PBT Roundtable: Who gets the last couple playoff spots in the West?

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Welcome to PBT’s regular roundtable on issues around the NBA, where our writers weigh in on the topic of the day.

Today: The conventional wisdom is in the West the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Rockets are playoff locks (barring catastrophe). If true, who gets those final two slots?

Kurt Helin: I think Minnesota, if they can just stay healthy, is maybe the closest thing to a lock for one of those two spots. With Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic in the paint they have a combination that pairs well together, then in the backcourt there is Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, a shot creator and a shooter. Add in Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger and some other depth and I like that team to get a spot. The final spot could go so many ways… but I’ll take Dallas. Jose Calderon’s more conservative style and Dirk Nowitzki’s touches will limit what Monta Ellis has to do in the offense, plus they have some solid rotation guys like Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert. But if the Trail Blazers or Nuggets got that slot, it’s not a surprise.

Brett Pollakoff: I’ll go ahead and use this opportunity to remind everybody that the Lakers aren’t going to be as bad as many have projected. While the health of Kobe Bryant is a huge concern, the reality is that there’s still talent on that roster. By all accounts, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will both be fully healthy by the start of the season, and the team managed to sign some veteran talent at bargain basement prices in Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar. Jordan Hill is healthy as well, and if Wes Johnson is ever going to make even a small leap in production given his talent, the time is now in Mike D’Antoni’s system. As long as Kobe plays even 60 regular season games for the Lakers, I like them to make the playoffs. And I agree on Minnesota for the remaining slot in the West — there’s too much talent there if they stay injury-free not to succeed.

If you want to ride with a sleeper, give me New Orleans — Eric Gordon back, along with Jrue Holiday and (begrudgingly) Tyreke Evans make that a backcourt to reckon with.

Darus Soriano: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Jazz and the Suns claim the bottom two playoff spo…hahahaha.

Okay, seriously, I’m taking a page from both Brett and Kurt and going with the Lakers and the Timberwolves. While I think both teams will have their issues defensively, they’re the two most talented teams outside that top six and both groups are in line to have a bit more injury luck next season than they did this past one. When you combine that with the fact that both teams are well coached (yes, Lakers’ fans, Mike D’Antoni is actually a good coach) while also having a chip on their shoulders after disappointing seasons last year, both squads have the right ingredients to rack up enough regular season wins to get into the tournament.

If I were to pick a dark horse team not already mentioned, I’d go with the Kings. I really like the addition of Greivis Vasquez as another point guard to share time with Isaiah Thomas and bring some steady playmaking to that spot by creating shots for his teammates. Plus, in terms of young talent, Sacramento has several nice pieces that, if they can finally put it together (I’m looking at you, DeMarcus Cousins) could make some noise by sneaking up on some of the more established western teams and be in the race past the all-star break

Dan Feldman: I too like the Timberwolves to get one of the spots. I think the Trail Blazers have been ignored in this discussion, and I consider them the safest team to be in the mix. With a young roster and a bench upgrade, they’ll almost definitely be better. The biggest question is whether one of the high-variance teams — Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets — nears its potential and passes Portland, Between the three, I suspect one will. If I had to guess, it’s the Pelicans, but I have to pause before picking against Dallas. Rick Carlisle had a rag-tag bunch at .500 last season, and adding a healthy Dirk Nowitzki is a major upgrade.

Rhett Anderson: Los Angeles guy here, a born-and-raised Laker fan. I want them to make the playoffs, but realistically it’s difficult for me to see that happening. Kobe is still Kobe, but he’s getting older and coming off a serious injury. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will be healthy, but Nash’s minutes are restricted by constant back pain even when healthy. I like the offseason additions (Farmar, Kaman) and Jordan Hill is developing well, but in the end it comes down to Kobe’s return. The team revolves around him, and without him at full strength in 60-65 games, a playoff spot would surprise me.

I agree with Minnesota as one of the final two, and if I had to guess from there it’s a tossup between Dallas (Nowitzki for a full season) and Denver (Faried’s development with the spotlight a little brighter now than before).

Three Things to Know: Pelicans unleash Zion Williamson, race for 8/9 in West tightens

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Pelicans finally unleash Zion Williamson, suddenly the race for 8/9 in West gets tight

The people who had the biggest impact on the race for the last playoff spot in the West Monday were Shake Milton and the medical staff of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans’ medical team because they cleared the way for Zion Williamson to play enough to finally impact a game — 25 minutes and being out there late in the fourth. The result was Zion scoring 23 points with seven boards, and more importantly, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense in the team’s first win in the bubble, a critical 109-99 victory over Ja Morant and Memphis.

It felt like old times — Zion and Lonzo Ball were back to putting on a show.

Zion is still trying to get his legs under him, he shot 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded at points — but he was out there. That matters. His gravity opens up everything else for New Orleans. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench. The Pelicans have a soft schedule from here on out and may need to win at least four of their remaining five, but they defended better, had Zion out there, and finally looked like a threat.

76ers guard Shake Milton is the other impact player in the West playoff chase because he drained the game-winning three that handed the Spurs their first loss in the bubble.

Here’s what the standings look like in the race for the 8/9 seeds in the West.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. The Grizzlies still need a couple of wins, and it won’t be easy when you look at the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks.

Portland and San Antonio are in the mix, but with Zion getting run and a soft schedule ahead of them, the Pelicans are still the odds-on favorite to make the playoffs — don’t take my word for it, that’s according to fivethirtyeight.com.

2) Whoever wins race for eighth will face Lakers, who lock up West’s top seed

LeBron James has been good in the bubble restart — 19.3 points and seven assists a game — but he hasn’t been the best player on his own team.

That’s Anthony Davis, who has been a bubble beast and dropped 42 points on Utah Monday despite being matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for much of the night.

Davis led the Lakers to a 116-108 win against the stumbling Jazz. With the win, the Lakers officially lock up the top in the West (something they did in practical terms beating the Clippers on re-opening night). Look for LeBron and Davis to get a little load management the final couple of seeding games.

3) Fred Van Vleet goes off for career-high 36, Raptors keep on winning

Toronto may be the best team in the bubble. They beat the Lakers, and they are getting contributions from everyone. Next up was Fred VanVleet, who had a career-best 36 against the Heat Monday.

Toronto has been doing this all season, getting contributions from different players — it was Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby against the Lakers — and it makes them a serious playoff threat. They don’t need one player to dominate because any one of several players can beat you any given night.

If the Bucks’ stumble, don’t sleep on Toronto being back in the NBA Finals — and just ask the Lakers if the Raptors could win it all.

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.