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.

Adam Silver says hack-a-player rule changes could come next season

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks before the NBA all-star skills competition in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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TORONTO — The stat laid out by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was head turning:

There have been 5.5 times more Hack-a-Shaq (or hack-a-player, if you prefer) fouls this season than last season.

During his annual All-Star Weekend address to the media, Silver again said that winds of change seem to be growing stronger on this issue —  and now the NBA’s television partners are weighing in on the issue. DeAndre Jordan shooting 30 free throws a game is bad television and this is an entertainment business. if television networks want a change, things happen.

We all know how American sports works — if television networks want a change, things happen.

“Well, first of all, change will not be enacted this season. But it’s an issue that we’ve been studying for some time now…” Silver said. “So far, up to the All-Star break this season, we’re seeing the Hack-a-Shaq strategy used at roughly a five and a half times greater rate than it was used last season. So to the extent that the data is coming in, it’s showing there is a clear trend and that clearly our coaches who are smart and using very complex analytics believe it is benefiting them. My personal view, as I said last week, is beginning to change on the issue. As I said last summer, I said I was personally on the fence as well. I’m beginning to feel that a change needs to be made. And that comes in response to conversations with our network partners. It comes in response to fan data that we look at, we’re constantly surveying our fans to get their sense of what they see out on the floor. I’m talking to players and general managers and our owners of course.”

The challenge, Silver said, is building a consensus around an alternative.

“So I think it’s my job right now to at least formulate an alternative together with the Competition Committee to ultimately bring to our Board of Governors (the owners),” Silver said. “I should point out that to change a playing rule in the league it requires two-thirds of the owners to vote in favor of it, so it would require 20 teams voting in favor of it. So we’re nowhere near that point where we’re even starting to count heads.”

By the time the owners meet in July, expect the owners to vote on this. And as those owners are stuffing all those dollars from the new television deal in their pockets, if those networks want a rule change, well, money talks.

And as those owners are stuffing all those dollars from the new television deal in their pockets, if those networks want a rule change, well, money talks.

Silver addressed a variety of topics in his 45-minute talk. Among the other news of note:

• After the All-Star break ends, expect the league to let teams know that when making one of those Hack-a-Shaq fouls by jumping on the back of another player (to make the foul obvious), that player could get hit with a flagrant foul. Silver said this is about player safety.

• Silver said the Collective Bargaining Agreement is working in the sense that the elite talent in the NBA is being spread out more evenly between big and small market teams.

“In terms of the effectiveness of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, yes, we think there is clear evidence,” Silver said. “One, we know that by tightening up the cap and putting in place a harsher tax, we’re seeing fewer teams go into the tax because the financial consequences are so great of going high into the tax and what it would mean for their payrolls.

“In addition, other changes we made in the system were once teams go into the tax, it dramatically limits what they’re able to do in terms of trades and the signing of free agents. So ultimately what that system is about is player distribution. So if you look now at the league, we see the way our stars are distributed throughout the league. You see seemingly no correlation between market size and where the stars are located.”

However, the spike in the salary cap coming up this summer (and the one after) because of the new television deal could change that dynamic. Maybe. Silver is not sure how this will shake out.

“The intention wasn’t that in this system that teams could sign without going above the tax that many max player contracts and that many All-Stars,” Silver said, referring to the rumor the Warriors could chase Kevin Durant this summer. “So if you ask me from a league standpoint, we would prefer that our All-Stars be distributed around the league rather than having so many All-Stars in one market. But we’ll see what happens this summer. I mean, as I’ve said, there will be unintended consequences from all this additional cap room this summer, I just don’t know what those consequences will be.”

• Silver said the NBA Draft could be pushed back in future years — but not much. He said the league wants the Finals and draft to be done before the end of June, and before free agency starts July 1.

• The NBA is “always talking” about the idea of an All-Star Game in Europe, but don’t bet on it anytime soon. The logistics are too complicated.

“It’s logistically more difficult than it may seem because there’s a ripple effect in terms of the number of days we take off on the rest of the schedule,” Silver said. “So right now we play an 82-game schedule in roughly 162 days. When we added the additional time off for AllStar, that took days off. When we added additional days of rest during The Finals days, which we did that season, that took days out of the schedule. If we travel overseas for All-Star, given our experience with largely preseason games, but some regular season games in Europe as well, players will need additional time to readjust their sleep patterns and to get re-acclimated when they come back to the States.”

Silver later hinted the next international All-Star Game could be in Mexico City.

• While there is no “center” designation on the All-Star ballot anymore (three frontcourt, two guards), don’t expect the center spot to go away from the All-NBA Team anytime soon.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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.
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns didn’t know what to expect in the competition, given that it was his rookie season, and practice didn’t fully prepare him.

“Oh, I came in today at I think it was 11:00 in the morning and got a practice run,” Towns said after the competition. “But it doesn’t translate to what it is when you have millions of people watching, thousands of people in the stands and also your heart racing like mine was. So just to have that instance of just a feel of how it was.”

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

Towns sees his title as validation for the NBA’s decision to add big men to the competition, as well as a victory for bigs who are skilled in more than the traditional ways.

“The bigs were amazing today,” Towns said. “We were able to just come out with a W, and I’m glad I was able to help the bigs come out with this trophy. This is bigger than me. This is for all the bigs out there, with the game changing the way it is, to show that bigs can stand up with guards, skillwise.”

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.