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LeBron James’ pursuit of Michael Jordan fading away in the first round

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It was no accident that LeBron James waited until he’d won his third NBA title to reveal that he’d always wanted to chase Michael Jordan’s six championships. James might have historic aspirations, but he’s also a savvy cultivator of his own legacy, and wise enough to know you don’t even start talking about MJ until you’re at least halfway there.

Amongst this generation of NBA players, Jordan has G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) status. His six rings are the bar all of them must clear to be in that conversation. Five rings gets you on the same mountain peak as all-time greats like Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

James was 31 when he got to three rings with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. It took him until age 35 to win his fourth ring last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he and his new co-star, Anthony Davis, looked like they could win a few more … if they stayed healthy.

But after Tuesday’s blowout 115-85 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of their first round Western Conference playoff series, James and the Lakers are one loss away from having this season, and its legacy-making opportunity, close for good.

Davis was unable to play due to a strained groin, which he suffered in Sunday’s Game 4 loss at Staples Center. James’ was unable to carry his team, although with as badly as the Lakers supporting cast played, it doesn’t matter how wide his shoulders were.

And the Lakers were unable to muster much of a fight against the resurgent Suns, who are again looking every like the team that finished with the second-best record in the NBA.

“We just played our style,” Suns guard Chris Paul said. “We kept the pace going, shared the ball. We just played the way that we play.”

The Lakers were so bad Tuesday night that Hall of Famer James Worthy even said on the Lakers’ local postgame show, “There’s got to be a meeting of the minds after a game like this. I mean, this might be the worst game I’ve seen in Laker history.”

James finished with 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes, well under the time he normally plays in the postseason. But there was little reason for him to play in the fourth quarter with the Lakers down by as much as 36, and little reason for him to even watch as he and Davis walked off the court with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the game to get an early start on treatment before Thursday’s Game 6 in Los Angeles.

“We got our ass kicked. It’s that simple,” James said. “We have to be better if we want to force a Game 7. They pretty much just kicked our ass. There’s nothing else to say.”

As for his approach to Game 6, a potential elimination game, James said he’s preparing to play without Davis again.

“My mindset is that he’s not going to be able to play in Game 6, but that’s just my mindset,”‘ James said. “If something changes, we go from there. It’s literally win or go home … so you shoot all the bullets you got and throw the gun too. I look forward to the environment.”

Now the conversation about legacy shifts to that of 36-year-old Suns star point guard Chris Paul, who has come back from a shoulder injury to put his team in position to knock out the defending champions in either Game 6 Thursday night in Los Angeles, or a Game 7 Saturday in Phoenix.

Just a few days ago, it was the Suns who were staring down the long odds of a comeback after a blowout loss on their opponent’s home court, with one of their stars hobbled by injury. That’s how quickly this series has turned around over the course of the past 72 hours.

But it would be too simplistic to say the change is entirely due to the reversal in Davis and Paul’s injury statuses.

Yes, the Lakers dearly missed Davis’s offense and rim protection, but their abysmal performance on Tuesday night was the result of season-long systemic issues on offense that they’ve never quite fixed. Point guard Dennis Schroder is theoretically LA’s third best player, the “next man up” as James put it on Sunday, after Davis was lost to injury. But he’s never quite grabbed a hold of that responsibility this season, and completely let go of the rope in a scoreless, 26-minute effort Tuesday night.

“We have to be creative in finding ways to get Dennis going, he’s a hell of a player,” Vogel said. “He’s been huge for us this year. He’s struggled a couple games this series. But we’ve gotta put this one behind us and be a little more creative in getting him going. Because when he’s going, we’re a hell of a team. He had a tough night.”

Indeed, Schroder is averaging 22 points on 52 percent shooting in the Lakers two wins but just 7.3 points on 28 percent shooting in their three losses.

Then there is their lack of outside shooting. It was never a strong point for the Lakers (25th during the regular season), but it’s been downright awful in this first round series (31.8 percent, or 15th out of 16 playoff teams).

Tuesday night, LA was just 12 for 35 from behind the arc (34 percent), but even that’s a bit misleading because James hit six of his 10 3-pointers, which meant the rest of the Lakers were just 2 for 25.

“We didn’t play well enough on either side of the ball,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Early in the game, they built a big lead and we didn’t respond. But they did what they were supposed to do, win Game 5. Whether they win by one or win by 30, they won Game 5. It’s our turn to go back to LA, take care of our home court and make this a seven-game series.”

Phoenix, on the other hand, was scorching right from the start. Devin Booker had 18 points in the first quarter on 7-for-10 shooting and really never cooled off, finishing with 30 points on 13-of-23 shooting.

Paul finished with nine points, six assists and four rebounds in just 23 minutes, but that hardly captures his impact on the game as Phoenix was a staggering +34 with him on the court.

Cameron Payne continued his breakthrough season, with 16 points off the bench on 7-of-11 shooting, as the Suns were opening up their double-digit lead.

About the only sour note for Phoenix Tuesday night was the sight of Paul down on the court, grabbing his injured right shoulder, after Wes Matthews bumped him from behind while going up for a rebound. Paul seemed upset with the foul at the time, but later walked over and shook hands with Matthews.

“It’s a little banged up, but I’ll be alright,” Paul said. “It scared me. I’ve been talking to [Toronto Raptors guard] Kyle Lowry a lot. He had a similar injury last year. I don’t know, it’s just a very uncomfortable feeling. Kind of helpless. When it happened, I was just looking up, I didn’t know what happened. But after I seen it, I came back out on the court and told Wes it was a clean play. It’s just unfortunate my neck and arm snapped again, like it did.”

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Donovan Mitchell takes over, scores 45 to spark Utah Jazz rally in Game 1

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Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell didn’t feel well at halftime of Tuesday’s Game 1 against the visiting LA Clippers. He was a bit under the weather, feeling nauseated and a little light-headed. And he really felt sick about his performance in the first half.

“Yeah, I was definitely feeling it a little bit, but sometimes you’ve just got to dig deep into a different place,” Mitchell said after the Jazz rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit for a 112-109 win at Vivint Arena in this Western Conference second-round series. “I was getting my ass kicked individually in the first half on both ends of the floor. I wasn’t making the right reads. Luke [Kennard] hit a bunch of shots on me, Reggie [Jackson] hit a bunch of shots on me, and there were situations where I was being lazy and letting that fatigue kind of get to me.

“So I came into halftime and just said, ‘Look, I’m just going to have to find a way.'”

Mitchell made good on that vow with a spectacular second half, scoring 32 of his game-high 45 points. He scored on the Utah’s first four possessions of the third quarter — sandwiching a pair of step-back 3-pointers with a floater and a driving layup — and remained a dominant force attacking off the dribble the rest of the game.

“We knew that in the second half Donovan was going to come out aggressive and he did,” said Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who had 10 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks, including a win-sealing swat of Marcus Morris Sr.‘s corner 3 attempt with seconds remaining. “Obviously, he gave us a great lift, and he did a great job not settling for the jump shots but attacking them and putting pressure on them — finishing at the rim, drawing fouls, or kicking out for the shooters. When we play that way, I think that’s when we become really, really hard to guard.”

By taking over the game for the top-seeded Jazz, the 24-year-old Mitchell continued building his reputation as one of the NBA’s premier playoff performers. He ranks sixth in NBA history in career playoff scoring average (minimum 25 games) at 28.1 points per game and tied Karl Malone’s franchise record with his fourth 40-point playoff performance.

It was the third time Mitchell has scored at least 45 points in the playoffs, and he has played in only 28 career postseason games. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain had more such performances in their first 30 postseason games.

It also marked the third time that Mitchell has scored 30 or more points in a half during a playoff game, matching Allen Iverson for the most in the NBA over the last 25 years.

In this case, Mitchell heated up after a poor shooting first half, when he was 5-of-14 from the floor and the Jazz shot just 32.1%, missing 20 consecutive shots during one stretch. Mitchell finished 16-of-30 from the floor, including 6-of-15 from 3-point range.

“He’s not afraid to fail,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He’ll take the next shot. We want him to take open looks. If he misses a few of them, you know, they’re good shots. Keep taking them and keep attacking. That’s who he is.”

Mitchell carried an even heavier offensive burden than usual, handling much of the point guard responsibilities with fellow All-Star Mike Conley Jr. sidelined for the series opener due to a mild right hamstring strain. Mitchell said he got a feel for how the Clippers wanted to defend him during the first half, allowing him to be more aggressive in the second half.

“I didn’t do a lot of things right for my team in the first half and it really kind of ate at me,” said Mitchell, who also had five assists in the win. “It still does. I put my team in a certain position, and I feel like that it was on me to come out there and set the tone on both ends of the floor.”

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LA Clippers’ Paul George welcomes fan taunts, vows more ‘decisive’ play in Game 2

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Paul George stood at the line with 10 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in Tuesday night’s Game 1, Utah Jazz fans serenaded him with chants of “Playoff P!”

And with 1:37 left, the taunt of choice, and the loudest of the night, was an “overrated” chant that 18,007 fans echoed throughout a packed Vivint Arena. Jazz fans have been going at George since he played for Oklahoma City when the Thunder faced the Jazz in the playoffs in 2018.

George says he welcomes the taunts.

“I like it,” George said. “That part doesn’t get to me. It’s all respect. I’ve had good games here and I’ve had bad games here.”

He added: “That’s part of this game, to be honest. Crowd’s going to be involved. You want that. As an opposing player, you kind of want that.”

The All-Star guard missed 12 of his first 14 shots to the delight of Jazz fans but nearly helped the Clippers force overtime before dropping Game 1, 112-109, at Vivint Arena.

Despite shooting 4-for-17 overall, George scored 13 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter to go with 10 rebounds for the game. George scored seven points in the last three minutes, including a 3-pointer with 38.4 seconds left that helped cut a nine-point Jazz lead to three. But Marcus Morris Sr. couldn’t get a 3 off over Rudy Gobert at the end to send it to overtime.

Afterward, George said he knew what he did wrong and what to do in Game 2.

“Fact of the matter is, I didn’t shoot the ball well,” George said. “I thought I was indecisive on my approach. But I will be a little bit better on taking the shots that I want.”

George said the Jazz wanted the Clippers to take mid-range shots with Gobert roaming the paint but that he “can do a better job of setting those up.”

“The big fella is really good at just clogging the paint up and just sitting at the rim,” George said of Gobert, who had 10 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. “And a lot of plays I was just forcing myself trying to get to the basket where he’s there waiting for me. So I think just being decisive on approach of setting up, getting the shots that I want while he’s in those coverages.”

George stayed aggressive, going to the line 10 times. That’s where he heard it from Jazz fans. But he plans on continuing to play physical.

“It’s playoff basketball,” George said when asked about matching Utah’s physical play. “The physicality just has to be allowed on both ends, and I’ll leave it at that.”

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid ‘focused on winning,’ goes for 40 in Game 2 win

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid‘s night started with a loss and ended with a win in perhaps his most impressive playoff performance to date.

The Philadelphia 76ers‘ 118-102 Game 2 victory over Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday began shortly after the NBA announced Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic won league MVP honors, with Embiid finishing second. Jokic soundly defeated Embiid, with 971 voting points to Embiid’s 586.

That didn’t stop the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd, itching for a win after the Hawks took the series opener Sunday, from showering Embiid with “MVP! MVP!” chants all night long as he put up a career playoff high 40 points, along with 13 rebounds to tie the series at 1-1.

“It’s disappointing because as a player, you work hard for moments like this,” said Embiid, who in April said there was “no doubt” he should win the award. “But then again, it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. You just got to come out every year and just be ready and do my job.

“But I’m focused on the playoffs, I’m focused on winning the championship. Like I’ve been saying all season, we got a good chance. So I’m not worried about those awards and stuff. If and when I’m holding that [Larry O’Brien] Trophy, anything else won’t matter.”

Jokic was the first center to win the award since 2000 when Shaquille O’Neal earned it for the Los Angeles Lakers. Embiid is trying to be the first player to lead the Sixers to a title since 1983 when another center, Moses Malone, helped Philadelphia sweep the Lakers out of the Finals, coming through on his “Fo’, fo’ and fo'” declaration.

And he’s trying to do it without two healthy knees. Embiid was listed as questionable leading up to tipoff, as he’s still recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered in the first round against Washington.

“No excuses,” said Tobias Harris when asked about Embiid’s mindset. “He understands that. This is the playoffs. The way the NBA season was, I don’t think anybody is 100%. So, when he steps on the floor, he has that attitude and that mentality that it’s, ‘win.’

“As a whole group, we all have that tonight, but tonight, you just saw the dominance of him as a player.”

Harris also said Embiid’s defense was instrumental in keeping Trae Young in check in Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll coverages. The Hawks guard finished with 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting, 11 assists and four turnovers after controlling Game 1 with 35 points and 10 dimes.

“I’m trying to do the best I can, limited movement and all. I’m trying to be a better presence around the rim. Obviously not being 100% doesn’t help, but tonight I just wanted to be big,” Embiid said. “It’s tough because if I come up, they throw the lob. If I stay back, it goes with that floater.”

Beyond his 7-foot, 280-pound frame taking up Young’s room to roam, Embiid — known for his clever comebacks — tried to outwit the Hawks’ offense.

“Playing a game, you can call that, of cat and mouse,” he said. “Faking and going back. Just trying to keep them guessing.”

Embiid also had a pretty good hunch of his own before the game when he approached Sixers backup guard Shake Milton, who had just 17 total points in the postseason on 4-for-19 shooting coming into Tuesday.

“For some reason, I felt like he was going to be needed, so I told him before the game to get ready,” Embiid said.

Milton would go on to score 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting — even outscoring Young 14-10 in the second half — to help Philly break it open. He also helped erase the damage done by the Hawks’ bench in the first half when Atlanta’s reserves, led by Kevin Huerter (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting), outscored the Sixers’ subs 32-0.

“I love all these guys,” Embiid said. “[Milton is] one of them and I believe in all of them because I want to win it all, and I’m going to need them to do so. So I’m extremely happy for him.”

Embiid’s coach, Doc Rivers, was happy for the big man, knowing the look of an MVP performance when he sees one.

“It was awesome,” Rivers said. “I remember being on the other side of the night that David Robinson got the MVP and we had to play [Hakeem] Olajuwon. I was on that Spur team.”

Robinson received the trophy at center court before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals back in 1995. Then Olajuwon put up 41 points and 16 rebounds and the Rockets won by 10.

“That didn’t go well for us,” Rivers said. “Tonight, you felt like that was Joel. He was that magnificent.”

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