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.

Eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard: “I have a lot left in the tank”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — At 31 and entering his 14th NBA season, eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard says his best basketball is ahead of him.

Wearing a teal suit with black trim, a smiling Howard insisted Monday he can return to being a dominant center with the Charlotte Hornets, where he will be reunited with coach Steve Clifford and play for one of his childhood heroes, team owner Michael Jordan.

“A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder,” Howard said during his introductory news conference. “I’m just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank.”

This will be Howard’s third team in three seasons.

The Atlanta Hawks, his hometown team, traded him to Charlotte one year into a three-year, $74 million contract. Howard said he has no hard feelings, adding that “sometimes things just don’t work out.”

But he’s confident Charlotte is the right fit.

“I think I’m a lot healthier than I have been in the past five years and I think this is going to be my best time,” Howard said. “I’m a lot wiser now, stronger mentally and physically, and I’m in the right place with a great coach, a great GM and the GOAT (greatest of all time). So I think this is the perfect opportunity.”

Much of Howard’s optimism stems from being reunited with Clifford.

They worked together for seven seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles, and the 6-foot-11 three-time Defensive Player of the Year loves Clifford’s defense-first mentality. He’s also confident Clifford will put him in the right situations to succeed on offense.

“He understands me,” Howard said. “… He was always there for me and not once did he turn his back on me or talk bad about me. He was very positive and he was somebody that I have always trusted in.”

The feeling is mutual.

Clifford said he’s never coached a player smarter than Howard when it comes to understanding defensive coverages. While Howard has incredible athletic ability, Clifford said, he’s never been given the credit he deserves for playing a “thinking man’s game.”

“Smart always wins in the NBA,” Clifford said.

Howard is expected to start in Charlotte alongside All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, guard Nic Batum and forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. Cody Zeller, last year’s starting center, is expected to come off the bench for the Hornets but still see significant minutes.

Howard said he’s learned a lot over the past 13 seasons.

“Over the years a lot of things have been said and I’ve not said anything back,” Howard said. “Somehow things that weren’t true kept getting stirred up, and that gave a lot of people wrong opinions about who I was as a person. I should be the one speaking up for myself instead of allowing other people to do that.”

In Charlotte, Howard becomes the second big-name athlete to be known as “Superman,” joining former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Both are from the Atlanta area and have met a couple of times but aren’t close friends. Howard said he’s eager to connect with Newton and get to know him better.

“We have the same attitude; we love to win, but we want to have fun,” Howard said.

 

As expected, Timberwolves waive Jordan Hill

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Last summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves took a $4 million flier on veteran big man Jordan Hill, hoping he could give them some backup minutes behind Karl-Anthony Towns. Didn’t work out that way, he appeared in just 47 minutes across seven games. Cole Aldrich was better (though not great), and so in the draft the Timberwolves took Justin Patton hoping he can give them some minutes next season.

Which means Hill’s time in Minnesota has come to an end.

Hill will be 30 years old next season, but I’m not sure that there’s another NBA contract in his future. If so he may have to earn it through a training camp invite.

Report: Nets, Sixers to try and land J.J. Redick as free agent

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Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get all the headlines as the big Clippers’ big free agents, but there is another Clipper going to get paid this summer:

J.J. Redick.

One of the best snipers in the NBA, he shot 42.9 percent from three last year. However, he’s become much more than just a shooter. No player works harder off the ball to get open than Redick, he’s got enough game to put the ball on the floor and create if he gets closed out on, and he’s a solid team defender. He has remade his body and his game since his days at Duke, and now he’s going to get paid.

Maybe by Brooklyn or Philadephia, reports Kevin O’Conner at The Ringer.

Multiple league sources I’ve spoken to expect the Sixers and Nets to make a hard push at Redick. Were he to go to either of those teams, Redick could receive an opportunity unlike anything he’s had before. He is one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history, and is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high six 3-point attempts per game. That’s a lot of triples, but it’s not enough. Even Sixers swingman Robert Covington averaged more last season, at 6.1 per game, and he shot only 33.3 percent. A gunslinger of Redick’s caliber should be averaging about 8.5 treys, in the same range as Klay Thompson or Eric Gordon. Had Redick taken 8.5 3s last season and posted the same 42.9 percent clip, he would’ve averaged 18.2 points per game. Redick could receive those chances with the Sixers or Nets, all while living within close proximity to his home in Brooklyn.

Redick will have options, the question is what does he want? Does he want to be close to home in Brooklyn? Does he want to both help on the court and mentor off it the up-and-coming Sixers? Would he take a little less money, and a couple fewer shots, to chase a ring? Does he want to stay a Clipper?

Redick has earned the right to have options, his skill set could help any team. He may be flying under fans’ radar, but not front office executives. They see Redick’s value. Which is why he will have options come July 1.

Report: Nuggets plan to make free agent run at Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap

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Denver likes its young core. As it should. Nikola Jokic looks like a franchise cornerstone piece at center. Young guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are clearly part of the future. Emmanuel Mudiay and Juan Hernangomez may be as well.

What Denver needs most is an upgrade at the four — someone who can defend, rebound, and space the floor. It’s a top off-season priority (and why they came up as a third team in the Kevin Love/Paul George trade talks, but that appears dead now).

Instead, expect the Nuggets to be aggressive on the free agent market. Via Marc Stein and Chris Haynes at ESPN.

Denver, according to sources, hopes to crash the list of suitors for Los Angeles Clippers unrestricted free agent Blake Griffin and Atlanta Hawks unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap.‎

Denver’s interest in Millsap is no secret and they will likely come in with a big offer, and it’s known he’s likely to leave Atlanta this summer. He’d be the perfect fit with his ability to defend other fours (he almost made the NBA All-Defensive Team), he is strong on the glass, and he shot 31.3 percent from three last season (you have to respect him out there). Griffin is more athletic and a better passer than Millsap, but he’s not the same level of defender, and he comes with more injury concerns. He also could stay with the Clippers.

Denver has positioned itself to be a player, a team going after one more big star to position itself not just in the playoffs in the West but as a team fast on the rise. Whether the Nuggets can out-recruit teams for elite players, remains to be seen. Millsap, Griffin and players of that level have options and a lot of teams chasing them.

However, Denver is one confident organization right now.