PBT Roundtable: Who gets the last couple playoff spots in the West?

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Welcome to PBT’s regular roundtable on issues around the NBA, where our writers weigh in on the topic of the day.

Today: The conventional wisdom is in the West the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Rockets are playoff locks (barring catastrophe). If true, who gets those final two slots?

Kurt Helin: I think Minnesota, if they can just stay healthy, is maybe the closest thing to a lock for one of those two spots. With Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic in the paint they have a combination that pairs well together, then in the backcourt there is Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, a shot creator and a shooter. Add in Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger and some other depth and I like that team to get a spot. The final spot could go so many ways… but I’ll take Dallas. Jose Calderon’s more conservative style and Dirk Nowitzki’s touches will limit what Monta Ellis has to do in the offense, plus they have some solid rotation guys like Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert. But if the Trail Blazers or Nuggets got that slot, it’s not a surprise.

Brett Pollakoff: I’ll go ahead and use this opportunity to remind everybody that the Lakers aren’t going to be as bad as many have projected. While the health of Kobe Bryant is a huge concern, the reality is that there’s still talent on that roster. By all accounts, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will both be fully healthy by the start of the season, and the team managed to sign some veteran talent at bargain basement prices in Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar. Jordan Hill is healthy as well, and if Wes Johnson is ever going to make even a small leap in production given his talent, the time is now in Mike D’Antoni’s system. As long as Kobe plays even 60 regular season games for the Lakers, I like them to make the playoffs. And I agree on Minnesota for the remaining slot in the West — there’s too much talent there if they stay injury-free not to succeed.

If you want to ride with a sleeper, give me New Orleans — Eric Gordon back, along with Jrue Holiday and (begrudgingly) Tyreke Evans make that a backcourt to reckon with.

Darus Soriano: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Jazz and the Suns claim the bottom two playoff spo…hahahaha.

Okay, seriously, I’m taking a page from both Brett and Kurt and going with the Lakers and the Timberwolves. While I think both teams will have their issues defensively, they’re the two most talented teams outside that top six and both groups are in line to have a bit more injury luck next season than they did this past one. When you combine that with the fact that both teams are well coached (yes, Lakers’ fans, Mike D’Antoni is actually a good coach) while also having a chip on their shoulders after disappointing seasons last year, both squads have the right ingredients to rack up enough regular season wins to get into the tournament.

If I were to pick a dark horse team not already mentioned, I’d go with the Kings. I really like the addition of Greivis Vasquez as another point guard to share time with Isaiah Thomas and bring some steady playmaking to that spot by creating shots for his teammates. Plus, in terms of young talent, Sacramento has several nice pieces that, if they can finally put it together (I’m looking at you, DeMarcus Cousins) could make some noise by sneaking up on some of the more established western teams and be in the race past the all-star break

Dan Feldman: I too like the Timberwolves to get one of the spots. I think the Trail Blazers have been ignored in this discussion, and I consider them the safest team to be in the mix. With a young roster and a bench upgrade, they’ll almost definitely be better. The biggest question is whether one of the high-variance teams — Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets — nears its potential and passes Portland, Between the three, I suspect one will. If I had to guess, it’s the Pelicans, but I have to pause before picking against Dallas. Rick Carlisle had a rag-tag bunch at .500 last season, and adding a healthy Dirk Nowitzki is a major upgrade.

Rhett Anderson: Los Angeles guy here, a born-and-raised Laker fan. I want them to make the playoffs, but realistically it’s difficult for me to see that happening. Kobe is still Kobe, but he’s getting older and coming off a serious injury. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will be healthy, but Nash’s minutes are restricted by constant back pain even when healthy. I like the offseason additions (Farmar, Kaman) and Jordan Hill is developing well, but in the end it comes down to Kobe’s return. The team revolves around him, and without him at full strength in 60-65 games, a playoff spot would surprise me.

I agree with Minnesota as one of the final two, and if I had to guess from there it’s a tossup between Dallas (Nowitzki for a full season) and Denver (Faried’s development with the spotlight a little brighter now than before).

DeMar DeRozan scores 36, Raptors top Magic 131-112 for 6th in row

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 36 points and Cory Joseph had 15 points and 13 assists as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 131-112 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

DeRozan, selected the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, set the pace early by scoring 18 in the first quarter. Joseph added six rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Raptors (45-29).

Elfrid Payton had 22 points and nine assists for Orlando (27-47). Evan Fournier added 20 points, and Nikola Vucevic had 12 points and 15 assists.

It was the first game between the teams since the Raptors traded Terrence Ross to the Magic for Serge Ibaka in February. Ross finished with 17 points and two rebounds, while Ibaka had 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors took a 99-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRozan’s basket gave Toronto a 19-point lead with 8:15 to go in the third. But the Magic, winners of seven games this season after falling behind by double digits, fought back.

Bismack Biyombo made a pair of free throws to cut Toronto’s lead to five with 12 seconds left in the period.

But after DeRozan hit a jumper to widen the lead to seven, Delon Wright stole the inbounds pass and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Toronto its double-digit lead back going into the fourth.

Payton paced the Magic surge, hitting all four field goals he attempted in the quarter. He led all scorers with 10 points in the period, as Orlando outscored Toronto 32-26.

After four ties and seven lead changes in the game’s first 15 minutes, the Raptors took charge over the final nine minutes of the second quarter to take a 73-57 lead into halftime.

The Raptors hit all four 3s they attempted in the quarter, three by Norman Powell, who led all scorers with 11 points in the period.

Eight different Toronto players scored in the quarter as the Raptors outscored the Magic 33-17 over that nine-minute stretch and led by as many as 18 points.

The Magic cooled off from a torrid shooting pace in the first quarter to a still-respectable 48 percent in the second. Fournier led the way with nine points in the period.

Toronto led 35-34 after a first quarter that featured terrific shooting by both teams.

The Magic led by seven points early as Ross hit four of his first five shots and Aaron Gordon poured in 10 points. Orlando shot 13 for 29 (62 percent) from the field in the period.

DeRozan was 7 for 10 from the field in the opening quarter and hit his only 3-point attempt.

Toronto shot 15 for 24 (63 percent) as each starter had at least one field goal in the first period.

TIP-INS

Magic: Ross received a standing ovation after a tribute commemorating his 4 1/2 seasons in Toronto was played on the scoreboard during the first timeout. . Orlando has hit a 3 in 812 consecutive games, the fifth-longest active streak in the NBA. . The Magic had a 66-58 edge on points in the paint.

Raptors: DeRozan’s conference player of the week award was his fourth of the season. He averaged a league-best 33.3 points in three games last week. . Valanciunas pulled down the 3,000th rebound of his career in the second quarter, second to Chris Bosh (4,776) on Toronto’s all-time list. . The 73 points were the most the Raptors have scored in the first half this season.

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 as Spurs dismantle ailing Cavaliers, 103-74

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 on Monday night in a showdown that turned into a major letdown for the defending NBA champions.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs, who won their fifth straight.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Cavaliers star LeBron James was injured late in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the base of his neck. He remained on the bench for a while receiving medical attention, then headed toward the locker room and didn’t return to the game.

His status was not immediately known.

Cleveland has been out of sync recently, losing three of five, and those struggles only got worse against San Antonio. The Spurs led by as many as 33 points to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league’s best record entering a home showdown with the Warriors on Wednesday.

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than sit them for rest, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of its second rout in the past two weeks.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt and remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench. He left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout.

James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Spurs held the Cavaliers scoreless for three minutes after San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was issued a technical foul during a timeout with 6:38 remaining in the first half.

Leonard hit a right-handed runner as the second quarter closed to give the Spurs a 64-40 lead.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers. . Cleveland F Kyle Korver missed his third straight game with a sore left foot, and the team plans to sit him for several games to see if rest and treatment helps. Korver will sit out Thursday in Chicago and Friday at home against Philadelphia before being re-evaluated, a team spokesman said. The shooting specialist missed seven games earlier this month with an inflamed tendon in his foot. . G Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O’Neal has 28,596 career points. . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding its opponents to an average of less than 100 points for the 22nd straight season. . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

 

Russell Westbrook dominates final minutes, hits game winner for Thunder (VIDEO)

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This game looked over. The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take the loss.

Then Russell Westbrook happened.

He scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, then capped it off hitting the game winner for the Thunder (video above). For the game-winner, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender, a smart play when you have a guy this talented.

It was the kind of game that the Westbrook for MVP crowd will point to — he had 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and he absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game (he shot 5-of-9 down the stretch).

This was Westbrook’s 37th triple-double of the season, and the Thunder are 30-7 when he does reaches that mark. Westbrook takes heat in some quarters for “empty stats” or trying to pad his numbers, but the fact is the Thunder are 11-24 when he doesn’t put up the huge numbers and carry the offense. If you’re going to define “MVP” by value to his team, it’s hard not to choose Westbrook this season, this team is toast without him.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).