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.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.