PRO BASKETBALL TALKPBT Select Team

What all the games mean Wednesday: For Lakers, just win and you’re in

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Just as David Stern planned (or at least wished for his final regular season finale as commissioner) the battle for playoff seedings — and maybe even a playoff spot — will come down to the final games on the final day of the regular season.

Which is tonight.

It’s going to make for some dramatic television.

There’s a lot to follow, especially in the Western Conference where five of the eight playoff spots could shift Wednesday night, so let’s break it all down. Stay with me here, this isn’t simple.

• Except for the Lakers it is simple — win and you’re in. More than that, win over the Rockets and you leapfrog them in the standings to the seven seed (the two teams would be tied but the Lakers have the tiebreaker), meaning the Lakers get the more desirable matchup with the Spurs in the first round and the Rockets can try to beat the Thunder.

• But the Rockets have something to play for Wednesday, too — if they win and the Golden State Warriors lose to Portland then the Rockets would jump up to the six seed and Golden State would be the seven. Plus, at the very least the Rockets want the seven and not the eight seed.

• Also if the Rockets beat the Lakers, the Jazz can knock the Lakers out of the eight seed if the Jazz can beat the Memphis Grizzlies on the road.

• But the Grizzlies are playing in hopes they can get home court — Memphis will be the five seed in the West but if they beat the Jazz and the Clippers fall to Sacramento in what could be the Kings final game ever in that city (so you know the fans will be out and loud) then the Grizzlies will have home court against the Clippers in the first round. (The Clippers cannot fall any lower than the four seed because they won the Pacific Division but if the five seed Grizzlies have the better record then the Grizzlies get home court. Don’t ask me why, those are just the rules.)

• The Clippers will be motivated because if they win and the Denver Nuggets lose then the Clippers jump up to the three seed. Even if Denver wins, the Clippers need to win to keep home court in the first round.

• The Denver Nuggets also have it pretty simple — win at home against the lowly Suns and they are the three seed. If Denver loses they need the Clippers to lose to get the three seed.

• Houston at the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers at Sacramento, and Golden State at Portland all tip off at 10:30 ET tonight, so this is not all going to get decided until late in the night.

• One race is still alive in the Eastern Conference — the battle for the five/six seed between Atlanta and Chicago. After the Hawks loss on Tuesday they are tied but the Bulls have the tiebreaker (they won the season series). So if Chicago beats the Wizards at home, they get the five seed and face Brooklyn in the first round, Atlanta would be sixth and face Indiana. But if the Bulls lose and the Hawks can beat a Knicks team likely to be resting a lot of guys, then the Hawks are the five seed.

The teams watching that game with the most interest? The Nets and Pacers. Both would much rather face the Hawks than the scrappy, physical, defensive-minded Bulls in the first round.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “We can use some more defensive players”

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For all the flipping between the triangle and a more modern offense, despite ball stopping by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks offense is 17th in the NBA for the season. Not good, but the middle of the pack, right around Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis — all playoff teams (or potential ones in Miami’s case).

The reason the Knicks season ends in seven games is their defense — 25th in the NBA. Put the triangle in (and get players who fit the system) or don’t, but that’s not the end of the court where the Knicks need to improve. And while system matters on defense, the fact of the matter the Knicks roster is loaded with poor and/or indifferent individual defenders.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized all this speaking to ESPN’s Ian Begley.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Now comes the time for action.

The Knicks are going to have a Top 10 draft pick (currently sixth) plus max-player money in free agency. Also, they are looking to move Anthony this summer (he has a no-trade clause so he will have to agree to it). All of which is to say they have a chance to reshape this roster into one that will have more of a defensive focus. Or any defensive focus for that matter.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks target more defensive minded free agents this summer, ones who might fit the triangle offense such as Thabo Sefolosha, or to a lesser extent Tony Allen. It’s going to be a fascinating summer in New York.

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