Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls

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.

Judge refuses to dismiss sex suit against Derrick Rose

MIAMI, FLORIDA - APRIL 07:  Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls looks on during a game against the Miami Heat  at American Airlines Arena on April 7, 2016 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging New York Knicks player Derrick Rose and two friends drugged and gang-raped a woman.

On Wednesday, federal Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald said a jury must decide whether to believe Rose’s contention that the woman, a former lover, consented to group sex at her home in 2013.

The case could now go to trial in October, when Knicks training camp gets underway.

Messages left for Rose’s agent, B.J. Armstrong, were not immediately returned Saturday.

According to court records, the woman had been drinking at Rose’s Beverly Hills, California, home, and a friend helped her return home, where she vomited and fell asleep.

The woman’s $21.5 million sexual battery lawsuit contends that Rose and the other two defendants entered her apartment the next morning and raped her.

The woman believes that an unknown drug was slipped into her drink at Rose’s home, and she “did not do any pregnancy tests or a rape kit because she was terribly ashamed and embarrassed,” according to her lawsuit.

Rose has denied the allegations, and his lawyer has labeled the lawsuit an extortion attempt.

Defense court filings contend that the woman consented to the sex acts, invited the men to her apartment and buzzed them in through security.

In denying Rose’s request to toss out the lawsuit, the judge said Rose’s version of events “could well convince a reasonable jury,” but there was substantial disagreement over the facts and a jury also could conclude the opposite.

Rose, 27, was the NBA’s 2011 MVP with the Chicago Bulls, but he has struggled with knee injuries and was traded to the Knicks in June.

Warriors add Willie Green as assistant coach

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It’s a good thing to be on the Golden State coaching staff — Alvin Gentry rode it to the head coaching spot in New Orleans, Luke Walton to his “dream job” with the Lakers, and quickly having “Warriors” on your resume is getting recognition like having “Spurs” on it around the NBA.

So good for Willie Green, the former NBA sharpshooter who will now be coaching a few other pretty good shooters in Golden State. Shams Charania of The Vertical on Yahoo Sports broke the story.

Green is a 12-year NBA veteran, who is getting his first NBA coaching job.

NBA veteran coach Mike Brown will be in the chair next to Steve Kerr next season in Golden State. Kerr keeps having to replenish his staff as they are getting better jobs elsewhere after having been around the Warriors’ organization.

Rumor: Greg Monroe would like to be traded to New Orleans

Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe, center, drives to the basket against New Orleans Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca, left, and guard Tyreke Evans, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
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If you’re going to bet on an NBA player likely to be moved before the start of the NBA season — or at least by the deadline — Bucks’ big man Greg Monroe would be a good choice. It’s no secret he is on the trade block, the Bucks just aren’t finding a team making an offering to their liking.

What would Monroe like?

He probably wants to end up in New Orleans, ESPN’s Marc Stein said on the Lowe Post podcast.

Which makes a ton of sense — he was born in New Orleans, he wants to go home. The two sides have talked about a deal multiple times in the past, but nothing got done.

The problem is the Bucks are only getting rock-bottom offers for Monroe. On the upside, he’s an efficient offensive NBA big who got the Bucks 15.3 points and 8.8 rebounds a game last season. However, he’s a defensive liability who does not protect the rim, plus he’s a $17 million rental next season (he can and likely will opt out in the summer of 2017). Even teams that could use a scoring big are not going to give up much quality in a trade for a rental like Monroe.

The Pelicans already have Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca as traditional fives, and they should play Anthony Davis there more anyway. Roster wise, the Pelicans would need to make some other moves for this deal to make sense.

But eventually, the Bucks will find an offer they are willing to take.

Nets’ Greivis Vasquez pulls out of Olympics for Venezuela

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11:  Greivis Vasquez #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks takes the court against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on November 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Bucks 103-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Venezuela is in its first Olympic basketball tournament in more than 20 years — they upset Canada and Argentina to win the FIBA Americas tournament last summer and earned the right to go to Rio.

But they are going to have to play there without the one NBA player on their roster. Greivis Vasquez, who had ankle surgery last December, announced he had to pull out, via the Nets.

If you want to know what this means for the Venezuelan team heading into Rio, well, they shot just 23.9 percent in an 80-45 loss to Team USA Friday night in Chicago — and that was by far the USA’s worst performance in the exhibition run-up to the Rio Games.

Vasquez should be getting decent minutes off the bench behind Jeremy Lin in Brooklyn this season. They need him healthy as the team tries to move from “god awful” to just plain “not good” next season.