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.

Stephen Curry leaves game with knee injury


In his first night back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss six games, Stephen Curry limped off the court not to return after in third quarter Friday night after JaVale McGee fell into his knee.

He limped to the bench then eventually to the locker room after the injury.

The severity of the injury is not yet known and should become clear on Saturday after an MRI.

Curry scored 29 points and grabbed seven rebounds before being forced to leave the game, and the Warriors held on to win the game.

Obviously, if Curry is out heading into the playoffs, that changes the dynamic in the West, where the Houston Rockets were already right on the heels of the Warriors.

Pacers use late surge to beat Clippers, close in on playoffs

Associated Press
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and the Indiana Pacers used a late 9-0 run to hold on for a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, putting them on the precipice of clinching a playoff spot.

The Pacers won for only the second time in five games but can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or a Detroit loss.

Los Angeles’ fading playoff aspirations were dealt another blow. The Clippers are now three games behind Utah for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. Utah was playing later Friday.

Lou Williams led Los Angeles with 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds as the Clippers lost for the fifth time in six games.

They certainly had a chance to turn things around.

After the Clippers rallied from an 18-point deficit to take an 88-87 lead with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter, the teams traded the lead 10 times before Victor Oladipo made one of two free throws to leave it tied at 100 with 2:17 to play.

Bogdanovic broke the tie with a 12-footer and the Pacers followed that with seven straight points before Williams made a layup with 12 seconds left to end the run.

The Clippers were making shots early but couldn’t pull away from Indiana.

They led 28-27 after one and allowed Indiana to use a 9-2 spurt midway through the second quarter to erase a six-point deficit and take a 40-39 lead.

The Pacers scored the final five points of the half to break a 53-all tie and broke it open early in the third when Oladipo made his first three shots of the game, including two 3-pointers to make it 66-55.

Indiana then poured it on. Thaddeus Young‘s layup with 9:02 left in the third made it a 12-point game. Milos Teodosic‘s basket briefly halted the run, but the Pacers scored the next nine points to make it 75-57 with 6:19 to go.

Los Angeles closed the third quarter on a 12-5 run to get to 82-76.


LeBron James throws touchdown pass like Cleveland fans hope Sam Darnold can

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Cleveland fans can only hope Sam Darnold is as good a passer as LeBron James.

And that his receivers are better than Jose Calderon. Or at least taller.

LeBron James grabbed a rebound and threw a perfect touchdown pass to a leaked out Jose Calderon as the Cavaliers went on to beat the Phoenix Suns Friday night.

🙌🏽 @kingjames 🎯 @jmcalderon8 🙌🏽

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By the way, LeBron made a nice dish to the returned Larry Nance Jr., too.


Report: Rockets to waive Brandan Wright

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Finally healthy, it was easy to see where big man Brandan Wright would fit on Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets — he’s an athletic big man who can get up and down the court, he knows how to finish lobs above the rim, and could provide some front line depth behind Clint Capela and Nene. That’s why the Rockets picked him up in February after he was bought out by the Grizzlies.

It didn’t work out that way. Wright played in one game with Houston before his sore knee forced him to shut it down. He has not played since.

The Rockets are moving on, waiving Wright and bringing in forward Le’Bryan Nash out of the G-League on a 10-day contract, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

With center Brandan Wright unable to return from his knee issues this season, the Rockets will release Wright, who signed as a free agent last month, a person with knowledge of the move said…

He had a minor procedure and will work on his rehab with the Rockets staff, the individual familiar with the plans said.

 “Brandan did everything positive,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He just wasn’t physically able to hang in there. We hate it that the guy isn’t part of this.”

Wright has played in just 28 total this season averaging 5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 13.6 minutes. He’s battled knee issues for a few seasons now and has not played more than 28 games in the last three. If healthy he can help teams, but we’ll see if he ever gets back into the NBA.

The Rockets use Ryan Anderson as their backup center, using Nene less of late, although how much D’Antoni can use Anderson in the playoffs due to his defensive challenges remains to be seen.

Nash, who played a season at Oklahoma State, will get his first taste of the NBA. He was a highly recruited kid out of high school, and this season has averaged 8.5 points in 19 minutes per game for the Rio Grande Vipers this season.