Breaking down the playoff chase in the Western Conference

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The West is a mess. A deep, complex, playoff question mark still with a whole lot of moving parts.

Which is what makes playoff races fun.

We’ve got just more than two weeks of regular season games left. We’re going to try to lay out the entire playoff picture for you, but it’s messy, so stay with us here:

One and two seeds. It’s going to be San Antonio and Oklahoma City, in some order. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Spurs had a one-game lead over the Thunder.

The big key is the Thunder and Spurs face off Thursday night. That’s when we see how much the Spurs care about this race by who they suit up and send out there and who they rest… er, have to take out because their injured. If the Spurs win that game they not only stretch out their lead but also win the season series and the tiebreaker.

In the seven other games left this season, the Thunder have four on the road and four against playoff teams. The Spurs have only three on the road and three against playoff teams. You’ say advantage Spurs, but that means predicting Gregg Popovich and who he will play on any given night. Good luck with that.

Three, four and five seeds. This is where it gets really messy. Denver and Memphis are tied at 50-24 (Denver owns that tiebreaker) with the L.A. Clippers a game and a half back of both. Technically the Clippers as a division winner cannot slip any farther back than the four seed, but that would not give them automatic home court advantage. You really want to get the three seed and likely face Golden State or maybe Houston — the four and five seeds go head-to-head in the toughest first round matchup in either conference.

Denver has five of its eight at home and four current playoff teams (plus Dallas). Memphis has five games on the road but only two playoff teams (plus the Lakers, Blazers and Mavs in that road mix). The Clippers have the easiest schedule — five of eight at home and only one current playoff team (Memphis) but they have stumbled losing four of five.

There is no order there that would surprise me.

Six and seven seeds. This is going to be Golden State and Houston in some order. Golden State has a one-game lead and would like to maintain it because as scary as Denver (or Memphis, or the Clippers) might be as the three seed it’s not Oklahoma City. Houston wants wins for the same reason.

Houston is at Denver Saturday in a huge game for this seed matchup.

Eighth seed. This is a mess. The Jazz are as of Tuesday half a game ahead of the Lakers (tied in the loss column) and 1.5 up on Dallas (one up in the loss column) heading into a huge game for both teams between Dallas and the Lakers Tuesday night.

Here is the key — Utah has the tiebreaker over both Los Angeles and Dallas. The Jazz have seven games left, four and home and four against playoff teams. If Dallas goes 4-3 the rest of the way the Lakers must go 6-2 in their remaining eight games to pass them. And by the way, Utah is on a five game winning streak. All of which is to say Utah controls its own destiny. But it’s not going to be easy for anyone.

Magic Johnson winks at bringing Paul George to Lakers

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Paul George-to-the-Lakers rumors have swirled for a while.

New Lakers president Magic Johnson will only fuel them.

Asked how he’d interact with the Pacers star to avoid tampering if they ran into each other, Johnson said on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

In explaining how he’d avoid tampering, Johnson probably tampered. Accidental tampering appears to be his specialty.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement says team employees can’t permissibly “induce, persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any Player who is under contract to, or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by, any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services or negotiate or contract for such services.” But the league arbitrarily enforces tampering, so who knows whether he’ll be punished?

Johnson almost certainly could have gotten away with the hypothetical conversation he laid out. But going on television and describing it — even as fantasy, even not directly to George — could constitute tampering in itself,

If Johnson helps attract George to Los Angeles, it’d well be worth it. At least he’s trying something.

Report: Austin Rivers returning for Clippers-Jazz Game 5

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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There have been bigger injuries in the Clippers-Jazz first-round series: Blake Griffin‘s toe, Rudy Gobert‘s knee and Gordon Hayward‘s stomach.

But Clippers guard Austin Rivers has yet to play due to a strained hamstring.

It sounds as if that will change tomorrow.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This is neither as big a deal as the Clippers will make it out to be nor as meaningless as Rivers’ many detractors will claim.

The 6-foot-4 Rivers will provide an important defensive upgrade on the perimeter. The Clippers haven’t successfully hidden Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, allowing Utah too many quality looks. Here how the Jazz have shot when defended by each, per NBA.com:

  • Crawford: 18-of-36 (50%), including 7-of-17 on 3-pointers (41%)
  • Felton: 13-of-24 (54%), including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers (63%)

Rivers needn’t be great to help behind Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

Rockets bench hams it up over Andre Roberson missed free throw (video)

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Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.

Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.

It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.

Isaiah Thomas: ‘Mentally and emotionally, I’m not here’

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Isaiah Thomas previously explained his emotions in a statement, but the Celtics guard spoke publicly yesterday for the first time since the death of his sister in a car crash just before the playoffs.

Thomas, via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

“Mentally and emotionally I’m not here,” Thomas said after Game 4, the first time he has spoken publicly since his sister’s death. “So I just feed off of what the guys give me. They give me a lot of confidence. I can’t do it without those guys. They believe in me. Being here is what makes me sane and makes me feel somewhat normal through these tough times.”

Thomas has played well for Boston, which won twice in Chicago to even its series with the Bulls, 2-2. It’s remarkable considering the heavy emotional burden and extra travel, going to Seattle for his sister’s funeral then joining the Celtics in Chicago.

His teammates have clearly rallied around him, and that surely helps. But I can’t even imagine how he’s simultaneously handling such a tragic family situation and the biggest games of his career.