Taj Gibson

NBA playoff picture: East pretty much set, West not so much

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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 puts up 20th triple-double of season, lifts Thunder past Kings (VIDEO)

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Through 41 games — half the season — Russell Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists a game. Those numbers are insane, particularly considering his 42 percent usage rate. He has to put up numbers and do so fairly efficiently or the Thunder stand no chance of winning — and he has the Thunder on pace for 48 wins this season.

The Thunder picked up another of those wins Sunday night knocking off the Sacramento Kings behind Westbrook’s 20th triple-double in 41 games — 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The video highlights are above.

It’s going to be fun watching him and James Harden go back-and-forth in the MVP race for the next few months.

Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

James Harden’s 12th triple-double helps Rockets end 2-game skid

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AP
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NEW YORK (AP) James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game.

Joel Embiid helps bring hundreds of fans to D.C. with ‘Bus the Process’

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Joel Embiid has fans all around the NBA. Some even came out to see him during the Philadelphia 76ers game against the Washington Wizards on Saturday despite the Cameroonian big man sitting out due to restrictions on playing in back-to-back games.

#BusTheProcess was the hashtag used to get 350 Sixers fans to the game in D.C. thanks to Embiid, coach Brett Brown, and the podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez.

Via Twitter and ESPN:

Fun stuff for some dedicated fans, even if they didn’t get to see Embiid play.

Unfortunately for the #BusTheProcess folks, the 76ers wound up losing to the Wizards, 109-93.