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).

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”