Thursday night NBA playoff previews: Does Pacers season end tonight?

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Three elimination games on tap Thursday night — somebody’s season is ending.

Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks (Hawks lead series 3-2). This is the big one Indiana — win or go home. This is the one for Atlanta — they do not want a Game 7 back in Indy. Indiana coach Frank Vogel may have could something late in their Game 5 loss to the Hawks — a small lineup featuring Chris Copeland playing the four and spacing the floor. Expect to see a lot of that lineup, Vogel can’t worry about anything other than winning Game 6 and if something works he needs to ride it as far as he can. That’s sort of what Mike Budenholzer has done for the Hawks this series — for example the pick-and-pop was working in Game 5 (Mike Scott always seemed to be open), the Pacers weren’t adjusting their coverage so the Hawks went to it again and again. The Pacers are going to have to defend like their reputation, but if the Hawks are just hitting shots the Pacers are going home.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies (Grizzlies lead series 3-2). Expect overtime. The last four games in this series have gone to OT, and we will all be disappointed if we do not get free basketball again. The real questions in this game hinge on the Thunder offense and how difficult the Grizzlies defense has made life difficult for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Tony Allen has been brilliant for Memphis, harassing and being physical with Durant — but this is bloody Kevin “about to be named MVP” Durant, he has to rise above that and make plays. He’s not, at least not consistently. Westbrook gets the ball and just pounds it and pounds it, and he Thunder offense stagnates. It stalls out. Durant and Westbrook aren’t passing, but the guys off the ball aren’t moving. The result is too much isolation ball, which the Grizzlies can defend. On the other end of the court, Memphis lacks the pure skill of the Thunder but they are making the extra pass, guys are cutting, the ball is switching sides and that is leading to Zach Randolph getting good looks inside or Mike Miller having space to set is feet for a three. If it all plays out like that Thursday night the Thunder will be done for the season — and there will be a lot of hard questions to answer.

Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors (Clippers lead series 3-2). The real Clippers were back in Game 5 and we can expect to see that same unburdened, energized team in Game 6. Which is trouble for Golden State — the Warriors had success this series going small with Draymond Green and David Lee up front, but in Game 5 DeAndre Jordan made them pay for that. Jordan is not always the most consistent of players but the Clippers need him to be. Golden State needs Stephen Curry to knock down shots — in every game but Game 4 (when the Clippers were distracted by the Donald Sterling fiasco) they have slowed Curry with aggressive pick-and-roll traps, with defenses designed to take the ball out of his hands. In Game 5 Curry was flustered and turning the ball over too much, he needs to be a force both hitting shots and setting up teammates in Game 6. The Warriors need the three ball to fall, or they will be golfing on Friday.

Top-10 college recruit Anfernee Simmons may go straight to NBA

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A couple of years back, Thon Maker decided to play a post-graduate fifth year of prep school ball, not go to a major college, then jump to the NBA. He could because he had graduated a year before and was 19, the Bucks took him in the lottery, and so far it has worked out for everyone.

Now another recruit, Anfernee Simmons, may follow that path. Simmons is spending this year at the IMG Academy, and the combo guard is considered a top-10 recruit in this class.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN broke the story after speaking to Simmons.

“Some people have brought it to my attention,” Simons told ESPN during an interview in Connecticut, where his team was participating in the National Prep Showcase. “As long as the opportunity is there, I will do it.

“I can see myself going to the NBA combine, if I have enough teams to actually invite me or recommend me for the combine and enough teams want to bring me for workouts. I really need to hit the weight room hard and get a little stronger.”

This is a sensible approach — find out where you roughly fall in the draft, then make a decision. Listen to the teams, not friends/family/agents. If you have a first-round guarantee, then go pro.

Givony and others describe the 6’3″ Simmons as talented but still a project for the NBA level, starting with the fact he needs to get stronger (something true of most rookies). Not that it really scares off teams any longer, many are willing to develop and wait on a player with potential (he could spend a chunk of his first season in the G-League). Simmons is fast when he drives, and has a smooth release on his jumper. If he gets stronger and his game matures, a team may take a risk on him.

Shorthanded Cavaliers now without Iman Shumpert for 5-7 days

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Isaiah Thomas is still rehabbing his hip, he should return next month.

With him out, Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers have had to lean more on Derrick Rose at the point, except he has a sprained ankle that is going to have him out a couple more weeks.

That has forced Iman Shumpert into the starting point guard role in Cleveland, although he mostly is there for defense/shooting as the playmaking duties fall to LeBron James.

Now the Cavaliers will have to get by without Shumpert for a while with water on the knee, Cleveland announced on Saturday. He left Friday night’s Cavs win against the Clippers with a sore knee and did not return

“Additional examination and imaging today at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health confirmed left knee effusion. He will be out 5-7 days while he undergoes treatment and rehabilitation,” the Cavaliers said in a statement.

This is going to force Lue to play Jose Calderon, who he has kept glued to the bench this season despite the injuries. J.R. Smith and Dwyane Wade will need to take on more run as well.

The Celtics have won four in a row — thanks to a more focused offense — and face the Pistons, Nets, and Hornets this week.

Joakim Noah on if he can play at former level: “Probably not. Probably not.”

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For three games, Joakim Noah has been clear of the 20-game PED suspension he started at the end of last season.

For three games, he has not even dressed for the Knicks.

This is the former Defensive Player of the Year who was already on the decline when Phil Jackson gave him a $72 million contract that is now the worst in the NBA. Noah is out of the rotation, where Enes Kanter starts at center (with Kristaps Porzingis at the four) and Kyle O’Quinn coming off the bench.

Noah told Marc Berman of the New York Post he is frustrated but gets the situation.

“I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right,’’ Noah said in his first comments since being reinstated. “I understand the situation. I’m going to make the best of it.”

When asked if he still feels he can be close to the player he was in his 2013-14 campaign, Noah said: “Probably not. Probably not. You know. I can help. I feel like I could help this team and that’s just my reality. But I just want to just be the best that I can be.

“It’s not about trying to be what I was three, four years ago, because it’s not the reality.”

Noah is a smart and mature player, he understands his reality, and he has the exact attitude you want a veteran off the bench. He can help in practices, he can help because he understands how to play defense and can teach it, and eventually, he will get a chance on the court. He is not part of the future of the Knicks, but he can guide these young players.

The Knicks new management will look for a way to unload Noah’s contract, but considering the sweeteners the Knicks would need to throw in to get a team to deal for Noah, it’s unlikely we see any action on that front for a long time.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.