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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.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.