Associated Press

Three things we learned Wednesday: MVP level Stephen Curry is back

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The Miami Heat made it nine wins in a row. Kyrie Irving was dropping dimes, with 14 assists (the most ever by a LeBron teammate). The Knicks won (against the Nets, but it still counts). Even Dell Curry was draining threes. It was such a busy night in the NBA that none o that even made our list of takeaways from Wednesday night around the league.

1) MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Because the Warriors weren’t dangerous enough already. Stephen Curry is not going to win a third straight MVP award this year, it’s either going to be James Harden (I think he’s the frontrunner now by a small margin) or Russell Westbrook.

However, after a rough couple of months to start the season, MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Just ask the Hornets, who watched him drop 11 threes and 39 points on them Wednesday (a Warriors 126-111 win).

Those 11 threes left Curry one short of the record for most in a game (12, by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall) but Steve Kerr didn’t play Curry in the fourth to chase the record (Curry played just 30 minutes). That’s not a game the Warriors are playing this season, chasing records.

Things changed for Curry after the Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers. He knew he needed to be more aggressive (and not defer as much to Kevin Durant), and Steve Kerr knew he needed to put Curry in better situations to take advantage of his skill set. Curry was given a chance to run more pick-and-rolls (as he requested), and now it was Durant setting the pick more often. Curry’s shots went up by three per game, and while not all of those were “good” shots part of what makes Curry tick is taking some shots that nobody else should take — he hits a few, and it gets him going.

As noted by ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, with the ball in his hands Curry’s three-point percentage jumped from 39.7 percent before Christmas to 46.2 percent after it. The numbers bear out he’s playing like his MVP self again. His swagger is back. The Warriors are his team again.

Curry looks like the best player in the league again (LeBron James doesn’t dial it up like this for the regular season anymore).

And woe is the rest of the league when Curry plays like this.

2) Or maybe Isaiah Thomas is the best player in the game — he drops 42 on Raptors to get Celtics win. This was a big game: It was for the lead in the Atlantic Division (if anyone actually cares about NBA divisions anymore), more importantly, it was for second place in the Eastern Conference. Guys stepped up for this game — Kyle Lowry was stunningly good on his way to 32 points. It was the Jared Sullinger revenge game, and he had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Those two helped Toronto to an 11-point halftime lead, and the Raptors seemed to control the game.

Then Isaiah Thomas happened.

Maybe the hottest player in the game, he had 19 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and he led the Celtics to win the fourth 32-19 and the game 109-104.

Like Curry above, Thomas isn’t going to win the MVP award, but he’s going to get some votes down ballot (third, fourth, fifth) and deservedly so. He has the Celtics offense humming and the Celtics in second place in the East. Toronto fans would like to point out they did not have DeMar DeRozan for this game, and that’s duly noted. But this win matters because second place in the East matters — it means home court in the second round. Also, a hot Wizards team is just one game back of the Raptors now, just two-and-a-half back of the Celtics, the Wiz are in this conversation (at 22-9 they have the best record in the East since Dec. 1). What that really means is teams want to avoid being the four seed — nobody wants Cleveland in the second round. Which is why wins like this one by Boston matter. A lot.

3) Maybe the Bulls thrive in tensions and chaos, they pick up a quality win over Thunder on the road. Rumor still swirls around Chicago like paparazzi around Beyoncé. The team’s young players love Rajon Rondo more than the “leaders” of the squad. The Bulls don’t plan to trade Rondo, apparently, but the team the focus of trade rumors.  Rival executives believe Jimmy Butler will be available again via trade, in part because of tension with the front office dating back to Butler betting on himself and not taking the rookie deal extension management offered (and management threatened to play Tony Snell in front of him at the time, which didn’t go over well with Thibodeau). And all that is since the Butler/Wade bashing of the team’s young players and Rondo coming to their defense.

With all that noise and chaos around them, the Bulls have picked up two quality wins in a row. First, it was a hot Sixers team, then Wednesday the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a victory over Westbrook and the Thunder. Butler had 28 points on 17 shots, Wade had 18 points and seven assists, and Cristiano Felicio Doug McDermott each had 11 points off the bench. Rondo had another strong game leading the second unit. The Bulls looked comfortable in the win.

The question isn’t “are the Bulls on track or in turmoil?” Rather, it’s “do the Bulls thrive in turmoil?” We’ll find out over the next couple weeks, because the turmoil isn’t going away during this six-game road trip, which is followed immediately by Boston and Toronto at home.

As an aside, the highlight of the Bulls/Thunder game unsurprisingly went to Westbrook, with his rejection of Butler.

Portland survives against Nets 134-133, advances to play-in; Suns out

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Damian Lillard looked every bit the seeding games MVP — he carried Portland for critical stretches against a scrappy Nets team and was a leader on the biggest night of the Trail Blazers season.

Portland is going on the West play-in games as the eighth seed — win one of two games against Memphis on Saturday or Sunday and the Trail Blazers will face the LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round.

All because Portland held on for a 134-133 win against Brooklyn.

The Portland win means the Phoenix Suns — the darlings of the bubble at 8-0 behind Devin Booker‘s play — are going home. As impressive as the Suns were in the bubble, they could not climb out of the hole they dug the first part of the season, before the coronavirus shut the league down.

Monty Williams — very likely the winner of the “Coach of the Seeding Games” award — deserves credit for getting his team to take advantage of the extra games and practices to get better in a way that Sacramento, New Orleans, and other teams did not.

Thursday night, however, belonged to Lillard.

Lillard finished with 42 points on the night, bringing him up to a 37.5 points per game average in the bubble.

Brooklyn tried, they threw two guys and Lillard and blitzed trying to force the ball out of his hands and anyone else to beat them. Enter CJ McCollum, who did not play like someone with a back injury on his way to 25 points.

Both Lillard and McCollum played every minute of the second half — and Portland might not have won if they didn’t.

Brooklyn’s effort and scrappy style of play has caught teams off-guard all restart long, and it pushed Portland. Caris LeVert added to his “sure we have Kyrie and KD, but I should get some touches too next season” case with 37 points.

Portland came into the restart with the goal of making the playoffs, and it is now just one win away. The first game between Portland and Memphis is on Saturday at 2:30 Eastern. If the Grizzlies win, it forces a second game, Sunday at 4:30 Eastern.

Memphis is an impressive young team, but it’s tough to beat Lillard when he is playing like an MVP.

 

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.