Spaulding NBA basketball

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.

Erik Spoelstra starts to lose it on Luol Deng inbounds attempt (VIDEO)

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There were just 20.7 seconds left in overtime and the Miami Heat were down six — they needed a quick bucket.

Luol Deng was inbounding the ball near halfcourt and was looking for a way to get the ball deep down by the basket for a quick bucket — he seemed willing to take a risk rather than make the safe play to a wide open Josh Richardson in the backcourt.

After a couple of seconds of watching this, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra almost loses it on Deng, and the pass goes to Richardson. Enjoy the video.

Toronto hung on and won the game, evening the series at 1-1 headed back to Miami.

How crazy will summer free agent market be? How about reported $50 million for Festus Ezeli.

Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli, left, reacts after a dunk past Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won 106-94. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Associated Press
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Festus Ezeli averaged 7 points and 5.6 rebounds a game in just under 17 minutes a night in the 46 games he played last season, having missed time to have he knee scoped (he missed the entire 2013-14 season with surgery on that same knee). He’s averaged less than nine minutes per game in the playoffs, but played a key role defending the paint in the Warriors Game 2 win against the Trail Blazers.

What does that make him worth as a restricted free agent this summer?

Likely three years, $50 million a source told Sean Deveney of the Sporting News.

According to several league executives, that is likely to be what it takes to land Warriors restricted free agent center Festus Ezeli this summer. “Obviously there are health issues you’re worried about,” one general manager told Sporting News. “So I don’t think you’d want to go beyond three years. But he still has a lot of upside and he can get better in a bigger role.”

That’s $16.6 million a season, on average. The crazy number is market forces coming together on a couple of fronts. First, is that the market itself will be flooded with cash as the new television deal money kicks in and the salary cap spikes by $22 million up to an estimated (by the league) $92 million next season. Around two-thirds of the teams in the league will have the cap space for a max player, but there are not near that many players of that quality on the market. Meaning some guys are going to get over paid because teams will be looking to spend.

Second, big men in the NBA get overpaid. Always has been. Especially rim-protecting bigs right now, something needed to counter some of the impacts of small ball slashers in the half court. It’s simple supply and demand — if you want a rotation level guard in free agency you have plenty of options, but if you want an athletic 7-footer there are just a few of those around.

Still, who is going to pay $50 million for Ezeli? Maybe the Lakers.

The Lakers, a source said, will have interest in Ezeli, seeing his size and rim-protecting defense as an ideal complement to forward Julius Randle. L.A., of course, just hired Warriors assistant Luke Walton to be its coach. Ezeli had the best months of his career in November and December, with Walton filling in while Kerr recovered from back surgery, and before Ezeli’s knee injury.

The Warriors have the right to match any offer, Ezeli is a restricted free agent. Whether they would match something in the $50 million ballpark for Ezeli will be a factor of other moves they make this summer — if the Kevin Durant whispers are true the Warriors then can’t afford Ezeli, and what the team plans to do with Andrew Bogut long term.

Still, $50 million for Ezeli.

It’s going to be one wild summer.

Raptors hold on in overtime, even series with Heat

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors hits a half-court buzzer beater to tie Game One and send it into overtime during the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 3, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t pretty, but the Toronto Raptors came away with a win and salvaged a tied series in their first two home games. For the second consecutive game, they went to overtime with the Miami Heat, only this time, it was the Heat that came up cold at the end, and Toronto prevailed, 96-92.

From an efficiency standpoint, Kyle Lowry wasn’t much better than he’s been thus far in the postseason, shooting just 7-for-22 from the field, but he hit two key jumpers in the final minutes of regulation that extended Toronto’s lead, forcing Miami to play from behind and tying the game on threes from Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic.

But it was Jonas Valanciunas who proved most effective late for Toronto. He finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and for long stretches, the only reliable offense for the Raptors was dumping the ball in to him. Valanciunas bailed the Raptors out late with a rebound and tip-in to break an 80-80 tie after DeMar DeRozan (who shot a forgettable 9-for-24 on the night) missed two consecutive free throws.

The Heat failed to score in the first three minutes of overtime, and their continued penchant for turning the ball over did them in several times down the stretch as they failed to execute.

A bright spot for Miami was Dragic, who scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting despite receiving eight stitches to his lower lip after catching an elbow in the first half.

Splitting the first two home games isn’t ideal for the Raptors, but they had every opportunity to go down 2-0 after controlling most of the first three quarters and managed to prevail. Plus, Lowry’s late-fourth-quarter heroics could be enough to get him going again.

Damian Lillard gets tested by Warriors, looks for rebound

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 03:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers stands on the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 3, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.  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.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) First it was a chest cold, then it was a fourth-quarter dry spell. The start of Damian Lillard‘s playoff series against the Golden State Warriors has been rough.

And as Lillard goes, often the rest of the Trail Blazers follow.

Portland is down 2-0 in its Western Conference semifinal series against the defending NBA champions. And it certainly won’t get much easier when the series shifts north Saturday – even though presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry is unlikely to return from a knee injury.

But Lillard and his team have a history of stepping up after getting knocked down. In fact, that’s been the theme of their whole season.

“I know the kind of guys I’m running with. Besides that, we’ve answered the call all season long. We’ve been in bad positions time and time again, and we’ve never shied away. We’ve never not answered the call. I don’t see why this time it would be any different,” he said.

Lillard, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists during the regular season, scored 25 points in the Blazers’ 110-99 loss in Game 2 on Tuesday night, including 17 points in the third quarter. But the Warriors held him scoreless (0-for-3 from the field) in the crucial final period when they came from behind to win, outscoring Portland 34-12. Portland only scored six points over the last 5:21.

With a day off on Wednesday, Lillard let the loss digest.

“After the game I was pretty frustrated by not being able to finish that game. Yesterday I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” he said. “I wasn’t even gonna watch the playoff game until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of 3s. So I wanted to see for myself, but I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball after that game.”

In the series opener, Lillard started cold but eventually scored 30 points in a 118-106 loss. The Oakland native admitted later to battling a cold afterward. On Thursday, he said he was healthy.

Lillard made a playoff splash in 2014 when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Rockets sent the Blazers into the second round for the first time in 14 years.

But he was the lone starter left with the Blazers this season after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews. Some expected the Blazers to only win about two dozen games.

Lillard tends to rise when he’s the underdog, however. Led by Lillard and backcourt teammate CJ McCollum, a first-year starter, the Blazers overcame a 2-10 stretch in November to wind up the fifth seed in the West.

A two-time All-Star, Lillard was snubbed this year. How did he respond? By dropping 51 points, including nine 3-pointers, in a 137-105 victory over – wait for it – the Golden State Warriors. Lillard shot over Curry at will in that Feb. 19 victory, one of just nine losses for the Warriors in a record-setting 73-win season.

Knowing the Blazers are capable will be key Saturday night.

“We’ll have bounce. We came back after 0-2 against the Clippers (in the opening round) and came with a lot of energy in Game 3. We know how important Game 3 is,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Having energy, having bounce, at the Moda Center, with our crowd? That’s the least of our concerns.”

Lillard also struggled in the opening two games against the Clippers in the first round. Portland came back to win the next four to win the series, but the Clippers were hurt when their top two scorers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, were knocked out with injuries.

The Warriors also get credit for Lillard’s struggles after making defensive adjustments on both Lillard and McCollum, particularly the play of Festus Ezeli.

“They are so explosive and they run really good stuff, I mean, it’s hard to guard. You have to cover a lot of floor against Portland, and I thought between Festus and Draymond (Green), those guys did a great job of protecting the feed and moving and handling the pick-and-roll on top,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Lillard said the Blazers would learn from it.

“It hurts to go back in the locker room after you play so well for so long and you come back in there with the L. But it is a part of growth,” he said. “The entire season has been growth for us.”