Toronto secures No. 1 seed in East, but road likely goes through LeBron

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MIAMI (AP) — It only looks like parity.

Consider it an April tradition: A new postseason, a new No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. This time, it’s Toronto doing the honors – the Raptors’ win over Indiana on Friday makes them the seventh different club in the past seven years to get the top line on the East bracket, following Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Atlanta, Cleveland and Boston.

It’s an unprecedented run of top-seed diversity for the NBA, at least since the league started seeding by conference in 1973.

Of course, those top seeds usually find out that finishing ahead of LeBron James in April is much easier than ousting him in May.

“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a 6 seed, or a 3 seed, or a 2 seed, or an 8 seed,” James said. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, it will be very challenging.”

So make no mistake, the East still goes through James.

He is trying to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive season. James’ teams are 24-2 in East series as the higher seed, 6-2 in East series as the lower seed. And while the Raptors will be the favorites, there will be a certain amount of skepticism until someone knocks James off his perch atop the conference.

“What he does in a playoff series is very unique,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said.

It’s been almost predetermined for the past few years, regardless of who’s seeded where, that James’ team would be the one winning the East.

But this year, it might not be so simple.

The Raptors are enjoying their best season in history, with a franchise-record 57 wins and counting and now knowing that the road for anyone to win the Eastern Conference title will go through Canada. But while the Raptors haven’t exactly been sprinting across the finish line there have been some teams hitting their best stride, namely Cleveland and Philadelphia.

And when the East bracket is set, the Raptors know plenty of pundits won’t be penciling them in for a trip to the NBA Finals, even with the knowledge that Kyrie Irving – who has had some incredible playoff moments with James and Cleveland in recent years – won’t be playing for Boston in these playoffs because of knee surgery.

“We really just have to maintain focus on ourselves and not worry about who says this, that, what happens,” Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “All we can do is focus on our team, our organization and the things that we do. We don’t really care to be talked about. We just go out there and have to prove what we need to prove.”

Thing is, in the East this year and with all due respect to the way James has been playing of late – so well, he has said he would vote for himself as the league MVP – it’s hard to envision any team being fearful of any other.

With the exception of Milwaukee, which was swept 3-0 by Miami, every team in the East has beaten every other playoff team in their conference at least once during this regular season. The Cavaliers are 15-10 against the other East playoff-bound clubs; the 76ers are 10-16 against the other East qualifiers.

Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle.

“Eastern Conference basketball,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, “it’s the height of competition.”

The West seems much easier to forecast.

Houston has separated itself from everyone, and Golden State – which has been decimated by injuries, but is hopeful of having Stephen Curry back by the second round – is probably still going to be thought of by many as no worse than a co-favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive time.

The East probably has more teams capable of reaching The Finals.

But beating James four times is not going to be easy for any of them, regardless of home-court advantage.

“Toronto’s having a heck of a year, (so is) Boston and everything they’re doing with a lot of injuries themselves, and I think some of the teams in the middle and back of the pack are interesting,” Budenholzer said. “But until somebody beats whatever team LeBron’s playing for, it always feels like the team that he’s playing for is the team to beat in the East.”

 

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).