As the stakes get higher in these NBA playoffs, LeBron James only seems to get better.
The best player in the world has found another gear as he tries to will the Cleveland Cavaliers forward, even as the injuries mount on his teammates and his own body.
“I don’t know if there’s a player anywhere that understands better what time it is,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said Wednesday. “He just knows what time it is.”
It’s closing time. For his Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
James and the Cavaliers head into Chicago with a 3-2 lead over the Bulls in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals. The Clippers hold a 3-2 lead over Houston and can close out the Rockets in the Western Conference with a victory in Los Angeles in the other game tonight.
The Cavaliers and Clippers have arguably been the two most consistently impressive teams in the postseason to this point. The Clippers knocked off defending champion San Antonio in a stirring seven-game series to start the playoffs and have made the Rockets think twice about their hack-a-Jordan strategy in the semifinals.
And with Kevin Love out with a shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving trying to gut through injuries to both legs, James has again taken the team on his broad shoulders and carried them to the brink of the Eastern Conference finals. He had 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks and no turnovers in Cleveland’s 106-101 victory over the Bulls in Game 5, a box-filling stat line the likes of which has never been seen in the NBA playoffs.
“We ask a lot of him and he delivers a lot,” Blatt said. “We’ve asked him to be aggressive and to be in attack mode and not to hesitate. He’s doing it.”
The last thing the Clippers or Cavaliers want is a Game 7.
Anything can happen in the final game of the series. A fluke bounce, a bad call, and especially in these playoffs, an injury to a key player. So James and Chris Paul of the Clippers don’t want to take any chances.
“There’s got to be a sense of desperation in a way that brings the best out of you, the most fight out of you, the best spirit and effort out of you. … But as far as anxiety or nerves, no,” Bulls forward Pau Gasol said. “Right now, we understand the position we are in. We’ve got to win two games to advance.”
Here is a look at the two games, with start times in EST.
Cavaliers at Bulls, Cleveland leads 3-2, 8 p.m., ESPN
The Bulls got some good news Wednesday when Gasol’s strained left hamstring improved enough to list him as probable for Game 6.
Gasol has missed the past two games of the series, and the Bulls have sorely missed his presence on the glass and his ability to stretch the Cavaliers defense with his mid-range jumper. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds in their Game 1 win at Cleveland, forcing the Cavaliers to make major adjustments in how they defend the Bulls’ pick-and-pop offense.
The team that has won the rebounding battle has emerged victorious in each of the five games to this point, so getting Gasol’s instincts back on the court and perhaps allowing coach Tom Thibodeau to not have to play the struggling Joakim Noah as much should give the Bulls a boost.
“I feel like when we have lost a couple games in a row, we’ve always reacted well and we always play our best,” Gasol said. “We seem like we need that sense of urgency and desperation in order for us to have a great focus, a great intensity.”
Rockets at Clippers, Los Angeles leads 3-2, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
The difference in Game 5 for the Rockets wasn’t their ability to keep DeAndre Jordan from destroying them on the glass or Blake Griffin from taking over the game. It was forcing the Clippers’ 3-point shooters, especially J.J. Redick, into off nights.
Redick was tremendous in the first four games of the series, but went just 1 for 8 on 3s in Game 5. Jamal Crawford was 2 for 10 from the field and Matt Barnes was 1 for 8, allowing the Rockets to focus more on attacking the glass and limiting second-chance opportunities.
“If we’re going to allow them to get into the paint the way they did then we’re going to struggle,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s clearly an area where we have to improve on.”
Houston out-rebounded the Clippers 58-39, with James Harden grabbing 11 boards and Dwight Howard 15. They’ll need much more of that kind of production at Staples Center to stay alive in the series.
“I’ve been waiting for that team to show up for a while, and that’s how we have to play,” coach Kevin McHale said. “We have to play downhill and attack.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Kristie Rieken in Houston, Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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