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.

Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis gives Celtics fans 45 reasons to drool over him more

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. And we didn’t even get to 

1) Anthony Davis shows why Celtics’ fans drool over him, drops 45 in Pelicans win. There are executives and fans with 29 NBA teams who covet Anthony Davis and fantasize about would look like in their uniform. It’s just that Boston fans and executives are the loudest and least subtle about it. That despite the fact that Davis — a top-five NBA player who makes an impact at both ends of the floor — has three years on his contract after this one (the last one a player option) and the Pelicans are not trading him for the foreseeable future because they are not stupid (the feeling around the league is the Pelicans will re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer and go all-in with that combo). That didn’t stop Boston media from peppering Davis with questions Tuesday that basically amounted to little more than “so, just how badly do you want to come here and when can we expect you?” Davis dodged them all. As he should.

Tuesday night Davis gave Celtics fans a first-hand reminder why they want him so badly — he dropped 45 on the Celtics and led the Pelicans to a big win in the Boston Garden (his second 45+ point game, he did the same thing to the Knicks Saturday).

After a performance like that, Celtics fans would even be willing to trade Terry Rozier for Davis. Well, some of them would, not all. Some would construct a trade around Daniel Theis and think it was a fair swap.

Davis had help in this one, and not just from DeMarcus Cousins (who had 19 points and 15 rebounds). Jrue Holiday had 23 points, seven assists, and played fantastic defense on Kyrie Irving down the stretch (Irving had 27 points, but on 8-of-24 shooting). Davis, Cousins, and Holiday all had key buckets in the overtime session.

This win puts the Pelicans three games over .500 for only the second time this season, and now they head into a soft week in the schedule where (if focused) they should be able to pad their record a little. They need to. While right now the Pelicans are the six seed in the West, they are just one game ahead of the nine-seed Clippers — the race for the playoffs is on. New Orleans needs every win it can get.

2) Aaron Afflalo throws a punch (and misses) at Nemanja Bjelica, both men were ejected in actual, almost, NBA fight. Orlando’s Afflalo and Minnesota’s Bjelica had been going at it for a while in this game — both had already picked up a technical and things were getting chippy. Then midway through the second quarter, as the two men went for a rebound on a Jamal Crawford jumper, Bjelica just ran headlong into Afflalo as the Magic player looked like he was pass blocking.

That’s when a fight broke out and Afflalo threw a haymaker, which didn’t connect, then Bjelica gets him in a headlock.

Both men were ejected. Obviously.

That’s a lot closer to a fight than whatever happened in the secret tunnels of Staples Center between the Rockets and Clippers.

Afflalo is getting suspended for this — his punch was wild and didn’t connect, but that was a punch. Bjelica may miss a game or two as well for his role.

Orlando went on to upset the Timberwolves behind 32 points from Evan Fournier, snapping a five-game Minnesota win streak.

3) Nikola Jokic had a monster night, dropping 29 points and grabbing 18 boards. This year, the center position for the All-NBA teams feels wide open. (The league still makes people pick a center for this award, which is outdated for today’s game, but that’s the rules.) Joel Embiid is in the conversation for one of those slots (so long as he plays enough games), as is DeMarcus Cousins. LaMarcus Aldridge plays more center than power forward now and has to be mentioned. So does Karl-Anthony Towns, who has started to finally focus more on the defensive end.

Just don’t sleep on Nikola Jokic.

Denver’s best player had maybe his best game of the season Tuesday night, carving up Dallas to the tune of 29 points, 18 rebounds, and seven assists. Dallas threw a variety of defenders at him and it just didn’t matter.

Much like was mentioned with the Pelicans above, the Nuggets need to rack up wins. Just 1.5 games separates Oklahoma City at the five seed and the L.A. Clippers at the seven seed. Five teams for four spots. There’s half a season to go, and injuries will likely ultimately determine who is in and who is out, but Denver can’t afford to look past anyone, and scrappy teams like Dallas can be a tough out. This was a good win for the Nuggets on Tuesday, and Jokic is why they have it.

Watch Anthony Davis score 42 points in OT win over Celtics (VIDEO)

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New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is on a bit of a tear.

Davis scored 48 points to go along with 17 rebounds on Sunday as the Pelicans beat the New York Knicks at MSG. Then on Tuesday night, Davis again went for 40+, scorching the Boston Celtics at TD Garden to the tune of 45 points, this time with 16 rebounds.

Alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Davis was the deciding factor in Tuesday’s game, helping to get early buckets in the extra time period.

The final result was impressive, and good news for the Pelicans as they continue to solidify their playoff position going into the All-Star break.

Watch the full highlights from Davis’ scoring outbreak in the video above.

Boston Celtics great Jo Jo White dies at 71

NBA.com
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BOSTON (AP) Basketball Hall of Famer Jo Jo White, a two-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and an Olympic gold medalist, has died. He was 71.

The Celtics announced his death Tuesday night. No cause was provided.

The team said it was “terribly saddened” by White’s passing, calling him a “champion and a gentleman; supremely talented and brilliant on the court, and endlessly gracious off of it.”

White played 10 seasons for Boston, which drafted him ninth overall from Kansas in 1969. He averaged 17.2 points per game over 13 years, also playing for Golden State and the Kansas City Kings before retiring in 1981.

The Celtics retired White’s No. 10 the following year, and he still was working with the club as a director of special projects at the time of his death.

White averaged 18.1 points as a member of the 1974 Celtics championship team and was chosen MVP of the NBA Finals two years later when Boston won again, scoring 33 while leading the Celtics to a 128-126 win in triple overtime against the Phoenix Suns.

Boston traded White to the Warriors midway through the 1978-79 season and he remained with Golden State through the following season. He played one final season in Kansas City, but was always beloved in Boston as a Celtic.

“His contributions to the team’s championship legacy may have only been surpassed by the deep and lasting impact that he had in the community,” the Celtics said in the statement. “The thoughts and sympathies of the entire Celtics organization are with the White family.”

White, who won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team in 1968, was a seven-time NBA All-Star. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, when he recalled his performance in the triple-overtime victory over the Suns that put Boston one game away from winning another title.

White played 60 of a possible 63 minutes of the game. Former Boston coach and player Tommy Heinsohn said the induction into the Hall of Fame was long overdue for White, who was thrilled it happened after battling health problems, including a brain tumor, late in life.

“I absolutely adored playing this game,” White said.

Isaiah Thomas asks Celtics to skip video tribute to focus on Paul Pierce

Getty
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The Boston Celtics already conceded to the wishes of Isaiah Thomas, foregoing a video tribute the first time the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Boston Celtics this year at TD Garden.

Now, it seems that Boston might have to skip a video tribute for their former point guard altogether.

On Tuesday, Thomas took to Twitter to say that he’d rather defer to former Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who is having his jersey retired by the team that night and complained about Thomas’ tribute.

Via Twitter:

The odd thing about this whole tale is that Pierce changed his mind on this thing in a span of 24 hours. A Fox Sports radio host pointed out earlier this month that Pierce initially said that he was OK with Thomas’ video tribute.

The next day on ESPN’s The Jump, Pierce did a full 180° and instead said he wanted the treatment the Los Angeles Lakers gave Kobe Bryant, with multiple videos being shown during timeouts throughout the game.

This seems petty on the part of Pierce, but at least Thomas appears to be taking it with grace.