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PBT Roundtable: Who’s third best in the East?

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Each week the PBT writers sit at a virtual roundtable and discuss the NBA topic of the day. This week’s question: 

The Heat and the Pacers have been the clear class of the Eastern Conference so far, but who is the third best team there right now? Who will be at the end of the season?

Kurt Helin: Right now I have to say the Hawks are the third best as they are actually over .500. Which separates them from everyone else. Pomona College’s own Mike Budenholzer has helped build a Top 10 defense and they have a solid offense with Jeff Teague having his best season ever at the point. By the end of the season…. I think one of the New York teams is going to figure it out and get good (not as good as Miami or Indiana, but better than they are now). I think the Nets are the more likely candidates because if they can get Deron Williams and more importantly Brook Lopez (their best player — at both ends oddly) back on the court things will improve dramatically. The Knicks could get going as well, but I still don’t love their roster construction. But one of them has to figure it out… right? Don’t they?

Dan Feldman: Now: Toronto Raptors. The Raptors lost to my runner-up, the Atlanta Hawks, but the Hawks don’t have any wins more impressive than that and have actually been outscored this season. The Raptors have challenged some good teams thanks to their deep assortment of mid-level talent, and I believe close losses can be telling. Yup, that’s the East right now. The third best team has the best losses.

End of season: Chicago Bulls. Even though Derrick Rose isn’t returning this season, Jimmy Butler will, and he’ll definitely help. The Bulls have a +9.8 net rating when he’s on the court. and -4.9 when he’s not. That’s swayed by his absence overlapping with Rose’s, but Butler is an emerging force. Plus, I just trust Tom Thibodeau to build a quality defense with this group. Without Rose last season, Chicago still won a playoff series in a tougher Eastern Conference.

Brett Pollakoff: Right now, nobody can stake a legitimate claim to third. Atlanta, Toronto, and Chicago all have their merits and are close enough record-wise, but the hottest team has been the Wizards thanks to multiple 30-point performances from John Wall that have them currently riding a three-game winning streak.

As Dan mentioned, Chicago seems to be the obvious choice long-term to claim this crown, based on their success a season ago without Derrick Rose in getting to the second round of the playoffs — and that’s before we count on the improved game of Jimmy Butler to compliment the likes of All-Star talents in Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.

But because the conference is so mediocre overall, I’ll go with the Nets. Look, all they ned is to get Brook Lopez and Deron Williams healthy and they should show immediate improvement in a relatively short span once the team builds some chemistry around a consistent starting lineup and the rotations that follow. Brooklyn has a ways to go just to get back to .500, but given the huge dropoff in talent once you get past the Heat and the Pacers, it makes sense that the team most talented on paper would rise to the top of that group before the regular season is finished.

Report: Heat complained to ‘highest levels of the league office’ about favorable calls for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) is congratulated by Jeremy Lin (7) after making a basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The Hornets won 127-122 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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The Heat and Hornets are clearly tiring of each other, six games of testiness culminating with Game 7 today.

One particular battle line being drawn is over Jeremy Lin (6.3) and Kemba Walker (5.5), who lead players in this series in free-throw attempts per game.

Marc Stein:

ESPN sources say that one of the factors that ramped up the tension between the teams stems from Miami complaints to the highest levels of the league office after Game 4 about what the Heat deemed to be favorable officiating for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker.

Lin and Walker relentlessly driven to the basket. That’s why they’ve attempted so many free throws. If Miami wants to keep them off the line, trap them harder on the perimeter.

That said, this is part of playoff gamesmanship. If the Heat plant a seed with referees – through the league office or otherwise – that Lin and Walker are drawing too many fouls, maybe that affects a call today. With the margins so narrow, every little bit helps.

Watch LaMarcus Aldridge drop 38 on Thunder

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Oklahoma City has more than a few adjustments to make after a brutal defensive effort in Game 1 of their series against San Antonio, but at the top of the list is sticking with LaMarcus Aldridge on defense.

He was killing them from the midrange, and more than half of his looks were uncontested — the Thunder know he can knock down that shot, right?

It was a fantastic performance from Aldridge; we’ll see if he faces tougher defense in Game 2.

NBA: Trail Blazers scored after uncalled illegal screen by Trail Blazers in final minutes

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Should we be preparing for Game 7 of the Trail Blazers-Clippers series today?

If the officials had called the final minutes of the last game correctly, maybe.

Portland won Game 6 to take the series 4-2, but a missed call a key missed call helped clinch.

With 1:45 left, Mason Plumlee got away with offensively fouling Jamal Crawford, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Plumlee (POR) sets the screen on Crawford (LAC) without giving him room to avoid the contact.

A correct call would’ve meant a Trail Blazers turnover. Instead, Damian Lillard ended the possession with two made free throws.

Portland’s advantage when the Clippers began intentionally fouling: two.

Would the Clippers have won if the refs called Plumlee’s offensive foul? Impossible to say. The final 1:45 could’ve played out much differently.

But this missed call, the only error in the Last Two Minute Report, certainly boosted the Trail Blazers’ odds.

Four Things to Watch in two Game 7s Sunday

during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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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It’s what the playoffs are all about — win or go home Game 7s. Pressure, drama, unlikely stars Sunday is going to have it all. Here are a few things to watch:

1) Can Miami’s jump shooters have another hot game? Dwyane Wade got the headlines (and he earned them) for his Game 6 performance (everyone except purple shirt guy was impressed), but the real key for the Heat to force a Game 7 was they were hitting their jumpers — or at least enough of them. In their three losses, Miami shot 33.7 percent from 3 feet out to the arc, but in Game 6 the Heat shot 43.5 percent in that range, plus knocked down eight threes. The Hornets have packed the paint all series, when the Heat hit their jumpers they win. It’s that simple.

2) Does Kemba Walker have one more big game in him? Walker was fantastic in Game 6 (37 points), and he’s been very good in the Hornets’ victories. He’s going to penetrate and get some shots inside eight feet, but will he be able to finish? And, more importantly, will he hit his threes when they pack the paint on him? If Walker has a huge game, Charlotte very likely moves on.

3) Is Toronto too far into their own head? No team has more pressure on them to advance out of the first round than Toronto after two previous years of getting bounced in the first round, and they will feel that weight at home in Game 7 against Indiana. Will Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan step up with big games in the biggest moments of their careers, or will they succumb to the moment and the Pacers defense? For all the Xs and Os that do matter in this game, how the Raptors handle the pressure will be key.

4) Can the Pacers again get a few quality minutes when Paul George sits? In the Pacers comfortable Game 6 win, George got a rest in the second quarter and the Pacers were +5 while he sat. That was a huge step up from Game 5, where the Pacers were -18 when he was out for less than 7 minutes. If Indiana — by playing some starters such as Myles Turner — doesn’t have a huge bench drop off when George rests a few minutes their odds of winning go way up. We know Paul George can handle the moment.