NBA playoff picture slowly starting to come into focus

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At this point, nothing would really surprise me when the NBA playoffs start in a month.

Well, Indiana winning the NBA title — heck, more than one game — would surprise me. So that is not totally true. But it’s hard to remember a more wide-open year. Every potential contender has enough strengths that you can champion them, enough flaws you can make an argument that dooms them.

Matchups will be key. And those matchups are slowly starting to come into focus. Let’s take a look one month out from the second season.

Eastern Conference

At the top: As of Wednesday morning, Chicago at 48-18 has a half game lead over Boston for the top spot, with Miami lurking 2.5 games back. Like the playoffs themselves, no finishing order here would be a real surprise, but there are some signs that look good in the windy city.

Getting that top seed matters because, as much as Orlando (who is basically locked in at the four seed) is not to be taken lightly, they scare anyone like the three right at the top do. The East’s two/three seed second round matchup will be a killer. Avoid that at all costs.

Chicago’s next 10 games feature only three teams over .500 and no team in the top four in either conference. They could push that slim lead out and hold on to the top spot. Miami is playing well again and after some tough games the rest of this week their schedule lightens up considerably. They are playing better defense and could make a real run at Boston in the two slot and even the top spot. Boston has a couple tough road trips ahead, they need to get their edge back or slipping to the three seed is not out of question.

Two games to watch: Boston at Chicago April 7, then Boston at the Heat April 10. Those could be big.

The East’s middle and bottom: The middle of the East looks pretty set. Look for another Orlando vs. Atlanta playoff series, although this time in the first round as the four and five seeds (the Magic swept that series last year). Philadelphia could catch New York for the six seed, either way the Sixers are a team the top teams are watching. Philly likely will not beat but will push whoever they face in the first round. They will not be an easy out.

The eight seed? Whichever team sucks the least amongst Indiana (currently in that slot), Charlotte (half a game back) and Milwaukee (2.5 back and fading). That team will have the honor of getting swept out in the first round. Indiana helped its cause with a couple wins over the Knicks and has the softest schedule from here on out. But it’s about sucking the least among these three.

Western Conference

At the top: Your San Antonio Spurs are the top seed and nobody is catching them. Whether their defense finds its way back is a question for another day, but San Antonio will have home court advantage for every round it plays in the playoffs.

The Lakers/Mavericks two/three seed battle in the West is more interesting. Currently the Lakers are the two seed by half a game over Dallas and Los Angeles may be playing the best ball in the West over the past couple weeks. That includes a thumping of the Mavs. That win raises this question: Does Dallas need home court to beat the Lakers in the second round? If so, they need to make a push now.

Oklahoma City is likely your four seed (unless they falter and Denver stays red hot). With Kendrick Perkins in the paint and a year of playoff experience, can they knock off the Spurs in the second round? That may be the most interesting question in the playoffs.

The West’s middle and bottom: All that talk above about second round matchups — that could be moot. The teams on the bottom half of the West are playing well right now, they are dangerous. The way Denver is defending and moving the ball makes them a real threat to Oklahoma City or anyone else in the first round. I’ve been told by people from a couple teams they want to avoid current eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round — that’s a long and dangerous front line with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, plus they have good wing players (with Rudy Gay due back in a week or two). Memphis is dangerous. Even to beat them could take a lot out of a team, who would then face a stiff second round challenge.

As for the other two teams, Portland is playing well and New Orleans brings a good defense and the always-dangerous Chris Paul to the table.

Only 2.5 games separate the five and eight seeds in the West, so predicting an order of finish is like predicting the NCAA tournament. Basically luck matters more than skill. Utah (2 games) and Phoenix (2.5 games) are looking up at the eight seed and want into to the party, but nobody in that top 8 is fading. That’s likely leaves Phoenix, Utah and Houston at the bottom of the lottery.

My prediction: One of the top four seeds in the West will get upset in the first round. It’s too early to say who — matchups and who is hot heading in will be factors — but the West remains deep. There will be no easy outs. Somebody is going to slip up.

Hours after game-winning tip, restaurant told Giannis Antetokounmpo he had to wait

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Giannis Antetokounmpo was the toast of Milwaukee Sunday night: With the game on the line after a Boston comeback, he tipped in a missed Malcolm Brogdon lay-up that proved to be the game winner. (Jayson Tatum was in good position for Boston, he tried to move Antetokounmpo out of his rebounding spot, it just didn’t matter.)

Well, you would have thought Antetokounmpo was the toast of the town, but when he went to BelAir Cantina (a chainlet of Mexican restaurants in the area) he was told he had to wait. And wait. To the point he eventually left.

As you might imagine, the 6’11” Antetokounmpo walking into a restaurant a couple hours after tying up the series with the Celtics drew fast attention on social media. So did the fact he couldn’t get service.

First, good on Antetokounmpo for not pulling the “do you know who I am?” line. He was reportedly unassuming and just left after a while. No hard feelings, his girlfriend later tweeted this out.

As for BelAir Cantina, I kinda get it — I worked my way through college as a waiter and bartender. The restaurant got slammed, everyone working there was in the weeds, and things fall through the cracks. It happens.

But when the 6’11” toast of the town walks in, he cannot slip through the cracks. Cannot. Rather than social media posts about him not getting served and walking out, there would have been pictures all over of him eating the lamb barbacoa or whatever. It’s good for business. If you give the man a little special treatment after the game, nobody is going to complain (except the people who were going to complain about everything anyway… in that sense working in a restaurant was good preparation for me to use Twitter someday).

 

 

Kevin Durant apparently likes Instagram comment critical of Russell Westbrook (photo)

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Last summer Kevin Durant tweeted and deleted that the Thunder’s surrounding cast around him and Russell Westbrook was lacking when he played for Oklahoma City. Those tweets – another criticized Thunder coach Billy Donovan – appeared to be intended to come from a burner account, but Durant said he actually meant to send them from his own account.

Now, he apparently liked an Instagram comment with the opposite message about Westbrook. (I say apparently, because I can’t verify the authenticity of these screenshots, but they at least pass the initial smell test.)

“Like” is Instagram’s word. Maybe Durant uses the function for a different purpose – to note a comment, rather than endorse it.

Perhaps, Durant misread the conversation. The comment he liked rejected the notion that the Thunder were “subpar,” but it criticized Westbrook for them not living up to their ability. Perhaps, Durant focused on the comment sticking up for Oklahoma City overall and missed the part about Westbrook being the shortcoming. Skimming that conversation, it’s a plausible mistake.

Maybe Durant just actually hit the like button. It’s easy enough to do.

Or maybe Durant and Westbrook haven’t really gotten less hostile toward each other. Maybe Durant meant to like this from a burner account.

Those nefarious possibilities are the scintillating ones.

After getting crushed for those tweets last summer and repeatedly downplaying his feud with Westbrook, the Warriors star clearly wanted to move on from these storylines. But all those questions have suddenly reemerged. Perhaps for legitimate reasons, perhaps for benign ones. But we won’t know more about Durant’s intent until he answers to this.

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

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Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.