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Pacers hold off Thunder

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INDIANAPOLIS — Just when the Indiana Pacers were turning into the forgotten team of the NBA playoff field, they stepped up to knock off the Oklahoma City Thunder and back the Miami Heat into an unfamiliar corner.

Guard Lance Stephenson hit a key 3-point shot in the final minute, forward David West blocked a 3-point attempt by Oklahoma City guard Kevin Durant and the Pacers held off the Thunder, 102-97, on Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The victory, the Pacers’ first over Oklahoma City in more than two years, put the Pacers (55-26) in position to win the No. 1 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage prior to the NBA Finals. If Indiana wins its regular season finale Wednesday at Orlando, or Miami loses either one of its two remaining games, the Pacers would capture the top seed. Indiana holds an advantage in the tiebreaker over Miami because of a better conference record.

“It’s a big step,” said Indiana guard C.J. Watson, who came off the bench and scored a season-high 20 points. “We needed it.”

Kevin Durant scored a game-high 38 points for Oklahoma City (58-22), which was attempting to clinch the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference. Guard Russell Westbrook added 21 points for the Thunder.

“It was a tough game. This changes nothing regarding our playoff race,” Durant said.

Before Sunday, the Pacers had lost six of their previous eight games. One of those wins was delivered by the team’s bench players at the Milwaukee Bucks when all of the team’s starters were given the night off by coach Frank Vogel.

“What surprises me is that people are down on them,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “They’re a good basketball team. In an 82-game season, you’re going to have some tough times.”

Stephenson had his fifth triple-double of the season, scoring 17 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and totaling 11 assists. His 3-pointer with 34 seconds left put the Pacers up 97-91 and Stephenson reacted by dancing down the court.

“We played loose and didn’t worry about turnovers and just played ball,” Stephenson said.

The Thunder forced 21 Indiana turnovers, but were outrebounded by the Pacers, 46-32.

Seconds before Stephenson’s basket, West blocked a 3-point attempt by Durant and the ball deflected to Stephenson. If the shot had fallen, the score would have been tied.

“David West is a special player,” Vogel said. “Everything you could want in a player, he is.”

West led Indiana with 21 points and forward Paul George added 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.

Watson was playing in just his third game since returning from a right hamstring injury and said he is still playing in pain. He scored a team-high 14 points in the first half. A 3-pointer by Watson with 9:10 left in the game gave Indiana an 11-point lead.

“We don’t win the game without him doing what he did,” Vogel said. “He was spectacular. We certainly did miss him when he was out.”

Durant, who topped 30 points for the second time in his last three games, hit 13-of-27 shots and was 10-for-10 at the free-throw line. He scored 12 points in the first quarter when the Thunder went up by three.

“We knew he was going to make shots,” West said. “We just wanted to make sure we were there.”

A 10-3 Indiana run early in the third quarter, which included a slam dunk by George following an Oklahoma City turnover and another basket on the next possession by George, put the Pacers up by five points, 60-55. The Pacers built that lead to eight by the end of the quarter, mostly on free throws.

One of the free throws by George was the result of a technical foul called on Oklahoma City power forward Serge Ibaka, who charged after a referee when he was whistled for a foul.

NOTES: Thunder coach Scott Brooks says he does not anticipate any major rests for his starting players leading up to the playoffs. They finish up the season Monday at New Orleans and Wednesday at home against Detroit. “I want to win every practice, win every game,” Brooks said. … Thunder G Kevin Durant has virtually clinched the NBA scoring championship for the fifth consecutive year in terms of points scored. He has scored 2,526 points. Only Michael Jordan (seven) and Wilt Chamberlain (seven) had longer consecutive season points titles. … Pacers G George Hill and coach Frank Vogel watched video together of Friday’s game in Miami, a learning session that was a result of Hill not taking a shot and scoring zero points in the Pacers’ 98-86 loss. “I certainly should have tried to get him more involved (in having a shot opportunity),” Vogel said. … The Pacers, who have lost seven of their last eight road games, finish the regular season Wednesday at Orlando.

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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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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NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return

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Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.

Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.

“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”

Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.

“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”

In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.

–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.

He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.

Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.

–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.

“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”

Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.

“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.

–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.

The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.

Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.

–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.

Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.

In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.

–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.

Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.

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