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Complete NBA playoff scenarios

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In the Western Conference, the Rockets are locked in as the No. 1 seed and the Warriors are guaranteed the No. 2 seed. The winner of the Nuggets-Timberwolves game tomorrow will make the playoffs and the loser won’t.

All eight Eastern Conference playoff teams are set. The Raptors will be the No. 1 seed, the Celtics the No. 2 seed and the Pacers the No. 5 seed.

Beyond that? Chaos:

Thankfully, the NBA released these handy guides for understanding the stakes of the final two days of the regular season:2018-NBA-playoff-scenarios-updated-4-10-1

2018-NBA-playoff-scenarios-updated-4-10-2

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, potential lottery pick, declares for NBA draft

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Another Kentucky one-and-done.

Following Kevin Knox (and numerous players before them), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is turning pro.

Kentucky release:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s meteoric rise will continue with his eligibility in the 2018 NBA Draft. The Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard plans to enter his name in this year’s draft and will sign with an agent, which would effectively end his collegiate career at UK.

Gilgeous-Alexander has improved throughout the season to the point he could be a lottery pick. He’ll probably go in the first round.

Like most combo guards, Gilgeous-Alexander has the most upside at point guard. Also like most combo guards, the 6-foot-6 Alexander is tall for a point guard but doesn’t have the requisite skills yet for that position.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s top asset is his 7-foot wingspan. He uses it to shoot from evasive angles on drives, as he’s comfortable absorbing contact while flipping up shots. That’s an important skill considering he lacks the hops to play above the rim. His length also helps with strong defense on and off the ball. However, Gilgeous-Alexander’s defensive versatility will be limited unless he gets stronger – not a given, considering his narrow frame.

Gilgeous-Alexander is too sloppy with the ball, and he’s not an advanced distributor. But move him off the ball, and his reluctance to shoot 3-pointers becomes an even bigger issue.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s improvement throughout the season instills confidence. It indicates a strong work ethic and determination. He’ll need that to refine his game.

PBT Awards: Most Improved Player

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Kurt Helin

1. Victor Oladipo, Pacers

2. Spencer Dinwiddie, Nets

3. Julius Randle, Lakers

This was a runaway for the top spot, Oladipo is the clear choice (the only question in the final balloting will be is it unanimous). Oladipo took on a much heavier offensive load and yet was far more efficient doing so, plus he had an All-Defensive-team-level season on the other end. There were a number of other guys in the running the last two slots — just like with Sixth Man, it was tough to leave Fred VanVleet off — but Dinwiddie proved he is a solid NBA point guard with his step forward this season in Brooklyn, and Randle learned how to play to his strengths in Los Angeles and that is going to earn him a massive payday this summer.

Dan Feldman

1. Victor Oladipo, Pacers

2. Dario Saric, 76ers

3. Fred VanVleet, Raptors

Victor Oladipo turned himself from an uninspiring starter into a star. He got into great shape, developed his 3-pointer and seized control of a seemingly directionless Pacers team. Oladipo became even more efficient while also shouldering a larger load – the ideal 1-2 for a Most Improved Player.  Dario Saric got so much better in precisely the ways the 76ers – specifically, Ben Simmons – needed. Saric gets extra credit for hitting that narrow target. Mere general improvement wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect. Fred VanVleet was barely in the NBA last season. This year, he’s leading the NBA’s best bench.

Villanova’s Mikal Bridges declares for NBA draft

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Villanova’s Jay Wright is the hot NBA coaching candidate in college basketball – because of his ability to identify and develop players like Mikal Bridges.

Will Wright jump to the NBA? Bridges will.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

All-American Mikal Bridges of Villanova will bypass his final year of eligibility and enter the NBA draft, he told ESPN.

Bridges is a first-round lock and probable lottery pick. He’ll likely be the highest-drafted upperclassman.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and plenty of athleticism, Bridges has the tools to be an excellent and versatile defender. His basketball intelligence makes him one.

He was a very good college 3-point shooter, and his outside shooting will probably be an asset in the pros. But there are some concerns whether Bridges’ shooting stroke will translate cleanly to the deeper NBA arc. If his outside shot is a threat, he can drive to the rim and finish well there. Subpar ball-handling limits his star potential.

But Bridges should slot in nicely as a 3-and-D small forward. That carries plenty of value.

How Dario Saric’s improvement opened door for Ben Simmons and the 76ers

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DETROIT – Dario Saric emerged as a 6-foot-10 playmaker as a 76ers rookie last season. He could initiate the offense, put the ball on the floor and distribute. His size, fluidity and ball skills created mismatches. His 3-pointer was unreliable, though.

That’s the profile of a helpful player.

The only problem: Philadelphia had another – higher-upside – player in the same mold: No. 1 pick Ben Simmons.

Simmons sat out last season with injury, leaving Saric to seize that role and finish second for Rookie of the Year. With Simmons healthy this year, it was unclear how the two would coexist. Only one could handle the ball at a time. The other wouldn’t space the floor.

Saric provided a solution. He increased his 3-point percentage from 31% to 39% while launching 3s even more more often.

“That is the single thing that has made Dario different,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s The. Single. Thing. that’s made Dario different.

“You need a stretch four that can shoot 3s. Europe taught us that two decades ago. And when you look at the modern-day sport, and when you look at end-of-game situations, and it’s only going to be magnified in the playoffs. Watch that position. And he can do it.”

That might be the biggest thing, but it’s not the only thing.

Simmons has become the NBA’s biggest point guard, and Philadelphia’s offense runs through him. Saric’s seconds per touch are down 17%, and his dribbles per touch are down 38%. Only Carmelo Anthony had greater reductions in both categories from last season (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season).

Yet, Saric looks comfortable deferring to Simmons. Saric is making the quicker decisions necessary to thrive as a secondary ball-handler and passer. With the ball less often, Saric has also committed to hitting the offensive glass harder.

“The way he’s been playing helps me, and me improving my game is going to help everybody,” Simmons said.

Saric’s improvements and adjustments have unlocked the NBA’s best heavily used lineup. The 76ers’ healthy starters – Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Saric and Joel Embiid – are outscoring opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions, best among the 28 lineups to play 300 minutes this season. That unit scores better than the league’s best offense and defends better than the league’s best defense.

Here are the league’s top lineups with at least 300 minutes, showing the spread from defensive rating (left) to offensive rating (right) with net rating listed. The gray bars represent the NBA’s best defense (Celtics) and best offense (tie between Rockets and Warriors):

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Philadelphia obviously needs an injured Embiid back to use this lineup again. The 76ers have been outscored when Simmons and Saric play together without Embiid. The star center is still so important to this team.

So are Covington and Redick, who are often involved in cross-matching defensively – a necessary product of starting a point guard and power forward of the same height. Saric’s athletic shortcomings limit him defensively, but he makes up for them with high effort.

All in all, Saric has improved from 1.0 win shares last year to 6.5 win shares this year. That 5.5 win-share increase is the NBA’s largest from a previous career high to this season.

Here are the biggest win-share gainers, with the spread from their previous career high (left) to this year (right) and the increase listed:

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Not only has Saric improved immensely, he improved in the exact ways a 76ers team with Simmons at the controls needed.

Even if he needed a season to adjust from the shorter 3-point arc in Europe, few saw this coming from Saric, who had only one good 3-point season overseas. With a massive jump of 31% to 39% from deep, how could anyone have seen this coming?

But those around him aren’t terribly surprised, either. They saw how much he improved throughout his rookie year, and – even if they didn’t know exactly how it would manifest – they believed in him.

“He’s just got that demeanor about him,” Covington said, “that he really took on everything that came his way.”