Extra Pass: Suns and Hawks facing opposite playoff fortunes

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Sunday, the Phoenix Suns fought back from 22-point deficit, raising their record to 41-29.

On the same day, the Atlanta Hawks blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, dropping their record to 31-37.

As you surely know already, the Hawks are on pace to make the playoffs, and the Suns are not. Thanks to the disparity between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference and a format that sends precisely eight teams per conference to the postseason, Atlanta is sitting pretty (three games ahead of the ninth-place Knicks) while Phoenix is not (half a game behind the eighth-place Mavericks).

The Suns and Hawks play tonight, a chance for Phoenix to get some karmic revenge for at least 48 minutes. But in terms of getting justice for their playoff fate, the Suns have no choice to accept their possibly postseason-less destiny while the Hawks can keep losing and probably keep their playoff spot.

The Suns should be used to it, at least – especially if the Hawks are the team benefitting. This season looks to be another chapter in already twisted postseason history, or lack thereof, between these two franchises.

By record, we can easily identify the best team to miss the playoffs (the 1972 Phoenix Suns went 49-33) and worst team to make the playoffs (the 1953 Baltimore Bullets went 16-54).

But as the number of NBA teams and number of playoff teams fluctuates, using percentiles for win percentages during each season in NBA history and a linear best fit, we can estimate how good the worst playoff team should be each season. Under current conditions – 30 NBA teams, 16 playoff teams and an 82-game season – the postseason threshold is expected to be 38.9 wins, a mark Phoenix passed last week.

Here’s how the expected win percentage for the worst playoff team has evolved over the years:

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Sometimes, people get worked up over a team with a losing record making the playoffs, but it’s really quite logical. In a 30-team league, the median falls between 15 and 16. Because 16 teams make the playoffs, it’s expected one below-median team makes the postseason.

Similarly, it’s misguided to blindly call many of playoff teams with the worst records the least-deserving of a postseason berth. Between 1948 and 1968, the NBA allowed between 67 percent and 80 percent of its teams into the playoffs each year (compared to 53 percent now). You can see how that led to some teams with poor records qualifying.

With that in mind, we want see which teams fell furthest above and below that expected line in a given year – specifically, in this case, the worst playoff team (red) and best non-playoff team (green).

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The 2014 Suns are narrowly ahead of the pace of the 2008 Golden Warriors, who went 48-34 and missed the playoffs. Only the 1957 New York Knicks, who went 36-36 in a season six of eight teams made the playoffs, fell further above the expected line and still missed the playoffs.

The Hawks aren’t quite as historically fortunate, but they’re still on pace to rank as the 19th-worst playoff team in NBA history after adjusting for the expected record of the worst playoff team each season. (If you’re wondering, those 1953 Bullets remain No. 1, even in a year eight of 10 teams made the postseason).

Together, the Suns and Hawks are on pace to make 2014 the year with the fifth-largest record disparity between a playoff team and its better counterpart in the other conference. Here’s the complete top 10 of the teams that have snagged playoff berths over better teams:

1. 1972: Atlanta Hawks (36-46) over Phoenix Suns (49-33)

2. 1953: Baltimore Bullets (16-54) over Milwaukee Hawks (27-44)

3. 1971: Atlanta Hawks (36-46) over Phoenix Suns (48-34)

4. 2008: Atlanta Hawks (37-45) over Golden State Warriors (48-34)

5. 2014: Atlanta Hawks (31-37) over Phoenix Suns (41-29)

6. 1968: Chicago Bulls (29-53) over Cincinnati Royals (39-43)

7. 2009: Detroit Pistons (39-43) over Phoenix Suns (46-36)

7. 1988: San Antonio Spurs (31-51) over Indiana Pacers (38-44)

9. 2011: Indiana Pacers (37-45) over Houston Rockets (43-39)

9. 2004: Boston Celtics (36-46) over Utah Jazz (42-40)

9. 1997: Los Angeles Clippers (36-46) over Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40)

9. 1979: New Jersey Nets (37-45) over San Diego Clippers (43-39)

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If this holds, not only would it be both the Hawks’ and Suns’ fourth appearance on this list, not only would the Hawks be the playoff team all four times and the Suns not all four times, it would be the third time the Hawks are the weak playoff team making it ahead of the aggrieved Suns.

The Suns might beat the Hawks tonight. They probably should.

But it won’t erase decades of bad fortune for the Suns and good fortune for the Hawks – a trend that is apparently continuing.

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.”