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Sorry Sixers, Jazz, but by Dec. 26 playoff teams largely set in NBA


Take a good look at the NBA standings today, because you’re looking this season’s playoff teams. Mostly.

There will be some shuffling of seeding, but once we get past Christmas the 16 teams set for the playoffs don’t change much — 87 percent of the teams in the top eight in their conference on Dec. 26 the past 10 seasons have gone on to make the playoffs. No fewer than 13 of the 16 teams in those playoff slots advanced. Teams down in the standings rarely come charging up to surprise anyone.

If anything, this season likely sees less movement — because of the early start to the season (to space out games and add rest), most teams have played 33 or so games, five or six more than they historically would have.

Sorry Philadelphia and Utah, and the fans of every other team on the outside looking in. It’s not impossible, but the odds your team climbs back into the playoffs are slim.

Last season, when the Christmas Day games were done, Cleveland and Golden State — the two teams to eventually meet in the NBA Finals — were on top of the standings in their respective conferences. Last year, 13 of the 16 teams to make the playoffs were already set (the Hornets and Knicks fell off in the East, replaced by the Bulls and Wizards, and in the West Portland made up the one game it was behind Sacramento and got invited to the dance).

That season fits the trend, in fact it saw more movement than most. I looked at the standings for the last decade (excluding the 2011 lockout season that started on Christmas) and things were largely set. Most years 14 or 15 of the teams set into the top 16 the day after Christmas advanced to the playoffs.

While not statistically probable, comebacks are not impossible.

The worst record to comeback and make the postseason? The 2013 Brooklyn Nets started 9-19 but came on to not only make the playoffs but beat the Raptors in a seven-game first round playoff series. In 2015, the Trail Blazers started 11-20 (.355 winning percentage) and both made the playoffs and beat a banged up Clippers team in the first round. The 2009 Chicago Bulls were 10-17 after Christmas and came back, but in a down year in the East they only had to make up 1.5 games on the Raptors to do that. The 2006 Nets and the 2007 Sixers were both 11-16 (.407 winning percentage) at Christmas and came back to make the postseason.

It’s likely one or two teams climb into the playoffs this season, although an injury to a team already in is mostly likely the reason it happens.

The best team at Christmas not to make the playoffs? The 2010 Utah Jazz were 21-9 and on top of the Northwest Division, but that was the season Jerry Sloan retired and Deron Williams forced a trade out, and they fell off the map and missed the postseason. Hopefully no team has to go through that this season.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

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Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

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Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — eight of them in the first quarter. Houston was up 17 in the first and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. The Warriors were also forcing turnovers, 21.3 percent of Rockets possessions ended with a turnover (more than one in five trips down the court). Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points. With the offense not running through Kevin Durant isolations, it just flowed better (the Warriors best lineup of the night was Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young, +13 in just more than eight minutes).

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

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The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.

Warriors’ Andre Iguodala out for Game 6

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Steve Kerr has been searching for a couple of games now for his fifth guy.

With Andre Iguodala out there is no Death/Hamptons 5 lineup and Kerr is looking for a fifth guy to partner with his four All-Stars. Kevon Looney is starting, Jordan Bell is showing potential but also makes some rookie plays, Nick Young has been bad enough that Kerr trusted Quin Cook more at the end of the last game (and Cook missed his looks).

Kerr is going to have to keep searching for a guy in Game 6 because Iguodala is out again.

The Warriors are not the team heading into Game 6 with the most significant injury woes, the Rockets are without Chris Paul. That and the fact the Warriors’ backs are against the wall is the reason they are heavy favorites in Game 6.

However, the Warriors have not been the same without Iguodala. He is a playmaker who can control the ball and settle things down, makes the right decision, get the player and ball movement the Warriors have strayed too much from back, plus is one of their best defenders on James Harden. Nobody else on the roster can do that.

And if Game 6 gets tight late, the Warriors are going to miss those skills. As they have in the last two games.