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.

Austin Rivers: Everybody, ‘so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers,’ overlooking Wizards and Pacers

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We picked the Celtics, Raptors, 76ers and Bucks to be the top four teams in the Eastern Conference this year and ranked the Wizards and Pacers next. If that’s not the consensus, it’s close to it.

Wizards guard Austin Rivers, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“I think we’re heavily slept-on,” he tells me. “Team’s been to the playoffs, what, the last five, four or five years? Then going into this year, you add me, Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and nobody seems to talk about us. So I just think we’re heavily slept-on, but that’s fine. At the end of the day, nothing really matters until the season starts and we set that tone for ourselves. I get the hype of a couple of the other teams, but I think we have a chance to compete with the best of the East.”

I tell him I recently spoke to Tyreke Evans, who said something similar about the Indiana Pacers. Rivers gets more animated.

“Yeah, I would say Indiana’s the other team that gets slept-on, too,” he says. “You look at Indiana, they took Cleveland to seven games and then damn near, arguably could have beaten them.”

Rivers rattles off Evans’ stats from last season, then continues: “That’s who they just added to the team? And nobody seems to talk about the Pacers because everybody’s so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers. And rightfully so: they’re both talented teams. But Indiana is just as good as both those teams. And I think we’re in the same situation.”

I agree the Wizards and Pacers had positive offseasons. But Indiana might have been punching slightly above its weight as a surprise team last year, and Washington’s problem has often been overconfidence.

In that regard, Rivers – acquired in an offseason trade from the Clippers – is already fitting right in. The brashness might be good for Rivers, but it’s not what the Wizards need.

Washington could have a good season. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are a strong starting point in the Eastern Conference, and Dwight Howard could help with the right attitude and health. Rivers is a quality reserve. But let’s pump the brakes on calling Jeff Green a key addition, though Rivers would be only one of many – including someone in his immediate family – to make that error.

Report: Klay Thompson doesn’t plan to give Warriors discount

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Klay Thompson, who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, has said many times he plans to stay with the Warriors. He even discussed signing a contract extension, which would have capped his compensation far below what he could get in free agency.

But Thompson is apparently no longer interested in offering Golden State that savings.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Thompson has no plans to take a discount, and the Warriors don’t expect him to, league sources say.

Thompson’s max next summer projects be about about $221 million over five years if he makes an All-NBA team (or wins Defensive Player of the Year) this season or about $190 million over five years if he doesn’t.

That’s a steep bill, but the Warriors have little choice but to pay it. They’re in the midst of maybe the greatest run in NBA history, and they’re generating massive revenue. Cheapness would be a terrible reason to break up this team. Thompson is a key contributor, and at least his outside shooting should help the 28-year-old age well.

But costs will get steep in a hurry. If the Warriors re-sign Thompson and Kevin Durant next summer and Draymond Green the following summer to max – not even supermax – deals, keep Stephen Curry then fill the roster with 10 minimum-salary free agents, their projected payroll in 2020-21 would be… about $288 million, including about $115 million in luxury tax. That might be untenable, even for Golden State.

Perhaps, Durant will take one decision out of the Warriors’ hands. But if Durant stays and Thompson seeks every penny, Green could face a belt-tightening team in 2020 free agency.

Spurs waive Manu Ginobili, will likely continue paying him into retirement

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The Spurs are still paying Tim Duncan, who retired in 2016.

It seems they’ll also give Manu Ginobili, who retired this summer, a similar golden parachute.

Duncan will earn $1,881,250 this season, the final installment of his three years of post-retirement income. When he retired, Duncan had one season remaining on his contract with a $6,393,750 salary. San Antonio didn’t have to pay him that money. Duncan wasn’t coming to work anymore. But the Spurs graciously allowed the all-time great to receive all but $750,000 of his remaining salary and stretched the payments over three years. That money still counted against the cap and was paid despite San Antonio trying to clear cap space in both 2016 and 2017.

The Spurs waived Ginobili yesterday, and no word has emerged on a buyout amount. He was due $2.5 million this season.

Based on the process and Duncan precedent, it seems highly likely Ginobili will continue to draw paychecks from San Antonio.

The Spurs would do well to pay Ginobili all his money this season, whether it’s the full $2.5 million or a negotiated reduced amount. They’re already over the cap and still below the luxury-tax line, so there’s minimal flexibility harm. The only other option – stretching Ginobili’s payments into equal thirds over the next three seasons – could interfere with roster building in future years.

Of course, the other option was getting Ginobili removed from the books entirely. But it seems that route has passed with waiving him.

San Antonio wants to treat its legends well, and that means paying them more than necessary – even with that money counting toward the cap as the Spurs transition into their next era.

Clippers biding their time until star hunt

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Lob City is the proudest era in Clippers history. Really, it’s the franchise’s only proud era since moving to California. After reaching the playoffs just four times in the first 33 years post-Buffalo, the Clippers qualified all six years Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan played together. In that span, only the Spurs and Thunder won more games.

And now it’s over.

The Clippers moved the final remaining link from their 2012-2017 teams by trading Wesley Johnson yesterday. That’s historic turnover, as the roster is completely remade just two years later. Since the early 1950s, only the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely changed their rosters within two seasons.

L.A.’s flux comes with big eyes. The Clippers are trying to lure star free agents, which means closely monitoring situations elsewhere. Entering the season with the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard reportedly favors the Clippers. Jimmy Butler is unhappy with the Timberwolves – ideal for the Clippers, who want to avoid another pleasing team landing his Bird Rights. Though Kevin Durant rumors are focused on the Knicks, talk of him leaving the Warriors could mean L.A. is at least in the mix.

The Clippers project to be able to unilaterally open about $63 million in cap space without stretching players next summer.

Creating so much flexibility required stinginess this summer. The only free agents signed to multi-year guarantees were Montrezl Harrell (two years, $12 million) and Avery Bradley ($12 million this season, just $2 million of $12.96 million guaranteed next season).

The Clippers also gave multi-year deals to their first-round picks, No. 11 pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and No. 13 pick Jerome Robinson. I’m much more bullish on Gilgeous-Alexander. Those two rookies could be important in building back up, because for the second straight summer, the Clippers lost their best player.

After Paul engineered his way to the Rockets last summer – with Griffin traded to the Pistons between – Jordan left for the Mavericks this summer. His fit in L.A. had become awkward, and though he was willing to take a one-year deal (at least with Dallas), everyone seemed ready to move on. This seemingly wasn’t about maintaining flexibility. It was about turning the page.

The Clippers will miss Jordan on the court next season. They replaced him with Marcin Gortat, acquired in a trade for Austin Rivers, but that’s a downgrade.

Gortat (like Rivers) is on an expiring contract. So are Luc Mbah a Moute – a Lob City contributor returning after a stint in Houston – and Mike Scott, who each signed one year, $4,320,500 deals for half the mid-level exception.

The Clippers look deep and feisty after all this tinkering around Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari. They probably won’t make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but they should remain competitive enough to stay on the radar of free agents.

Remember, though, the Clippers entered the summer coming off a winning season and with plenty of 2019 cap space. They were always setting up to make a big splash next summer. They just took a small step back this summer, which will be no problem if they make their desired leap in a year.

Offseason grade: C-