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Three Things to Know: Thunder, Spurs, Pelicans in playoffs, but questions abound

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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) Where we are out West: Thunder, Spurs, Pelicans all win and secure playoff berths. Winner of Denver at Minnesota Wednesday gets the last spot. A lot of questions about the Western Conference playoff chase were answered Monday night — three teams reached the magic number of 47 wins and locked up spots. What we don’t know is seeding — Utah could finish anywhere from the three to eight seed, depending upon the next couple of days. Friend of this site Matt Moore helped sum up the confusion.

But at least we know seven of the eight teams in the party. We also know that Denver and Minnesota will play Wednesday with a playoff spot on the line. That’s because, despite a lackadaisical effort in the first half, the Timberwolves came back to beat the Grizzlies thanks to 18 points and 14 boards from Karl-Anthony Towns (who battled foul trouble all night). Denver handed Portland its fourth straight loss, setting up a Nuggets/Timberwolves winner-and-you’re-in showdown Wednesday.

The Thunder looked like they enjoyed the South Beach nightlife a little too much the night before and fell behind 23-5 early to the Heat Monday. However, Oklahoma City fought back and punched its ticket to the playoffs thanks to a Russell Westbrook triple-double and 27 points from Paul George, propelling them to a win in Miami.

The Spurs trailed the Kings by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter vs. the Kings, but Manu Ginobili sparked a comeback that led to a 98-85 win, and with it the Spurs are in the playoffs for the 21st straight year. The Pelicans went into Los Angeles and beat the Clippers, securing their playoff spot — something that would have seemed impossible when DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles, but Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level since then.

Maybe the most important game of the night in the West was Denver getting clutch plays down the stretch from Nikola Jokic (who had a triple-double) and Jamal Murray to beat the Trail Blazers. First, that win set up the one-game showdown between the Nuggets and Timberwolves Wednesday — winner is in, loser goes golfing. Or to Cabo to go fishing. Or whatever they want to do, because they will have time on their hands.

It also was the fourth straight Portland loss, and that opened the door for Utah to snag the three seed — if the Jazz can beat the Warriors Tuesday night (no easy task, but Golden State has nothing to play for and may rest guys) then it sets up a Wednesday Jazz vs. Trail Blazers game where the winner gets the three seed, the loser falls to four.

2) Cavaliers clinch 50 wins, division title, but if they want three seed they need some help. For all the talk this season about the vulnerability of Cleveland — and with the way that team has defended, that talk is valid — it is still a very good team. The Cavaliers locked up the central division crown and picked up their 50th win of the season LeBron James drops 26 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds while Kevin Love scores a game-high 28 points as the Cavaliers beat the Knicks 123-109.

The Cavaliers are the four seed in the East, half a game back of the Sixers in the three seed (Cleveland is one game back in the loss column). They want the three seed because that puts them in banged-up Boston’s side of the bracket, meaning an easier road to the conference finals. However, Cleveland needs help. The Cavs need either the Hawks to snap the Sixers 14-game winning streak Tuesday night (good luck with that) or the Bucks to beat the Sixers on Wednesday night. A 76ers loss means the Cavaliers get the three seed (assuming Cleveland beats New York again on Wednesday); otherwise, the Cavaliers are the four seed and likely face Toronto in the second round.

3) Robert Pera is going to pay up and hold on to ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies. That may be a win for the status quo there. Minority owners frustrated with the majority owner and wanting more say is an NBA tradition right up there with Christmas Day games and a lack of defense in the All-Star Game. However, in Memphis two of the minority owners — Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus — had a unique situation where they were offered the chance to potentially buy out the majority owner Robert Pera.

It was a buy/sell clause and, in a nutshell, here’s how it worked: Kaplan and Straus each were allowed to make a bid and with that set a valuation for the Grizzlies franchise (an option both took back in October). From there Pera, the controlling owner, had two choices: let one of the two men buy out Pera’s 30 percent of the team at the valued price, or Pera had to buy out those two minority owners at that price. This was all behind closed doors, we don’t know what values Kaplan and Straus set for the team.

We do know Pera decided to pay up and keep the team, buying out Kaplan and Straus. The Grizzlies announced that Monday night.

What does this mean for the Grizzlies on the court?

We don’t know for sure, but the sense around the league is that Pera backs the status quo with the Grizzlies — that means keeping, not trading, Marc Gasol, and trying to put together a playoff team around him and Mike Conley (who should be healthy for next season). Pera has not wanted to break this team up, and while he’s a bit of an absentee owner (Pera spends a lot of his time overseas with business interests), he and Gasol are reportedly in regular communication.

It also means interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has a real shot to keep his job. Yes, Bickerstaff is 15-47 as the Grizzlies coach after they fired David Fizdale, but Bickerstaff has done what management asked in helping the team tank, and because of that it’s impossible to evaluate how well he could coach this team under normal circumstances. Other coaches may well be interviewed, there could be a change, but Bickerstaff is likely in play to stay.

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.