NBA Playoffs: If the Lakers are inevitable, do you want them early or late?

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Take a look at our NBA’s Race to the Playoffs. Go on. Acquaint yourself. It’s a mess. Particularly the Western Conference.

There are seven teams that could end up in the 8th spot, staring down the Lakers (we’re tossing out the Grizzlies, love them as I do. No way anyone’s going in the tank like they need them to). Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio, OKC, Portland. Any one of them could wind up under the crosshairs of the defending champions.

One of the things Greg Popovich has talked about extensively is the imperative of avoiding that eighth seed, of not ending up in a tussle with LA in the first round. It’s a fairly easy idea. Try and avoid the best team as long as possible, hope someone else does the dirty work for you, hope they get tired, hope they get banged up, go as far as you can, get as much playoff money as you can, stay away from the big, bad Lakers.

And pardon me if I sound like Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums (“What this book presupposes is… ‘What if he didn’t?'”), but I do keep having the same thought.

Isn’t it better to get LA sooner rather than later?

Hear me out. LA has shown three things this season. One, when they’re plugged in, they can beat anyone in the league, with only the possible exception of Cleveland. Two, they are prone to long periods of boredom and uninspired play. Three, they don’t respond well to adversity, often going into the tank if it feels like things aren’t going their way.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Rockets series last year, going seven games without Yao Ming for much of it. Or take a look at the blowout to OKC, or the Cleveland games. They have a counterpunch, but if that counterpunch is met and matched, they struggle to trade blows.

So why not try and get them early? Imagine this scenario. The Spurs get the Lakers in round one. The mighty Lakers, facing a Spurs team that’s given them some trouble, but really, hasn’t been all that good this year. And the Spurs come out, and unload in Game 1. Drop everything they possibly have. Empty both barrels.

Now, obviously the Lakers will respond, because when put in a corner, they fight back. Because nobody puts Baby Gasol in a corner. The Spurs should rope-a-dope Game Two. Let ’em have it. Lay down. Let them go up by 30. Get comfortable. Allow them to blow you out completely. Because giving them that confidence is a good thing. You want them thinking the first game was a fluke and they have it on lockdown. Because if you can respond in Games 3 and 4, you can push them.

Isn’t that a better approach for any team, not just the Spurs? Dallas, Phoenix, Portland, any team with playoff experience. Face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and they have their playoff legs under them. Kobe smells that fifth ring. Your guys are tired. And the Lakers are expecting you. And if you lose, well, you were going to lose regardless.

Give yourself the best chance. Go at them early. Don’t run from the Lakers. Draw the line in the sand, and challenge them to maintain focus in April, not May and June, when they’re used to it. It’s a risky scenario, but given the success they’ve had, the talent, the advantages, isn’t it time to think outside the box a bit?

Rumor: Pistons among teams considering Markelle Fultz trade

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Markelle Fultz remains away from the 76ers, getting treatment for his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome while the rest of his teammates try to adjust to playing with Jimmy Butler (which is going better for some than others).

The sense around the league is the Sixers still plan to trade Fultz, they’re just waiting for better offers to come in, the first round was very lowball.

A few teams are kicking the tires on a trade, and among them are the Pistons, reports Rod Beard of the Detroit News.

Let’s be clear, nothing is close on any Sixers trade of Fultz right now. Teams are just testing the waters.

It’s an interesting idea for Detroit, the chance to add a player who was a high draft pick —  but only if they think he’s healthy and can get over his mental hurdles (his agent said there aren’t any, it’s all physical, and most of the league laughed at that). Also, the sides need to find a trade that works. Fultz, as a No. 1 pick, is not cheap, he makes $8.3 million this season and is guaranteed $9.7 next season, then $12.3 million the season after that (unless whatever team has his rights and just cuts bait on that last season).

The Pistons are flirting with the luxury tax line right now, their $123.3 million payroll is just about $500,000 below the tax line, so Detroit will not be taking on any salary in any potential trade. They also sent out last year’s first-round pick in the Blake Griffin trade, so they can’t trade this year’s, and likely would not include a pick anyway. A deal centered around Ish Smith or Langston Galloway plus Zaza Pachulia works (after Dec. 15 when Pachulia becomes available to trade). Both provide guard depth and Galloway offers Philly some shooting (34.9 percent taking 65 percent of his shots from three this season). Reggie Bullock also could be part of a trade.

There are options. Right now the Pistons are among the teams kicking the tires on a trade, but we are a long way from it actually happening.

Pacers fans epically bad at tic-tac-toe (video)

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Trail Blazers fans are off the hook.

A couple Pacers fans are also terrible at tic-tac-toe.

Pacers:

I can’t rule out this being staged, which is disappointing.

But if genuine – wow.

Spencer Dinwiddie signs three-year, $34 million extension to stay with Nets

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There were a lot of general managers eyeing Spencer Dinwiddie as a quality point guard they could grab on the free agent market this summer at a fair price. The hardworking point guard out of the University of Colorado has averaged 16.9 points and 4.8 assists for the Nets this season, is shooting 36.8 percent from three, knows how to be a good floor general, and while a lot of fans may not know his name smart front offices around the league saw an above-average point guard that would fit their system.

Which is why the Nets decided to lock him up and not let him leave Brooklyn. The team announced the deal, Dinwiddie himself confirmed it, and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN had the details.

That’s an above the league average but low starter money, and it’s a good deal for Dinwiddie, who is making $1.6 million this year and that’s the largest payday of his career.

If you don’t know what Dinwiddie can do on the court, go ask the Sixers — he dropped 39 on them last night.

The Nets are trying to build a culture and have a core of smart, solid players to put stars around, and Dinwiddie fits right into this model. They could have tried to lowball him and save some money, but that came with the risk of losing him this summer. The Nets decided to take care of their own instead, a good sign for the franchise.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas undergoes surgery on dislocated thumb, out a month

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It was clear it was bad when it happened. Not because of the violence of the play by Draymond Green — no foul was called, and the hand is part of the ball by rule in these cases — but because of Jonas Valanciunas‘ reaction. The man was in a lot of pain.

With 8 minutes to go in the second quarter of the Raptors win Wednesday night, Valanciunas got the ball with Green on him and decided to back down the smaller player, Green reached in and swiped down knocking the ball away but getting Valanciunas’ hand in the process.

Thursday the Raptors announced that Valanciunas had surgery on his dislocated left thumb and will be out at least a month.

This is a blow to the Raptors’ frontline depth, although they still have plenty of talent up front. Serge Ibaka starts most nights at center, and at times the Raptors go small and put breakout player Pascal Siakam at the five. However, Valanciunas is their matchup for other bigger, more traditional centers, or sometimes coach Nick Nurse tries him to force a mismatch. Valanciunas is averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a night playing nearly 19 minutes a night, the Raptors defense is 3 points per 100 possessions better, and the Raptors outscore opponents by 5.4 per 100 when he is on the court. It will not be easy to fill his minutes.

The Raptors are 23-7 and the team in first place in the East having just knocked off the Clippers and Warriors in back-to-back nights on the road. They look like contenders, but they could use Valanciunas to help them get through the regular season (he’s harder to play in the postseason, but we’re not there yet).