Chaos theory reigns over NBA playoff scenarios

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Thumbnail image for bulls_game.jpgGame 1,230. The last one of the seemingly eternal NBA regular season. It tips off at 10:30 p.m. (Eastern) on Wednesday night, Utah Jazz at the Phoenix Suns.

Until that game ends well after midnight, we are not going to know all the first round playoff matchups. It has just been that kind of season. With just three days remaining of games we still almost need Stephen Hawking to figure out and explain all the potential playoff scenarios out there.

The Eastern conference is complex. For the Western Conference, maybe Hawking isn’t the guy, we need Edward Lorenz, the father of Chaos Theory. (Well, except he’s been dead for a couple years.)

Out in the West, we know the teams and that the Lakers are the top seed. That’s about it. It could be just about anybody playing just about anybody — four games still separate seeds two and eight. It’s so chaotic that one team with at least 51 wins this season (likely 52) will not have home court advantage.

In practice the West is really two tiers (behind the Lakers): The Mavericks, Suns, Jazz and Nuggets fighting for seeds two through six; then the Spurs, Trail Blazers and Thunder fighting for six through eight.  

Dallas is the current holder of the second seed out West, with a 53-27 record. Phoenix, Utah and Denver all are a game back at 52-28. With two games left, anyone of them can finish either as the two seed or the six.

Two big games will decide a lot of this and the Suns are in both — they play Denver Tuesday then Utah on Wednesday. Win both and they could be the two seed. However, that will most likely be Dallas because of their current one-game lead — and they have a gimme against the Clippers on Monday night. But then comes a game on Wednesday night against San Antonio where both teams could want to win for playoff positioning reasons.

Utah should get a win Tuesday against Golden State. Then comes the big Wednesday night showdown with the Suns. The scenarios for what that game could mean is where we need Hawking.

As for the lower tier of the West, Oklahoma City is likely facing the Lakers in the first round — unless they can beat Portland Monday night. The race in this second tier is actually tighter than the top — Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Portland all have 49 wins.

Which makes the Thunder/Trail Blazers game huge. At the same time as that game, San Antonio will almost certainly be beating the dead horse of Minnesota to get win 50. The bottom like is the loser of the Oklahoma City/Portland game almost certainly gets the Lakers.  

Just to make it more complex, San Antonio owns the tiebreaker over Oklahoma City but Portland owns it over the Spurs. That Monday night game between the Thunder and Blazers decide who has that tiebreaker.

Thank Buddha the East is a little more straightforward. A little. We know a couple things for sure: The Cavaliers are the top seed, but we’re not sure who they will play yet. We are also sure that Orlando is the two seed and will likely play first-time playoff participants Charlotte.

Chicago’s blowout win over the Raptors in Toronto Sunday gives them a one game lead and the advantage, for that eighth and final spot and the “reward” of playing Cleveland. But the Raptors own the tiebreaker with the Bulls. Chicago has two games left — Boston on Tuesday, then Charlotte on the second night. Two playoff teams. Toronto’s two games left are against teams bound for the lottery, Detroit and New York.

That said, the Raptors have yet to win since Bosh was injured, can they really overtake the Bulls now? Not likely. The Bulls should hold on to the eighth spot. But with unpredictable teams like this “should” means little.

Also out East, Boston and Atlanta will finish as the three and four seeds, in some order, and will face Miami or Milwaukee, in some order. The Bucks may have the most say in how this finishes up — they face the Hawks and the Celtics.

Atlanta has a one game lead on Boston for the three-seed, and plays the Bucks then the Cavaliers (who likely will rest a lot of players). Boston faces the very desperate Bulls followed by the Bucks. The smart money would say Atlanta remains the three seed. But again the Bucks get a big say.

And those Bucks need their wins, Miami’s two remaining games are against the Sixers and Nets, two games the hot Heat should win. Milwaukee will have a tough time getting two wins. Again, look for the Heat to be the five seed (against Boston) and the Hawks to get the Bucks.

But when Chaos Theory is operating, anything can happen.

Warriors, Nuggets battle for first in West

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Playing in big games has become the norm for the Golden State Warriors.

Not so much for the Denver Nuggets.

Tuesday’s matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference is new territory for Denver. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets have been rebuilding and retooling, not competing for titles, but they have arrived this year and are challenging to be the best team in the Western Conference.

The winner of Tuesday’s game in Denver will sit atop the conference standings. Denver (29-13) has been up there for a while now, but the Warriors (29-14) might yet find another gear in the second half of the season as they pursue a third consecutive NBA championship.

They are about to get a new, big piece when DeMarcus Cousins returns this week.

The center, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, tore his Achilles almost a year ago. His season debut is projected to come on Friday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State is expecting it will take time for Cousins to get fully immersed and integrated into the offense.

“We’re excited, but it’s a little daunting, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s not going to be simple just to plug him in. There’s going to be an adjustment period. He knows that, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Nuggets have a big enough task stopping Golden State’s other stars. Guard Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, hit 11 3-pointers in a 48-point effort to beat Dallas on Sunday, and then there’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to worry about.

And the Warriors have a revenge factor to use. The Nuggets beat them 100-98 in Denver on Oct. 21 when Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones‘ layup at the buzzer.

The Nuggets have been playing at a high level lately, especially at home, where they are 18-3 and have won their last 12. The latest was a grind-it-out 116-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, which might have been a perfect tune-up for the Warriors.

Denver has its own star power in center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic, averaging team-highs with 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had consecutive triple-doubles last week and then clocked in with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Portland.

With or without Cousins, Golden State will have a tough time handling the Serbian. But the Warriors are best when they force teams to adjust to them, and they come at teams from different angles. One night it could be Curry, the next Durant. When tuned in, Golden State is hard to beat.

The Nuggets are ready for the challenge after getting everyone’s best this season.

“As teams give us their best shot because we’re No. 1 in the West right now, everybody gives the Warriors their best shot,” said Murray, who is averaging 18.5 points. “We just know we have the home court, and we beat them last time here.”

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the MVP race, other NBA mid-season awards

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Patience is not the NBA community’s strong suit — we were talking MVP race the first week of the season.

Now, however, it’s time. Teams are more than halfway through the season and we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start discussing who is the frontrunners for all of the league’s end-of-season awards.

Is it James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?

Can anyone challenge Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year?

It’s a deep field for Coach of the Year, but is Mike Budenholzer the front-runner and can Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger or someone else catch him?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports talk about their picks at this point of the season and who is in the running long term.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan: Andre Roberson ‘not anywhere near playing’

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When Andre Roberson – who ruptured his patellar tendon last January then suffered a setback in October – suffered another setback in November, the Thunder said he’d miss at least six weeks.

That was more than six weeks ago.

Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman:

What a disappointing year for Roberson. He just can’t get healthy.

Even already possessing the NBA’s best defense, Roberson would help the Thunder. He’s a lockdown perimeter defender. Paul George has stepped up defensively, but a George-Roberson wing pairing would scare the daylights out of opposing offenses.

That said, Roberson is a tricky fit due to his dismal shooting. He’d disrupt Oklahoma City’s offensive spacing. The Thunder would need time to adjust, and if Roberson isn’t close to returning, there might not be time to establish chemistry before the playoffs.

George, Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines and Hamidou Diallo have been fine on the wing in Roberson’s absence. Continuing to rely on that group sans Roberson doesn’t maximize Oklahoma City’s production, but at least it’s a simple and workable solution.

Rumor: Grizzlies could trade Marc Gasol before he opts out and leaves next summer

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The Grizzlies have been unwavering in their desire to keep Marc Gasol. Likewise, Gasol has consistently pledged loyalty to Memphis.

But with the Grizzlies (19-24) slipping to 14th in the West and Gasol holding a $25,595,700 player option for next season, maybe both sides are approaching a breaking point.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

I doubt Gasol, who’ll turn 34 this month, would draw a higher salary in free agency than his $25,595,700 player option. But maybe he could get a multi-year deal that provides more overall compensation than he’d get opting in then testing free agency at age 35.

He also might value getting to a better team.

Gasol has sometimes sounded impatient with Memphis getting younger. He was clearly proud of the team’s veteran core.

The Grizzlies appeared intent on winning as much as possible with Gasol and Mike Conley rather than rebuilding. So, there seemed to be enough overlap in vision between the organization and Gasol.

But Memphis also just hit on its 2018 lottery pick, drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. No. 4. Jackson could be the Grizzlies’ next franchise player and convince them to shift gears. A core led by Jackson and whatever assets are acquired for Gasol could have a nice future. Ditto if Memphis also trades Conley, who’d make less sense on the team sans Gasol.

Remaining competitive with Gasol and Conley isn’t the worst place to be. The Grizzlies already have a major future building block in Jackson. They can groom him while winning enough to keep fans entertained. But that plan would fall apart if Gasol opts out and leaves.

So, being proactive could make sense.

The first step should be assessing Gasol’s commitment to Memphis. If he already knows he wants to leave next summer, I doubt he’d mind getting traded elsewhere now. An honest conversation about the future could serve everyone well.