The playoff chase: Trying to explain where things stand with seven days of games left

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To quote Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain… no, it is too much. Let me sum up.”

One week from today the NBA regular season will be over and the long second season of the NBA playoffs will be days away from tip-off. But right now we have little idea of who will be facing who in the first round.

Every NBA team has three or four games left but the games that are left but there is still so much up in the air. Here is where things stand as of Thursday before games tip off.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Top seed: Indiana’s goal from day one was to make sure Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals would be on their court, and amazingly, despite a painful-to-watch end of season slump, Indy is still in control of its own destiny to get the top seed in the East. Wednesday night the Pacers reserves beat the Bucks while the Heat starters (minus Dwyane Wade) fell to the Grizzlies, the combination of which puts Indiana half a game up on the Heat. The two teams face off Friday night — if Indy wins and is up 1.5 they pretty much own the top spot because they own the tiebreaker with Miami. After that game the Pacers close out with a tough game vs. Thunder then at Orlando and if they beat Miami then Indy just needs to win one of its last two to get the top seed. If Miami wins Friday night and wins out at Atlanta, at Washington and vs. Philly then Miami is the top seed. If Miami wins Friday but goes 2-1 in that last three and the Pacers win their last two the teams finish tied, and the tie goes to the Pacers.

All of which is to say Friday’s Pacers/Heat game is HUGE.

Seeds 3-4-5: Chicago and Toronto are currently tied for the three seed and it is a tossup. The Bulls close the season vs. Pistons, at Knicks, vs. Magic then at Bobcats. The Raptors face the Knicks, at Pistons, Bucks, at Knicks. That could go either way, whichever team slips up less.

The Nets are locked in at five, basically. The Raptors and Bulls both have a magic number of one to secure home court in the first round (and for the Raptors to win the Atlantic).

Seeds 6-7-8: Charlotte’s overtime win in Washington Wednesday night was ginormous — the two teams are now tied for the 6/7 seeds, but the Bobcats have the tiebreaker. Get the six seed, avoid the Heat or Pacers in the first round. Charlotte closes the season at Boston, vs. Sixers, at Hawks, then vs. Bulls. Washington has at Magic, Bucks, Heat, at Celtics. Charlotte controls its own destiny but both of these teams just need wins, ideally against the teams ahead of them in the standings.

Atlanta’s magic number to eliminate the Knicks and clinch the 8 seed is now two after they won against Boston Wednesday. Atlanta closes out with a tough schedule of at Nets, Heat, Bobcats and at Bucks, they certainly could stumble in that stretch. Can the Knicks with a banged up Carmelo Anthony really take advantage? Probably not.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Top three seeds: San Antonio has a three game lead over Oklahoma City for the top seed, their number is two and they will get that. With the Thunder win over the Clippers in Los Angeles Wednesday it basically locked the Thunder into the two seed (magic number of two) and the Clippers in the three seed (magic number of one to lock that up over Houston).

Seeds 4-5-6. Portland had dreams of catching Houston and getting home court in the first round but that’s not likely to happen, the Rockets magic number to secure home court in the first round is just two. That said, Houston continues to rest Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley and with that they haven’t locked up anything.

Most likely Portland ends up the five seed and Golden State the six, but the Warriors need some wins because Dallas in the seven slot right now is just one game behind them. Golden State catches Denver Thursday night on the second night of a back-to-back, that would be a big win for them to help lock in that six spot (and likely the Clippers in the first round) and give them a shot at Portland (1.5 games ahead).

Seeds 7-8. What a mess.

As of this writing Dallas is the seven seed, Phoenix is half a game behind them and Memphis is 1.5 back of Dallas and a game behind the Suns. Thursday night Dallas plays San Antonio and it should be desperate — win and they have two games over the nine-seed Grizzlies and they would have a magic number of just two. Lose to the Spurs and they are tied with the Suns one game up on Memphis.

Memphis picked up a huge upset win against Miami on Wednesday and that sets them up for the fascinating ending to this season — Monday night they play Phoenix and if they win that they will be in control. Wednesday night, the last night of the season the Grizzlies play the Mavericks. On Saturday night the Mavericks and Suns play. Here’s the one tiebreaker thing you need to know — Phoenix has none of them. They need to finish ahead of someone.

It is going to be a fascinating end of the season for these three teams.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.