There are just four days of NBA games left and a lot is left to be decided in the playoffs.
Well, at least in the Western Conference.
The East is pretty much locked up, and although the cement has not fully dried on all the games, we have a pretty good idea what the matchups will be. The West, however, is a lot more fluid, with some key games this week to determine things.
With the East, the matchups would be:
Bulls (1) vs. 76ers (8)
Heat (2) vs. Knicks (7)
Pacers (3) vs. Magic (6)
Celtics (4) vs. Hawks (5)
The Boston vs. Atlanta matchup is locked in, the only question remaining is who gets home court. Boston is the No. 4 seed by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division, but that does not guarantee home court — the Hawks have the better record by a game after their win over a Celtics team that rested pretty much everybody Friday.
While Indiana vs. Orlando isn’t officially a lock, one more Magic win and it is — and the Magic play the Bobcats this week. So, consider it a lock.
There is a mathematical chance the Bucks could catch the 76ers for the eight seed, but it’s not happening. It also is possible that the Sixers could pass the Knicks and get the seven seed, but Basketball Prospectus puts that at 4.9 percent. Basically, what you see is what you get in the East.
The West matchups as of Monday morning:
Spurs (1) vs. Jazz (8)
Thunder (2) vs. Mavericks (7)
Lakers (3) vs. Nuggets (6)
Clippers (4) vs. Grizzlies (5)
San Antonio has a magic number of one to get the top seed, so that is happening, which will lock Oklahoma City in at No. 2. Also, the Lakers’ magic number to win the Pacific (and hold on to the three seed) is one (the Lakers have the tiebreaker over the Clippers, meaning that half-game lead is really one and a half). So what we’re saying is that although it’s not yet official, the top three seeds in the West are close to locked in.
Then it gets messy. The Grizzlies are a game back but could catch the Clippers for the No. 4 seed — however a Clippers-Grizzlies matchup may be the one thing we can count on in the West. Basketball Prospectus puts the odds of that happening at 95.9 percent.
Phoenix plays Utah on Tuesday, and that could shape who gets the eight seed (Utah is one game up right now). Also, only half a game separates Denver and Dallas for the six/seven seeds, so that could shift. I wouldn’t be shocked if today’s order is the final order, but things are still fluid.
Russell Westbrook assists Andre Roberson transition dunk with sweet behind-the-back pass (video)
Update: As pointed out by several, the Cavs didn’t introduce this jersey until after LeBron left. So, this was probably staged by the Nuggets. Still funny (and still searching for more evidence of Cleveland fans reconciling their about-face on LeBron).
Cavaliers fans went overboard when they burned LeBron James jerseys in the street when he left for the Heat in 2010.
Many of those same fans instantly forgot the terrible things they said about LeBron once he returned to Cleveland in 2014.
The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.
1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season? Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.
“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”
“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”
LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.
To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.
That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.
It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.
The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?
2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.
Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.
The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.
3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.
As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.
Report: Hawks’ Paul Millsap to opt out, explore free agency
There’s no question Millsap can earn more than his $21,472,407 option-year salary. He might even earn the max, which projects to be north of $36 million. The 32-year-old will also have a chance to lock into a long-term contract.
Opting out is an easy call.
The only question is whether anyone will offer a max starting salary and max years.
That’s a risky proposition for a player his age, but for a team ready to win now, the short-term gains might outweigh the long-term risk. (And it’s not really a “risk.” Millsap is extremely likely to be overpaid by the end of a full max deal.) Millsap is an elite defender with an efficient offensive game.
How much would the Hawks pay? They called re-signing Millsap their priority, but they’ve also sent mixed messages about their desire to win now (signing Dwight Howard, keeping Millsap past the trade deadline) vs. rebuilding (trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).
And it’s not unilaterally up to Atlanta. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent, and if he plans to explore the market, you never know what he’ll find.