Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Cleveland adds more questions after loss to Portland, Toronto keeps answering its questions. Do I have questions about how Toronto transfers what it has done this season (especially on offense) to the postseason? Yes.
However, I have far more questions about Cleveland and Boston than I do the Toronto.
Which is why Toronto is the Eastern Conference favorite right now (well, not in the mind of bookmakers, but in the minds of a growing number of NBA observers). It looked like it again Thursday, when the Raptors beat the Pacers on the road in Indiana, while a couple of hours later the Cavaliers fell on the road to the Trail Blazers.
However, the Cavaliers have lost 3-of-4 and 5-of-8, and they are clearly getting frustrated — see LeBron and coach Tyronn Lue in an argument on the bench as the team fell further behind.
That argument doesn’t mean much long term, those two are just letting off some steam. It’s what is causing the frustration that is the bigger issue — Cleveland lacks any defensive cohesion. No doubt the Cavaliers are banged up — they should get Kevin Love back next week, and others such as Tristan Thompson will follow — but since the roster shakeup at the trade deadline this team tries on defense but the players are not all on the same page. Building that takes time — a training camp, a season of playing together — and the Cavaliers simply don’t have that much time left.
Meanwhile, Toronto goes into Indiana against a Pacers team that has been hot and wins (Myles Turner suffered a high ankle sprain in this one for Indy, a concern because the pick-and-pop big had been playing well of late). That’s 10 in a row for Toronto — and they didn’t play their best game. Kyle Lowry was rather “meh” with 3-of-10 shooting, and it wasn’t a great night for Serge Ibaka.
Didn’t matter. Under pressure from a good team — the current three seed in the East — the Raptors defended well, kept the ball moving on offense, got a big night from DeMar DeRozan (24 points on 15 shots with a couple of threes) and Jonas Valanciunas had 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 blocks. Dwane Casey is making the adjustments needed every night to get the win.
I get the hesitation, having watched Lowry and DeRozan struggle in the postseason before, but this season feels different in Toronto. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers just keep adding more questions to the mix.
2) West playoff update: Blazers, Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs all win, while Pelicans and Clippers lose. There were some critical head-to-head matchups in the West last night that could have major playoff implications down the line. The Rockets were attacking and playing downhill, Doc Rivers was pissed at the officiating, and Houston beat the L.A. Clippers 101-96 at home. LaMarcus Aldridge was too much for the Pelicans to deal with and San Antonio beat New Orleans 98-93 — do not count the Spurs out. (You would think people would learn that lesson by now.) As noted above, Portland beat Cleveland. The Jazz had little trouble with Phoenix, but that one guy feisty at the end as Marquese Chriss and Jared Dudley cheap shoted Ricky Rubio and were ejected. Finally, Denver got a triple-double from Nikola Jokic as the Nuggets beat the fading Pistons 120-113.
What does all that mean for the standings? Portland looks like a playoff lock right now, 4.5 games up on the nine seed with 14 to play. OKC (idle Thursday) remains the four seed, but Minnesota climbs up to fifth while New Orleans slides to sixth. Utah and San Antonio are tied for the 7-8 seeds, the final two playoff spots, while the Clippers and Nuggets are in a virtual tie for the 9-10 spots, just one game back of the Jazz and Spurs.
Just 2.5 games separate OKC in fourth and the Clippers/Nuggets just out of the playoffs. Anything could happen still in that mix. Although with Utah having won eight in a row and having the easiest schedule remaining of any team in this chase, I like their odds of staying in.
3) RIP Tom Benson. No New Orleans Pelicans fan — or NFL Saints fan, for that matter — would consider Tom Benson an ideal owner. There were plenty of warts.
However, there would be no NBA team in New Orleans right now without him.
Benson passed away Thursday from the flu at the age of 90. He had been hospitalized for a month as the flu evolved into pneumonia.
His biggest NBA legacy is that there is still a team in New Orleans. If you recall, back in 2011, George Shinn (you might remember him as the guy who almost completely poisoned the Charlotte market for the NBA) walked away from the then New Orleans Hornets and sold the team to the league. There was a line of potential new owners ready to move the franchise to another city. Benson, who had owned the NFL’s Saints since 1985, stepped up and took control of the team. He eventually had it renamed the Pelicans, something local and more meaningful to the region (and allowing the Hornet name to go back to Charlotte, where it has local significance).
Our thoughts are with his family and friends.
Benson’s wife Gayle now has control of both sports franchises and the rest of his business empire (car dealerships and a bank, mostly). That line of succession is disputed by family members cut out right now, but so far the courts have sided with Gayle. What this means long term for the Pelicans is unclear, but don’t expect major changes short term.