Warriors Nip Rockets 99-98

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James Harden had Game 2 on his fingertips — and then he didn’t.

Now the Golden State Warriors have the Western Conference finals in their grasp.

BOX SCORE: WARRIORS 99, ROCKETS 98

Stephen Curry scored 33 points before Harden lost the ball in the closing seconds to end a spectacular duel between the NBA MVP and runner-up, and the Warriors held off the Houston Rockets 99-98 on Thursday night to take a 2-0 lead in the series.

“Sometimes I want to crack open a beer and get a courtside seat. These two guys are the two best basketball players in the world,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said.

Harden rallied the Rockets from 17 points down in the second quarter and had a chance to finish off the comeback in the fourth. Instead, Klay Thompson harassed him and Curry came over to trap Harden, who lost the ball as time expired.

Harden fell to the floor and put his hands over his head as the Warriors celebrated on the court, the sellout crowd of 19,596 roared, and golden-yellow confetti fell from the rafters.

“Kicking chairs,” Harden said. “It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to give the game away like that.”

Harden had 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, and Dwight Howard overcame a sprained left knee that slowed him down to finish with 19 points and 17 rebounds for a Rockets team headed home in a major hole.

Game 3 is Saturday in Houston.

Kobe to Play One Last Season

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Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Kobe Bryant has indicated the 2015-16 season will be the star’s last with the team.

“He has indicated to me that this is it,” Kupchak said Thursday on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and former league MVP, is scheduled to make $25 million in his final contract season and 20th year with the Lakers.

There has been speculation that Bryant could play beyond next season and the guard — who will turn 37 when next season begins — hasn’t ruled out that possibility.

“I think first and foremost, he’s on the last year of a deal,” Kupchak said. “There have been no discussions about anything going forward. I don’t think there will be.”

Bryant’s last three seasons have ended early because of injury. He played only 35 games last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He averaged 22.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists.

“A year from now, if there’s something different to discuss, then it will be discussed then,” Kupchak said of Bryant potentially playing beyond next season. “I talk to him from time to time … and he is recovering. He’s running. He’s getting movement and strength in the shoulder. We expect a full recovery, but yeah, he’s much closer to the end than to the beginning.”

Kupchak was asked about the impact Bryant’s future plans could have on potential free agents joining the team while Bryant is still playing.

“I think it is clear,” Kupchak said. “He’s on the last year of his deal. There have been no discussions (about playing beyond next season). He hasn’t indicated that he wants to continue to play.

“But if there is a player out there like that, that won’t come here for that reason, then we don’t want them. Every great player is demanding and focused and if you don’t want to play for a guy like him that’s driven to do nothing but win championships and work hard, then you shouldn’t be here. You should go someplace else.”

Kupchak said Bryant is still involved in recruiting free agents.

“He’s more than willing (to call a player) every time I asked him,” Kupchak said.

The Lakers, who had the fourth-worst record (21-61) this season, have the No. 2 selection in the 2015 NBA Draft on June 25.

Kupchak knows he will need to improve the roster beyond the high first-round pick.

“We’re going to have to get lucky during the offseason with free agency,” Kupchak said. “Kobe is going to have to come back and be very healthy.”

JR Smith Lights it Up

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J.R. Smith knocked down a tough 3-pointer, then another. Turning toward the fans, their heckling transformed to groans, he blew off his right index finger and motioned toward his side, like he was holstering his pistol.

Yep, Smith was that hot.

BOX SCORE: CAVALIERS 97, HAWKS 89

While LeBron James led Cleveland with 31 points, it was Smith who ignited the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. He made eight 3-pointers and scored 28 points in a 97-89 victory over the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.

“When he gets hot,” Cleveland coach David Blatt marveled, “he gets smoking hot.”

Intent on bringing Cleveland its first NBA title, James sealed the victory with a soaring dunk in the final minute.

For the Hawks, it was the second straight series in which they’ve lost the opening game at home. Cleveland will look to take command of the series in Game 2 Friday night.

Making matters worse for Atlanta, DeMarre Carroll went down with a knee injury driving to the basket with 4:59 remaining. He was helped to the locker room, not putting any weight on his left leg, and will undergo an MRI on Thursday to determine the seriousness.

Besides being the main defender on James, Carroll had been the Hawks’ leading scorer in the playoffs. He was averaging more than 17 points coming into Atlanta’s first conference final.

“DeMarre is a complete player,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He has a big impact at both ends of the court.”

Jeff Teague led Atlanta with 27 points. But Atlanta didn’t produce its usual balanced scoring, as two starters — Kyle Korver and Carroll — failed to reach double figures.

With Smith doing most of the damage, Cleveland outscored the Hawks 22-4 over the final 5 minutes of the third quarter and the first 2 minutes of the fourth. During that span, he made five 3-pointers and another jumper from just inside the arc, as well as throwing up a lob that Tristan Thompson dunked.

Smith has been a huge addition for the Cavaliers since he was acquired in January as part of a three-team trade with New York and Oklahoma City. A player once known for his selfishness, he had learned to work with within the confines of a team led by James.

When the Cavaliers really needed Smith in Game 1, he seemed to make every shot.

Dwight Howard

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Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard says he has a sprained left knee and is unsure whether he’ll be able to play against Golden State in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night.

Howard sat out Wednesday’s practice at Oracle Arena. He says the injury is still causing pain in his knee and he’ll listen to his body before deciding whether to play. He added that he has ”no doubt” he’ll return at some point in the series.

Howard hurt his knee in a first-quarter collision with teammate Josh Smith. He came back into the game in the second quarter but lacked his usual athleticism and eventually left with less than a minute into the fourth.

The Warriors won the opener 110-106.

Cavs Hawks Game 1 Tonight

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The Cleveland Cavaliers could only watch enviously as LeBron James made a run at another NBA title in Miami.

The Atlanta Hawks were trying to move on after a tough loss in the opening round of the playoffs.

My, how things have changed from a year ago in the Eastern Conference.

James returned to Cleveland last summer and turned the Cavaliers into instant title contenders. The Hawks pulled off a remarkable turnaround in Mike Budenholzer’s second season as coach, winning 60 games to claim the top seed in the East.

On Wednesday night, the teams will meet in Game 1 of the conference final.

For James, it’s championship or bust.

“I just try to lead these guys,” he said. “I just want them to be great. “

James, who won two titles with the Heat and lost in the NBA Finals his other two years, came back to Cleveland — where he started — looking to lead Cavaliers to their first championship.

He is halfway there, with the top-seeded Hawks standing in his way.

“He’s got his eyes on the prize,” Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore said after practice Tuesday. “We’ve got to go through him to get where we want to go.”

During his first seven seasons, James transformed the Cavaliers into one of the league’s top teams. But they made it to the Finals only one time, getting swept by San Antonio in 2007.

Now, he wants to bring a celebration to his de facto hometown.

Warriors Take Game 1

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Stephen Curry hit two free throws in the final seconds to finish with 34 points, and the Warriors rallied from a 16-point deficit in the second quarter to beat the Houston Rockets 110-106 on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

With the Rockets seemingly ready to rout the home team, the Warriors used a smaller lineup featuring 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center and closed the first half on a 21-4 run. Shaun Livingston scored 14 of his 18 points in the quarter, helping Golden State go ahead 58-55 at halftime.

RELATED: Playoff results, schedule

The Warriors held off James Harden and Houston in the fourth quarter again behind their undersized lineup, which worked especially well after Rockets center Dwight Howard departed with a left knee injury.

“It really stretches people out,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of his lineup full of shooters. “Houston does the same thing. It was an interesting chess match, because they like to go small and we like to go small.”

Harden, the runner-up to Curry in the MVP voting, nearly brought the Rockets back without Howard in the fourth. Harden finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and four steals, but his late push fell short.

“You can’t give a really good shooting team easy layups and confidence,” said Harden, who shot 11 of 20 from the field. “That’s what we did in the second quarter.”

Game 2 is Thursday night in Oakland, and it’s unclear if Howard can play. Howard doesn’t think the injury will sideline him for the series.

“Hopefully Dwight is healthy and we can play big,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “We didn’t have that option with Dwight out.”

Harden, serenaded with chants of “Over-rated!” from Warriors fans, mixed in a series of step-back jumpers and driving layups to help Houston even the score at 95-all midway through the fourth.

But the Warriors shut down Houston for long stretches, and Curry kept hitting shots to match Harden’s brilliance. Curry connected on a 3-pointer and converted a layup to put Golden State up 108-97 with 2:01 remaining.

“It’s entertaining basketball. We’re both supposed to help our team win and do what we can to impact the game,” said Curry, whose 2-year-old daughter Riley, playfully interrupted him during his postgame news conference.

The Rockets never relented, though, with Trevor Ariza making a 3-pointer that trimmed the Warriors’ lead to 108-106 with 14.6 seconds to play.

M’s Shut Out Red Sox

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Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to ask Pierce about his future in basketball, as he was still feeling the sting after officials waved off his apparent game-tying 3-point shot at the buzzer. Asked what he thought as he walked off the court after the game, Pierce said he wondered if he can reach this level anymore.

“Truthfully, what was going through my mind, I don’t have too much more of these efforts left, if any,” Pierce said. “These rides throughout the NBA season and throughout the playoffs are very emotional. They take a lot, not only out of your body, but your mind, your spirit.

“They are very emotional. It affects not only you but the people around you on days like this. You go home and you are around your family and you don’t feel like talking to them or doing anything because of what the game does — it takes a bite out of you. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. … It affects the people around you.”

Pierce will be 38 in October, which is ancient by NBA standards. And while he showed in the playoffs he can still play at a high level, averaging 14.6 points per game this postseason, he’s clearly not the elite player he was in his days with the Celtics when he was a 10-time All-Star.

Pierce has a $5.5 million option year left on his contract with the Wizards. He says he’ll talk with his family before deciding whether to return.

Pierce to Hang it Up?

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Wizards veteran Paul Pierce told reporters Friday night he’s not sure if he will return next year for his 18th NBA season

“I haven’t really thought about it,” Pierce said, following the Wizards 94-91 loss to the Atlanta Hawks that eliminated Washington from the playoffs. “I don’t even know if I am going to play basketball anymore. These seasons get harder and harder every year, every day. Summers get even harder when you start getting back in shape. I’m 37 years old. I’m top two or three oldest in the league.”

Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to ask Pierce about his future in basketball, as he was still feeling the sting after officials waved off his apparent game-tying 3-point shot at the buzzer. Asked what he thought as he walked off the court after the game, Pierce said he wondered if he can reach this level anymore.

“Truthfully, what was going through my mind, I don’t have too much more of these efforts left, if any,” Pierce said. “These rides throughout the NBA season and throughout the playoffs are very emotional. They take a lot, not only out of your body, but your mind, your spirit.

“They are very emotional. It affects not only you but the people around you on days like this. You go home and you are around your family and you don’t feel like talking to them or doing anything because of what the game does — it takes a bite out of you. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. … It affects the people around you.”

Pierce will be 38 in October, which is ancient by NBA standards. And while he showed in the playoffs he can still play at a high level, averaging 14.6 points per game this postseason, he’s clearly not the elite player he was in his days with the Celtics when he was a 10-time All-Star.

Pierce has a $5.5 million option year left on his contract with the Wizards. He says he’ll talk with his family before deciding whether to return.

Rockets Smash Clipps..Win Series 4-3

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The Houston Rockets are heading to the Western Conference finals for the first time in 18 years after overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the Los Angeles Clippers.

“It’s the ultimate confidence-booster,” James Harden said. “There’s only a handful of teams that’s done that. We fought back. We fought three really hard games and came away with it.”

Harden scored 31 points, Dwight Howard had 16 points and 15 rebounds and the Rockets never trailed in a 113-100 victory over the Clippers on Sunday, sending them to the conference finals for the first time since 1997.

BOX SCORE: ROCKETS 113, CLIPPERS 100

It’s the ninth time in NBA history that a team has overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win a playoff series.

The Rockets overcame a 19-point third-quarter deficit in Game 6 on Thursday night to stay alive. No such heroics were needed Sunday when they were up by 17 after three and Howard opened the fourth quarter with a 3-point play to push it to 88-68.

“When you’re down 19 on the road, it’s easy to give in and just say, `Maybe next year,'” Harden said. “But I think the injuries throughout the entire year kind of made us fight through adversity no matter what. We always find a way to fight, and another case was being down 3-1.”

Blake Griffin scored five points in a 9-0 run to cut the lead to eight points with less than 2 1/2 minutes remaining. Harden made a pair of free throws after that, but a dunk by DeAndre Jordan got the Clippers within eight again. This time, Trevor Ariza hit a 3 from the corner to secure the victory.

Howard was nervous until Ariza hit the final 3 and worried the Clippers might be the ones to orchestrate an unlikely comeback this time.

“Please, we can’t let them pull an us on us,” Howard said he was thinking during their late run.

Griffin had 27 points and Chris Paul had 26 points and 10 assists.

The Western Conference finals begin Tuesday night at Golden State.