Associated Press

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Top four in East all face off, Celtics and Wizards get big wins

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What kind of world do we live in where someone would actually pretend to be in Nickleback? Why? So many things make no sense. Fortunately, we have hoops to distract us. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday in the NBA.

1) Wizards beat Raptors in race to avoid fourth seed in the East. Amongst Boston, Washington, and Toronto there is a serious playoff seedings race underway — to avoid being the four seed. The reason is simple, nobody wants to face Cleveland in the second round of the postseason. Teams want to be on the other side of the bracket, have a path to the conference finals and take your shot at the East’s powerhouse there. The four seed means a tough Atlanta team in the first round (most likely) then the Cavs.

A home-and-home this week between Toronto and Washington could play a huge role in who avoids that four seed, and round one went to the Wizards. Washington had just knocked off Golden State the night before (the game where Kevin Durant was injured) and on the second night of a back-to-back built on that against the Kyle Lowry-less Raptors, 105-96. The real hero for the Wizards was just acquired Bojan Bogdanovic, who had a team-high 27 points and was at the heart of a 26-3 run by the second unit that blew the game open.

Also give the Wizards’ small forward Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre credit for quality defense on DeMar DeRozan all night, making him work for his 24 points. The Raptors offense is just far easier to defend without Lowry in part because the threat of the three has dropped off: in the four games without Lowry, the Raptors are taking just 6.5 threes per game and hitting 32 percent of them. That has to change or teams will just pack the paint and go under every pick.

The Wizards and Raptors move to our nation’s capital and face off again Friday.

2) LeBron James puts up triple-double, and Celtics still beat Cavaliers. It felt like a playoff game in Boston Garden. Let’s not confuse a March 1 win against a team out two starters with something that actually can be predictive about the playoffs — regular season matchups are often poor indicators of playoff series — but for Boston this was a confidence booster.

LeBron James was doing his thing —28 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists — but when it came to late game execution is was Boston making the plays. Isaiah Thomas was impressive as always with 31 points on just 20 shots, but he got help with critical late-game plays from Jae Crowder and Al Horford. Avery Bradley was hitting big shots, too.

Of course, it was IT with the dagger in the fourth that sealed the win.

The win puts the Celtics within three games of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East. That dream is not happening for Boston without some serious help from the Cavs, but this win does help keep Boston a step ahead of Toronto and Washington (see above). It’s a quality win, and a reminder the Celtics will be a tough out come the postseason.

3) Nets win! Nets win! Their 16-game losing streak is over. Break up the Brooklyn Nets. Wait, previous management did that years ago, now a new front office is trying to put it all back together despite a bunch of missing pieces.

The Nets had lost 16 in a row before landing in Sacramento to face the Demarcus-less Kings Wednesday night, and it was all Nets from the start — they never trailed in the contest. Brook Lopez had 24 points, Jeremy Lin added 17, and the Nets got enough stops to pick up a road win. That’s Brooklyn’s 10th win of the season.

Buddy Hield had 16 off the bench for the Kings, and Ty Lawson played in spite of the Taco Tuesday disaster and added 15. Also worth noting, rookie Skal Labissiere has shown flashes the last few games, and had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting. Long way to go with him still, but you can see why he was so highly recruited coming into college.

Grizzlies snap 19-game skid with 101-94 win vs Nuggets

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 24 points, Tyreke Evans added 20 and the Memphis Grizzlies snapped a 19-game losing streak with a 101-94 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

Wayne Selden scored 16 points for Memphis by hitting 6 of 7 shots, including 4 of 5 from outside the arc. Marc Gasol added 14 points as Memphis won for the first time since Jan. 29.

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Jamal Murray finished with 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Denver shot just 37 percent overall and 27 percent from 3-point range.

Denver entered the night in ninth place in the Western Conference, a game out of the playoff race. Denver played without leading scorer Gary Harris, who is expected to miss the next few games with a right knee sprain suffered against Detroit on Thursday.

The Nuggets struggled through a miserable first half of shooting, connecting on 22 percent in the first quarter. Memphis stretched its lead to 21 early in the second quarter before Denver cut it to 53-48 at halftime.

Brooks hit four 3-pointers to start the second half and keep Memphis ahead.

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LaMarcus Aldridge’s 39 points lead Spurs past Wolves, 117-101

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) – LaMarcus Aldridge had 39 points and 10 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a sluggish start to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-101 on Saturday night.

San Antonio won its third straight to move into fifth in the Western Conference five days after dropping to 10th and out of playoff position.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points and nine rebounds for Minnesota, which dropped to sixth in the West.

The Spurs had lost three straight and nine of 11 but are now unbeaten halfway through a six-game homestand.

San Antonio shot 84 percent in the second quarter, their best shooting quarter since 2010.

Two nights after battling New Orleans’ Anthony Davis on both ends, Aldridge had to take on another All-Star in Towns. Aldridge responded by leading the Spurs in scoring for the 49th time this season while helping keep Towns in check.

Aldridge scored 18 of 21 points during a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, including 12 straight. He capped the run by coming from the weak side to swat Towns’ floater deep into the seats.

Minnesota started quickly, shooting 78 percent from the floor in the first 5 1/2 minutes while San Antonio floundered at 17 percent. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called timeout, only to watch the Timberwolves’ Jeff Teague steal the ball once play resumed.

The Spurs responded behind veteran reserves Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay. San Antonio went on a 16-4 run bridging the first and second quarters to take a 29-26 lead.

Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points for Minnesota and Teague had 16.


Stan Van Gundy goes off on officials: “We got absolutely screwed all night”

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The Pistons were likely to lose to the red-hot Trail Blazers on the road, and that came to be Saturday night 100-87, Portland 12th straight win. The Pistons shot 38.8 percent for the game and had a dreadful offensive rating of 93.8 (points per 100 possessions).

Portland is one the top five defensive teams in the NBA this season, but that’s not what Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy thought was the problem — he laid the blame on the officiating.

That’s going to be a fine.

Van Gundy is frustrated — with this game and with this season. So are Pistons fans, and seemingly so is Detroit owner Tom Gores after his lukewarm vote of confidence in Van Gundy recently. They should be, this team is a disappointment and the Blake Griffin trade was a big swing that has yet to work out. The Pistons are going to miss the playoffs. Around the league, the sense is that Van Gundy will lose his GM job to former super agent Arn Tellem, who was brought in to guide the Pistons into their new building but now whose talents would better serve the basketball side of the operation. The only question is will Van Gundy still be coaching in Detroit next season — just coaching, like Doc Rivers with the Clippers — or of the change will be more sweeping than that.

Hornets’ coach gives savage, frank assessment of Willy Hernangomez

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When Willy Hernangomez was not getting much run with the Knicks this season, especially as injuries opened up space in the front line rotation, there were questions as to why. Then the #freeWillyHernangomez movement popped up.

Eventually, Hernangomez was traded to the Hornets where… he barely plays. He’s gotten more than 10 minutes just once since coming to Charlotte.

What gives? Hornet’s coach Steve Clifford didn’t hold back when answering that question to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford said at the Hornets shootaround at the Players Association’s midtown headquarters. “The reality is he wasn’t playing here for a reason. He’s got to change things…

“He’s not up to speed on what we’re doing to play a lot,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him. He’s smart, but he’s not this high-flier, phenomenal, natural athlete able to make up ground. He’s got to be on top of things, especially on the defensive end. If he’s not detailed defensively, he’s not that [athletic] guy…

“To be an every-night player, and I’ve told him this, he’s got to improve his shooting,” Clifford said. “He is right now, in my opinion, a back-to-the-basket player who can pass. But the reality is his passing doesn’t come into play until they have to get close to him and know he’s not going to knock down a shot. And he’s not a knockdown shooter.”

Well then.

Just to be clear he’s got to put in a lot more effort, become smarter on the defensive end, and improve his shooting. That’s a healthy off-season checklist.

Hernangomez has another year on his contract at a very reasonable $1.5 million before the Hornets have to make any kind of decision on him, which means whoever is the new GM in Charlotte he will choose to keep Hernangomez around. For now. He flashed potential his rookie season with the Knicks, when asked to play strictly to his strengths, but Clifford and the Hornets — and basically every other team in the NBA — is going to ask more of him.

Clifford was clear, as no doubt he has been clear to Hernangomez (Clifford is as straight a shooter as the league has). The ball is in Hernangomez’s court.