing Games 3 and 4 in Washington. Game 6 is Friday night. The momentum began to swing when Valanciunas forced a steal on John Wall, kicked it to Wright who then dropped it to DeRozan for a thunderous jam. Wright and the Raptors reeled off a 26-11 run to close the game and overcome Wall and Bradley Beal. Wright had nine points in the last 3:38, including a deep three-pointer from the right wing as the shot clock was winding down. The Wizards made just five of their 26 three-point attempts and committed 18 turnovers. They went nearly four minutes without scoring down the stretch. Wall finished with 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds but turned the ball over seven times.

Elite players rise to the occasion in big moments, and on Thursday night Giannis proved that’s just what he is. All night long, he made big play after big play, delivering a performance worthy of the “M-V-P” chants the Bradley Center faithful rained down upon their hero. Finishing with 31 points, 14 rebounds and four assists, Giannis led the Bucks to a 97-86 victory, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Saturday. Most impressive about Giannis’ night was that he showed up in the fourth quarter, when the Bucks needed him the most. In 10 fourth-quarter minutes, he put up 12 points and five rebounds — a good line for some players for an entire game. Whether it was in transition, in the post, cutting to the basket or grabbing offensive rebounds for put backs, he did it all. His rebound and put back with just over three minutes to play was a backbreaker for the Celtics.

LeBron James has earned a rest, and he intends on taking it. After once again leading the Cavaliers in scoring during Sunday’s 105-101 Game 7, series-clinching win over the Pacers in which James scored a game-high 45 points, he made it clear he was ready for a break.

“I’m burnt right now,” James said after the win. “I’m not thinking about Toronto right now, not until (Monday). I’m ready to go home. I’m tired. I want to go home.”

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