Season’s wild final night shows why playoffs will be must-watch

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It was the last game on the last night of the regular season — and nobody wanted it to end. Not the  fans in Sacramento, who were loud and would not leave at the end of a wild game. Wild in every way — the shots were wild, the setting was wild,  that this last game had high stakes for playoff seeds was wild. And the ending was wild.

The Lakers were ahead 18 points at the start of the fourth quarter and were cruising past Sacramento and into the second seed when the Kings started to show the fight their fans have shown in an effort to save their team — not their politicians, not their leaders, not the Kings’ owners, but the fans — and they battled back. The Kings outscored the Lakers 29-11 and had it not been for a vintage Kobe Bryant dagger in the heart of Kings fans, Sacramento might have won. But, of course, the Lakers did in overtime. You expected otherwise?

Still, the Kings shined a light on the flaws of the two-time defending champions. What makes them vulnerable in the playoffs, which is most often themselves and their focus.

And it’s that way with the contenders — there is no clear dominant team this season. Every top team in both conferences is flawed. Others are built to expose those weaknesses.

It means as unpredictable a playoffs as the NBA has seen in years. And that may make it the most fun in a long time.

First, let’s clear up the playoff matches in the West, which were in doubt until 1:15 a.m. ET Thursday.

With the win, the Lakers are the No. 2 seed in the West and they will take on the Hornets in the first round (Chris Paul and Kobe in a battle of stars).

The Mavericks are the No. 3 seed and will face a Portland team that has a real shot to win that series. The Thunder, with their surprising overtime loss to the Bucks at home on Wednesday, are the fourth seed and will take on the Nuggets in what promises to be another first-round barn-burner.

Somebody is going to get upset in the West in the first round. Wild and unpredictable. We’re telling you.

Which is fitting — the entire season has been that way. LeBron James and the Miami Heat alternated between blowing our doors off and struggling to look like they were a threat to anyone. There was the explosion of Derrick Rose from good to jaw-dropping MVP. The move of Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York. Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams leaving Utah. The Knicks returning to respectability. The resurgence of the San Antonio Spurs. Blake Griffin dunking everything in sight and making the Clippers a must-watch.

And the Kings sadly leaving Sacramento — with a Kobe Bryant dagger in their back.

Now the playoffs come and there is not one team you can point at and say “nobody is going to match up with them.” The Lakers may be the closest thing — they have Kobe and the ridiculously long skilled front line — but they are not as deep as previous seasons. As many around the league say — and as they showed against Sacramento in the fourth quarter Wednesday — the Lakers are the biggest threat to the Lakers. On any given night they can lose focus and lose to anyone.

Boston? They traded away Kendrick Perkins, which may not matter if Shaquille O’Neal can be healthy for the playoffs, but that’s a risk. Plus, they have looked older as the season dragged on, and Rajon Rondo is doing lord knows what lately. Do they have one more run? Can the resurgent Knicks put a real scare into them in the first round?

Miami has the three great players, but will the lack of depth around them get exposed in the playoffs? Orlando made big trades this season to bring in Gilbert Arenas and bring back Hedo Turkoglu, but did they really get better?

And Chicago, no team has played harder all season than them. But there are questions around the league if what we have seen is the best of them — Boston and veteran teams have another gear for the playoffs, does Chicago?

San Antonio runs its offense through Manu Ginobili (how healthy is he?) and Tony Parker now. They have a good supporting cast, but will their not-as-strong defense catch up with them? Can they make one more run with an older core?

Oklahoma City’s core is young, and they addressed a real need by getting Kendrick Perkins. But are they still too young? Do they have the role players that can step up and make the big plays now?

It’s a lot of questions, legitimate questions for every contender.

Let’s get some answers. Let’s start the playoffs.

Joel Embiid out week with left knee soreness, no structural damage found

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What the Philadelphia 76ers need is time on the court to get all their new players used to each other, their rotations set, and just to find a way to get the most talented starting five in the East to gel before the playoffs start. They have 24 games to make it happen.

This does not help that cause.

The Sixers announced Joel Embiid will miss at least a week to get treatment on a sore left knee, the team announced. Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the details.

Obviously, what matters most is Embiid being healthy in the postseason, so rest now is better than the alternative.

But this is still not ideal. Especially as the Sixers try to make up a game and climb past the Pacers to ensure home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Through four games (73 total minutes) the new starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Embiid has been a force — a 116.5 offensive rating and a 91.9 defensive rating. Small sample size theater is at play here, things have not always looked completely smooth to the eye test (see the loss to Boston), and both Butler and Embiid have chaffed against coach Brett Brown’s system at points this season, but a +24.6 net rating through four games is an auspicious sign.

They just need more time to come together, and this injury cuts into that. At least a little.

The more significant concern starts when the bench comes into play. In the playoffs, Brown will likely want to keep two of his big four on the court with the subs (probably an eight-man rotation, nine tops). That’s where the real interesting stuff comes in the next few weeks: Which players would be willing to get their rest a little earlier in the first half to get more opportunities (read: shots) with the ball in their hands with the second unit? Butler? Harris? Which four work best together when it gets down to pairs?

Finding all of that out is now on hold temporarily.

Not just numbers, David Griffin says being GM means handling “noise” around team

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Analytics are a part of the job.

Just often not the most important part.

Part of what has fueled the rise in popularity of the NBA in recent years has been player movement around the league — and how much fans love to talk about the possibilities. Fans love to play GM. Those fans are increasingly savvy and understand analytics better, they know how to go to the NBA stat page and look up detailed data, and they know how to work ESPN’s trade machine. It leads to more “who says no?” trade Tweets than overpriced coffee shops in Seattle.

Ask any current or former general manager/team president — for example, former Suns and Cavaliers GM David Griffin — about the job and they almost cut off the question to say there is so much more to it than a spreadsheet. For example, keeping players happy and helping them understand/deal with social media is now part of the gig. Even in the evaluation of players, there is the eye test and other intel gathered about them, all of which matters as much or more than just the data.

“It’s got to be a marriage of all of them, you know analytics are never the answer in and of themselves,” Griffin told NBC Sports. “But there is infinitely more data available to us thanks not only to SAP but Second Spectrum… they have given us far more robust data sets to make decisions from. I think because of that people think the answers are in the numbers, but the reality is the numbers only answer the better questions you ask it to solve. I think people lose sight of that. The numbers are a part of the process, they are not the answers in and of themselves.”

That’s the idea behind “GM School,” a new competition show coming to NBA TV (it premieres Wednesday night at 8 ET, with repeat broadcasts throughout the week). The show takes four contestants who are data-driven, die-hard basketball fans and pits them against each other in a series of challenges to show they have what it takes to be in a front office. The contestants don’t just have to pick players to draft (out of an anonymous pool), they need to articulate why they fit with the team philosophy. They have to do a press conference.

“I thought they did an excellent job,” Griffin said of the contestants. “Being at NBA TV before this and getting to see things in a totally different light, I had a different appreciation for this process than I would have otherwise. I thought they did a fantastic job — SAP and the partners affiliated with this — of putting together four really diverse contestants who all had strengths of their own, each was unique from the other, so it was a cool process.”

Like the real GM job, this is about more than the numbers.

“It’s not just taking into account everyone thinks they understand analytics — I hope we speak to the analytics crowd — but it’s about the totality, we hope, of what the job requires,” Griffin said.

There are things that a show like this could just not do justice to with a test.

For example, how to set up an organization that can handle the volume of noise that swirls around a good team. Griffin had to deal with that first hand as the GM of the Cavaliers during LeBron James’ second tour of duty with the franchise.

“One of the things that’s critical to running an organization that’s going to be all about winning — and the only thing that will mark success is winning a championship — is that you’re naturally going to be subjected to more noise around the process,” Griffin said. There’s going to be more tension in the system — and that can be a positive thing if you make it out. You have to become really adept at dealing with adversity and turning adversity into a positive, galvanizing force.

“I think you’ve seen Golden State do that this year with the blowup between Draymond [Green] and KD [Kevin Durant]. They’ve come out of that a stronger, better version of themselves, and that’s what you have to do as an elite franchise. All adversity becomes opportunity for you.”

It’s one thing for a Warriors’ team that is now veteran and savvy to embrace adversity — and tune out the social media noise it creates around the team — and it’s something else entirely for an up-and-coming team with players who have not been there before.

“I think that for teams that are going from being lottery bound year after year to being truly elite there are several steps in that process that are very difficult and painful. And people don’t always welcome adversity…” Griffin said. “You’re not going to get to a championship caliber team from a team of young kids who were in the lottery overnight.”

Some players get thrown off seeing the media used to deliver messages about them and their trade availability — as happened a lot with the Lakers/Anthony Davis saga around the trade deadline, for example. The Lakers, as an organization, has seen more than its fair share of drama over the years and understands how to handle it, but the young core players on the team were going through this part of the business for the first time.

Griffin said the key is being proactive — talking to players to help them understand it before everything overwhelms them.

“[The Lakers] were dealing with more media and more scrutiny than most teams ever do because they are one of the flagship franchises in our league,” Griffin said. “Magic Johnson grew up in that spotlight. I doubt anything happened that they weren’t prepared for. But what happens is LeBron’s presence by itself brings that kind of spotlight. It takes some time to learn how to deal with it.

“Again, if you don’t get in front of it from a leadership standpoint, if you let it just happen, the proliferation of sports media and social media, it just creates so much around your players that, to some degree, if you’re not telling them how to decipher it, they can’t help but to take it poorly. You need to do a really deft job as a leader of getting people to ignore those things. I think Kevin Durant called it a ‘toxic’ environment around a LeBron James team. I don’t think he meant that relative to LeBron and his actions. I think he meant it just relative to the sheer volume of noise around a team. That takes getting used to.”

Handling social media and its fallout is now part of a GM’s job. Like it or not.

“All of these players are on social media, they are subject to noise from more angles and at a greater volume than any players ever have been,” Griffin said. “And because of that, I think it makes it really important that you run the kind of organization that you love each other enough that you tell each other what you need to hear. You have to have conversations. You have to be in front of those messages with Lonzo Ball ahead of time. You have to talk to Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma ahead of time. So that when those things happen, they understand it’s just a natural outcropping of being on a team of that magnitude. That it happens because you matter as a franchise.”

Whenever a GM job comes open in the NBA now, Griffin’s name is one of the first to come up. Most recently that was with the Pelicans (although the buzz All-Star Weekend is that things never really got too serious between the sides). Griffin is open to returning to the NBA, but he’s in a position to be picky about the gig he takes now.

“I think the blessing of doing what I’m doing relative to NBA TV is selectivity,” Griffin said. “It’s helped me be radically better at analyzing things than maybe I wouldn’t have been as good at. As I look at it now, the thing that would attract me to an opportunity is just the opportunity to be in lockstep with ownership. To have ownership, the coach, and the front office all on the same page moving forward and sharing a vision…

“You have to raise a family, and if you’re not going to come at it with that approach it’s probably not a situation that would speak to me.”

Barack Obama joined by Stephen Curry to tell minority boys ‘you matter’

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Former President Barack Obama and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry told minority boys on Tuesday that they matter and urged them to make the world a better place.

Obama was in Oakland, California, to mark the fifth anniversary of an initiative he started after the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The death of the African-American teen sparked protests over racial profiling.

Obama and Curry had a good natured banter between them, which included the former president teasing the former MVP about his ankles.

Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper as a call to communities to close opportunity gaps for minority boys, especially African American, Latino, and Native American boys.

He and Curry talked about what it means to be a man and the struggles they had as teens.

The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance is part of the Obama Foundation.

Rumor: Warriors “have internally mused” about run at Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021

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The Golden State Warriors have a plethora of superstars, so many in fact that the league has taken an extended break from believing they can win a championship, at least until Kevin Durant heads outside the Bay Area.

Durant could be headed for the New York Knicks or some other such location this summer when he is a free agent. No doubt Golden State will want to retain Durant’s services, but in the event that they are unable to do so, they need to look elsewhere to improve their team.

The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson wrote recently that Golden State could go after Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo when he becomes available for free agency in the summer of 2021. This was just fun supposition on Thompson’s part, but it was followed up on Tuesday by some important rumoring by Marc Stein of the New York Times in his weekly newsletter:

Yet it’s likewise undeniably true that Steph and Giannis are buddies who are both represented by the same agency (Octagon) and share a mutual admiration that has resulted in Curry and Antetokounmpo selecting each other first overall with the No. 1 overall picks as captains in the first two All-Star drafts.

I can promise you, furthermore, that the Warriors have internally mused about a run at Giannis — however futile it may prove to be — in the event they can’t convince Kevin Durant to re-sign this summer. Trying to sign the most attractive free agent available is on the first page of the Golden State owner Joe Lacob’s playbook.

Look, it seems obvious to say that any team will want to take a run at Antetokounmpo if they are able. Saying that “X team is interested in [GOOD] player” isn’t groundbreaking.

But the Warriors?

We are a long way off from this getting anywhere near actually happening, but if Golden State were able to pull in another generational talent (and likely future MVP) it might set the collective NBA sphere on fire.

Antetokounmpo is only being talked about in this way because of the fact that he plays in Milwaukee, a market where stars don’t typically stay for long. But Antetokounmpo seems to enjoy Wisconsin, and the Bucks are currently the best team in the East.

Relax, Bucks fans. Your man is safe for now.