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Five Things to Watch on Wednesday: Warriors, Kobe, playoff races on busy last day of season

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Five days a week through the course of the NBA season, we have brought you five takeaways from the night before — letting you know what you missed and needed to know. But we are not people who spend our lives looking in the rear view mirror; we are optimists looking forward. Or at least we tell ourselves that. So from now through the end of the playoffs, we will preview the day and tell you what to look for that night around the league. Enjoy, fellow optimists.

1) Golden State goes for history and 73rd win. Golden State is going to beat Memphis Wednesday night to set a new NBA record for wins in a season, besting Jordan’s 1996 Bulls. The Warriors are going to do it as a big middle finger to anyone who thought their title last year was a fluke, who said they didn’t have to face the Spurs or Clippers last playoffs, who said they were lucky because every team they played was injured, and to Doc Rivers (even if he tried to walk his comments back). And they are going to do it for legacy, because that is where this team’s mindset is — they want to establish themselves with the All-Time greats.

Make no mistake, the Warriors will win. I am fully aware Memphis gave them a scare just two games ago in Memphis, but that is not happening in Oracle against a focused Golden State team a step away from history. Memphis still tries to grit and grind with Zach Randolph in the middle, but at this point they are basically pulling a guy out of the third row to play guard (due to injuries), and that’s not going to get it done on this night. Not against these Warriors and their quest for basketball immortality.

2) Kobe Bryant’s farewell to the NBA. The NBA without Kobe Bryant is going to seem strange next season. But we’re not there, yet. Kobe’s season-long farewell tour will come to an end with ceremonial sendoff at Staples Center (a building he helped christen) Wednesday night. I’d suggest going if you live in Los Angeles and happen to be in the one percent. This send off is all Lakers fans have had to look forward to in a 16-win season (save for watching Byron Scott stunt the development of D'Angelo Russell) and they will be plenty loud in expressing their love for the Mamba. It should be an emotional evening. As for the game itself, by the time it tips off (or not very long after) the Utah Jazz will know if they are playing for anything (they need a win and a Houston loss to make the playoffs). If not, they may roll over for Kobe.

If you haven’t checked it out yet, we’ve written about what his opponents thought of Kobe and his legacy, and what Kobe himself has said about it this season.

3) East playoff seeds 3-6 hinge on Heat at Celtics. We know two Eastern Conference playoff matchups: Cavaliers vs. Pistons and Raptors vs. Pacers. But the middle of the conference is still unsettled with one game to play, and it will be interesting to see if teams jockey hard to get the 3 or 6 seed (and be on the opposite side of the bracket from Cleveland). The key game will be Miami at Boston — if the Heat win they are the three seed, or they get that spot if the Hawks lose to the Wizards (if the Heat win the Hawks are the four seed). If the Heat lose and the Hawks win, then Atlanta is the three seed, Boston is the four seed, and the Heat will fall to the fifth or sixth seed depending on if the Hornets can beat Orlando at home.

4) Bottom four seeds in the West playoffs remain wide open. We know this much about the Western Conference playoffs: the top four seeds in order are Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers. After that, it’s still chaos. Let’s get the easy one out of the way, the eight seed: If Houston beats a Sacramento team resting virtually everyone, the Rockets get the final playoff spot (and the Warriors), but if the Rockets are upset, and Utah beats the Lakers they are in.

From there it gets complex. If Portland wins they get to be the five seed. If Portland loses and Dallas can beat the Spurs, then the Mavericks get the five seed. If Dallas loses to San Antonio, then Portland is the five seed and Memphis and Dallas will be the six and seven seeds depending on if Memphis can beat Golden State.

The practical reality is this: Memphis isn’t beating Golden State (see item No. 1 here) so they will be the seven seed. Portland and Dallas will be the five and six depending on if Portland can win, and if not if Dallas can win. See, simple.

5) Can Stephen Curry hit eight threes to get to 400 in a season? Curry is sitting on 392 threes this season — far and away a new NBA record — but can he get to the nice round number of 400? The idea he could hit eight threes in a game is entirely reasonable, especially against depleted Memphis. But the Warriors will go into this game prioritizing win number 73, and then getting Curry and the other core players some rest if they can get a big enough lead. Curry getting to 400 is an afterthought, but it certainly could happen.

Heat says they need faster start in Game 4 against Celtics

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The formula that the Miami Heat had backed themselves into using throughout this postseason wasn’t exactly ideal.

They were losing almost every first quarter, and winning almost every game anyway.

It’s not a sustainable plan, and the Boston Celtics finally showed that in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when they pulled off a wire-to-wire win over Miami, not letting the Heat put together their typical comeback. Game 4 of the East title series — with Miami still leading 2-1 — is Wednesday, and the Heat are insisting that there will be more urgency at the beginning.

“I think we’ve just got to start off better,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we started off anywhere near where we’re capable of. I think we dig ourselves a hole and try to fight back out of it. I think going into this next one, it’s up to the starting five to come out with a great start.”

Before Game 3, Miami was 8-0 in the playoffs when trailing after the first quarter — after going 10-16 when put in that position during the regular season. In the 36 minutes of first-period action against the Celtics, the Heat have led roughly one-sixth of the time.

Butler is 1 for 6 in 29 first-quarter minutes in the series. Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic are a combined 10 for 19; the rest of the Heat in first quarters against the Celtics are 11 for 46. Boston has won the first quarters by a combined score of 88-68, shooting 54% to Miami’s 32%.

“Certainly, it would help to be able to get off to a good start,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But you have to play good basketball more consistently when you get to this point in the conference finals against a quality opponent.”

Another wild stat is this: Boston has outscored Miami 50-18 from 2-point range in first quarters so far in the series. And yet, somehow, the Celtics still need a win on Wednesday to even up matters — or fall into the dreaded 3-1 series hole.

“Obviously, you know that when a team lost its last one, you’re going to get a great shot,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But you expect a great shot every time. We’re going to have to play our best game in Game 4, and then after Game 4 is over, we’re going to have to play better than that in Game 5. That’s kind of the way it works.”

The teams have had three full days off since Game 3, a quirk in the schedule to allow the Western Conference finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets to catch up; the Lakers and Nuggets were to play the third game in their series Tuesday night.

Not that this one needs explaining, but Miami’s chances go up considerably in this series if the Heat find a way to win Game 4. The Heat are 11-0 in series where they lead 3-1, and 9-9 in series where it’s tied 2-2 after four games. The Celtics haven’t successfully overcome a 3-1 deficit since the 1981 East finals.

LeBron James has “zero comment” on L.A. County Sheriff, speaks on violence

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been no stranger to outlandish acts and putting himself in headlines since taking office. Most recently, he and his department were sued by Vanessa Bryant over photos from the site of the plane crash that took Kobe’s life.

Last week, the controversial Villanueva decided to drag the most popular athlete in Los Angeles into his headlines, challenging LeBron James to double the reward for the person who shot two Sheriff deputies who were sitting in their car. It was a clear dig at LeBron’s stances against police violence around the nation, and Vanessa Bryant had slammed Villanueva for it on social media.

LeBron, after the Lakers’ loss to Denver Sunday night, refused to play Villanueva’s game, saying he has “zero comment” on the Sherrif. However, LeBron did speak on police violence.

“I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. Never have,” LeBron said. “But I also know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong… I’ve seen a lot of counts firsthand of a lot of Black people being racially profiled because of our color. And I’ve seen it throughout my whole life.

“And I’m not saying that all cops are bad because, I actually, throughout high school and things of that nature, and I’m around them all the time, and they’re not all bad. But when you see the videos that’s going on and you can see all over the — not only my hometown but all over America — you continue to see the acts of violence toward my kind, I can’t do nothing but to speak about it and see the common denominator.

“But not one time have I ever said, ‘Let’s act violent toward cops.’ I just said that what’s going on in our community is not OK, and we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go on every single day as a Black man and a Black woman and a Black kid, a Black girl. We fear. We fear that moment when we’re pulled over…

“But I do not condone violence toward anyone — police, Black people, white people, anyone of color, anyone not of color — because that’s not going to ever make this world or America what we want it to be.”

LeBron’s too smart to be dragged into Villanueva’s game, which is more about the Sherrif trying to distract from issues around himself.

LeBron has put his money where his mouth is on social justice issues, forming an organization to work to register minority voters and work against voter suppression nationwide.

Attacking Jamal Murray sparks Nuggets, who hold off Lakers for Game 3 win

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Down 0-2 to a LeBron James team, the Denver Nuggets’ backs were against the wall.

The Los Angeles Lakers learned — like the Jazz and Clippers before them — that the Nuggets have a couple more gears when their season is threatened.

Jamal Murray attacked from the opening tip, set the tone for Denver, then when the Lakers made it interesting late, stuck the dagger in the Los Angeles.

“I didn’t have any doubt we were going to show up tonight,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame. “The reason I didn’t have any doubt is we won six straight elimination games…

“For some reason, this team loves the bubble.”

Denver pulled away from the Lakers in the second quarter and held on at the end to take a 114-106 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers still lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 Thursday night.

Murray was the best player on the floor in Game 3, scoring 28 points, dishing 12 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, and forcing the Lakers’ defense to adjust to him.

“When you look at these three series we’ve played so far, he’s starting to get the respect from the other teams, and they’re game-planning, they’re blitzing him, they’re double-teaming.”

Both Denver and the Lakers came out attacking the paint early: The teams combined for 56 first-quarter points, and they scored 34 of them in the paint (60.7%)

In the second quarter, however, the Lakers started settling for jumpers while the Nuggets kept attacking. Denver went on a 15-2 run to start the quarter — with Nikola Jokic on the bench — and Denver went on to dominate the next two quarters, leading by as many as 20.

The Nuggets got a big night from Jerami Grant, who had career playoff hight 26 points. Jokic added 22 plus 10 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Lakers could not get jump shots to fall. Los Angeles was 6-of-26 from three (23.1%), and worse, they scored 12 points on 24 spot-up shot attempts (stat via Synergy Sports).

LeBron James did his part — a triple-double of 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists — and Anthony Davis added 27, but the Lakers defensive energy, and with that transition buckets, were not there.

Until the fourth quarter.

The Lakers got much more physical and aggressive defensively, and the Lakers went on a 19-2 run, which included six straight Nuggets turnovers at one point. The Lakers went to a zone defense that flummoxed Denver.

Eventually, Murray and Jokic righted the ship. Denver stretched the lead back out and got the win. After the game, the Lakers to a man said they needed to bring that fourth-quarter energy all game on Thursday.

One thing talked about after the game was Murray’s elbow to LeBron.

“I don’t think it was blatant. I don’t know his mindset, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” LeBron said postgame.

The other thing talked about postgame — now we have a series.

Zach LaVine reacts to Chicago hiring Billy Donovan: ‘Wow, that’ll be good’

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Zach LaVine learned about the Chicago Bulls hiring Billy Donovan as their head coach while playing Call of Duty.

Which means there is a recording of his real-time reaction to the news.

“Damn, we just got Billy Donovan as our next head coach… wow, that’ll be good.”

LaVine also Tweeted about the hire.

He wasn’t the only Bulls’ player excited about the hire.

Bradley Beal, a former Donovan player at Florida, loved the hire.

Donovan takes over a Chicago team that seems on the cusp of something. How big a something remains up for debate. The roster has young talent: Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter, and the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Donovan is an upgrade over Boylen, both in terms of player relations and tactics, making the Bulls better.

Even with Donovan, what is the ceiling for these Bulls? Next season they are not going to be better than the Celtics, Bucks, Heat, or Nets, and likely not the 76ers or Raptors either (unless Toronto tears down the roster). That’s six. And a lot of people would put the Indiana Pacers on a level above the Bulls as well. Bottom line: Even with a coaching upgrade and player improvement, the Bulls are likely scrambling for a bottom playoff spot in the East.

The Bulls are looking beyond next year. Expect Chicago head of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas to spend the next season deciding who fits and who doesn’t, and shake up the roster accordingly. By then the Bulls may be in a better place to be a threat in the East.

Whatever happens, the Bulls got better with this hire, and their biggest star likes it.