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.

Get out of my head: Golden State routs Cleveland in last regular season meeting before Finals

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No regular season game is going to erase the memory of blowing a 3-1 NBA Finals lead.

No January game is an accurate crystal ball into an NBA Finals matchup.

But the Warriors can put to rest the “Cleveland is in their heads” rhetoric and take a little confidence away from an absolute drubbing of the NBA Champions on national television Monday night.

Golden State caught fire midway through the first quarter and led by 15 after one, put up 78 points in the first half to lead by 29 at the break, and it all happened so fast it left Tyronn Lue’s face as the meme of the night.

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From there, the Warriors cruised in (sloppily at times, but cruised) for the 126-91 win.

“It was very important to come out and get off to a good start, but more importantly to hold on to that, to continue to keep our foot on the gas,” Draymond Green, speaking to the blown leads issue in his postgame TNT interview. “We did that the entire night, they had one little stretch there, I think it was the end of the third quarter, but other than that we kept our foot on the gas the entire time.”

Everyone in a Warriors uniform looked sharp. Klay Thompson had 26 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. Kevin Durant had 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Stephen Curry had 20 points and 11 assists. Green had a triple-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists.

Conversely, for the Cavaliers LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love were a combined 13-of-43 (30.2 percent shooting), with just five assists to 13 turnovers between them. As a team, the Cavaliers shot 35.2 percent overall and 9-of-34 from three (26.5 percent). Love didn’t play in the second half due to lower back soreness.

The Cavaliers looked like the team on the last night of a six-game road trip counting the minutes until they got back home, which is exactly what they were.

Neither side thinks this game portends anything going forward.

“It wasn’t about sending a message,” Green said in his interview. “At the end of the day, that’s the defending champs, we played them guys in two straight Finals, you’re not sending a message with a regular season win.”

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel good for the Warriors (and is cathartic for their fans).

The only real moment of drama in the game was when Green shouldered LeBron to the ground in the second quarter and picked up a Flagrant 1 for his efforts.

Golden State started the game slow, getting good looks but shooting just 1-of-7 from three. Still, it felt like with the looks they were getting the shots would fall at some point, and they did as the Warriors hit six of their next eight from deep. Cleveland tried to match but found that rhythm, shooting 2-of-12 from three early. With the hot shooting the Warriors stretched the lead up as high as 22, but the Cavaliers had Richard Jefferson come in and muck the game up, LeBron started attacking off the drive, and they cut the lead down to 14.

Then the Warriors got a couple of live-ball turnovers — including Curry stripping LeBron — and converted those to fast-break buckets the other way, then all that was left was Lue looking dazed. The Warriors were moving the ball and not getting sucked into isolation, racking up 26 first half assists. The Warriors also were out and running and had 34 fast break points in the first half — credit Golden State for pushing the tempo, but the Cavaliers transition defense was a horror show. And not in a cool, “Let the Right One In” kind of way, but in the “Cavs fans never want to see that again” kind of way. Dazed Lue is right there with them.

No more meetings between these teams until the Finals we all expect to see. It’s six months of these teams getting better, trying to stay healthy, and gaining confidence going into that series. Cleveland has plenty of confidence. Golden State just got a little more.

Jeff Teague, Paul George help Pacers hold off Pelicans 98-95

Indiana Pacers' Paul George is defended by New Orleans Pelicans' Jrue Holiday during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Associated Press
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague figures he’ll eventually get that elusive triple-double.

Until then, he’s content to pile up wins.

For the fourth time in 30 days, the former All-Star guard flirted with his first career triple-double and Paul George scored 20 points to help the Indiana Pacers hold off the New Orleans Pelicans 98-95. Teague finished with 16 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds – the closest he’s come yet this season.

“I’m happy I’m getting some rebounds,” Teague said. “I was one of the worst rebounders last year, so to actually get some rebounds this year is good.”

The Pacers rebounded from Thursday’s embarrassing performance in London by leading almost wire to wire. They trailed only once, at 2-0, and were only tied just three times – twice in the first 66 seconds and at 91 with 4:10 left in the game.

And Teague was a big reason why the Pacers managed to keep the Pelicans at arm’s distance.

The other reason: Anthony Davis‘ injury.

New Orleans’ All-Star center took a hard tumble with 7:08 left in the third quarter when he appeared to be leaping for an uncontested dunk. Myles Turner raced over, hit Davis on the right wrist, sent him sprawling. After Davis got up, he limped toward midcourt before making two free throws and being replaced by Terrence Jones.

Davis finished with a team high 16 points but did not return. Team officials said he injured his right thumb and left hip and that X-rays were negative. Davis left with a slight limp but did not speak with reporters.

“I don’t know anything yet, we’ll check with the doctors,” coach Alvin Gentry said.

Without Davis, the Pelicans couldn’t quite come all the way back from a 14-point deficit in the first quarter or two 10-point deficits in the third quarter.

Teague broke the 91-91 with a 3-pointer with 3:55 to play and New Orleans had three chances to tie the score in the final 20 seconds.

But Jrue Holiday missed a 22-foot pull-up jumper, E'Twaun Moore missed a short runner with 4.8 seconds left and Tyreke Evans fired up an air ball from the corner as the buzzer sounded.

“We let them hang around without their star on the floor,” George said. “We’re floating around .500. We’ve got to get some consistency, we’ve got to find a way.”

TIP-INS

Pelicans: Moore and Jones each had 15 points. Jones also had eight rebounds. … Solomon Hill had four points and four rebounds in his first trip back to Indiana since leaving the Pacers in free agency. … The Pelicans were 6 of 9 on 3-pointers in the second quarter after scoring only 18 points in the first.

Pacers: Myles Turner had his eighth double-double of the season – 18 points and 12 rebounds. He also had four blocks. … Thaddeus Young left in the first half after getting poked in the left eye but returned at the start of the third quarter. He finished with 17 points and tied a season-high with six steals. … Indiana won despite missing four of its last six free throws. … Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey (sore left hamstring) hasn’t played since Dec. 28 and coach Nate McMillan said before the game he isn’t expected to play on Indiana’s upcoming three-game road trip.

FATHER-SON MATCHUP

Pacers coach Nate McMillan didn’t want Monday’s game to turn into an emotional father-son matchup. So after having dinner Sunday with his son, Jamelle, an assistant with the Pelicans, the Pacers coach told his son the same thing he always has.

“We’re both trying to win,” the father said. “That way it’s not a father-son deal. He’s been taught to go out there and win.”

But the elder McMillan was surprised this day even came. When he was asked if he ever discussed the intricacies of coaching with his son, McMillan quipped: “No, I didn’t. I thought he’d be smarter than that.”

HOME, SWEET, HOME

The Pacers have won five straight on their home court and have the second best home record in the Eastern Conference at 16-5. And New Orleans knows how tough it is to play at Indiana. The Pelicans have lost seven straight at Indy since their last win in January 2010.

 

Draymond Green picks up flagrant foul for shoulder hit to LeBron (VIDEO)

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If this were the NFL, that would be a clean tackle — led with his shoulder, not his helmet.

Turns out in the NBA, that’s not allowed.

Draymond Green picked up a Flagrant 1 foul for the hit above on LeBron James. It was a transition play, and Green came in looking for a steal and maybe to send a little message, and in doing so dropped LeBron with a shoulder. You can see the video above.

Green also appears to mock LeBron for flopping.

The refs got this right (sorry Chris Webber). Did LeBron sell that call a little? Sure. But that was unnecessary contact, the exact definition of a Fragrant 1. Sorry Cavs fans, but that was not excessive and deserving of an ejection.

The Warriors torched the Cavaliers in the first half putting up 34 fast break points, racking up 26 assists, and leading 78-49. You read that score right. That’s at the half.

Adam Silver refutes George Karl: No reason to believe NBA has steroid issue

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  NBA commissioner, Adam Silver speaks during a press conference prior to the NBA match between Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets at the O2 Arena on January 12, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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George Karl alleged the NBA has a steroid issue.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, via USA Today:

I’ll just say our testing is state of the art. I have no reason to believe whatsoever that we have an issue, either as the result of testing or as the result of other information that comes to the league office.

“I’d say that in most sports where there are issues, even when players do not test positive, usually there is some chatter that there is something going on. Other than what George Karl wrote in his book, there is no chatter whatsoever in the league. Obviously, many reporters are in this room who cover the NBA; presumably if they thought there was an issue, they would be writing about it.

“Having said that, we take allegations of performance-enhancing drugs or drug abuse of any kind incredibly seriously. I’m sure we will go through George Karl’s book, others, not me, in the league office, word by word, suggestion by suggestion, and ferret out whether there’s anything to it.

“For us, it doesn’t matter what the source is. If somebody is — especially if it’s a Hall of Fame-caliber coach registering those sort of allegations against the league, we will take them seriously. But standing here today, I have absolutely no reason to believe there’s any truth to those allegations.”

The NBA tests for performance-enhancing drugs, and those tests have produced few positive results, especially by stars. If the league believes in its process, that should say everything as far as Silver is concerned.

But drug-testing is a never-ending game of cat and mouse. Drug developers will find ways to beat testers, who will adjust with new tests, which will prompt the other side to create new drugs and masking agents, which…

Is the NBA ahead of the curve right now? Silver says it is.

He better be right. He’ll look mighty foolish if he’s not.