Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

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After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul’s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

NBA local television ratings up, led by spike in Warriors viewship

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 30: Klay Thompson #11, Draymond Green #23, Harrison Barnes #40, Shaun Livingston #34 and Stephen Curry #30 high five one another in the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 30, 2016 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Everyone wants to watch Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

Local television ratings for Warriors games on Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area have spiked 120 percent since last season, according to data compiled by the Sports Business Journal. An estimated 209,000 people tune in to CSN Bay Area for the games (plus the numbers of subscribers streaming Warriors’ games through CSNBayArea.com also has spiked this season).

It’s all part of an overall upward trend in ratings for the league, although about half the league’s markets have seen ratings fall.

Overall, as the NBA enters its All-Star break this weekend, the league’s local telecasts are up 6 percent year over year, according to Nielsen. Eleven teams have seen gains in their local ratings this season, while 15 have dropped. Denver Nuggets games on Altitude are flat with last year….

Golden State’s average rating is high enough to rank third in the NBA, an impressive achievement for a big-market team. Three of the top four teams as measured by ratings play in small markets: Cleveland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Additionally, with a league-best 209,000 households on average watching Warriors games locally this season, Golden State is far outpacing the New York Knicks for their games on MSG (160,000 households) and the Cleveland Cavaliers for their games on FS Ohio (141,000).

Interestingly, ratings for the Lakers are down 16 percent year-over-year, despite this being Kobe Bryant‘s final season, according to the report. That impacts the Lakers in that their massive cable television deal with Time Warner does have ratings ties — the Lakers could get a little less out of this deal than anticipated. Still, the average Lakers’ broadcast draws 92,000 viewers, fifth largest in the league.

LeBron has Cavaliers ratings up 36 percent over a year ago. The three biggest drops in ratings percentage wise are Atlanta (33 percent), New Orleans (33 percent), and Washington (34 percent). The average Pelicans game draws 7,000 viewers, according to the report.

That discrepancy in local television viewership — and the money that affords teams in local television deals — you can be sure is something the owners will fight about more in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement discussions. There already is some sharing of that revenue, but as the gap grows you can expect a push from smaller markets to grow that sharing model (the only time rich owners suddenly want socialism in their lives). Expect the players’ union to bring it up as well when the owners cry poverty.

 

Love returns to Cavaliers’ lineup after missing 1 game

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love, right, drives past Phoenix Suns’ P.J. Tucker during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won 115-93. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love will return to the lineup Monday after missing a game because of a bruised left thigh.

Cleveland hosts Sacramento on Monday night.

Love sat out for the first time this season on Saturday in a win over New Orleans. He was injured in the third quarter of Friday’s loss to Boston and didn’t return.

He is averaging 15.9 points and 10.5 rebounds.

Love participated in Monday’s shootaround. He is nearing a pair of career milestones, needing three points to reach 9,000 and three field goals to hit 3,000.

Report: Luke Walton not leaving Warriors before their season ends

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 18: Interim Head coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on January 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Luke Walton is going to have his pick of coaching jobs this summer. The Knicks are reportedly interested, as are the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers allegedly would fire Byron Scott mid-season to get Walton. This doesn’t even get into current or expected openings such as Brooklyn, Sacramento, and Houston. Walton will have options.

But he’s not doing anything until the Warrior’s season ends, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, and it is the right thing to do for Walton — shows of loyalty to your current employer and players should raise his stock in the eyes of those trying to hire him.

We may ultimately see with Walton what we saw with Alvin Gentry a year ago; he took the job with New Orleans while the Warriors were still on their championship run, but continued to coach the team through the Finals.

It’s fair to ask if Walton is being over-hyped. He did a fantastic job with the Warriors to start this season, but that was an already built team playing the same system with mostly the same players as the season before. He just had to not fall off the horse, it was going to run plenty fast. Coaching up the kinds of troubled teams we see on that list above is a different challenge entirely. Walton may be up for it, he’s certainly earned the chance, but it’s fair to ask if he’s ready for that step.

PBT Podcast: Derek Fisher fired, plus your trade questions from Twitter

Derek Fisher
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Derek Fisher is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

In this latest podcast, NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman discuss the odd timing of that move — we expect another shoe to drop as to why. It’s not that Fisher was a great coach, but replacing him with Kurt Rambis mid-season is not an upgrade. And Luke Walton isn’t available until this summer.

After struggling to figure out what the Knicks are thinking, Helin and Feldman answer questions off Twitter from readers/listeners on the coming trade deadline including discussions of Blake Griffin, Jeff Teague, the Pistons, the Jazz, the Knicks, and more.

As always, you can listen to the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunesdownload it directly here, or you can check out our new PBT Podcast homepage, which has the most recent episodes available. If you have the Stitcher app, you can listen there as well.