Playoff chase: Suns season on line Monday night vs. Grizzlies

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We know most of the teams in the playoffs at this point — only one final spot in the Western Conference is still up for grabs, but we have a lot of questions about who will play who in the first round still to be settled.

Monday night we may get a few answers, the biggest one about the last spot in the West — Memphis travels to Phoenix for a game and if the Grizzlies win they are in. If they lose the Western Conference is going to come down to the final games on Wednesday night (and the seeding in the West may anyway).

Here is where things stand heading into Monday night.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Seeds 1-3: The Spurs are locked in as the top seed in the West. So we know that for sure.

In theory the Clippers can catch the Thunder for the second seed but that would require the Thunder to lose their last two games and the Clippers to win out. Monday night Oklahoma City takes on New Orleans (a Pelicans team without Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and pretty much every other name you know) and if the Thunder win they are officially locked in as the two seed and the Clippers are locked in at three.

Seeds 4-5: After their dramatic win Sunday over Golden State the Trail Blazers are just half a game back of Houston (one in the loss column) for the four seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs. However, Houston has the tiebreaker over Portland so the Rockets magic number is just one to clinch home court — they play the Spurs on Monday night. Lose that game and the Rockets will need to beat a depleted New Orleans Wednesday to lock up home court (or they need the Trail Blazers to lose to the Clippers Wednesday).

Seeds 6-8: Golden State and Dallas are in the playoffs, but what seed they are remains in doubt as the Mavs are just half a game back of the Warriors for the six seed. Golden State’s magic number to lock up the six seed (and set up a first round showdown with the Clippers we all want to see) is just one — beat Minnesota Monday night and they are locked in.

Memphis at Phoenix is the big game of the night — it is literally a must win for the Suns. The only way Phoenix can make the playoffs is to beat the Grizzlies then hope the Mavericks beat the Griz Wednesday night (and the Suns would need to beat the Kings that night). A lot needs to go right for the Suns, but without a win tonight the dream is dead (and a 47-48 win team will miss the postseason, in the East that gets you home court in the first round).

If Memphis wins not only are they in they could climb as high as the six seed. If the Grizzlies beat the Suns and Mavs and the Warriors lose out Memphis climbs all the way to six (with Golden State seven and Dallas eight). If the Suns win Monday but Memphis beats Dallas Wednesday then the Grizzlies are the seven seed and Dallas the eight seed).

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Seeds 1-2: With their dramatic win Sunday over Oklahoma City, the Pacers magic number to secure the top seed in the East is one — if Miami loses at Washington Monday the top two are set. If Miami wins Indiana will need to win at Orlando Wednesday to secure home court (or count on Miami to lose Wednesday).

Seeds 3-5: Toronto and Chicago are deadlocked for the three/four seed spots right now after the Bulls odd loss to the Knicks Sunday (are they trying to get the four seed and line up with the Pacers in the second round?). Both teams play Monday night in games they should win, the Raptors host the Bucks and the Bulls host the Magic. If both win it will all come down to Wednesday night for the seeding.

The Nets magic number is one to lock up the five seed, they can get that Tuesday against the Knicks.

Seeds 6-8: Nobody wants the seven seed and to draw Miami (or maybe Indiana) in the first round. Washington has a one game lead over the Bobcats for the six seed but the Bobcats have the tiebreaker. Both teams are in action Monday night — Washington will face a pissed off Miami team (after Sunday’s loss) while Charlotte faces Atlanta. If the Wizards lose and Charlotte wins the Bobcats become the seven seed and will control their own destiny but would need to beat the Bulls Wednesday to secure their spot. If the Wizards go 2-0 to close out the season (Miami then at Boston) they are the six seed and Charlotte the seven (and if the Nets lost out the Wizards could get the five seed, but don’t bet on that).

Atlanta is locked into the eight seed. So at least we know that for sure.

LeBron James locked in for Cavaliers-Celtics Game 4 after being locked out in Game 3

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James had that look – faraway, yet focused.

The Boston Celtics have his undivided attention.

Following one of the worst postseason games of his career, James provided a candid review of his performance after breaking down film of Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It wasn’t tough to watch,” he said as the Cavaliers prepared for Tuesday night’s Game 4. “We had opportunities. It is what it is. They played a hell of a game and they took it to us and we weren’t able to stop the runs that they made.

“Some of the plays that we made, some of the plays that I made, I was like, `What are we doing?’ or `What could I have done better?’ But you figure out the next game and go forward.”

James scored just 11 points and committed six turnovers in Game 2 on Sunday night, when the Celtics overcame a 21-point deficit in the third quarter to pull off an upset the odds makers in Las Vegas said was the biggest in the NBA playoffs over the past 20 years.

It was the fourth-lowest point total for James in 210 career playoff games. The point total was stunning considering it broke James’ streak of scoring at least 30 points in eight straight playoff games. It was the first time in 11 games in this postseason in which he scored fewer than 25.

Typically, James bounces back following poor games.

“It’s fun to watch knowing that when he has bad nights, a lot of times some very, very, very good nights follow,” said Cavs forward James Jones, who has been James’ teammate the past seven years. “It’s what he does.”

James went just 4 of 13 from the field in Game 3. More unusual was that he didn’t attack the basket with his customary tenacity.

And while James was criticized in some circles for not doing more, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was understandably cautious in his analysis.

His team is back in the series after being blown out in Games 1 and 2 at home, and Stevens probably didn’t want to rankle James.

“I thought LeBron made a lot of the right plays,” he said. “When you’ve got guys that are all on fire the way they are, the right basketball play is to find them. He just made it over and over. The guy is a tremendous basketball player. He makes the right play over and over, and he thinks the game, he sees the game. He’s a really good defender. He can read situations. So I thought he was pretty darned good. I’m not going to be critical of the best player in the world.”

James, who didn’t speak to the media Monday, didn’t provide many detailed answers during a brief interview session at the team’s practice facility.

Asked for the keys to Game 4, he simply said “win” and walked away.

Report: Magic hiring Bucks GM John Hammond to serve under Jeff Weltman

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Bucks general manager John Hammond interviewed to run the Magic’s front office – a job that ultimately went to Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman.

But there’s still room for Hammond in Orlando.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Why would Hammond leave Milwaukee, where he held the highest title in the front office for the No. 2 job in Orlando? The Bucks seemed ready to part ways for a while. Coach Jason Kidd assumed plenty of player-personnel control, and Milwaukee hired Justin Zanik to work under and eventually succeed Hammond.

Hammond’s move elevates Zanik now with the Bucks. We’ll see whether he or Kidd actually steers the ship.

Hammond had Kidd thrust upon him in Milwaukee due to the coach’s closeness with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Considering he worked with Weltman in Detroit and Milwaukee, Hammond should have better working relationships in Orlando.

Under Hammond, the Bucks have built a nice young core featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. Hammond probably deserves more credit for that, but Milwaukee’s loss is the Magic’s gain. At least Zanik is qualified to step up.

Now, Orlando must hope Hammond can help turn around its underwhelming roster.

Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

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Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Kevin Durant apologizes for telling fans ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,’ reiterates stance

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Kevin Durant told fans, dismayed by the lack of competitive games and series this postseason, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Daring customers to choose another form of entertainment might not be good business for the NBA, but it’s not as if many fans needed an invitation. I doubt anyone was on the fence about watching then made up their minds after hearing Durant’s comments.

Yet, the Warriors star offered an apology.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I mean, life can be simple, man, Durant told ESPN. “If you don’t like the way the game is going, just turn it off. If you’re enjoying it, just keep it on. Life is simple. I didn’t mean it to disrespect anybody, but if you felt disrespected, I’m sorry. But if you don’t enjoy the game, turn it off [and] turn something else on. If you do, enjoy the rest of it, man.”

This is just a softer touch on the same sentiment – and just as reasonable.

People who love the NBA will watch. People who hate the NBA won’t. And people in the middle will fluctuate depending on the quality of the product.

Anyone mad at Durant the first time was just looking for a reason to get upset. That group will probably find a source of irritation in the follow-up quote, too.

The rest of us didn’t need this (half-hearted) apology, anyway.