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Playoff shakeout: What the chase looks like with two weeks left

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Two weeks from today — April 26 — is the final day of the regular season. It came up on us all sneaky fast. You can thank the lockout for that, too.

Let’s take a look at how the playoff races and seedings shake out with two weeks left:

Eastern Conference

Chicago and Miami will finish 1-2, and the Bulls have a three-game lead. The only way Miami catches Chicago is to sweep the two times these to teams play in the next two weeks (Thursday and April 19), then catch a break. That’s not all going to happen, but it’s possible.

Boston, Atlanta and Orlando are tied at 34-24 for the 4, 5 and 6 seeds (the Pacers are the 3 seed and pretty much are locked in unless they falter). With the way the Magic are struggling (and with Dwight Howard not right) if feels like they will fall to six, which means what the Celtics and Hawks are really playing for these next couple weeks is home court in their first-round matchup.

With New York’s win over Milwaukee on Wednesday, it is going to be very difficult for the Bucks to make the playoffs. They are two games back of the Knicks, three back of the 76ers (and Philly has more road games but against lesser teams the rest of the way). What this means is the Sixers and Knicks are playing to see who gets the Heat and who gets the Bulls in the first round. That is basically a game nobody wins. The Bucks need someone to totally fall apart to make the playoffs at this point.

Western Conference

At the top of the West, Oklahoma City is one game up on San Antonio for the top seed. Getting that spot matters a lot more to the Thunder than it does the Spurs — Oklahoma City is a younger team and may have the best home court advantage in the league. The Spurs are the definition of unflappable veterans and they don’t care if the game is at home, on the road or played outdoors on asphalt with a chain net, they will be the same team.

The Lakers and Clippers are battling for the Pacific Division crown and the No. 3 seed — but what they are really fighting for is the right to avoid the Grizzlies in the first round. Right now the Lakers are the No. 3 seed, the Clippers the 4 (1.5 games back of the Lakers, plus the Lakers have the tiebreaker), then the Grizzlies are the No. 5 seed and just half a game back of the Clippers. The Clippers got a big win at Oklahoma City and they need more efforts like that because not only do they not want Memphis, they really don’t want Memphis to have the home court in that series.

At the bottom Dallas, Denver and Houston are tied at 32-26 and are the 6,7 and 8 seeds — with Utah now 1.5 games back of all of them. The Suns’ loss Wednesday hurt, and they are now two back of all those teams. You get the feeling one of those teams in right now will slip and get caught by Utah or Phoenix. If I had to guess, it would be the Nuggets, as they are erratic — the Mavs better with their backs against the wall, and the Rockets give it everything they have every night. But basically there are five teams within two games of each other and every game matters a lot to all these teams the rest of the way.

Report: D-League All-Star, Magic call-up Keith Appling arrested with loaded AK-47 in strip club

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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If you’re on the fringe of the NBA, trying to get teams to take a chance on you, this is the opposite of what you should do.

Former Michigan State star Keith Appling, who last season was a D-League All-Star for the Erie Bay Hawks and got a couple of 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic, has reportedly been arrested and is still in jail in Dearborn, Michigan, for allegedly taking a loaded assault rifle into an area strip club. (Dearborn police have not yet responded to NBC’s request for confirmation. Some Michigan outlets with sources in the area do have confirmation but few details.) This is how the story broke:

If true, Appling has much bigger problems then getting an invite to an NBA training camp next fall.

Byron Scott says he felt “a little” blindsided by Lakers’ firing

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott watches play against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Lakers fans were demanding it. Logic dictated it — even the questionable talent did not fully explain why Byron Scott could not get the Lakers to defend, they had one of the two worst defenses in the NBA each of his two seasons as coach.

Still, Byron Scott said he was blindsided by his firing by the Los Angeles Lakers, something he said on the Dan Patrick Show this morning (video above).

Scott makes a couple of valid points. First, the Lakers did take their time after the season (letting good coaches get snapped up elsewhere) while making this call, giving the impression Scott might be safe.

Second, the Lakers did not give Scott much talent to work with. I don’t care if you resurrected Red Auerbach and John Wooden and had them tag team as the coach, these Lakers were not making the playoffs. Scott was brought in to both shepherd the Kobe farewell years — he did that exactly as management wanted — and start to develop the young talent on the team, building a foundation for the future. That is where he fell short, both in terms of building a defensive foundation or forming a strong relationship with the young Lakers, most notably D'Angelo Russell.

Scott discussed his relationship with Russell, too.

It’s far too early to say how good a coach Luke Walton will be for the Lakers, but it’s safe to say he’s an upgrade over Scott. In that way, the Lakers made the right move.

Barack Obama calls Wizards about coaching job in White House correspondents’ dinner video

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From practically the moment they fired Randy Wittman (and probably before that), the Wizards appeared locked in on Scott Brooks as their next coach. They pursued him hard and convinced him to accept the job.

But did they miss out on a better known candidate in the process?

President Barack Obama sure sounded interested.

Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to re-sign with Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) celebrates as he leaves the court during the final minute of the second half in an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, April 11, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Mavericks won 101-92. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Dirk Nowitzki will opt out of the final year of a contract that would’ve paid him $8,692,184.

The big question: Why?

Does Nowitzki want a higher salary? More years? A lower salary that enables the Mavericks to upgrade their supporting cast?

He could command whichever of those he desires.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN, transcribing Nowitzki’s interview on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas:

Nowitzki reiterated Monday that he is committed to remaining with the Mavs for the rest of his career, saying that decision was essentially made when Dallas won the championship in 2011.

“That would have been the only scenario where I go somewhere at the end to kind of hang on and maybe try to win one,” Nowitzki said, referring to if he didn’t have a ring. “But ever since I won a championship here and we did that, I want to finish my career here. I always said that. The only scenario where I’ll try to go somewhere is if we’re rebuilding, if we really say, ‘This is the end of the line. We tried every which way and we can’t go any further and we’re starting basically with five rookies.’

“Obviously, that’s not what I want my last couple of years. But knowing Mark and Donnie, they always want this to be a winning franchise, so there’s no reason for me to go anywhere.”

“We had one more year on the contract, but I think this is the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re going to sit with Mark [Cuban] and Donnie [Nelson] obviously over the next few weeks and figure out how to improve this franchise again.

“Ever since after the championship, we’ve been basically a first-round exit. We’ve been a seven, eight seed. We’ve only won a few playoff games, and obviously the goal was to compete at the highest level in my last couple of years. So there is some moving to do, some thinking, some putting our heads together the next few weeks heading into free agency, heading into the draft. So this is just one move that hopefully starts a chain reaction for us to get better again, to compete really at a high level. We’ll see how it goes.”

Usually, I’d say this would at least open the door to the player leaving. But it’d be difficult for the Mavericks to pivot into rebuilding now. They don’t have their own first-round pick, and Justin Anderson is their only young player of consequence.

With Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea signed long term and Nowitzki intent on returning, it makes far more sense to try to win now. Dallas might fail, but it’ll almost certainly be the goal.

The Mavericks project to have about $20 million in cap space accounting for cap holds for Chandler Parsons ($19,969,950), Nowitzki ($12,500,0001), Deron Williams ($6,454,769) and Dwight Powell ($1,180,431). If those players sign elsewhere or get renounced, Dallas would clear more room.

Nowitzki could accept a lower salary than his cap hold, and his first-year salary would become his cap number once signed. Essentially, he could monitor free agency and slide his salary requirement depending on the quality of free agent the Mavericks could sign with the available money. Land a star, and maybe Nowitzki would take far less to accommodate him. Strike out, and Nowitzki might want a raise.

He has leverage, though it seems he’s set on using it harmoniously with management.

Still, what if Dallas flops majorly in free agency? Could Nowitzki leave? I expect the Mavericks to land productive veterans, and I doubt Nowitzki would leave anyway. But by opting out, he has the ability to walk.

The Mavericks have an opportunity to improve this offseason. Two years ago, they leveraged Nowitzki’s commitment to the franchise into a below-market deal that helped them sign Parsons. The goal should be once again involving Nowitzki in the process and having him help.

The better Dallas does in free agency, the more likely Nowitzki will be to sacrifice for the team.