NBA playoffs: Boston will win Atlantic, can 76ers stay in?

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With just more than two weeks left in the regular season, the NBA’s playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Sort of. Here is where things stand as of Monday morning.

Boston, with its easy win over Philadelphia, moved three games up in the Atlantic division, ahead of both Philly and New York. Barring an Atlanta Braves-like collapse, the Celtics will win the Atlantic — which means at least the No. 4 seed. Which means avoiding Miami or Chicago in the first round. Right now, Boston would get Atlanta in the first round (but the five-seed Hawks would get the home court due to a better record).

Philly is in danger of sliding right out of the playoffs all together — they are now the eight seed and just one game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks. Philly is tied with New York, but the Knicks are on an uptick and winning games — although the Wednesday showdown between the Bucks and Knicks will be big.

There may be some shifting in the middle in the East — Indiana, Atlanta and Orlando are all within 1.5 games of each other. But it’s hard to see those three being anything but the three, five and six seeds — they are six games back of the two seed Heat and four games up on the seven seed Knicks.

If the playoffs started today in the East it would be:

Bulls vs. Sixers
Heat vs. Knicks
Pacers vs. Magic
Celtics vs. Hawks (Atlanta has home court)

Out in the West, San Antonio and Oklahoma City remain tied at the top. The Lakers and Clippers are in a battle for the three and four seeds — the Lakers are half-a-game ahead (and have the tie-breaker) right now. But they both better look over their shoulder at the hot Memphis Grizzlies, who are two games back of the Lakers.

At the bottom of the West it is a crowded mess — Houston is the six seed, Dallas the seven and Denver the eight and they are all within a game of each other. Phoenix is one game back of the Nuggets and the Jazz are just half-a-game behind the Suns (after a loss to the Spurs Sunday). It feels like Denver is slipping out, but they have beaten the Bulls recently and are capable of big wins. Unless someone goes on a big losing streak, this is going to come down to the last week.

If the playoffs started today we would see:

Spurs vs. Nuggets
Thunder vs. Mavericks
Lakers vs. Rockets
Clippers vs. Grizzlies

LeBron James on Lakers clinching No. 1 seed: ‘They said I couldn’t do it’

Lakers star LeBron James
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The Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

LeBron James, via Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

“They said I couldn’t do it.”

“I’ll enjoy this one,” James said, nodding as he grinned. “They said I can’t do it.”

The Lakers entered the season fifth in the West in over-under wins (behind the Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets).

But nobody credible thought the Lakers couldn’t get the No. 1 seed. With LeBron and Anthony Davis, the Lakers obviously had that type of upside. Their championship odds were far more favorable. The main doubts stemmed from how seriously LeBron would take the regular season.

That said, in the age of social media, players hear both more praise and more criticism than ever before. LeBron surely heard from haters who ruled him out. Crowning himself the Washed King, LeBron probably internalized that fringe opinion.

Many players find slights to use as motivation. It worked for Michael Jordan. It works for LeBron.

But it does sound silly when an exalted player like LeBron talks this way.

Report: Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president because team didn’t spend enough

Pacers owner Herb Simon and executives Donnie Walsh, Larry Bird, and Kevin Pritchard
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Paul George said he left the Pacers because they weren’t willing to spend enough.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president in 2017, citing a desire to do more things outside basketball. Yet, he also reportedly had another reason.

Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

Indiana is a small-market team that consistently has not gone out and paid big money. We know that this was something that frustrated Larry Bird, who is a legend in the state of Indiana and elsewhere, I might add. It frustrated him enough that he stepped aside.

Pacers owner Herb Simon has a certain way of doing things. Indiana hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2006, the first year the tax line was set before the season.

Despite that, the Pacers have been pretty good. They’ve qualified for the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons, peaking with appearances in the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

Still, Indiana has lost in the first round four straight years. Another first-round loss appears the most likely outcome for this season.

That’s not exactly satisfying for players who want to win championships. Spending big isn’t absolutely necessary to compete on the highest levels. But it helps.

Pacers star Victor Oladipo is approaching 2021 unrestricted free agency. He’s a competitor who’ll evaluate, among other things, whether his current franchise matches his ambitions.

It’s easy to spend someone else’s money. Simon can decide his own limits. But there are consequences of his spending restraint – especially as perception grows about his relative thriftiness.

J.J. Redick describes thought behind meme: ‘I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing’

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J.J. Redick has made the playoffs all 13 of his previous NBA seasons.

The Pelicans have put that streak in jeopardy.

New Orleans lost its first two games in the bubble, a nail-biter against the Jazz and a rout against the Clippers. During that loss to L.A., cameras captured Redick – on the floor exercising his back while out of the game – with a distant stare that became an instant meme.

Redick on ESPN Daily:

I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing, and I think my face summed up that first half pretty well.

There’s so many circumstances you could apply the emotions that I was going through in that moment.

Redick is right: That meme fits many occasions, which gives it staying power.

However, it has plenty of competition. Though the feelings displayed aren’t the exact same, Redick didn’t even have the best reaction inside the bubble by an exasperated NBA player. That belongs to Nuggets star Nikola Jokic:

At least Redick got reason to perk up. The Pelicans beat the Grizzlies yesterday to gain ground in the playoff race.

Darren Collison says talk of him playing for Lakers was “overhyped”

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Darren Collison shocked the NBA last summer when he walked away from the game at age 32 — and a likely contract in the four-year, $70+ million range — and retired. His reasons were legitimate, he wanted to focus on his religion — “While I still love basketball, I know there is something more important, which is my family and my faith,” Collison said at the time — but the league has seen a lot of players say they were walking away for good reasons only to come running back.

The rumors about a Collison return started just after January 1 and spun out of control in Los Angeles when he sat with Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss at a game.

Collison stayed retired, and told the “Minute til 6” podcast it wasn’t even close. He was never coming back.

“To keep it 100, they overhyped the whole thing. Like, I wasn’t even thinking about coming back.”

That game he went to? He just came to watch his friend Russell Westbrook.

“I just wanted to come watch the game as a fan.”

Collison also is smart enough to know how him sitting with Buss would be perceived.

Collison was wanted. The Lakers run LeBron James at the point but could have used the veteran Collison in the role Rajon Rondo filled as a secondary playmaker (Rondo is currently out with a thumb injury). Collison was rumored to the Clippers as well, and Doc Rivers can always find a way to use more guard depth.

Collison, however, seems at peace with his decision. If he wanted to return, he would have done it last summer for 10 figures a season, not for the minimum in January.