Associated Press

Three Things We Learned Monday: East playoff chase will go to final day of season

8 Comments

There are just two more days left in the NBA season, so you should be paying attention, but if you were busy tweeting to help a kid get free chicken nuggets, we’ve got you covered. Here are the takeaways from a busy Monday night around the NBA.

1) Eastern Conference playoff picture will go down to the final day of regular season. The West playoff matchups are set, with the only question being whether the Clippers/Jazz series starts in Los Angeles or Utah. But out East, we will not know the final standings and who is in until the Wednesday, the last day of the regular season.

Let’s start at the top, where Monday Boston beat the Brooklyn Nets 114-105, while the Cavaliers blew another lead and lost in overtime to a desperate Miami Heat (more on that later, but Cleveland rested LeBron James and Kyrie Irving for that one). That puts Boston in the top slot in the East, one game ahead of Cleveland with one to play. However, the Cavaliers have the tiebreaker between the squads (they won three of four head-to-head), so Boston needs to beat Milwaukee on the final night of the season to secure the top slot — and the Bucks may have something to play for, depending on what the Hawks do in their last two games (Hornets Tuesday, Pacers Wednesday). The Bucks could be playing to get the five seed. Cleveland will play Toronto in the final game and will rest LeBron James again, and considering the Cavaliers have not won this season when he sits it’s good to be the Celtics right now.

Who gets the seventh and eighth seed — meaning will play Boston and Cleveland in the first round — and which team will be the odd-team out in the East also will come down to the final day.

Miami was on the verge of being eliminated, down 11 to the Cavaliers entering the fourth quarter of a must-win game, when James Johnson led a desperation comeback that got Miami a dramatic overtime win 124-121. Tyler Johnson had 24 points to lead the Heat. Also Monday night the Bulls thrashed the Magic 122-75, and the Pacers beat the 76ers 120-111 behind 26 points from Paul George. That leaves Indiana in seventh, a game up on the tied Bulls and Heat tied for the last spot, but nobody is safe yet.

Here’s the Wednesday scenario: Miami has to beat Washington or they are out (the Wizards are locked into the four seed and are expected to rest John Wall and others). Even if the Heat win, they need help in the form of a Bulls loss to the Nets or a Pacers loss to the Hawks. So it’s simple for Chicago and Indiana: Win and you’re in.

It’s going to be a dramatic Wednesday night in the East.

2) Daryl Morey publishes a string of Tweets pushing Harden for MVP based on winning. There has been a lot of momentum toward Russell Westbrook for MVP in recent weeks, and while him getting the triple-double records is part of that it has more been his clutch play, bringing the Thunder back to key wins they had no chance of getting without him.

Supporters of James Harden for MVP (and, for that matter, Kawhi Leonard) argue that the NBA MVP award has traditionally gone to a player from one of the top teams in the league, a team that wins around 55 games or more. While Westbrook has put up numbers and gotten his team wins, the Thunder will finish with 46 or 47 wins, well below the usual threshold, while the Rockets have 54 wins with a game to play. Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out this series of tweets to make the case for Harden:

Of course, all of this brings in the other context to the debate, like the fantastic job Morey did putting a team around Harden that is much better than the one around Westbrook, as we broke down.

I love that Morey is now a fan of convention when it suits him. However, the MVP debate this season, with four qualified candidates, is more of a philosophical discussion of how you choose to define MVP than anything clear cut. Is it just value to a player’s team? How much do wins matter? How much do raw stats matter? Advanced data? Blending all that is more art than science, if there was some hard-and-fast criteria everyone would vote the same way. And the fun of the MVP award in all sports is the debate of what makes an MVP. This season it just may not fall the way Morey and Harden want it.

3) Portland’s Noah Vonleh with a game-winner you and I could have made.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Down one with six seconds left in the game, Portland had the chance to knock off San Antonio at the buzzer Monday night. (For the record, both teams were playing their second units in this ultimately meaningless game.)

The Blazers inbounded the ball to Shabazz Napier, who comes off the pick and drives but has the ball poked away, in the scramble it seems to hit David Lee but ends up rolling under the basket to a wide-open Noah Vonleh, who picks it up and puts in the uncontested layup to win the game.

Napier had a career-high 32 points for the Blazers.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

Leave a comment

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) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.