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 Power Rankings: Celtics, Warriors, Rockets solidify as top three

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The top three teams in the Association have separated themselves — Boston, Golden State, and Houston, and they remain atop these rankings (and may well for a while). However, after that, there is more East than West at the top, not something we expected to see before the season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (16-2, Last Week No. 1). Welcome to the season of Al Horford appreciation. He’s a four-time All-Star who once made an All-NBA team (2011), but he still might be the most underappreciated star in the league. At least until this season. He’s not flashy, but he does everything well — there are no serious holes in his game. That is showing this season as he anchors the Celtics’ league-best defense plus gives them almost 15 points and 9 boards a night. He is at the heart of the reason the Celtics have won 16 in a row and beat the Warriors.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (13-4 LW 2). This season the Warriors are taking 31.4 percent of their shots at the rim, once you exclude garbage time (as is done by Ben Falk at Cleaning The Glass). Last season that was 36 percent. Last season the team free throw rate was 20.6 (FTA per 100), this season that is down to 19.6. The Warriors still have the best offense in the NBA, but to Charles Barkely’s dismay (if he paid attention to stats) they are even more of a jump shooting team.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (13-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has only been back two games, but he’s averaged 14 points and 8 assists, while shooting 6-of-11 from three in the two wins (against the Suns and injured Grizzlies). Houston is entering a soft part of the schedule, including having 11-of-14 at home, look for CP3 (and James Harden) to put up impressive numbers for a few weeks.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (11-6, LW 5). The 23-point comeback win against the Thunder shows the grit and resilience of a team still without Kyrie Irving (and who knows when he returns). Their five-man starting lineup — LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, and Patty Mills — outscores teams by 6.7 points per 100 minutes and is key to their success.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (11-5, LW 7). The Raptors have been flying under the radar to start the season, but their net rating is better than the Wizards’ team everyone thought could be the team that challenges Cleveland/Boston at the end of the season. Toronto has adapted well to its new move-the-ball offense (most of the time), and is scoring at a more efficient clip than a season ago already.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (10-7, LW 8). The Wizards lost to the Raptors but beat the Bucks in the first two games of one of the toughest stretches of the schedule this season — 8-of-10 on the road, much of it against good teams (over .500). Remove garbage time from the stats and the Wizards are top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating (8th in both), often a sign of a potential contender (Warriors, Rockets the only other teams to do that so far).

Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (11-6, LW 4). They have lost three-of-four and were absolutely demolished at home by LeBron James and the Cavaliers this week. In the one win in the last week, they had to come from 11 down against the Timberwolves. Detroit’s starting five — Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, and Andre Drummond — is getting outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions, Stan Van Gundy can’t stick with it much longer.

 
8. Timberwolves (10-7, LW 6). Quietly, the Timberwolves have finally started to play good defense — in their last five games they have allowed 101.6 points per 100, ninth best in the NBA for that stretch (they were 28th in the league overall a couple weeks back). Still, they have lost two in a row to beatable teams (Charlotte and Detroit) heading into a four-game homestand.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (10-7 LW 18). Winners of five in a row, and what matters most is in those five games their defense is 8.6 points per 100 better than their season average (and eighth in the league). LeBron James is putting up MVP numbers this season, 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game. All in his 15th season, about to turn 33 years old. Insane. Derrick Rose is out for more than a week still with his sprained ankle, and now Iman Shumpert is out with water on the knee, putting even more on LeBron’s plate.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (10-7, LW 14). Portland fans and players feel they should have done better, but their record to start the season isn’t bad (it’s about where I pictured them), especially in a West where a lot of potential playoff teams are stumbling and/or battling injury. However, the Blazers have had a heavy home schedule so far and Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of five straight games on the road as they will be racking up the frequent flyer miles through the end of the year.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (10-7, LW 10). Paul Millsap is out for a few months (surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist) and he has been key to Denver’s improved defense. As a team they are 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when he plays, both Trey Lyles and Kenneth Faried need to help make that up. The Nuggets are 2-2 to start their stretch of 11-of-15 on the road, they have started to play better but the Millsap injury is a setback.

 
Knicks small icon 12. Knicks (9-7, LW 11). In his last five games, Kristaps Porzingis is shooting just 38.3 percent (although he still is hitting 44 percent of the five threes a game he puts up. It’s just a little efficiency slump. Joakim Noah is eligible to return from his PED suspension, but has yet to suit up for the Knicks as Jeff Hornacek rightfully likes his big man rotation right now (just a reminder Noah is making $17.8 million this season and has two-years, $37.8 million left on the deal after this season… thanks again Phil).

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (9-7, LW 12). When Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together the Sixers outscore opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, and defensively the team allows less than a point scored per possession. Enmbiid by himself is a force, with the Sixers 19.2 points per 100 better than when he sits. Brett Brown must think Embiid is all the way back because he’s played him more than 30 minutes a game regularly recently. Also, #FreeJah

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (10-8, LW 22). Indiana has won four games in a row, and 5-of-6 (the lone loss is Houston), knocking off some other potential East playoff teams in the process (Detroit, Miami, Orlando). They’ve been better on both ends during the streak, but it is the improved defense that has mattered more. That and Lance Stephenson going off for 13 in the fourth against Detroit. Pacers are in a home-heavy stretch and need to pad their record now.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (9-8 LW 9). DeMarcus Cousins is having a monster year averaging 26.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, but when he got tossed for an elbow to Russell Westbrook’s head (whether Russ sold that or not), it was Anthony Davis who took on the scoring load with 36 and got the win. The Pelicans needed that W, had lost their previous two and have a rough stretch ahead — 4-of-6 on the road with the Spurs, Warriors, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers in the mix.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (8-8 LW 16). Malcolm Brogdon has struggled adjusting to his bench role, shooting 34.1% (down from 46%) with his assists dropping almost in half in his last five games. After winning four in a row with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, thanks in large part to an improved defense, they have slipped back and dropped two straight — and as of Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (7-9, LW 20). They stopped an ugly six-game losing streak with wins at home over the stumbling clippers, then with Dwight Howard going off for 25 points and 20 rebounds against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. Maybe the Hornets can find some consistency now that their healthy, but the next four games are no help — Wizards, Cavaliers, Spurs and Raptors.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (7-9, LW 17). Miami is being held back by an offense that doesn’t move the ball (25th in percentage of buckets with an assist), 29th in turnover percentage, and 27th in the league in free throw rate. We’re not going to run the video of Dion Waiters going 0-of-10 from the floor against the Pacers, but it wasn’t pretty.

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (7-9 LW 19).. The fourth quarter woes for this team are real — in six of their nine, losses, the Thunder have blown a double-digit lead in the game, the latest being a 19-point lead to the Pelicans (without DeMarcus Cousins). The Thunder’s fourth quarter defense is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the rest of the game (when it is top five in the league). Big showdown with Kevin Durant and the Warriors Wednesday night.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (8-9, LW 13). The wheels have come off after a strong start in Orlando — they have dropped five games in a row, with a bottom four offense and defense in that stretch. And that is with point guards Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin now healthy. It doesn’t get easier now with four straight and 6-of-8 on the road against some quality teams (Celtics, 76ers, Pacers, Thunder, Warriors).

 
Grizzlies small icon 21. Grizzlies (7-9, LW 15). Memphis has lost five in a row, the last three without Mike Conley who will remain out for a couple more weeks to rest his Achilles. It doesn’t get any easier, because in a week the Grizzlies start a brutal stretch of the schedule with a home-and-home against the Spurs — Memphis has to find a way to keep its head above water in this stretch to keep the playoffs within sight.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-10 LW 21). If the playoffs started today (Wednesday, Nov. 22), the Lakers would be the eighth seed in the West. While the NBA world watches Lonzo Ball’s jumpers go astray (and that is an issue), the Lakers have the No. 4 defense in the NBA, which considering they were dead last a year ago is a big step. That keeps them in games, then they get enough offense in flurries to pull out wins. The defense will likely regress some, but the offense should improve as the season wears on, and the Lakers staying within striking distance (or in) the playoffs is not so far-fetched right now.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (7-11, LW 24). Utah has gone 2-4 since Rudy Gobert went down. With their offense floundering and already 24th in the league, Utah has turned over more playmaking duties to rookie Donovan Mitchell — he started the last seven games and he’s done fairly well, for a rookie. He has averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, and in the last six games the Jazz have a top-10 NBA offense. However, without Gobert as an anchor in the middle the Utah defense has fallen off to bottom 10 in the league, and the offense may not be able to cover that up for long.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (7-11, LW 26). Giving up 90 points in a half to the Rockets on national television was ugly, but there are some good things happening in the desert. The ball is moving better on offense and their assists are up, for example, and that has helped Dragan Bender and Troy Daniels to shoot better. Josh Jackson’s offense still has a long way to go, however. Starting Sunday, Phoenix heads out on a tough six-game road trip through the Midwest and East that includes the Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (6-10, LW 25). No D’Angelo Russell for at least a month after he had his knee scoped, which is a tough break for a guy playing to impress his bosses and get a new contract. With him and Jeremy Lin out injured, point guard duties have fallen to Spencer Dinwiddie, who has done well and led scrappy performances against the Celtics and Warriors recently (both still losses, of course). Allen Crabbe is finding a groove.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-14, LW 29). They have been playing better than their record suggests of late, it just hasn’t translated into wins. The brightest spot for the team this season is just how well rookie John Collins has played, averaging 11.6 points on 56.9 percent shooting, with 7.4 rebounds a game. The Hawks are 1-2 at the start of a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (5-of-6).

 
Clippers small icon 27. Clippers (5-11 LW 23). The Clippers went into this season with a re-signed Blake Griffin and looking to stay in the playoff mix in the West, then build from there. However, after dropping 9 in a row — in the last 10 games Griffin is shooting just 38.2% — the question becomes at what point do they consider other options? Specifically, looking at trade options for DeAndre Jordan — in the last year of his contract — for players/picks to help a rebuild. The Clippers will deny this, however, if they continue to lose, it’s a question that will come up around the trade deadline. The other question is how hot Doc Rivers’ seat is getting.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (3-15 LW 30). They have lost 5-of-6, but have shown some spark by beating the Bucks and pushing the Celtics to overtime in their last two games (this deep in the rankings that’s enough to move a team up). One thing not moving up in Dallas is Nerlens Noel on the depth chart — undrafted rookie Maxi Kleber is starting a little and is ahead of Noel now.

 
Kings small icon 29. Kings (4-13, LW 27). This ranking may be too high for the Kings. Seriously. They have the worst net rating in the NBA and just got blown out by 46 points by the Hawks (another of the NBA’s worst). One thing to look forward to: Wednesday night Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox will go head-to-head against each other for the first time since Kentucky’s Fox owned UCLA’s Ball in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last year.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-12 LW 28). With rookie Lauri Markannen leading the way, the Bulls are taking 9.4 more threes per game this season than they did last season. They are hitting 33.5 percent of them, which is about the same as last year, but it has opened up the offense. The Bulls have started 0-2 on a four-game road trip.

Report: Clippers’ Patrick Beverley out again after surgery on ailing knee

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“This … feels like 100 losses.. That ain’t OK and I won’t allow it to be OK as long as I’m here…. We just got to play harder. That’s it. We just got to play harder. You get rid of the mistakes by playing hard…. We too cool. We too cool. We come in this game, we come on the court like people are supposed to back down because of the name on the back of our jerseys and that’s not the case. The only thing people are looking at is the name on the front of our jersey, and that’s nine losses in a row.”

That was Clipper point guard Patrick Beverley after the Knicks easily handed Los Angeles its ninth straight loss. Beverley had missed five straight games with a knee issue, then returned against the Knicks and wanted to be the emotional leader the team needs.

Now Beverley is out again, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

LA Clippers starting point guard Patrick Beverley underwent a surgical procedure on his right knee Wednesday, league sources tell ESPN.

Although there is no immediate timetable for his return, Beverley is expected to miss a significant amount of time, league sources said.

Ouch.

The Clippers got off to a fast start this season but the team never had much depth and injuries were always the question mark. Los Angeles has been without three opening night starters for stretches — Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, and Beverley — and it has cost them. That trend is going to continue. The lack of other playmakers and stars has put more pressure on Blake Griffin, and he has struggled with it — the past 10 games Griffin is shooting 38.2 percent from the field.

Fair or not, this is all making Doc Rivers’ seat hotter.

Stephen Curry loses bet to JaVale McGee, must wear fanny pack to three games

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Outside of a couple of college campuses and a handful of people in Las Vegas sports books, not a lot of people were paying attention to the Davidson vs. Nevada college basketball game Tuesday night.

Also, the Warriors’ locker room cared — Davidson alum Stephen Curry and Nevada alum JaVale McGee had a bet.

Nevada stayed undefeated with a comfortable 81-68 win.

So the fashion conscious Curry is going to have wear a fanny pack as he arrives — and his rival is always met with cameras — for three Warriors games this season. Well played JaVale, well played.

Curry, I think there are designer fanny packs…

FLORENCE, ITALY – MAY 29: A model walks the runway at the Gucci Cruise 2018 show at Palazzo Pitti on May 29, 2017 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Pietro D’Aprano/Getty Images)

 

J.R. Smith on Celtics start: “We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break”

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I’m not sure any LeBron James team can fly under the radar, but the Cavaliers have relatively quietly won five in a row. Most importantly, in those five games, Cleveland’s defense is 8.6 points per 100 possessions better than their season average (and eighth in the league in that stretch). The Cavaliers may be finding their groove.

Not that anyone is noticing because Boston has rattled off 16 wins in a row to have the best record in the NBA.

Hey, J.R. Smith, are the Cavaliers paying attention to Boston’s hot start? (Via Bleacher Report.)

“Nah,” JR Smith told B/R when asked if they’re paying attention to the league-leading Celtics. “It’s too early. Too early. We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break when you see teams spacing out (in the standings). You start getting your best shot after the All-Star break.”

Cleveland, even after the win streak, is 5.5 games back of the Celtics. While it’s too early to say anything with certainty, much like last season it seems probable that Boston will be the No. 1 seed and the Cavaliers will need to go on the road to secure another trip to the Finals. Which is just fine with the Cavs if they can be healthy and rested when the postseason rolls around.

Healthy means getting LeBron a little more rest at some point — he leads the NBA in minutes played at 37.9 per game, and he’s in his 15th season. He’s played more regular season games than Michael Jordan. At some point, the Cavaliers need to get him some rest.

But LeBron said postgame he’s not playing the hard minutes, yet.

“Are all 40-minute (games) created equal?” James repeated.

Dwyane Wade elaborated: “If you play 40 minutes and you’re banging around, or you play 40 minutes, an easy up-and-down? You still play 40 but it’s different.”

James: “Forty minutes in a playoff game and 40 in a regular-season game is totally different. For me and him, we don’t just sit on the perimeter. We’re slashing.”