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Three Things to Know: Who is in, who is out, games that matter in West playoff chase

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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) Where we stand: Insane West playoff chase explained (mostly). Back in 2014 — the year Taylor Swift was shaking it off and we were all trying to shake off hearing her again — the Suns won 48 games and missed the playoffs. It was unprecedented.

This season is getting close to that. Some team is going to win 46 games and miss the postseason in the West. After a wild weekend of games, here is where the playoff chase in the West stands and what to watch, in bullet point form:

• The magic number to get in is going to be 47 wins — reach that and teams will be invited to the dance. There are scenarios where 46 wins is good enough, but get to 47 wins and teams are safe.

• The Pelicans, Spurs, and Thunder are all at 46-34 and made up seeds 5-7 currently, the Timberwolves and Nuggets are both 45-35 and tied for 8-9.

• With their win over the Lakers Sunday night, the Jazz are officially in (with 47 wins, they cannot fall out due to tiebreakers). Seeding is still up in the air, they could land anywhere from three to eight (with eighth being unlikely but technically possible).

• After their loss to the Nuggets Saturday, the Los Angeles Clippers are officially out.

• Monday night games to track: Oklahoma City at Miami, Memphis at Minnesota, Sacramento at San Antonio, New Orleans at the Los Angeles Clippers, and the big one is Portland at Denver.

• If Minnesota beats Memphis Monday (very likely) and Denver beats Portland that same night (less likely, but possible), then the Timberwolves and Nuggets will remain tied and play Wednesday for the eight seed — a play-in game. Denver technically is the nine seed by tiebreaker, but they control their own destiny — win out and they are in.

• Utah at Portland on the last night of the season could determine the three seed. That assumes that the Jazz beat the Warriors Tuesday, something that is no lock (although Golden State is locked into the two seed and not very focused right now). Utah will be on a back-to-back and it will be their third game in four nights, but this is a determined team right now.

2) Philadelphia gets to 50 wins and locks up home-court advantage in the first round. Read that again, because it’s harder to believe than alien abduction stories. Almost. This team won 28 games a season ago, 10 the season before that, 18 the one before that. Throughout the tribulations of “the process” Philly, on paper, looked like a team that could come be a force if things broke right — but for it to all break right that fast is mind-boggling. And that is without No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz contributing much.

Brett Brown deserves a lot of credit here. Throughout the years of losing, he had them playing hard and learning defensive principles. He built a culture despite the challenges. He is not going to win Coach of the Year this season, but the man has to be considered.

The Sixers may well finish with the three seed in the East (they currently are the three, one game up on the Cavaliers in fourth). Do that, get through the first round (against likely Miami or Milwaukee, which will not be easy), get Joel Embiid back, then beat the Celtics/the seven seed that knocks off the Celtics, and the Sixers are in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a completely reasonable path. And if you had said “the Sixers can make the Eastern Conference Finals next year” last April we would have put you in the asylum with the alien abduction people.

3) Mitch Kupchak is the new GM in Charlotte. It became official on Sunday, the North Carolina guy got the job with the North Carolina team owned by a North Carolina grad. This was the safe play for the Hornets. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong play, or that it will not work out, but it’s the safe play. Kupchak brings a resume to the table the Hornets can sell — he’s got four rings as the Lakers GM — and a style and standing that will sell in the community. He’s got a good relationship with the owner, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot of good reasons to make this hire.

Kupchack’s GM record in Los Angeles is hit-and-miss. There were highs — the Pau Gasol trade, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers and helped them to rings), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court. In general, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft. Nobody should question his eye for talent.

However, in his final years in Los Angeles, there was a sense from some around the team that the game had passed him by. Kupchak completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). He expected there to be an amnesty clause in the new CBA and there wasn’t, and he though those contracts could be easily traded (it cost the Lakers former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell to move Mozgov). There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams. Not all of this was on Kupchak he was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and certainly the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss had the ultimate say on those moves. However, Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those decisions. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There are real questions in Charlotte for Kupchak to answer. The big one is a matter of direction for the coming years: do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons? Ultimately that is a decision Jordan must make, and in that market moving Kemba followed by a few bad years may sting more than the “tear it down” contingent realize, but it’s something where Kupchak needs to sway Jordan.

What does Kupchak’s hiring mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.