What Wednesday’s games mean: Heat can lock up best record; Lakers need win

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There is one week of NBA regular-season basketball left — next Wednesday, April 17 is the final day of games, then we get to focus on the playoffs. Right now teams are jockeying for playoff position — or in the case of the Lakers and Jazz a spot in the playoffs.

Which means a lot of games in the next week have implications. As a viewer’s guide, here are the potential impacts of Wednesday’s games.

Eastern Conference

Heat at Wizards: Miami’s magic number is one — one Heat win or one Spurs loss and they secure the best record overall in the NBA (they are currently 61-16). It might happen against the Wizards, although John Wall has Washington playing better of late. No Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh for Miami.

Hawks at Sixers: Atlanta would much rather face Brooklyn in the first round than Indiana, but to do that they need to catch the Bulls for the five seed. The Hawks win this game and they move into a virtual tie with Chicago for that spot. Lose and they need to look over their shoulder at the seven seed Celtics — 1.5 games back of Atlanta. The seven seed gets the Knicks in the first round and that would be trouble.

Nets at Celtics: If Boston can get a win here and get some help from the Sixers, they could move within half a game of the six seed. The Nets are pretty locked into the four seed, three games up on the five-seed Bulls. Still, wins help them secure that spot.

Western Conference

Lakers at Trail Blazers: This is a virtual must-win for the Lakers — win and they have a one-game lead over Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West; lose and they fall into a tie with the Jazz and Utah has the tiebreaker. The Lakers have nothing but games against playoff teams left, the Jazz have two against the Timberwolves. It’s a back-to-back and the Lakers still look shaky, but they need to find a way to win this.

Spurs at Nuggets: Denver is currently the three seed in the West, half a game up on Memphis. The Clippers look pretty locked into the four seed and can fall no lower as division champions. The team that is the three seed in the West gets Golden State in the first round (a young team that doesn’t play great defense), the five seed gets the Clippers (with Chris Paul and a deep roster). Win and they are a game up on Memphis, lose and they fall into a tie and make it possible even the Clippers could catch them.

Timberwolves at Clippers: The Clippers can be no lower than the four seed as division winners, but if the five seed (Memphis or Denver) has a better record the Clippers would still be the road team in the first round. Right now, the Clippers are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies and two back of the Nuggets. Get a win and they are within a game of home court in the first round

WNBA veteran Chasity Melvin joins Hornets’ G-League team coaching staff

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Chasity Melvin has been hired by the Charlotte Hornets’ G League team, the Greensboro Swarm, as an assistant coach.

She becomes the first female coach in Hornets and Swarm history.

The former North Carolina State standout was the 11th overall selection in the 1999 WNBA draft. She played 12 seasons in the WNBA and was an All-Star in 2001.

Melvin was part of the NBA Assistant Coaches Program, which prepares current and former NBA, WNBA and G League players for coaching careers. Former program participants include James Posey (Cavaliers), Jerry Stackhouse (Grizzlies) and Vin Baker (Bucks).

Her hire comes one day after Kristy Toliver became the first active WNBA player to become an NBA assistant when she joined the Washington Wizards.

Other female assistants in the NBA include Becky Hammon with the Spurs and Dallas’ Jenny Boucek.

 

Timberwolves fans boo Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau at home opener

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How is Tom Thibodeau doing in Minnesota tonight?

Friday night is the Timberwolves home opener — a big production where every player is introduced and the crowd is hyped. How hyped? Derrick Rose got a surprising amount of love from the fans.

However, the reception for Jimmy Butlerwho has demanded a trade out of Minnesota, thrown a tirade during practice, and generally been disruptive — and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau (blamed by many for creating and dragging out this situation) both heard it from fans.

Watching the broadcast you could hear some boos, but the pumped-up in-arena entertainment noise on that feed made it hard to hear anything clearly. In the arena were a few cheers mixed in there for Butler, although mostly he was booed. Loudly.

Thibodeau didn’t get even that much love.

Timberwolves fans were indiscriminate and were ready to boo anyone who ever pissed them off — enter Kevin Love.

The boos for Butler subsided as the game went on.

The coach and star player getting booed maybe motivate owner Glen Taylor to step in and force the situation, but probably not. At this point how much more embarrassing is it going to get? If the Timberwolves get off to a slow start this season because of the chemistry, that might be the tipping point.

Right now, Butler trade talks are dormant. This — and these boos — are the status quo.

But everything is fine.

Mike D’Antoni on Rockets’ defense: “I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it.”

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Last season the Houston Rockets’ defense allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, seventh best in the NBA. After the All-Star break they allowed just 103.8 per 100, fourth best during that stretch. By the end of the season, the Rockets switched every screen on- and off-ball (something they felt they needed to handle the Warriors in the playoffs) and leaned on defensive minded role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It got them within a game — within a half, really, the Rockets led at half of Games 6 and 7 vs the Warriors — of reaching the NBA Finals and almost certainly bringing home a title.

This season, the conventional wisdom was the Rockets would take a big step back defensively. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left as free agents, replaced on some level by James Ennis (a quality defender), Carmelo Anthony (not so much) and Michael Carter-Williams. Defensive-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, adding to the losses.

That narrative was fed opening night when Anthony Davis did whatever he wanted on his way to 32 points, Elfird Payton (yes, Elfrid Payton) put up a triple-double, and the Pelicans scored at a 124.8 points per 100 pace in blowing the Rockets out.

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t see the season going that way. Speaking to  Sam Amick of The Athletic he defended the team’s defense this season.

I think we’re even deeper this year, so we can have fresher guys on the floor… Trevor and Mbah a Moute were big parts of (Houston’s switching defense), but it’ll be taken up by Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a very good defensive player. James Ennis, who has energy and can play defense, and has all kinds of energy, to Eric Gordon, who will play with Chris and James a little bit more. So I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it. ‘Melo and the guys are smart enough (to know that) by switching it helps them too. They don’t have to fight through screens and all that. We’re just switching everything to try to keep guys in front. We have a nice philosophy, I think, where players understand what we’re trying to do.

The only thing that’s really changed is that (assistant coach) Roy (Rogers) has the (defensive) voice, in film sessions, talking to them, and (former assistant) Jeff (Bzdelik) had the voice (last season, before unexpectedly leaving during the summer). We all sat down to figure out what we wanted to do defensively, what were the best matchups, talking to Chris and James and PJ about, ‘OK, who you guarding tonight, and what do you think?’ And they’ll figure it out. But at the end of the day, the information still flows exactly the same.”

While the system may be the same, the players executing it are not. Carter-Williams was just lost and a mess defensively in the opener. Anthony will be better than some think as a team defender during the regular season (not good, but not a complete dumpster fire), but he can be exploited in a playoff series (Utah hunted him out in the first round last season, and it worked). P.J. Tucker is a fantastic defender, as is Chris Paul, but both are a year older and not getting faster.

Opening night was an aberration — the Rockets are not that bad on either end of the floor. It’s just one game and every team will have a few clunkers over the course of 82. The Rockets will play better against the Lakers in LeBron James‘ home opener Saturday night (that will not be an easy game for Houston by any measure).

Right now it feels like the Rockets are headed for a step back defensively this season, and with that their margins against the Warriors get even smaller. We’ll see over time if D’Antoni knows best.

Russell Westbrook out vs. Clippers Friday night, second game he’s missed

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The Thunder offense struggled on opening night, scoring less than a point per possession (96.2 per 100 possessions, to be specific). While the Thunder got out and ran a decent amount, 18.6 percent of their possessions started in transition, they scored just 0.88 points per possession on those chances (stats via Cleaning the Glass). On spot-up jump shots, they shot scored just 0.67 points per possession (via Synergy Sports) and they shot 27.8 percent from three in the part of the game that mattered.

How much of that was the Thunder offense missing their engine in Russell Westbrook, and how much of that was going against the solid defense and length of the Golden State Warriors?

We may find out Friday night because Westbrook is out again, still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on right knee back on Sept. 12. Royce Young of ESPN broke the news.

That means again most of the offense will flow through Paul George, which worked reasonably well but he needs more help from other players. The Clippers’ defense was fairly good opening night, and they played Denver close, but couldn’t score enough and lost a lead down the stretch, dropping their season opener.

What really matters is this gives us another chance to watch Westbrook try to sneak-snack on the bench.