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Three Things to Know: Kyrie Irving news blow to Celtics’ playoff chances, but at least they’re in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics star Kyrie Irving will miss 4-5 months, including the entire postseason, due to his knee injury.

Brad Stevens’ motion offense produces good shots. He goes four- and five-out to maximize spacing, and he gets his players on the same page with ball movement, player movement and screening. They all play hard.

But defenses clamp down in the playoffs, and teams must inevitably sometimes give the ball to someone who creates a shot for himself against a set defense with the shot clock running down. All the genius sets and extra effort still can’t avoid that.

That’s why Boston traded for Irving, who’s elite in those tough situations. He was supposed to help the Celtics’ regular-season success continue deep into the playoffs.

Without him, Boston fits the profile of a lower seed. Though the Celtics (53-25) will likely nab the No. 2 seed, they won’t necessarily put a better team on the floor than their first-round opponent – the Heat, Bucks or Wizards. If it weren’t for Boston’s home-court advantage, it could be a true toss-up series.

And that’s not so bad. The Celtics’ window is open for a while. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are developing nicely. Irving and Gordon Hayward should be healthy next year. All these setbacks occurred during a season LeBron James remains elite and the Raptors are humming. This might not have been Boston’s year yet, anyway.

And at least the Celtics have already clinched a playoff spot, which is more than can be said for most of the teams in the Western Conference race.

2.) The Nuggets beat the Timberwolves and the Jazz smashed the Clippers in two huge playoff-chase matchups.

Denver point guard Jamal Murray had one of the most pivotal plays of the season with 1:46 left last night. As the shot clock neared expiration, Murray pump-faked and drew a shooting foul on Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns (26 points, 13 rebounds, four assists), Minnesota’s best player throughout the game, fouled out. Murray made both free throws to put the Nuggets up one, and without having to face Towns, they held on for a 100-96 win. That tied Denver with the Timberwolves for eighth-place.

As a bad shot looked increasingly necessary, Murray in one fell swoop got Minnesota’s best player off the floor, put the Nuggets ahead and massively increased their playoff chances.

Denver’s point guards – Murray (22 points) and Devin Harris (20 points) – came up big on a night many of their teammates couldn’t find offensive rhythm. Those two shot 14-for-27 from the field (52%) and 8-for-15 on 3-pointers (53%). Everyone else was 21-for-62 from the field (34%) and 3-for-21 on 3-pointers (14%).

Other Nuggets made up for it with high-effort plays down the stretch, and they can’t let up now. Denver has a tougher closing schedule than the Timberwolves do – including the finale at Minnesota. And Minnesota should soon get back Jimmy Butler, who was active but didn’t play last night.

Next up for the Nuggets? The Clippers, who got trounced from start to finish by Utah last night.

The Clippers are on the verge of elimination, but at least they still play a couple teams they’re trying to catch.

Here are the Western Conference playoff-race standings with each team’s remaining schedule:

4. Jazz (46-33) – at Lakers, vs. Warriors, at Trail Blazers

5. Thunder (45-34) – at Rockets, at Heat, vs. Grizzlies

5. Spurs (45-34) – vs. Trail Blazers, vs. Kings, at Pelicans

7. Pelicans (44-34) – at Suns, at Warriors, at Clippers, vs. Spurs

8. Timberwolves (44-35) – at Lakers, vs. Grizzlies, vs. Nuggets

8. Nuggets (44-35) – at Clippers, vs. Trail Blazers, at Timberwolves

9. Clippers (42-37) – vs. Nuggets, vs. Pelicans, vs. Lakers

3) The Wizards suffered a demoralizing loss to the Cavaliers. Washington fell behind by 15, made a 32-point swing in the right direction then blew a 17-point lead in the final 7:30 of the fourth quarter. The Wizards have lost three straight and seven of nine.

The latest defeat came after John Wall identified this game against Cleveland and Tuesday’s against the Celtics as especially important. Wall, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“I want to play against the teams that are going to be in the playoffs. No offense to the teams that are not going to the playoffs,” he said. “I want to play against Cleveland and definitely against Boston because those are who we might end up seeing in the playoffs. So, leave a statement there.”

Welp.

With Irving injured, that Boston game provides less opportunity for redemption. The stakes are just so much lower.

Last night’s result might have been good for everyone involved, though. The Cavs (49-30) move one step closer to the No. 3 seed, though the bigger test will come against the 76ers (48-30) tonight. And Washington moves closer to getting the No. 7 seed, which would almost certainly mean a first-round matchup with the vulnerable Celtics.

But that won’t matter unless the Wizards play much better than they have lately.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.