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Three Things We Learned Thursday: Warriors still figuring out no Durant life, good teams like Celtics expose that

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It was a busy night around the NBA with 11 games, but if you were binging Luke Cage we understand, here are the big takeaways from Tuesday around the league. 

1) Golden State still has not figured out life without Kevin Durant, and good teams like Boston will make them pay.
The Celtics came into Oracle Arena and did what they do in the fourth quarter: Play disciplined defense, count on role players such as Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk to step up, and lean on Isaiah Thomas. It’s a model that works.

Golden State still hasn’t figured out what works with Kevin Durant sidelined. KD — who said he “got a boo-boo playing basketball” — watched the game from the locker room at Oracle and had to be itching to get back out there seeing the mess that unfolded.

The Warriors were up a bucket heading into the fourth quarter, then in the next 12 minutes they scored 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting with eight turnovers. Boston thoroughly outplayed Golden State in the fourth, went on a 15-0 run midway through the quarter, and pulled away for a 99-86 win. While there was still more than four minutes left, this Thomas three felt like the moment the Celtics closed the door on the game.

We need to give Boston credit here. They prioritized defending the arc and the Warriors shot 6-of-30 from deep. Thomas led the way with 25, but Olynyk’s 17 off the bench were huge (he was +29 on the night). They executed with the game on the line, as they have all season.

But the Warriors are just not right.

When Durant went down, I said that for the Warriors to hold on to the No. 1 seed they needed Stephen Curry to return to his MVP form of previous seasons. He has not been anywhere close to that. There were fourth-quarter “M-V-P” chants in Oracle Tuesday night, but they were for Boston’s Thomas. Maybe we can blame a harsh and packed stretch of the schedule for Curry’s 2-of-9 three-point shooting against Boston, or the fact Curry is shooting 29.5 percent from three in his last five games, but the Warriors can’t afford that now (although coach Steve Kerr postgame talked about resting key players coming up). With no Durant there is no safety net, no rotations where Curry can just coast and be fine, or where Warriors role players don’t have to step up.

It’s not just Curry struggling, and not just Klay Thompson either (2-of-8 from three Tuesday), you can throw coach Steve Kerr in the mix. He has not found rotations that work, particularly in the fourth. Kerr’s regular rotation this season was to rest Durant and Curry both to start the fourth, then bring them back midway through and at that time give a brief rest to Thompson and Draymond Green, then have them re-enter for the final three or four minutes as needed. Kerr hasn’t really varied from that, but most of the Celtics game-deciding 15-0 run had come before Curry got back on the court, and when he did he couldn’t begin to reverse it by himself. Having two of the Warriors three best players on the bench for three minutes in the second half of the fourth quarter is going to get them beat by good teams, such as Boston. Kerr can’t lean on James Michael McAdoo and Patrick McCaw in these moments without KD on the court.

When Durant first went down, I thought the idea of San Antonio catching the Warriors for the No. 1 seed was a crazy longshot (I didn’t think the Warriors would lose that many games). No more. As the Warriors stumble to reshape their identity, the Spurs are just 1.5 games back and poised for the run to the top.

2) Utah went into Houston and — thanks to Rudy Gobert and his hair — beat the Rockets. Utah is going to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and if they play then against the Clippers (most likely the opponent) like they did against Houston on Tuesday, the Jazz could be in the second round. Do not sleep on this team.

Houston got 23 points each from Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert (the latter of whom has some interesting hair going on), they made James Harden work for his buckets (he was 0-of-8 from three), and the result was a 115-108 Jazz win. Also, of course, the Jazz were playing good defense and getting blocked shots — from Hayward.

With this win (and a Clipper loss to the Timberwolves) the Jazz are 2.5 games ahead of the Clippers for the four seed. That means Utah is going to be the four seed and have home-court in the first round, and that is going to be an interesting series (Gobert vs. DeAndre Jordan, how do the Jazz defend Chris Paul?). The Jazz could well win that series, which would be a massive boost to their efforts to retain Gordon Hayward this summer (and would lead to some real soul searching for the Clippers).

3) It’s just fun to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo play the game. Here he drops 32 on the Knicks. The Greek Freek’s line for the night — 32 points on 21 shots, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks — is far from out of the ordinary for him. Of course, he led the Bucks to a win over the Knicks, keeping their playoff dreams alive (both the Bucks and Heat are just half a game back of Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East).

However, we’re running these highlights just because it’s a joy to watch him play if you love the game of basketball.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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Tuesday’s win gives Wizards first division crown since 1979

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Divisions are almost forgotten in the NBA. They exist still as quaint reminders of days gone by, but they don’t matter other than as a potential tie breaker with a non-division-winning team. Winning your division doesn’t even guarantee a team a playoff spot anymore.

Yet, the last time Washington had won a division title they were in the Atlantic division and when you turned on the radio you were likely to hear that new hit Heart Of Glass by Blondie. It was 1979.

That was until Tuesday when John Wall led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to get the Wizards the win and the SouthEast division title.

According to CBSSports.com, that 38-year division title drought was longer than any team in any major U.S. professional sports — NHL, NFL, and MLB.

Congrats to the Wizards. They also have locked up home court in the first round, and they are currently the No. 3 seed in the playoffs (who they face in the first round is up in the air still as only three games separate seeds five through nine).

With Scott Brooks at the helm this feels like a far more dangerous — and healthy — team heading into the postseason. Wizards fans have waited a lot time for a team like this.

Report: Pacers waive Rodney Stuckey, will likely add player before playoffs

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Rodney Stuckey was having a down year for the Pacers when he was healthy, averaging 7.2 points and 2.2 assists per game, with a well below average 48.3 true shooting percentage. Stuckey also was not healthy often, playing in just 39 games.

The Pacers are banged up — Glenn Robinson III and Al Jefferson are hurt — and need a healthy body on the roster for the playoffs, plus they weren’t going to pick up Stuckey’s $7 million option for next season anyway, so they chose to wave him Wednesday, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical on Yahoo Sports.

The question now is who the Pacers bring in to fill that spot. With Jefferson down, do they lean on someone they know in Tyler Hansbrough? Is there someone out of the D-League or free agent pool that intrigues them?

The Pacers need to do something to start winning some games and making Paul George happy.

Paul George on Pacers after loss: “No sense of urgency, no winning pride”

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Indiana still has a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com), they are two games clear of the nine seed with seven games to play.

But they fell to that seventh seed with a loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night, an evening that Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Miami all won. Chicago is the nine seed right now, lurking with its soft schedule, and looking for another team to slip up, and in a key game Indiana did.

The Pacers lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday night despite being at home and having a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Indy had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns, who dropped 37. Paul George had 37 points as well, and afterwards pissed and frustrated would be good words to describe his mood. Here’s his quote, via Nate Taylor at the Indy Star.

“We should have a professional approach, man, and defend our home court, especially to a team that’s not even in the playoffs,” George said of losing to the Timberwolves (29-44). “That’s what it comes down to. As a team, we’ve got to have a grit and we’ve got to own up, man up….

“There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride,” he said. “This locker room is just not pissed off enough.”

If you don’t have urgency playing for your playoff lives with seven games left in the season, when will you have it?

Yes, this was a frustrated George venting after a loss. However, it also points again to the challenges Larry Bird and the Pacer front office have this summer — George wants to win, wants to play for a contender. Or if not that, maybe in his hometown. If George doesn’t make an All-NBA team (he likely just misses out, forward is a stacked position in the league right now) and the Pacers can’t offer him a “designated player” max, Indiana needs to put a contender around him, or consider trading him so they don’t lose him for nothing in a year. Both of those options present challenges come July.

In the short term, the Pacers need to make the playoffs. Even if they do, play like this against the Cavaliers (their current first-round matchup) or any of the other top-four teams in the East and Indy’s stay in the postseason will be short and uneventful.