Associated Press

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

Leave a comment

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.

Nuggets eliminate Clippers, move into tie for eight seed 134-115 rout

Associated Press
1 Comment

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Will Barton scored 31 points and Nikola Jokic added 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists and the Denver Nuggets earned their fifth consecutive victory with a 134-115 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.

The Nuggets pulled into a tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves for eighth place in the Western Conference with two games to play. Both teams are 45-35.

The Nuggets finish up the regular season at home against Portland on Monday night before playing the Timberwolves in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.

Minnesota, which holds the tiebreaker over the Nuggets, hosts Memphis on Monday night.

The Clippers were eliminated from the playoff race. The Clippers suffered their fourth loss in five games, falling to 42-38, 2 1/2 games out of eighth place with two to play. The elimination ends a run of six consecutive postseason appearances for the Clippers, who previously missed the playoffs in 2010-11.

Jamal Murray added 19 points, Paul Millsap had 15 and Wilson Chander 13 for the Nuggets, who shot 62.4 percent from the field.

Lou Williams scored 24 points to lead the Clippers. DeAndre Jordan added 16 points and 17 rebounds, with Tyrone Wallace added 18 points and Tobias Harris had 16 for Los Angeles.

Leading 81-71, Barton hit a 3-pointer after the Nuggets grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds to ignite a 12-3 run that finished with Harris making the score 93-74 with 3:09 to pay.

The victory was Denver’s first this season over the Clippers, who won the first two meetings, 109-104 at Staples Center on Jan. 17, and 122-120 in Denver on Feb. 27.

 

Wild night in Miami: Heat top Nuggets 149-141 in 2 OTs

Leave a comment

MIAMI (AP) — They broke the stat system. That’s how good Miami and Denver were – even modern technology couldn’t keep up with the Heat and Nuggets.

For 48 minutes, they went back and forth.

And one overtime wouldn’t decide it, either.

Finally, after three hours, the Heat said enough. James Johnson scored a career-high 31 points, Kelly Olynyk added 30 off the bench and Miami set a franchise single-game scoring record by beating the Nuggets 149-141 in double overtime on Monday night.

“There didn’t deserve to be a loser,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Guys probably really enjoyed playing in a game like this.”

His guys did, anyway. Olynyk became the second reserve in Heat history to score 30. Wayne Ellington had 23 points, and the Heat made 20 3-pointers – second-most in franchise history.

All that comes with a serious disclaimer. There was no official boxscore after the game, because the system crashed in the first overtime and crews were scrambling to determine official numbers long after the final buzzer. What mattered most was the score – one that moved Miami (38-33) into seventh in the Eastern Conference and left the Nuggets two games back of the last Western Conference spot.

“They just executed,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said. “They got some, I think, fluke plays and a little luck and they’re at home, you know. Momentum shifted a little bit.”

Miami’s point total was also an NBA season high. Houston and Oklahoma City each scored 148 in games earlier this season.

Nikola Jokic had 34 points and 14 rebounds for Denver (38-33), while Wilson Chandler added 26 for the Nuggets. Jamal Murray scored 23 and Will Barton finished with 22 for Denver.

“There’s no stats. The stat machine blew up I guess,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But the only stat I cared about tonight is that I’m proud of the way we competed, I’m proud of the way we executed, I’m proud of the fact that we gave ourselves a chance.”

Neither team was at full strength. For Miami, Dwyane Wade (left hamstring strain) missed his fourth consecutive game, and Hassan Whiteside (left hip pain) sat out his fifth straight contest. Denver was without leading scorer Gary Harris, sidelined again by a strained right knee that could keep him out several more days.

Denver led 16-5 after 3 1/2 minutes, and that was the only double-digit lead by either side for about the next three hours. It was airtight until the very final moments, almost to an absurd degree.

After one quarter, Denver led by one.

Halftime, Miami led by one.

After three, Miami still by one.

After regulation, tied.

After one overtime, still tied.

“That’s as playoffs as it comes,” Olynyk said.

Back and forth they went all night, two teams who played a one-point game at Denver back in November – that one not being decided until Dion Waiters‘ missed jumper as time expired sealed the Nuggets’ win. This one had even more fireworks, with the Heat missing shots at the end of regulation and the first overtime before finding a way in the second OT.

Olynyk and James Johnson had all 13 Miami points in the first overtime.

“We didn’t exactly want it to be like this,” said Ellington, who rattled home a 3-pointer to start the second OT and put Miami ahead for good. “But these are the types of games that show your character.”

 

Will Barton calls Lakers/Jamal Murray feud “a suburban beef”

Getty Images
3 Comments

This is your quote of the day.

First, a little background — Lakers players are pissed at Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray (the two teams square off on Tuesday night). The second time these teams met this season, Denver lost but rather than just stand and dribble the ball out in the final seconds Murray ran up and dribbled a circle around Lonzo Ball, showing the rookie up. Last week when they played — another Nuggets win — Lakers players and coach Luke Walton were pissed at Murray for talking too much smack at the end of the game.

Denver’s Will Barton was asked about this “feud” and this was his brilliant quote (via Gina Mizell of the Denver Post):

“It ain’t real. That’s some suburban beef, man. Come on. Somebody’s mad about somebody getting hot and talking a little bit? That happens every day in the NBA.”

It’s a Laker tradition to get fired up over meaningless crap — Kobe Bryant invented straw men to fire himself up. Thing is, Kobe backed it up with a win (usually). These Lakers have yet to do that, and if Denver’s winning they get the high ground on this. Ball understands.

Projecting final standings in wild West playoff chase

Getty Images
6 Comments

It’s going to come down to the little things: a lucky bounce here, a sprained ankle there, a made three from the corner under pressure. Unpredictable things — but that’s not going to stop us.

And it’s going to take 46 wins to make the playoffs in the West (last season Portland got in at 41-41).

The West playoff chase is compelling because it is so deep and tight. Right now Houston and Golden State are playoff locks, but after that just 3.5 games separate Portland as the three seed and the Utah Jazz, currently 10th. With just under a month to go in the season, anything can happen.

I sat down and projected out the rest of the season, and here’s what I got, down to projected final record and remaining strength of schedule — it’s going to take those 46 wins to get into the dance (which may be too much for Los Angeles and Denver). But one bounce, one ankle could change this entire dynamic.

 
Rockets small icon1. Rockets: 64-18 proj. record; .483 remaining opponent winning percentage. It’s going to be a coin flip at the end of the season between Houston and Golden State for the top record in the NBA. I’ve put Houston on top for a less-than-empirical reason: Houston wants the top seed, James Harden wants the MVP, and Mike D’Antoni will push for those things while the Warriors will not care about seeding. The Rockets will get what they want.

 
Warriors small icon2. Warriors: 63-19 proj. record; .447 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Warriors have by far an easier schedule the rest of the way than the Rockets, however, they also care less about getting the top seed and will rest guys down the stretch (such as Curry with this ankle, Andre Iguodala with his wrist, and Kevin Durant will get some nights off, too). Coach Steve Kerr cares far more about getting Iguodala and Jordan Bell back healthy than he does the team’s playoff seed.

 
Blazers small icon3. Portland, 48-34 proj. record; .538 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Trail Blazers are seventh in the NBA in defense on the season, and since the All-Star break they are second in the league giving up less than a point per possession — that (and the fact they have outperformed their point differential for the season) is why this team stays at the three seed. We know they can get buckets with Damian Lillard at the helm (especially in the clutch, where he’s been special), but it’s the other end of this floor that makes Portland more of a threat. This team not only gets home court in the first round, they could well win that and advance to the second.

 
4. Minnesota 47-35 proj. record; .474 remaining opponent winning percentage. One of the hardest teams to project from here on out because they don’t have Jimmy Butler, who got them buckets and solidified their defense. That said, in this scenario the T-Wolves get the four seed over OKC because they won the head-to-head tiebreaker (3-1). Butler or no there still a lot of talent on this roster — they need to keep feeding Karl-Antony Towns like they did Sunday against the Warriors — but the Timberwolves have a tough stretch coming up at the Wizards, at Spurs, then home to Houston. They lost two-of-three before the Warriors, if they struggle in the next three does it get into the head of a young team? Their schedule softens up after that.

 
Thunder small icon5. Oklahoma City 47-35 proj. record; .556 remaining opponent winning percentage. It’s difficult to project where this team lands because they are so wildly inconsistent. Watch the Rockets destroy them as happened last Tuesday (attacking Carmelo Anthony mercilessly) and you think the Thunder will be in trouble against any team in the West in the first round, or just getting into the postseason. Watch them shred the Spurs as they did Saturday night and you’re reminded of the elite talent on this team and why they can be such a tough out in the playoffs. Oklahoma City is simply not as good as we thought preseason (especially without Andre Roberson), but they are good enough to make the postseason, and maybe make the second round depending on the matchup.

 
Pelicans small icon6/7/8. New Orleans 46-36 proj. record; .549 remaining opponent winning percentage. In a conference race this tight, why wouldn’t there be a three-way tie for the final playoff spot? There are too many scenarios to get into the three-way tiebreaker for this ending, so for the purposes of this projection, we will call them all even. Anthony Davis only missed one game with his tweaked ankle, this is a team that looks like its recent run was enough to get back to the postseason (the Pelicans are 7-2 since the All-Star break but only have outscored teams by 1.1 per 100 possessions, they’ve been a little lucky). They need a little more luck the rest of the way.

 
Spurs small icon6/7/8. San Antonio 46-36 proj. record; .566 remaining opponent winning percentage. If the Spurs don’t make the playoffs, does the league even still hold them? This is the hardest team to project for a couple of reasons. First is they have the toughest schedule of any West team chasing the postseason, including two more against the Rockets and one against the Warriors. Second is Kawhi Leonard. He is reportedly going to return on Thursday vs. New Orleans, but for how many minutes? And how long does it take him to shake off the rust? If he gets back to form, both the Warriors and Rockets would like to avoid the Spurs in the first round, Leonard is that good, he changes everything. But the Spurs have to make it first, and that’s far from a given.

 
Jazz small icon6/7/8. Utah 46-36 proj. record; .489 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Jazz grab one of the last spots thanks to a soft schedule the rest of the way — although they do have two against the Warriors remaining — and the fact they have had the best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, allowing well under a point per possession. Rudy Gobert would be the clear Defensive Player of the Year if he wasn’t going to have missed 25+ games this season due to injury. So long as Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio can generate just enough offense, the Jazz will make the cut.

 
Clippers small icon9. Clippers 45-37 proj. record; .553 remaining opponent winning percentage. That the team who lost Chris Paul last summer and traded Blake Griffin in the middle of this one is still in the playoff conversation is a testament to what a good job Doc Rivers has done as coach this season. Lou Williams is going to win Sixth Man of the Year going away, and DeAndre Jordan is still a force inside. But the Clippers have a tough schedule the rest of the way — two each against the Trail Blazers and Pacers that will be key — and almost no margin for error.

 
Nuggets small icon10. Denver 44-38 proj. record; .553 remaining opponent winning percentage. Denver has found a nice young core in Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, and their offense is top 10. However, their 23rd ranked defense (once you remove gargage time stats, via Cleaning the Glass) is going to leave them on the outside looking in when all is said and done. They have two games against Minnesota and one against Portland remaining, win those and the dynamic changes.