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.

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.

Kevin Love on Cavaliers: “I don’t feel like we’re underdogs”

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Kevin Love and Las Vegas bookmakers do not see things the same way.

In Vegas, the Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the title — bet $100 on them to win and you get back $41.7 (or less). Cleveland is a heavy underdog.

Love sees a confident team that is the defending NBA champions, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“The whole underdog thing is funny to me, because, yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title,” Love said Saturday after the Cavs’ first practice in preparation for the Warriors since clinching a spot in the Finals. “We’re trying to repeat, which is so hard to do. I think we will use it as fuel, we will use it as motivation, but the idea of playing into it? It’s tough for me to say that is the case. I don’t feel like we’re underdogs. We match up well with them, and I think they’d say the same about us.”

What else was he going to say?

More than any other team in the league, the Cavaliers are built to give Golden State trouble. The Cavaliers can exploit mismatches, be physical on defense, and they have LeBron James, Love and Kyrie Irving. Three NBA stars.

Is that enough against four NBA stars is the question.