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.

Carmelo Anthony returns to face improved Knicks (but without Porzingis)

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony is coming to Kristaps Porzingis‘ house.

Three months after the Knicks traded Anthony to Oklahoma City, their former All-Star is gone and quickly forgotten. Porzingis is playing nearly as well as Anthony ever did in New York and seems to enjoy unyielding support from both fans and the front office that Anthony never had.

Porzingis has something else Anthony doesn’t: a winning record.

The Knicks welcome Anthony back on Saturday, trying to extend their surprising start though perhaps without the new main man in Madison Square Garden.

Anthony said after a triple-overtime victory in Philadelphia on Friday that he expected a fun night in New York.

“I think it’ll be an appreciation. It’s not like I was there for a year or a season or two seasons. I spent a lot of time there, almost seven years there,” he said. “There was great times, there was bad times. Regardless, I always stuck with it. I always remained professional. I always came and did my job whether people liked that or not. Hopefully people recognize that.”

Unlike team management, Porzingis didn’t want his friend to leave.

But it sure looks like it was the best thing for him and the Knicks.

“Well obviously, I would love to have had him here to continue to learn from him,” Porzingis said. “But without him this year I’ve had more of an opportunity. I am featured more, which is normal.”

Porzingis is listed as questionable to play after he left the Knicks’ game in Brooklyn on Thursday in the third quarter with a sore left knee. New York held on after he left, improving to 15-13 with its third straight victory.

If Porzingis plays, count on the usual raucous ovation when he’s the final starter announced, the spot that previously belonged to Anthony.

And what of the reception for Anthony, who led the Knicks to three straight playoff appearances after arriving in 2011, led the league in scoring when they won 54 games and a division championship in 2013, and always made it clear that he loved New York and didn’t want to go?

“I don’t think he deserves to be booed, but you never know,” Knicks forward Lance Thomas said. “Regardless, he is going to bring his `A’ game and we’re going to bring ours as well.”

Former team president Phil Jackson longed to unload Anthony last season, but the Knicks weren’t sure what to expect when they finally did make a deal on the eve of training camp. He was their leading scorer and team leader, and coach Jeff Hornacek had already said Anthony would be in the starting lineup if he remained on the team.

But new president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry found a trade the next day and it’s been a good one for the Knicks. Enes Kanter is giving them 13.4 points and 10.3 rebounds a game as the starting center while providing positivity that for years rarely existed in the home locker room. Doug McDermott is bringing another 8.5 points a night off the bench.

Anthony is struggling right along with the Thunder, a top-25 scorer in NBA history potentially on his way to the worst season of his career. He went into Friday’s game averaging just 17.7 points on 40 percent shooting before scoring 24 points.

And after placing him with MVP Russell Westbrook and fellow All-Star Paul George for the NBA’s latest Big Three, the Thunder were under .500 before Friday’s victory.

“I didn’t know that to be honest,” Thomas said. “But regardless, (they) will figure it out. I am not worried about them. I am worried about the Knicks.”

There’s less reason to worry than in Anthony’s final years in New York. Jackson alternated between trying to win and trying to rebuild seemingly every season, and his insistence on running the triangle offense appeared out of touch in an era when NBA teams are pushing the pace. And his stance toward Anthony last season angered teammates who appreciated the veteran’s efforts on and off the court.

Mills and Perry took aim at the culture and signaled a desire to build behind Porzingis, whose average of 25.5 points would be even higher if not for a sprained ankle that forced him to leave one game after 2 1/2 minutes. He looks happy after he was so disillusioned by the atmosphere under Jackson that he blew off his exit meeting last spring.

And while the Knicks appear on the rise, Anthony is trying to keep the Thunder from getting down.

“For the most part what I like about it, guys are trying to figure it out,” he said earlier this week. “Guys are trying to make it work. Guys are trying to be unselfish and figure this thing out and we’re sticking with it.”

 

Report: Utah’s Rudy Gobert out month with knee sprain, bone bruise

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The basketball gods have not been kind to Rudy Gobert this season.

He missed 11 games earlier in the season with a bone bruise on his knee, and now he’s going to miss another month for much the same reason — teammate Derrick Favors fell into Gobert’s knee in the opening minutes in Boston Friday night and injured the same knee. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Jazz went 7-4 without Gobert the first time he was out, but did it with a changed game. Utah’s defense fell off, as expected when the man second in Defensive Player of the Year voting the season before is out. However, Favors moved over to center and provided more offensive options that opened up the floor for the Jazz, and also rookie Donovan Michell broke out as a playmaker and scorer. Utah had a top 10 offense in the games Gobert missed earlier in the season. (Favors left the Celtics game Friday with a “left eye laceration” according to the team but is expected to try to play Saturday.)

The Jazz are 14-15 on the season, sitting in the ninth seed and in the midst of a tight playoff race for the final slots in the West.

Lorenzen Wright’s ex-wife arrested, charged in former player’s murder

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A couple of weeks ago, the Shelby County District Attorney announced that a man, Billy Turner, had been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright.

Now his ex-wife Sherra Wright-Robinson, who had seen Wright the night he disappeared and was killed, also has been arrested and charged. From the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

The ex-wife of slain former NBA player Lorenzen Wright has been arrested in California in connection with his death, sources close to the investigation said Friday.

Sherra Wright-Robinson has been charged with conspiracy, first-degree murder and criminal attempt first degree murder, Memphis police Director Michael Rallings said in announcing the charges Saturday.

The attempted murder charge is about a prior attempt to kill Wright, officials confirmed. They said Sherra and Billy Turner previously tried to kill Wright.

Wright was murdered back in 2010, but at the time the case grew cold. That was until police say they got a fresh lead in the case back in June and started to follow the evidence, re-opening the case (which they called “operation rebound”). One of the big breaks was an FBI dive team finding the murder weapon, which had been thrown into a lake in Walnut, Miss. All the new evidence led them to Turner and Wright-Robinson, who allegedly had tried to kill Wright before, but succeeded back in 2010.

At the time of the murder, Wright-Robinson told police in a sworn statement Lorenzen Wright left her home the night of his murder (July 18, 2010) “around 10:30 p.m. carrying a box of drugs.” She said he returned a short time later, got a lot of cash, then left again with the drugs and money after talking to an unidentified person on a burner phone.

That didn’t stop police from at times focusing their investigation on Sherra, but they could not prove their case yet. They can now.

Wright’s decomposing body had been found in suburban Memphis on July 28, 2010, 10 days after the 34-year-old was reported missing. He had called 911 just after midnight on July 19 from an empty field close to a popular golf course in the area. He had multiple gunshots in his body.

Wright had a 13-year NBA career where he played for five NBA teams but played the longest with the Memphis Grizzlies. He averaged 8 points and 6.4 rebounds a game as a center during that time. He retired from the NBA in 2009.

 

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward says he’s open to returning this season

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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics guard Gordon Hayward says he is open to playing this season, but says it will depend on how fast he is able to heal and show progress as he works his way back from a broken left ankle.

Hayward was at TD Garden on Friday for Boston’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, the team he left this past summer in free agency after seven seasons to sign a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics. He was injured in Boston’s season opener at Cleveland.

Wednesday marked a milestone in Hayward’s recovery process, when he was able to shed the walking boot he’s been using since his surgery in October. He will continue to wear a protective brace during the rehab process.

He said he doesn’t know how long he will have to wear the brace. But he said he is now allowed to do some shooting and begin working more on mobility.