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.

Gregg Popovich on Fox News pundit attacking LeBron James: “Unbelievable”

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Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham launched an attack at Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James after the NBA star voiced his opinion on Donald Trump. LeBron had done so many times before, alongside other notable NBA personalities like Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr.

This instance of LeBron speaking up apparently struck Ingraham in some type of way, enough to invoke a shot at James’ intelligence and speaking mannerisms in thinly-veiled comments. Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble” which sparked the ire of many around the league. LeBron responded in kind, and most considered Ingraham’s racially-tinged tirade to be par for the course from that particular outlet.

Ingraham, who failed to do basic research on LeBron’s background, community leadership, and charitable contributions, also drew criticism from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Speaking before San Antonio’s game against the Cavaliers, Popovich told a crowd that Ingraham’s comments said more about her than about LeBron, and that he was happy the game had such a positive role model for young fans in James.

Via Twitter:

Shoutout to Popovich for continuing to be a voice from such a prominent position within sports and pop culture. Guys like him and LeBron haven’t exhausted themselves even though the discussion about what they say is undoubtedly tiring.

Jimmy Butler has surgery on right meniscus, no timetable for return

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The playoff picture in the Western Conference became much more opaque after Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury earlier in the week.

Reports out of Minnesota was that Butler had suffered a right meniscus injury, ducking what many had feared was an ACL tear. According to the team, Butler had successful surgery on his right meniscus this weekend.

As of Sunday morning they did not have a timetable for his return.

Via Twitter:

Minnesota currently stands third in the West but they will have a hard time fending off the rest of the playoff hopeful teams below them without their star player.

For his part, Butler is hoping he will be back in time for the playoffs. Early reports were that the team was thinking his recovery had a 4-to-6 week timeline, but again nothing has been set. Meniscus recovery times vary greatly depending on the issue at hand and the procedure done, neither of which we have details on at this time.

The Timberwolves have the 15th most difficult strength of schedule ahead of them according to Tankathon.com, with games against major Western Conference opponents ahead of them as well as bottom-dwellers like the Memphis Grizzlies.

Minnesota has been a good story all season long. No doubt many will bring up Tom Thibodeau’s workload once again with Butler injured, something compounded by Butler apparently requesting to rest during the 2018 All-Star Game.

Wolves fans have been waiting a long time for this. They don’t deserve this kind of punishment at this late a date, but the Basketball Gods are cruel and unceasingly unforgiving.

Isaiah Thomas on Cavaliers trade to Lakers: “They were in panic mode”

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It seems Isaiah Thomas is a thorn in the side of many in the NBA these days. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard reportedly was the source of some locker room conflict while he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, although it appears that Dwyane Wade was the first to lead the charge against Kevin Love in the infamous player rap session.

Thomas is now a member of the Lakers after being part of the worst section of the season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, with their revamped roster, have just one loss since the trade deadline. LeBron James & Co. have moved on, and Thomas appears set for free agency this summer and yet another team.

A move for the Cavaliers seemed inevitable, even if the return for Kyrie Irving from Boston — conveyed through consequent trades — was less than ideal. Meanwhile Thomas, who didn’t appear to enjoy his time in Ohio, has now said that he was surprised Dan Gilbert’s team bailed on him so quickly.

Via ESPN:

“I didn’t think they would pull the trigger that fast, 15 games,” Thomas told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview that will air March 11. “But again, it’s a business. And the Cavs were, I mean, they were in panic mode. We were losing — a lot. And I think they felt like they needed to make a move, and they, they basically cleared house.”

Thomas went on to say that he didn’t think he had enough time to find a rhythm not only coming back from a hip injury but on a new team in a new system. Thomas also mentioned that he harbored no ill feelings toward the Cavaliers.

We’ll see if that’s the case when the Lakers take on Cleveland on March 11 in LA.

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.