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Clippers rally past Suns, clinch division title

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PHOENIX — Winning Pacific Division titles is hardly old hat for the Los Angeles Clippers, but guard Chris Paul and his teammates have goals that involve hanging banners of a different kind.

Paul scored 20 points and put his team ahead to stay on a 32-foot, 3-point bomb with 1:48 to play as the Clippers rallied from a 17-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the Phoenix Suns 112-108 Wednesday.

The win, combined with a Golden State Warriors’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs, clinched a second straight division title for the Clippers — the only two in franchise history. Los Angeles (54-22) also moved within 1 1/2 games of the idle Oklahoma City Thunder for second place in the Western Conference.

“I didn’t realize that we did it,” Paul said when told the win clinched the Pacific. “That’s nice, I guess, but it doesn’t really say much. We won the division title last year, and we lost in the first round (of the playoffs).

“Things are different. Last year, we would have known this was the game that we had a chance to win the division. Now it’s all about winning games and getting ready for what’s ahead.”

Forward Blake Griffin and guard Darren Collison scored 23 points each for the Clippers, who ended a five-game road trip with four straight wins.

“It’s something to be proud of, but by no means is that what we’re aiming for,” Griffin said of the division crown. “We have much bigger goals.”

Paul, who handed out nine assists, added three steals in the game, becoming the first player since Allen Iverson (2007-08) to record three or more steals in eight consecutive games. However, it was the bench play of guard Willie Green, forwards Jared Dudley and Hedo Turkoglu and center Glen Davis that spurred the comeback and set up the win.

“We’ve shown a lot of resiliency, and we’ve been doing it all year long,” Collision said. “It’s the kind of thing you want to take into the playoffs. We just find a way. No matter who is out, who is struggling, we find a way. We have a shooter replacing another shooter. This is the best and most versatile team I’ve even been on.”

Forward Marcus Morris scored 16 points and guards Gerald Green and Goran Dragic had 15 each for the Suns, who lost their second straight and missed an opportunity to pass the Memphis Grizzlies for sole possession of seventh place in the West.

“We had this game almost in our pockets,” Dragic said. “In the fourth quarter, I think we played wrong. We had too many (isolation) situations, we didn’t share the ball, and they were contesting our shots. We didn’t get back on defense and they were making open 3s, getting fouled and shooting free throws.

“If you want to be a playoff team, you can’t allow that to happen.”

The Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks are all 44-31 with seven games remaining as they fight for the final two Western Conference postseason spots. Phoenix is currently in ninth place when tiebreakers are enforced.

“We can’t worry about other teams. It was a home game for us, and we had a lead,” Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said. “It’s like a broken record. We tell them all the time, we can’t have a two- or three-minute lull against these top teams.”

The Clippers outscored the Suns 34-17 in the fourth quarter, with Dudley scoring seven, including two free throws to ice the game with 8.1 seconds left. The Suns scored four points in the final 3:50 after a layup by guard Eric Bledsoe gave them a 104-99 lead.

Paul scored on a driving layup before Collison fed forward Matt Barnes for an alley-oop lay-in. Dudley gave the Clippers a 105-104 lead with 2:38 left before Bledsoe put the Suns back up with a 9-foot floating jumper. However, with the shot clock winding down, Paul drilled his long shot, and the Clippers closed it out down the stretch.

“You probably wouldn’t believe it, but it actually felt good leaving my hand,” Paul said.

The Suns seemingly took control midway through the third quarter. With the game tied at 69, Phoenix reeled off a 15-2 run, with back-to-back offensive put-backs by forward P.J. Tucker pushing the lead to 84-71. Tucker, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds, added a three-point play with 1:49 left to give the Suns their biggest lead at 91-74.

The Clippers scored the final four points of the third quarter, added a 7-0 run early in the fourth and just kept coming. Five points from Davis and back-to-back hoops from Collison shaved Phoenix’s lead to 97-91, and 3-pointers from Dudley and Barnes inched the Clippers within 99-97.

“That second unit even lifted my spirits,” Paul said.”(The starters) came to the bench saying, ‘Man, we can’t get nothing to go right.’ But the way they started that fourth quarter off, it was like, ‘OK, it’s on, let’s go.’

“It says a lot about our team, and it’s been that way all season. We never give up. We just keep fighting.”

NOTES: The Suns are 13-0 this season when G Goran Dragic and G Eric Bledsoe each score at least 16 points. The last five Phoenix wins are among those 13, but neither player hit the mark Wednesday. … Clippers G Chris Paul and Allen Iverson (2007-08) are the only players to have eight straight games with three-plus steals since the start of the 2003-04 season. … The Suns (18.8 per game) and the Clippers (18.5) rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the league in fast-break points. … Phoenix F Markieff Morris leads the league in points off the bench this season (1,008). He joins Leandro Barbosa (2006-07 and 2007-08), Rodney Rogers (1999-2000), Dan Majerle (1991-92) and Eddie Johnson (1988-89) as Suns reserves to reach the 1,000-point plateau. Barbosa, Rogers and Johnson all won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award in the season they hit the milestone.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair

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If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.

Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.

Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.

“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”

Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.

Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?

“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”

The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.

“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”

Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.

“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”

Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.

Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.

“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”

The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.

Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.

“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.

Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.

The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.

Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.

NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.

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Irving leads Cavaliers to rout of Magic

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ORLANDO — Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving is in the midst of an incredible shooting zone. And he’s loving every minute of it. Irving followed his NBA-best, 57-point scoring burst on Thursday with a more-efficient, 33-point effort Sunday, leading the Cavaliers to a 123-108 victory over the outmatched Orlando Magic.

Irving was sensational again.

In the last two games, Irving has made 12 of 13 shots from 3-point range. He has made 32 of 47 shots overall. He made the Cavs look unstoppable.

“It’s just a feel, an overall body feel right now,” Irving said. “The basketball feels a little bit better. It’s a fun game right now, and it’s fun to be part of something like this.”

Irving made 12 of his 15 shots Sunday and hit five of six from 3-point range, finding time to add four rebounds and four assists in leading the Cavs (43-25) to their fourth consecutive victory.

“Someone did ask me (before the game), what does he do for an encore (after his 57 point effort),” said Cavs coach David Blatt. “I didn’t have a good answer, But 12 of 15 from the field, in 34 minutes. That’s a pretty good encore. And he played right, which is the most important thing. It’s not the scoring as much as it is him just being engaged, locked in.”

LeBron James happily provided the perfect complement and setup man. He had 21 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds, and three steals, creating opportunities for everyone else. The Cavs buried the Magic by making 18 of 35 3-point shots, most of which were wide open.

Guard J.R. Smith scored 25 points, leading the 3-point onslaught by making six of his 10 from long range.

“I thought LeBron seemed to be seeing everyone in the gym tonight,” Blatt said. “And he threw it to them in the shooting pocket, and it seemed like that made every one. It seemed like he found guys in the eighth row that could make an open shot tonight.”

The Cavs received a brief scare midway in the third period when James went up to contest a shot and landed awkwardly, twisting his right knee. He continued to play and looked fine, but he raised the issue about his availability for Monday’s game in Miami.

“A scary moment for myself obviously,” he said. “I’ll see how I feel tomorrow and go from there. I haven’t had one of those falls in a pretty long time. I was happy to stay in the game.”

The Cavs made 45 of 76 shots (59.2 percent). The Magic (21-47) made 42 of 88 (47.7 percent, but they never seriously challenged in the second half, even though they closed to nine points twice in the fourth quarter.

Magic guard Victor Olidipo had 25 points and seven assists. Center Nikola Vucevic had 22 points and 15 rebounds. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton had 13 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Forward Tobias Harris had 24 points and eight rebounds. Reserve guard Luke Ridnour had a season-high 15 points.

Irving made his first four 3-point attempts, giving him 11 consecutive 3-pointers without a miss, dating back to his 7-for-7 effort Thursday against San Antonio. He finally missed from 3-point range midway in the third period.

The Magic twice fouled Smith while he was shooting beyond the 3-point line, accounting for all five of his free throws.

“That’s a tough team. You have to give them credit,” Harris said. “They have a lot of options out there, and guys who can make tough shots. It’s just overall tough for us against a team like that.”

The Cavaliers led 100-86 going into the fourth quarter. Smith made a trio of 3-pointers in the third period, helping hold off every Magic charge in the period.

Smith hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Cavaliers a 84-68 lead. Irving hit a pair of 3-pointers earlier in the period.

The Cavaliers led 66-55 at intermission, riding a red-hot shooting start and a 40-point second quarter. They made 26 of 42 shots (61.9 percent) and eight of their 16 3-point attempts in the first half.

Irving hit both of his 3-pointers in the first half. The Magic held a 28-16 rebound edge in the first half, but they couldn’t keep pace with the Cavaliers, who exploded in the second period when they made 16 of their 20 shots.

The Magic led the entire first quarter. Forward James Jones gave the Cavaliers their first lead when he opened the second with a 3-pointer.

Vucevic and Harris each had 14 points by halftime. James had 15 points and six assists before intermission. Irving made six of his first seven shots for 14 points.

NOTES: The Cavaliers were without PF Kevin Love (sore back), but they were helped by the return of veteran Shawn Marion, who missed the past three weeks with a strained hip muscle. F Tristan Thompson started in Love’s place. … The Magic were without reserve G Willie Green, who missed his third consecutive game with lower back spasms and F Evan Fournier, who missed his eighth consecutive game with a sore right hip. … A quirk in the schedule gave the Cavs two-plus days in balmy Orlando before the game Sunday. The extra time gave one fan of James the opportunity to invite him Friday to his wedding reception Saturday night at the posh hotel where the Cavs were staying. James politely declined.

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Spurs’ Ginobili sprains ankle

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SAN ANTONIO — Guard Manu Ginobili was helped off the floor late in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday due to a sprained right ankle.

Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points. He was immediately was led to the locker room, and he did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court. He did not return to the game.

In 19 minutes during the Spurs’ 123-97 win over the Timberwolves, Ginobili scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday and leading him to play limited minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.

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