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Three Things We Learned Tuesday: Warriors, Trail Blazers, Heat all help their playoff causes

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Tuesday was a big night for playoff chase games, so much so that the Wizards clinching the division title — their first since 1979 — or the bad night for the Pacers dropping them to seventh in the East didn’t even make the cut here. Here are the three big takeaways from the night.

1) In a battle of elite offenses, Warriors’ defense gets them key win in the race for the top seed. Wednesday night comes the game that will get a lot of media attention — Golden State heads into San Antonio in a battle of the two top teams in the NBA. The Spurs are 2.5 games back of the Warriors for the No. 1 seed in the West and all of basketball, any hope they have of catching Golden State requires a win tonight.

Except it may too late for the Spurs — with their win Tuesday night, the Warriors made it tough to catch them. Fivethirtyeight.com now has Golden State with a 93 percent chance to retain the top seed in the West.

Golden State held on to beat Houston on the road Tuesday, 113-106, in a battle of the NBA’s top two offenses. However, it was Golden State’s elite defense that was the difference — the Warriors held the Rockets to 38.8 percent shooting overall and 16.1 percent from three. The Warriors crowd Harden with multiple defenders, and while he still puts up numbers — he had a triple-double in this game — he’s not as efficient.

Not that there wasn’t an offensive show, between Harden’s triple-double and Stephen Curry dropping 32 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. Those two put on a show.

Golden State raced out to a fast lead and pushed that margin up to 22 by getting stops (and the Rockets just missing looks, they were 2-of-16 from deep in the first 24 minutes), then turning their defensive stops into transition buckets. Credit the Rockets because they battled back, started getting to the line, grinding a little, and by halftime it was just an eight-point Golden State lead. The game stayed in single digits through most of the second half, but the Warriors always kept the lead, and with a little push late got the win.

Which brings us back to the showdown Wednesday with San Antonio. If the Spurs win, they will be 1.5 games behind the Warriors, one game back in the loss column, with seven to play. The Spurs will have the tie breaker, but San Antonio would still need to win out (and Gregg Popovich has said he will rest players) and hope Golden State loses again (they have now won eight in a row heading into San Antonio). Certainly not impossible, but also not likely. By at least getting a split in their Texas two-step, the Warriors have probably earned themselves the top seed in the West.

2) Portland beats Denver, essentially ending the Nuggets’ playoff dreams. This wasn’t a must-win game for Denver in the purest sense — the Nuggets are mathematically alive for the eighth seed, just one game back of the Trail Blazers.

However, in the practical world, Tuesday night was a must-win game for the Nuggets.

And the Trail Blazers beat them. Beat then because of the guy Denver traded them at the deadline — Jusuf Nurkic had a career-high 33 points plus pulled down 16 rebounds, six offensive. After the game, he wasn’t shy telling his former team to enjoy their summer.

Going into the game Portland and Denver were tied for the eighth seed in the West, the final playoff spot. With the win, the Nuggets are one game up and have the tie-breaker, so it is, in essence, a two-game lead with eight to play. The challenge for Denver is six of their eight games are on the road, while Portland has just two of their eight away from home.

Fivethirtyeight.com now has the Blazers a 92 percent chance to make the postseason, the Nuggets get 8 percent. That’s not impossible, but it’s not likely.

3) Hassan Whiteside’s tip in keeps Heat in eighth seed, all but ends Detroit’s playoff hopes. This one play was the dagger shot to Detroit’s playoff chances. They had what amounted to a must-win game Tuesday against Miami, the Pistons needed one stop at the end, and this happened.

If I’m Stan Van Gundy, what keeps me up is not even the Hassan Whiteside tip-in, it’s little Goran Dragic pulling down the first rebound in and amongst the trees. How do you let him get that?

It was a disappointing ending to a disappointing game that caps off a disappointing season in Detroit. This team should be better than this, but here we are.  Detroit is now 2.5 games out of the playoffs with seven games to play. That’s too much. Fivethirtyeight.com has Detroit’s chances of making the playoffs at 1 percent.

Miami, on the other hand, has a 74 percent chance of making the postseason, according to the same site. The Heat’s biggest concern should be they are just one game ahead of Chicago for that last playoff spot, and the Bulls have a softer ending to the season (Miami’s last four games are Toronto, Washington, Cleveland, and Washington, although those teams could be resting guys at that point).

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.

Adam Silver: NBA could eventually reseed in conference finals

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver has three major talking points on 1-16 playoff seeding (rather than the current system of 1-8 seeding by conference):

1. He likes the idea of it.

2. He doesn’t feel bound by the tradition of an East vs. West format.

3. Travel is a big impediment. Not only would there be more playoff series between teams farther away, the regular-season schedule would have to be balanced and therefore include more games between teams currently in opposite conferences.

(An important point I think Silver doesn’t raise nearly enough publicly in regard to a balanced schedule: That’d mean more away games that start at 10 p.m. for Eastern Conference fans and more away games that start at 4 p.m. for Western Conference fans. That can’t be good for TV ratings.)

The NBA commissioner added another consideration in the debate.

Silver on ESPN:

The other thing you could potentially do is reseed at the conference finals. And that deals with if your two best teams are in the same conference. So, there are some other approaches to deal with. You want the two best teams to meet in the Finals.

A balanced schedule wouldn’t be necessary with this setup. The semifinals would either be fairer and produce a better NBA Finals or have the same matchup we’d get in the current system.

Even more importantly, this could pass.

As fun as it is to debate the optimal postseason format, there’s no way enough Eastern Conference owners (at least five, necessary to create a two-thirds majority) approve. They want to protect their eight playoff spots and guaranteed Finals spot.

But what if Eastern Conference teams were still guaranteed eight playoff spots and two semifinals spots? That be enough. The Rockets and Warriors – two Western Conference teams – are the NBA’s best this season. In coming years, it could be the 76ers and Celtics – two Eastern Conference teams. That’s far more variable than which conference is stronger throughout.

If teams in championship contention feel the very top of their conference will be weaker than the other conference, they could resist. But that still leaves contenders that don’t feel that way and non-contenders that want the additional shared revenue a better NBA Finals would generate.

That’s a plausible path to 20 yes votes and something we should take seriously.

Knicks owner James Dolan: Jeff Hornacek ‘way behind’ in dealing with modern players

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The Knicks fired Jeff Hornacek as soon as they returned to New York following their season-ending win in Cleveland.

Then, they really unloaded on the coach.

Knicks owner James Dolan, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

“I think Hornacek had the same kind of issue that Phil did in that he didn’t grasp how different the players are now in the way they think and deal with management and the coaches,” Dolan said. “I think he was way behind on that.

“But I think Jeff is a good coach and he’ll do well when he’s hired by another team.”

“The old-style coaching doesn’t work,” Dolan said. “A coach who tries to do everything himself isn’t going to be successful.

Knicks president Steve Mills, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“I think just as we observed the team, there were a lot of things that we just thought would be better at, from attention to detail to player accountability, and Jeff did a good job in some areas. In some areas he could have done a bit of a better job.

Knicks general manager Scott Perry, via Berman:

“The evaluation of Jeff for 82 games, we evaluated everything — practices to games to ability to connect with guys. I think we need to be better in that area and with adjustments. It’s something we could be better at with the expectations we have for our next coach.”

“We could have been a little bit better in situational basketball,” Perry said. “We understand the roster as much as anybody. In terms of consistency, we fell a little bit short in that area.”

This is atypical candor about a fired coach. Most teams just thank him and move on.

But I appreciate it. Don’t we all want to know more of what NBA teams are thinking internally? This is revelatory.

That said, I don’t blindly trust the Dolan/Mills/Perry triumvirate. The Knicks have misevaluated too many people for too long. This more about knowing how they viewed things than knowing this is how things are.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

According to a source, Dolan last season sent an email to Hornacek saying he was disappointed in him for not buying fully into the triangle offense. This took place sometime around the All Star break. So we know that as recently as last season Dolan, who loves to tell you he’s not involved, was actually pushing Phil Jackson’s offense down Hornacek’s throat in a not-so-subtle way.

Dolan had Phil’s back. And then on Wednesday, Dolan trashed Jackson for being out of touch. Man, life comes at you fast.

To be fair, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough also cited Hornacek’s lack of connection with his players when firing him. This will be something Hornacek must answer for if he pursues future head-coaching jobs. Hornacek feuded with Marcus Morris in Phoenix and Joakim Noah, Kyle O'Quinn and reportedly Kristaps Porzingis in New York.

Not that the Knicks set up Hornacek to succeed. They didn’t.

Now, they must find a coach who will perform better in all the areas they just criticized Hornacek for. That’ll be more difficult than criticizing him on the way out the door.

76ers in their feelings about garbage-time shots (video)

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In the Heat’s Game 2 win over the 76ers, Philadelphia rushed a 3-pointer to cut Miami’s lead to eight with 6.2 seconds left. Heat point guard Goran Dragic took the ensuing inbound, dribbled past a pressing Ben Simmons, avoided a swipe attempt by Robert Covington and drove in for an uncontested layup:

Covington, via Anthony Chiang of The Palm Beach Post:

“It definitely matters because you can just dribble it out, everything,” Philadelphia forward Robert Covington said. “But you know, we don’t understand why he did it. But overall, we just said, OK, that gives us anticipation because obviously he didn’t care about the simple fact of the score of the game. They were already winning.”

Dragic, via Chiang:

“I don’t care,” Dragic said when asked about the Sixers’ reaction to the play. “The first game we were down 30 and they were still running [inbounds plays after timeouts] with seven seconds left in the game. It’s the playoffs. I’m doing everything it takes.”

Dragic’s play was perfectly fine. If the 76ers didn’t like it, they should have stopped it. Beyond that, why risk allowing a miracle comeback? It was the right, safe play.

Philadelphia tried to return the favor in its alreadyfeisty Game 3 win last night.

His 76ers up 19 with the shot clock off, Ben Simmons pushed the ball ahead and passed to a streaking Dario Saric, who attempted a layup. Kelly Olynyk blocked Saric’s attempt. Then, Miami guard Wayne Ellington fouled Covington with 1.7 seconds left, prolonging the game with free throws:

Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, via Ian Begley of ESPN:

“I wish I was there in that Game 2, because I was kind of pissed about it. … I was on the sideline, really mad,” Embiid, who missed the first two games of the series due to an orbital fracture and concussion.

Embiid said he told his teammates to look to score if they encountered the same scenario late in Game 3.

“It’s always good to blow a team out,” he said. “I think we were up 18 or 20 and if you could get that lead up to 22, I think it’s good. I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that. We’re not here to make friends. We’re here to win a series.”

Heat forward Winslow, via Begley:

“I think they felt disrespected by Goran’s [layup], and we weren’t just going to let them do that,” Miami’s Justise Winslow said.

This is all so silly.

Last month, Saric scored late on the (pressing) Cavaliers in a game that looked decided. (Cleveland guard Jordan Clarkson then threw the ball at Saric and got ejected.) But the 76ers are going to be aggrieved now?

To their credit, the Heat fulfilled the don’t-it?, stop-it philosophy with Olynyk’s block.