PHOENIX (AP) — Load management is a big topic across the NBA these days.
One great way to make sure players get rest in the playoffs is to end the series early.
The Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics all have that opportunity on Tuesday night when they host Game 5s with a 3-1 lead in the series.
“Closeout games are always the hardest,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “We expect it’s going to be a battle. We’re just gearing up.”
The Western Conference top-seed Nuggets already had one opportunity to end their series, but the feisty Timberwolves managed to extend it with a Game 4 win in overtime on Sunday.
“We really wanted to come out and have a sweep under our belt. Didn’t happen,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. “They fought. They fought like hell, all game long. Even when we put a scare in their heart a little bit, they kept fighting, kept playing, and the crowd was into it.”
The Suns-Los Angeles Clippers series has been shaped by Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury. Leonard has missed the past two games with a sprained knee, which has helped tip the series in favor of Phoenix.
“He’s definitely hurt. It’s not load management where he’s taking time off,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s shown in the past that he’s played through injuries in the playoffs and so if it’s something he can’t play through, then it has to be pretty serious.”
L.A.’s Paul George has been out since March 21 with the same injury as Leonard.
HAWKS AT CELTICS
Boston leads 3-1. Game 4, 7:30 p.m. EDT, TNT.
— NEED TO KNOW: The Celtics have never lost a best-of-seven playoff series after building a 3-1 lead. They are 27-0 in those situations over their storied history.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Jaylen Brown’s facial wear. The Boston star had been using a protective mask since February, when he sustained a broken bone in his face. But he ditched the mask in the second quarter of Game 4 after making just 1 of 7 shots. He went 11 of 15 the rest of the way to finish with 31 points in a 129-121 victory. Presumably, he won’t be wearing the mask anymore in these playoffs. “As soon as I took it off, things started to turn around a little bit,” Brown said.
— INJURY WATCH: Boston G Marcus Smart looked just fine in Game 4 after falling hard on his tailbone in the previous contest. He said they were times when his lower back tightened up, and he’ll have to remain diligent in his treatment to make sure the pain doesn’t keep him off the court. “Throughout the game, it got a little tight on me. It flared up. But once I got it stretched out again, got it loose, got some heat on it, it was pretty good,” Smart said.
— PRESSURE IS ON: The Hawks. It looks like another brief playoff appearance unless they can pull of a win in Boston, and the challenge got even tougher when guard Dejounte Murray was suspended for Game 5 after bumping and verbally abusing an official after the end of Game 4. Murray is averaging 25.3 points in the series. Atlanta has lost five straight at TD Garden since its last victory on Feb. 17, 2021, including a pair of 13-point defeats in the first two games of this series. If the Hawks lose, it would be the second straight year they’ve gone down in five games in the opening round and could signal major changes heading into the offseason.
TIMBERWOLVES AT NUGGETS
Denver leads 3-1. Game 5, 9 p.m. EDT, NBA TV.
— NEED TO KNOW: The Nuggets closed the last 2½ minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 4 on a tying 12-0 run, but the Timberwolves recovered with an 18-point overtime on 6-for-8 shooting for a 114-108 victory. It denied Denver a first playoff-series sweep in franchise history and keep the first-round matchup alive despite Nikola Jokic’s playoff-career-high-tying 43 points.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Anthony Edwards. Minnesota’s All-Star guard has 129 points in four games, the second-most in the NBA playoffs behind Phoenix’s Devin Booker (139). He delivered a wide array of clutch baskets down the stretch for the Wolves in Game 4, including a pull-up 3-pointer from the wing with 11.5 seconds left in overtime to push their lead to four. He’s the first player in Wolves’ history with 100-plus points over three consecutive playoff games. Only LeBron James (eight) had more 30-plus-point playoff games before age 22 than Edwards does (five). Still, Edwards was aiming for a higher bar after his 12-for-27 shooting performance.
“I played terrible, if you ask me,” he said. “I took three bad 3s, three terrible possessions, and I damn near shot us out the game.”
— INJURY WATCH: Wolves sixth man Kyle Anderson was inadvertently struck by a stray arm from Edwards during a leap for a rebound late in the third quarter and did not return after suffering what the team announced as a left eye and facial contusion. Coach Chris Finch said Anderson went to see an eye specialist. … Nuggets coach Mike Malone on Jokic’s aggression with 12 free-throw attempts in Game 4 after zero in Game 3: “He’s banged up. He’s playing hard.”
— PRESSURE IS ON: Jamal Murray. After scoring 40 points in Game 2, Denver’s standout point guard missed 26 of 43 shots over the two games in Minnesota. He had 19 points in Game 4, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker frequently picking up his defense before half court and making him work hard for every shot, drive and pass.
CLIPPERS AT SUNS
Phoenix leads 3-1, Game 5, 10 p.m. EDT, TNT
— NEED TO KNOW: The Suns took control of the series with two wins in Los Angeles and now return to Phoenix to try and close it out. The Suns have taken advantage of the absence of L.A. star Kawhi Leonard, who missed both Games 3 and 4 because of a sprained knee.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Three-time All-Star Devin Booker is cooking for the Suns, averaging 34.8 points on 57.1% shooting. The 26-year-old isn’t just scoring, he’s averaging 5.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.3 blocks.
— INJURY WATCH: All eyes are on Leonard to see if he can return. The Suns have been without backup point guard Cam Payne, who hasn’t played in the series because of a sore back.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Russell Westbrook. If Leonard can’t play, the Clippers almost certainly have to have another massive game from Westbrook, who has played well in the series. He’s improved his scoring total each game, rising from 9 points in Game 1 to 28 in Game 2, 30 in Game 3 and 37 in Game 4. L.A. might need a 40-spot from him on Tuesday to extend the series.
AP Sports Writers Paul Newberry, Beth Harris and Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
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