Pacers at Heat headline Friday night games with playoff implications

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Friday night’s Pacers/Heat showdown is not going to tell is much about how a likely Eastern Conference Finals between these teams plays out — there is no Dwyane Wade for the Heat, for one. Also, both teams are going to run things a little vanilla, not overplay any sets or match ups they like and tip their hands for future playoff strategy (think NFL preseason offense).

But it does matter. A lot.

The Pacers have struggled on the road at points this season (20-19), which is why their focus all season has been getting the No. 1 seed and home court throughout the East. They want Game 7 against the Heat in their building — to get that they need to beat the Heat on the road Friday night.

Miami sits half a game back of the Pacers (one fewer wins) but with a softer schedule the rest of the way — if Miami wins they control their own destiny. Miami closes out with the Hawks, Wizards and Sixers — all very winnable games. Beat the Pacers and the top seed is yours for the taking.

For the Pacers, win and you are 1.5 games up on Miami and Indiana owns the tiebreaker — win this and the Pacers’ magic number for the top seed is one.

Add to that these teams have a nice rival growing and we should see an intense, physical game. It should feel like a playoff game. LeBron James will attack the rim and Roy Hibbert will be there to greet him. Lance Stephenson will make amazing plays or foolish plays, or most likely a little of both. Chris Bosh will float around on the perimeter but make plays. It will get chippy.

It’s going to be fun. Just don’t think the playoff match ups between these two will look like this.

Here are a few other games of playoff import on Friday night:

• Washington at Orlando/Charlotte at Boston: Right now Washington and Charlotte are deadlocked for the 6/7 seed. Nobody wants the 7 seed. With the six seed you likely face Toronto or Chicago in the first round — two good but flawed teams where the Wizards or Bobcats stand a chance to extend the series and maybe, with a little luck, get a win. Land in the 7 slot and you become chum in the first round for Miami or Indiana. Expect both Washington and Charlotte to play with some desperation.

• Philadelphia at Memphis/Phoenix at San Antonio. As of right now Memphis is the 9 seed in the West, one game back of the Suns. Memphis is going to beat Philadelphia tonight because, well, Philadelphia. Have you seen them? That puts pressure on the Suns to come up with a win against the team with the best record in the NBA — a Spurs team resting Tim Duncan and Tony Parker on the second night of a back-to-back, but still a Spurs team that plugs in its reserves and keeps on moving forward like the Terminator 3000s that they are. (They will not stop. Ever.) The Suns really need a win because they have the Mavericks — the other team playing musical chairs for the final playoff slots in the West — on Saturday night. Oh, just a reminder that the Grizzlies have the tie breaker over the Suns. So yes, the Suns need wins.

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”