As the NBA season winds down, so many races are undecided

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With just over a week left in the NBA regular season, there’s still a ton to be decided before the playoff field is set.

In the East, four spots remain unclaimed. In the West, two are up for grabs. And while some seedings look wrapped up, none are officially clinched.

Want drama? It’s not hard to find.

“To be in competition like this, it’s a privilege,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Monday was a most-needed day for most of the NBA to catch its breath. The league always tries to avoid scheduling games on the day of the NCAA men’s championship game and would have done so this year if a Portland-Minnesota game didn’t have to be postponed because of floor conditions earlier this season.

Things pick up in earnest again Tuesday.

So to get ready for the final nine days of the season, here’s a primer on playoff chases.

TOP OF THE EAST

Boston (50-27)

Cleveland (49-27)

The Celtics host the Cavaliers on Wednesday, with the winner assured of leaving that night with the No. 1 spot in the East standings. If Cleveland wins, it essentially becomes two victories since the defending champions will also own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Boston. … LeBron James got his first ring in 2012 as a No. 2 seed in the East with Miami, so it’s not as if he’ll be deterred even if the Cavs don’t get that top spot. … Boston is trending up, going 9-2 in its past 11 games. The Cavs have nine wins in their past 20 games.

BEST OF THE WEST

Golden State (63-14)

San Antonio (59-17)

The Warriors have won 11 straight, might get Kevin Durant back this weekend and face only one playoff-bound team in the final five games. It’s only a matter of time before Golden State wraps up the No. 1 seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. … San Antonio can’t be caught for No. 2, and coach Gregg Popovich has two full weeks to get his players rested and his rotation ready.

EAST NO. 3

Toronto (47-30)

Washington (46-31)

Toronto took the season series 2-1, so it’s like the Raptors have a two-game lead with five left. But the Raptors play four of their last five on the road, and still don’t have Kyle Lowry back from wrist surgery. … Washington still has to play Miami twice, Detroit and Charlotte, teams very desperate right now to get in. … Both the Raptors and Wizards have wrapped up home-court advantage for the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

WEST NO. 3-4-5

Houston (52-25)

Utah (47-30)

Los Angeles Clippers (47-31)

The Rockets’ magic number for clinching the No. 3 spot is 1, and the only mystery is if MVP candidate James Harden will get some rest. … The Jazz are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and now have to hold off the Clippers in order to host Game 1 of the postseason for the first time since 2001, when John Stockton and Karl Malone were still starters in Utah. … The Clippers won the season series against Utah 3-1, big if tiebreakers are needed.

EAST NO. 5

Milwaukee (40-37)

Atlanta (39-38)

Milwaukee’s schedule is brutal with four road games in the final five, including ones at Oklahoma City, Indiana and Boston – teams all playing for something. … Atlanta took the season series 3-0, but the Hawks have a three-game, four-day stretch this week that goes Boston, at Cleveland, Cleveland.

REST OF THE WEST

Oklahoma City (43-33)

Memphis (42-35)

Portland (38-39)

Denver (36-40)

New Orleans (33-44)

The Thunder are in, the Grizzlies are on the brink of getting in, and the No. 6 seed might come down to the winner of the Oklahoma City at Memphis game on Wednesday. … Portland’s six-game winning streak was snapped in Minnesota on Monday, though the Trail Blazers still own the No. 8 spot for now. … Denver still has to go to Houston, plus plays Oklahoma City twice in the final three games. … New Orleans is alive only in the mathematical sense.

EAST NO. 7

Chicago (38-39)

Miami (37-40)

Indiana (37-40)

Charlotte (36-41)

Detroit (35-42)

The Bulls won’t play another playoff team until the playoffs, if they get in. Chicago’s final five games are at New York, at Philadelphia, at Brooklyn, then home for Orlando and home for Brooklyn again. … Miami goes to Charlotte on Wednesday, in an enormous game for both teams. … Indiana’s next two games are against playoff-bound Toronto and Milwaukee, and the Pacers go to Orlando on Saturday to face former coach Frank Vogel. … All five of Charlotte’s remaining opponents are playoff-bound or hoping. … Detroit needs a miracle.

TO THE LOTTERY

New York, Philadelphia, Orlando, Brooklyn, Dallas, Minnesota, Sacramento, the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix have been eliminated.

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty: