Call it gritty, ugly, whatever — Knicks win over Bucks means playoffs (probably)

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Early on Wednesday night it was all Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks offense, it was pretty. But against a feisty Bucks team you knew that wasn’t going to be enough. With these Knicks nothing comes easy. They were going to need defense. They were going to need someone to step up. They were going to need some grit.

How about a key J.R. Smith three and some big stops late with even Anthony rotating out to contest shots?

That was enough. The Knicks gutted out a hard fought 111-107 win in Milwaukee that puts them two full games up on the Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with just eight games to play.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but it’s going to be very hard for the Bucks to make up two games in two weeks. Knicks fans can now start trying to convince themselves they have any chance against the Derrick Rose and the Bulls.

The night that ended so ugly (or scrappy, if you prefer) started out so pretty for the Knicks and their fans

On the second night of a back-to-back the Knicks came out on fire — they hit eight of their first nine shots to open the game (Tyson Chandler had seven fast points on his way to 19 points on 6-for-6 shooting). The Knicks were getting all their points going to the rim and following a 17-4 run scored 36 points (28 points in the paint) in the first quarter on 77 percent shooting. They moved the ball well and got clean looks all quarter long. They had a double-digit lead.

A lead that evaporated like a drop of water in the Sahara. The Bucks went on run right at the start of the second quarter and behind Monta Ellis, who had 21 on 12 shots in the first half, while Mike Dunleavy had 16 off the bench at the break. At the half it was 62-62.

The second half wasn’t nearly as fast paced nor did it feature great shooting. But it was close.

The game was tied at 99-99 with 3:3o left and after three points from Ekpe Udoh off the bench kept it close another three from Ellis put the Bucks up 105-103 with 1:45 left. A road loss and a possibility of missing the playoffs was looming over the Knicks. Anthony — who finished with 32 points on the night — tied it with a jumper, but then Luc Richard Mbah a Moute answered with one of his own to keep the Bucks up two.

That’s when the gutty Knicks showed up. Smith hit a three to give the Knicks the lead. Then on their possession the Bucks scrapped on the offensive boards and three shots — an Ellis eight footer, a Dunleavy three and then a Dunleavy 18-footer — and missed them all. The Knicks scrambled and contested on defense for Mike Woodson like they never did for Mike D’Antoni. It was enough. Steve Novak and Iman Shumpert hit some free throws in the final 20 seconds when the Bucks had to foul and the Knicks got the win.

It wasn’t pretty at the end, but playoff teams win ugly games. The Knicks — despite a roller coaster season, a fired coach, the coming and going of Linsanity, and Amare Stoudemire being injured down the stretch — are a playoff team. They need to close out the season like they closed out this game, but they are a playoff team. They have played like it for Woodson, it may not have been the pretty ball that they envisioned when D’Antoni was hired but it worked. They earned it.

They should celebrate it and worry about the matchups later.

Marreese Speights opts out of Clippers contract

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The Clippers are unraveling.

Of course, whether they can re-sign Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the big questions. But they also must deal with smaller matters in free agency – like Marreese Speights.

Speights will opt out, his agent tweeted:

The Clippers will hold Speights’ Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights), allowing them to give him a starting salary up to $2,540,346 without using cap space or the mid-level exception.

The 29-year-old Speights, a stretch five who takes charges, fits the modern NBA. He could probably get more if he seeks it.

The Clippers won’t have cap space unless they lose Paul and Griffin, and at that point, re-signing a veteran like Speights is of little use. So, it would likely require the taxpayer mid-level exception or Speights taking a discount to keep him.

Luc Mbah a Moute can and likely will also opt out, and he’ll fall in the same Non-Bird situation. The Clippers would likely prioritize their mid-level exception for him – if it’s enough for either player.

Keeping Paul and Griffin is of the utmost importance, but that’s not the Clippers’ only challenge. Even if they keep those two stars, assembling even a decent supporting cast will difficult. Possibly losing J.J. Redick is the main issue there, but handling Speights’ and Mbah a Moute’s roster spots will also be pivotal.

Warriors struggle to get Zaza Pachulia’s 2017 NBA Finals hat on his big head (video)

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Zaza Pachulia became the villain of the Western Conference finals when he injured Kawhi Leonard and torpedoed the Spurs chances of upsetting the Warriors.

But his teammates stood by him – then shared this fun moment with him after Golden State won the West.

Reporter asks Spanish-speaking Manu Ginobili whether he just announced retirement (video)

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Manu Ginobili received an emotional sendoff in the Spurs’ season-ending – and maybe Ginobili’s career-ending – loss to the Warriors last night.

The postgame press conference featured a lighthearted moment when, after the Argentinian guard answered a couple questions in Spanish, an American reporter – not wanting to miss big news – asked whether Ginobili had just announced his retirement.

No, Ginobili assured the reporter. He says he plans to take a few weeks to consider his options.

Warriors make most dominant playoff run ever to NBA Finals

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Moses Malone famously predicted the 76ers team would go “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” in the 1983 playoffs, sweeping all three rounds in four games. Philadelphia didn’t quite do it – sweeping the Knicks, beating the Bucks in five then sweeping the Lakers for the title.

Thirty-four years later, an NBA team went “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” for the first time.

Golden State swept the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs in four-game series. But with an extra playoff round, the Warriors’ 12-0 run merely gets them to the Finals.

It’s the ninth undefeated run to the Finals, third since the league adopted four playoff rounds in 1984 and first since the first round became best-of-seven. The Lakers went 11-0 in the playoffs en route to the Finals in 2001 and 1989.

By winning an extra game and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game, Golden State now claims the most dominant postseason run to the NBA Finals ever.

Here are the top paths to the Finals, with Finals results, by playoff…

Record (point difference per game in parentheses):

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Point difference per game (record in parentheses):

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This doesn’t guarantee Golden State a championship. The Cavaliers (10-1, +11.9) are on track for an elite run to the Finals themselves, and they have LeBron James.

But the Warriors put ridiculous expectations on themselves by signing Kevin Durant to join a 73-win team featuring Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. I’m unsure a Golden State title this year will be properly appreciated, but so far, the Warriors are doing all they can to clear a bar set unreasonably high.