NBA playoff picture slowly starting to come into focus

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At this point, nothing would really surprise me when the NBA playoffs start in a month.

Well, Indiana winning the NBA title — heck, more than one game — would surprise me. So that is not totally true. But it’s hard to remember a more wide-open year. Every potential contender has enough strengths that you can champion them, enough flaws you can make an argument that dooms them.

Matchups will be key. And those matchups are slowly starting to come into focus. Let’s take a look one month out from the second season.

Eastern Conference

At the top: As of Wednesday morning, Chicago at 48-18 has a half game lead over Boston for the top spot, with Miami lurking 2.5 games back. Like the playoffs themselves, no finishing order here would be a real surprise, but there are some signs that look good in the windy city.

Getting that top seed matters because, as much as Orlando (who is basically locked in at the four seed) is not to be taken lightly, they scare anyone like the three right at the top do. The East’s two/three seed second round matchup will be a killer. Avoid that at all costs.

Chicago’s next 10 games feature only three teams over .500 and no team in the top four in either conference. They could push that slim lead out and hold on to the top spot. Miami is playing well again and after some tough games the rest of this week their schedule lightens up considerably. They are playing better defense and could make a real run at Boston in the two slot and even the top spot. Boston has a couple tough road trips ahead, they need to get their edge back or slipping to the three seed is not out of question.

Two games to watch: Boston at Chicago April 7, then Boston at the Heat April 10. Those could be big.

The East’s middle and bottom: The middle of the East looks pretty set. Look for another Orlando vs. Atlanta playoff series, although this time in the first round as the four and five seeds (the Magic swept that series last year). Philadelphia could catch New York for the six seed, either way the Sixers are a team the top teams are watching. Philly likely will not beat but will push whoever they face in the first round. They will not be an easy out.

The eight seed? Whichever team sucks the least amongst Indiana (currently in that slot), Charlotte (half a game back) and Milwaukee (2.5 back and fading). That team will have the honor of getting swept out in the first round. Indiana helped its cause with a couple wins over the Knicks and has the softest schedule from here on out. But it’s about sucking the least among these three.

Western Conference

At the top: Your San Antonio Spurs are the top seed and nobody is catching them. Whether their defense finds its way back is a question for another day, but San Antonio will have home court advantage for every round it plays in the playoffs.

The Lakers/Mavericks two/three seed battle in the West is more interesting. Currently the Lakers are the two seed by half a game over Dallas and Los Angeles may be playing the best ball in the West over the past couple weeks. That includes a thumping of the Mavs. That win raises this question: Does Dallas need home court to beat the Lakers in the second round? If so, they need to make a push now.

Oklahoma City is likely your four seed (unless they falter and Denver stays red hot). With Kendrick Perkins in the paint and a year of playoff experience, can they knock off the Spurs in the second round? That may be the most interesting question in the playoffs.

The West’s middle and bottom: All that talk above about second round matchups — that could be moot. The teams on the bottom half of the West are playing well right now, they are dangerous. The way Denver is defending and moving the ball makes them a real threat to Oklahoma City or anyone else in the first round. I’ve been told by people from a couple teams they want to avoid current eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round — that’s a long and dangerous front line with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, plus they have good wing players (with Rudy Gay due back in a week or two). Memphis is dangerous. Even to beat them could take a lot out of a team, who would then face a stiff second round challenge.

As for the other two teams, Portland is playing well and New Orleans brings a good defense and the always-dangerous Chris Paul to the table.

Only 2.5 games separate the five and eight seeds in the West, so predicting an order of finish is like predicting the NCAA tournament. Basically luck matters more than skill. Utah (2 games) and Phoenix (2.5 games) are looking up at the eight seed and want into to the party, but nobody in that top 8 is fading. That’s likely leaves Phoenix, Utah and Houston at the bottom of the lottery.

My prediction: One of the top four seeds in the West will get upset in the first round. It’s too early to say who — matchups and who is hot heading in will be factors — but the West remains deep. There will be no easy outs. Somebody is going to slip up.

PBT Extra: NBA Mock Draft Top 10

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DeAndre Ayton is going to go No. 1 in the upcoming NBA Draft. After that, things get interesting: Will the Kings take European sensation Luka Doncic, or are they tempted by the scoring potential of Marvin Bagley III. Where does Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson fit into all of this?

Recently, myself and College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster sat down and did an NBA Mock Draft. This is our Top 10.

We have Ayton going first to Phoenix. Yes, the new Suns’ coach Igor Kokoskov is the Serbian national team coach and knows Doncic well, but Ayton is more likely to be a franchise-changing player, and no GM can afford to leave that kind of player on the table.

We have the Kings’ taking Doncic second, although that is no guarantee. The Kings need help everywhere but the guard spots, and Doncic as a playmaking three makes sense, but then so would Bagley as a big who can score (the bigs the Kings have drafted have not panned out as hoped). That has us sending Bagley to the Hawks at three, but Jackson and Mohamed Bamba could be in play.

Check out the video above to see our mock draft Top 10.

You can see the entire first round picks here.

And if you really want to nerd out on the draft, Dauster and I did a two-hour, two-part podcast where we made these mock draft picks. Check them out.

Al Horford had to tell Aron Baynes to take the ball to the basket (VIDEO)

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Boston’s Aron Baynes has seen his minutes increase the past couple of games of the Eastern Conference Finals as Brad Stevens tries to match up better with Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson.

Baynes is a solid big man who can step out and hit a three, but he’s not exactly blessed with the offensive gene — he’s no natural scorer. Sometimes it’s not even clear he knows where the basket is.

Such as on this fourth quarter play from Monday night, where Al Horford has to point Baynes to the rim and tell him to go there.

It worked. This time.

Baynes, Horford and the Celtics made things interesting in the second half, but could not overcome their early deficits and lost Game 4 to the Cavaliers 111-102, tying the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.

Fast start, LeBron James enough for Cavaliers to hold on to win, even series

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For the first time in 11 days, we had an NBA playoff game that finished with a single-digit margin. Barely.

It didn’t look like it would be early — Boston missed lay-ups and dunks all through the first quarter, LeBron James was being LeBron James, and the Cavaliers had a 16 point first quarter lead. It was 15 at the half.

But these Celtics would not go quietly.

Boston started to find it’s offensive groove — hunting Kevin Love incessantly — but in the end couldn’t get enough stops because, well, LeBron James. He finished with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, his sixth 40-point game of these playoffs. He got wherever he wanted on the floor all night, carving up the top-ranked regular season defense of the Celtics like a surgeon. No other Cavalier had more than 14 points (Kyle Korver), but the supporting cast played enough defensive and made hustle plays to hang on.

@realtristan13 with the swat and @kingjames with the finish!

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Cleveland got the win, 111-102, and evened the series at 2-2. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Boston.

What Celtics fans can feel good about is their team’s resilience and grit. Down big for the second-straight game on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics fought back from as much as 19 down earlier in the game to get it to single digits and make the fans in Quicken Loan Arena nervous in the fourth quarter. That is something the team can carry over to Game 5, as they can some defensive tweaks that shut down opportunities for Korver and the rest of the supporing cast.

What should bother Celtics fans was another night where they struggled to generate offense in the face of more intense defensive pressure.

That came from the opening tip, with the Celtics missing a few layups and a couple of Jaylen Brown dunk attempts — all of which allowed the Cavs to get early offenses and mismatches going the other way. Those missed shots fueled a 10-0 Cavaliers run that had Cleveland up 19-10 early. The Celtics shot 3-of-10 at the rim in the first quarter, shot 26 percent overall, and trailed 34-18 after one.

The second quarter saw the Celtics start to find their offense — they scored 35 points on 50 percent shooting — but they only gained one point on the Cavaliers lead because Boston couldn’t get stops. LeBron had 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half to pace a Cleveland team that shot 61.5 percent overall and hit 6-of-11 threes. That’s why the Cavs were up 68-53 at the half.

The Celtics energy was better than Game 2, but in the first half they looked like a young team, one that made a lot of mistakes.

In the second half, the Celtics started to figure things out — they started making the extra pass, they got stops for stretches, they looked more like a young team finding their footing on a big stage on the road. They finished the night with 25 from Jaylen Brown, 17 from Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier had 16 points and 11 assists.

They just couldn’t completely close the gap because they couldn’t get consistent stops — the Cavaliers shot 60 percent as a team for the game, and a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 59.6. Cleveland mercilessly hunted Rozier on switches — forcing him on to LeBron or Kevin Love then attacking — and the Cavs got enough from their role players. Tristan Thompson did what he needed to bringing energy in the paint and some defense, plus he had 13 points. Korver was diving on the floor for loose balls. Larry Nance Jr. had his second good game in a row. George Hill had 13 points.

And whenever the Cavaliers needed a play, they had LeBron to turn to. He set another NBA record on Monday night, most playoff field goals made for a career.

LeBron is what needs to worry Boston most of all. The Celtics will be better at home in Game 5 — they have not lost in TD Garden all postseason — but if this thing goes seven, it’s a dangerous thing when the other team has the best player on the planet.

LeBron James passes Kareem to become all-time leader in playoff made field goals

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LeBron James is already the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer, having passed Michael Jordan last postseason.

However, LeBron racked up his buckets in the era of the three-point shot (as did Jordan, to a lesser extent), so Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the all-time leader in field goals made in the postseason. A lot of them beautiful skyhooks that still give Celtics fans nightmares.

Monday night, LeBron made history passing Abdul-Jabar for the top spot in NBA playoff made field goals.

Just add that to the already insane resume.