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

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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.

Missouri’s Jontay Porter announces he will enter NBA Draft

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Jontay Porter — the younger brother of Denver’s Michael Porter Jr., who did not play all season as he recovered from back issues — was impressive as a freshman, the one season he played at Missouri. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game (mostly off the bench), showed a shooting touch from three, he plays a high IQ game, and at 6’11” he has NBA size and a strong frame.

But since then Porter has been a story of injuries. A lot of them. He did not play this past season after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee back in October. By his own admission he tried to rush back and tore the same ACL again in March.

Now, Porter is declaring he will enter the NBA Draft.

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Porter has legitimate potential as a stretch five in the NBA, but the knee injuries and questions about Porter’s athleticism (he’s not athletic by NBA standards) makes teams hesitant. That’s why Porter is projected as a second-round pick, a big man with potential but one who needs time to get healthy and develop.

A couple other draft notes:

• Charles Bassey, the 6’11” big man out of Western Kentucky, will test the draft. He is projected as a late second rounder, if drafted at all.

Mike Daum, who averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game this past season for South Dakota State, has entered the draft and signed with Octagon Sports. He needs to impress at combines and workouts to make sure he gets drafted.

• Two European big men, Louis Olinde (6’10” out of Germany) and Aleksander Balcerowski (7’1” center from Poland) both have put their names in the NBA Draft pool. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony announced both of the Euros looking to come to the NBA.

Draymond Green dropped 26 pounds to be ready for playoff basketball

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Draymond Green was not himself this season. He averaged 7.4 points per game, the first time he was below double digits during the Warriors run, Green shot just 28.5 percent from three, and he played in just 66 games due to toe and knee injuries. Green was not an All-Star. He had a PER of 12.9, a below average number (while it’s not a stat that takes into account what Green brings, he’s long been above average at least in it). When it came time to talk Defensive Player of the Year, he got mentioned more on reputation than his in-season performance.

Playoff Green has been different: 13 points and 8.7 assists per game, his true shooting percentage is back above average (57.2) as is his PER (the three-pointers are still not falling, however). He’s a force on defense and a playmaker on offense through the first three games of the postseason.

What changed? He dropped 26 pounds in the final couple months of the season to get in playoff shape. Marcus Thompson II has a fantastic story about this at The Athletic. It started with GM Bob Myer confronting Green about his conditioning after the All-Star break.

“If we’re going to win a championship,” Myers said, “you’ve got to get in shape….”

“Yeah, I start this strenuous regimen on March 6,” he told Myers. “It’ll take me like two weeks, maybe like 10 days, to really get to where I need to be.”

Myers replied with a puzzled glance: “Wait, you already knew this?”

Green explained his whole plan. He has a nutritionist guiding his diet, his chef making his meals. The strength and conditioning team had the strategy for him dropping weight while maintaining strength. It turns out, Green knew it was time, too.

Green is the lynchpin for the Warriors in the playoffs. Stephen Curry still provides the gravity on offense and is the guy the system is built around. Kevin Durant is their best all-around player, a guy who is a walking mismatch who can get one-on-one buckets whenever he wants, defends well, and is the two-time Finals MVP for a reason. Klay Thompson is an All-NBA level two-way player.

But it’s Green’s ability to switch on defense, to cover centers bigger than him but keep them in check, and to be an outlet on offense that sets him apart. As does his intensity and energy — he is the Warriors emotional leader.

With DeMarcus Cousins out, Green’s role got even bigger.

Maybe more than all that, Green is playing for his next contract. He is a free agent in the summer of 2020, but the Warriors could extend his rookie deal this summer. Rumors of him being traded bounce around the league (with not every team interested in bringing him in, his skill set is a specific fit), and teams guessing if Green will get a max contract or not. Green wants to get paid, just as the other big three in Golden State have, but he’s the one on the bubble (Thompson is a free agent this summer but the Warriors have said they will max him out, and sources around the league expect that to happen).

Green looks himself for these playoffs, ready to go and earn a three-peat and a place in history.

Then this summer things could get interesting.

Tyronn Lue, Monty Williams reportedly to get second interviews with Lakers

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The “let’s get to know each other” first meeting is out of the way.

Now things get serious. Multiple reports have the Lakers conducting second interviews with Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams next week — serious, detailed interviews that will include GM Rob Pelinka and owner Jeanie Buss.

Lue and Williams are considered the frontrunners for the job. ESPN’s Wojnarowski also reports that Juwan Howard will get a first interview next week, although he has a lot of catching up to do in the process.

Lue is the former Laker player and Cavaliers’ coach who led that franchise and LeBron James to a title in 2016. Wojnarowski reported Lue is pushing back on the perception he is LeBron’s coach, saying he will push everyone on the roster. In Cleveland, Lue had the trust of LeBron, and that allowed the coach to challenge his star at points.

Williams is a former Pelicans’ head coach who also has a strong relationship with Anthony Davis. Williams has spent time in the Spurs front office and on the coaching bench for the Sixers and Thunder.

All three candidates have a relationship with LeBron James and would get the star’s thumbs up. Lue was LeBron’s chosen coach in Cleveland, Williams coached LeBron as part of Team USA, and Howard was a former LeBron teammate.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Westbrook vs. Lillard is best show in playoffs

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best show in playoffs; Round 3 goes to Westbrook and Thunder. Oklahoma City vs. Portland has become must-watch TV. This third-quarter sequence shows exactly why Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best drama going right now. Well, second after Game of Thrones, but best in the NBA playoffs and one you need to be watching.

Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Westbrook anticipated a Lillard layup attempt, got up, and swatted the shot back. When he landed, Westbrook looked at the crowd along the baseline and yelled something. Lillard, in turn, said something right back to Westbrook, and then the two started jawing. As they have at points throughout the series. Westbrook was making it personal, he demanded the ball on the next Thunder possession, posted up Lillard and knocked down a little turnaround jumper right over the Blazers’ guard. Westbrook then celebrated with his rock-the-baby move (the way he did this one was more shook-the-baby). After the game, Lillard said he didn’t even see it, although in the videos Lillard seems to smirk at it.

Lillard then went off scoring 23 of his 25 points in a historic, franchise-best third quarter to make it a game.

In the end, Oklahoma City got the needed win 120-108 behind 33 points ( on an efficient 11-of-22 shooting ) and 11 assists from Westbrook. Westbrook even hit the dagger three over Lillard.

The Thunder still trail in the series 2-1 and need another win on Sunday in Game 4 or they may fall too far behind to catch up.

Two keys in Game 3 led to the Thunder win.

First, Oklahoma City finally decided to be aggressive in trapping and pressuring Damian Lillard, taking the ball out of his hands early in the shot clock. At least OKC did in the first half. This has been the book on how to beat Portland in the playoffs for a couple of seasons now — make anyone other than Lillard or C.J. McCollum beat you — but OKC used it sparingly in the first couple of games. During the regular season Jusuf Nurkic became an excellent outlet for Lillard when those traps came, but he is out and now Enes Kanter has to be that man. He was not as good. Portland got away from it when Lillard got hot but the Thunder need to go back to it as often as they can.

Second, the Thunder hit their threes. Oklahoma City shot 10-of-61 from three (16.4 percent) from three in the first two games in Portland, but at home they felt comfortable and the shots fell — 15-of-29. This was the biggest difference in the game, Portland’s defense but the Thunder could not beat them from three and on Friday night OKC won that bet.

Can the Thunder sustain that at home?

Tune in for Game 4 Sunday to find out. Lillard vs. Westbrook is the best show going right now.

2) Pascal Siakam goes off for 30 points, 11 rebounds in leading Raptors to win on the road over Magic. During his pregame media availability, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked if Pascal Siakam was formally the Raptors third offensive option now.

“If he has he’s dropped down from being the 2nd option,” Nurse responded.

Siakam was option No. 1 on Friday night, scoring 30 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, and leading the way for Toronto to get a 98-93 win on the road. Siakam did it impressively, with everything from threes to postups, and plenty of attacking off the bounce, much of it against a good defender in Jonathan Isaac.

Toronto now leads the series 2-1 and if Orlando is going to have a real chance in this series it needs to win game 4 Sunday.

The Raptors needed the breakout game from Siakam because Kawhi Leonard looked human, scoring 16 points but needing 19 shots to get there (he also had 10 rebounds). Orlando geared its game to stop Leonard (who was under the weather), but the Raptors had other options in this one.

The Raptors also defended well — Evan Fournier was 1-of-12 shooting on a night the Magic as a team shot 36.2 percent and scored less than a point per possession (98.9 offensive net rating). Terrence Ross had 24 off the bench — and hit a halfcourt shot right before halftime — to keep Orlando close. The Magic better find their shooting touch before Sunday or this series will end quickly.

3) Boston has Kyrie Irving (and Jaylen Brown), Indiana can’t score consistently, and Boston is in command of series. We’ve seen this movie before. Boston went into Indiana Friday night and took control of the series going up 3-0 after a 104-96 win that followed the same formula that has worked for the first two games.

First, Kyrie Irving can get buckets whenever he wants. He had 19 points in this game, although it was Jaylen Brown’s 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting that was the dominant force. Jayson Tatum pitched in 18 points.

Second, Indiana just can’t score consistently The Pacers had 61 points in the first half, finding some offense in playing uptempo, even if that is not their style (the Pacers were 25th in the NBA in pace during the regular season, then this had been the second slowest paced playoff series so far this season). But the scoring would not last. Indiana started the third 1-of-8 from the floor and finished the quarter 5-of-21 shooting. Then down the stretch, Indiana was 1-of-7 from the floor. Without Victor Oladipo the Pacers are prone to these offensive droughts, especially against a good Celtics’ defense, and it is simply too much to overcome.

Game 4 is Sunday and maybe the Pacers extend the series to a fifth game, but we know how this movie is going to end.