No Kevin Durant, no Serge Ibaka, and Thunder still likely will be West’s eight seed

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There was a time a couple weeks back when it looked like Oklahoma City could become the most dangerous eight seed in NBA history. Russell Westbrook was (and is) playing at an MVP level, Kevin Durant was coming back and they not only had the core of a team that went to the Western Conference finals a season before, but also had improved the bench.

But now Kevin Durant is out indefinitely (and may well miss the playoffs) because of his Jones fracture not healing right. (This is not uncommon, there is not great blood flow to that area.) Serge Ibaka is out until sometime around when the playoffs start. Enes Kanter is banged up. The threatening Thunder are no more.

Despite all that, the Thunder are still the favorites to be the eight seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Thunder currently have a one-game lead over the Pelicans and a two-and-a-half game lead over Phoenix. There are three reasons the Thunder likely hold on to the eight seed.

1) Oklahoma City has the easier schedule the rest of the way. Both, the Thunder and Pelicans, have 14 games remaining. The Thunder have eight of those games at home, the Thunder six. The Thunder have eight games remaining against teams over .500, three of them on the road; the Pelicans have nine games remaining against + .500 teams, five of those on the road. It’s going to be tough for the Pelicans to make up that game against a tougher schedule.

2) Oklahoma City still has Russell Westbrook. You’ve certainly heard this but here is a reminder: In his last 10 games Russell Westbrook has averaged 35 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists a game. He has been the best player in the league. I hear your complaints, that he’s not shooting a high percentage (40 percent), and he’s turning the ball over more than Scott Brooks wants to see (6.4 a game). But that’s the price of how much he has to handle the ball and how much offense he has to generate. Plus the Thunder are playing at a better rate their last 10 games than the Pelicans (something Kevin Pelton broke down at ESPN Insider). He is playing at a level that can carry this team to the playoffs. (If you’re saying “the Pelicans have their own star in Anthony Davis” you’d be right — except he missed Thursday night and is expected to be out Friday with a sprained ankle. And without him the Pelicans are not the same.)

3) Phoenix threw in the towel on this race back at the trade deadline. Thinking they could not keep pace with the surging Thunder (who then seemed likely to keep rolling and stay healthy), back at the trade deadline the Suns shipped out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. The Suns made moves they saw as needed for the long term (we can debate that another day). Since the trade deadline the Suns are 7-8, and at that pace they are just not going to make up the needed ground on the Thunder or Pelicans.

When the playoffs start April 19, it’s likely we will see Russell Westbrook and the Thunder as the eight seed, facing Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder will be huge underdogs — not the serious threat they looked like a month ago — but they likely get to go to the dance.

Despite everything.

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.

Report: Grizzlies interviewed Igor Kokoskov for head coach gig

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The Memphis Grizzlies now have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Many believe that Memphis will trade Mike Conley and draft Ja Morant as a means to move the franchise forward.

The only problem? The Grizzlies still don’t have a head coach.

Memphis fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff and demoted general manager Chris Wallace to scout back in April. The Grizzlies are moving forward with some non-traditional front office hirings that include Jason Wexler, Zach Kleiman, Rich Cho, and Glen Grunwald.

According to one report, at least one inquiry has been made about the head coach position: former Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov got a shot to interview with Memphis.

Via Twitter:

Memphis is taking its time selecting their coach, and it’s not necessary that the team has someone in place leading into the draft. Whether the next guy will be “the guy” or simply “the guy who helps them rebuild in the future” we aren’t yet sure.

Kokoskov got a raw deal in Phoenix, with many feeling as though the Suns wasted their hiring of the Slovenian national team’s coach by not drafting Luka Doncic with the No. 1 overall pick last year. It would be nice just to see him back on an NBA bench at the start of next season.

Draymond Green on techs: ‘I was doing more crying than playing’ (VIDEO)

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Draymond Green believes he’s the best defender ever. The Golden State Warriors star was certainly incredible against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night, with the Warriors beating the home team, 110-99.

But one thing that has bothered Green’s detractors over the years is how much he speaks to the referees, particularly to his own detriment. It’s one thing to work referees the way that Chris Paul or Damian Lillard or James Harden does. It’s another to continuously antagonize refs en route to a whole mess of technical fouls, which have been a problem for Green in the playoffs in the past.

But Green has been pretty subdued when it comes to technicals this postseason, and that’s apparently in due to a concerted effort by the Golden State forward to curb his attitude and realize that he’s doing more damage than good.

Via Twitter:

This postseason, and particularly this Western Conference Finals, have been an interesting shift in the narrative around Green. Where before it seemed like haters could glom onto how much Green whined, at this point he’s simply dominating the Trail Blazers from a play standpoint and nothing else.

It’s been impressive to see, and I think all of us are happy to watch Green play the way he has without flapping his gums and putting the Warriors at a disadvantage because he wants to yell at the boys in gray.