Season’s wild final night shows why playoffs will be must-watch

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It was the last game on the last night of the regular season — and nobody wanted it to end. Not the  fans in Sacramento, who were loud and would not leave at the end of a wild game. Wild in every way — the shots were wild, the setting was wild,  that this last game had high stakes for playoff seeds was wild. And the ending was wild.

The Lakers were ahead 18 points at the start of the fourth quarter and were cruising past Sacramento and into the second seed when the Kings started to show the fight their fans have shown in an effort to save their team — not their politicians, not their leaders, not the Kings’ owners, but the fans — and they battled back. The Kings outscored the Lakers 29-11 and had it not been for a vintage Kobe Bryant dagger in the heart of Kings fans, Sacramento might have won. But, of course, the Lakers did in overtime. You expected otherwise?

Still, the Kings shined a light on the flaws of the two-time defending champions. What makes them vulnerable in the playoffs, which is most often themselves and their focus.

And it’s that way with the contenders — there is no clear dominant team this season. Every top team in both conferences is flawed. Others are built to expose those weaknesses.

It means as unpredictable a playoffs as the NBA has seen in years. And that may make it the most fun in a long time.

First, let’s clear up the playoff matches in the West, which were in doubt until 1:15 a.m. ET Thursday.

With the win, the Lakers are the No. 2 seed in the West and they will take on the Hornets in the first round (Chris Paul and Kobe in a battle of stars).

The Mavericks are the No. 3 seed and will face a Portland team that has a real shot to win that series. The Thunder, with their surprising overtime loss to the Bucks at home on Wednesday, are the fourth seed and will take on the Nuggets in what promises to be another first-round barn-burner.

Somebody is going to get upset in the West in the first round. Wild and unpredictable. We’re telling you.

Which is fitting — the entire season has been that way. LeBron James and the Miami Heat alternated between blowing our doors off and struggling to look like they were a threat to anyone. There was the explosion of Derrick Rose from good to jaw-dropping MVP. The move of Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York. Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams leaving Utah. The Knicks returning to respectability. The resurgence of the San Antonio Spurs. Blake Griffin dunking everything in sight and making the Clippers a must-watch.

And the Kings sadly leaving Sacramento — with a Kobe Bryant dagger in their back.

Now the playoffs come and there is not one team you can point at and say “nobody is going to match up with them.” The Lakers may be the closest thing — they have Kobe and the ridiculously long skilled front line — but they are not as deep as previous seasons. As many around the league say — and as they showed against Sacramento in the fourth quarter Wednesday — the Lakers are the biggest threat to the Lakers. On any given night they can lose focus and lose to anyone.

Boston? They traded away Kendrick Perkins, which may not matter if Shaquille O’Neal can be healthy for the playoffs, but that’s a risk. Plus, they have looked older as the season dragged on, and Rajon Rondo is doing lord knows what lately. Do they have one more run? Can the resurgent Knicks put a real scare into them in the first round?

Miami has the three great players, but will the lack of depth around them get exposed in the playoffs? Orlando made big trades this season to bring in Gilbert Arenas and bring back Hedo Turkoglu, but did they really get better?

And Chicago, no team has played harder all season than them. But there are questions around the league if what we have seen is the best of them — Boston and veteran teams have another gear for the playoffs, does Chicago?

San Antonio runs its offense through Manu Ginobili (how healthy is he?) and Tony Parker now. They have a good supporting cast, but will their not-as-strong defense catch up with them? Can they make one more run with an older core?

Oklahoma City’s core is young, and they addressed a real need by getting Kendrick Perkins. But are they still too young? Do they have the role players that can step up and make the big plays now?

It’s a lot of questions, legitimate questions for every contender.

Let’s get some answers. Let’s start the playoffs.

Report: Stan Van Gundy to meet with Pistons’ owner next week

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After a disappointing 39-43 season that has the Pistons sitting at home watching the playoffs — even after trading for Blake Griffin mid-season, — the sense around the league is that coach and GM Stan Van Gundy is going to lose one if not both of those titles. He’s expected to no longer be the team’s president of basketball operations, whether he stays on to coach the team is another question.

The meeting where Van Gundy’s fate is decided will come next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy have set a meeting for next week to discuss Van Gundy’s future with the franchise, league sources told ESPN.

The two had initially planned to sit down late this week, but the meeting was pushed back, leaving the Pistons organization to await word on how, if at all, the franchise’s structure could be altered.

Feuling the speculation on Van Gundy’s status is the fact that former super agent Arn Tellem works for the Pistons on the business side. He was brought in to help transition the franchise to the new building where it plays in downtown Detroit, but with that done the sense is Gores will give him a different job, running the basketball side.

If he loses his GM title, would Van Gundy stay on as coach?

Whoever sigs in the big chair has his work cut out for him. With that Griffin trade, the Pistons are basically capped out. Making changes to the current roster will not be easy.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.