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Three Things to Know: Thunder, Spurs, Pelicans in playoffs, but questions abound

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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 are out West: Thunder, Spurs, Pelicans all win and secure playoff berths. Winner of Denver at Minnesota Wednesday gets the last spot. A lot of questions about the Western Conference playoff chase were answered Monday night — three teams reached the magic number of 47 wins and locked up spots. What we don’t know is seeding — Utah could finish anywhere from the three to eight seed, depending upon the next couple of days. Friend of this site Matt Moore helped sum up the confusion.

But at least we know seven of the eight teams in the party. We also know that Denver and Minnesota will play Wednesday with a playoff spot on the line. That’s because, despite a lackadaisical effort in the first half, the Timberwolves came back to beat the Grizzlies thanks to 18 points and 14 boards from Karl-Anthony Towns (who battled foul trouble all night). Denver handed Portland its fourth straight loss, setting up a Nuggets/Timberwolves winner-and-you’re-in showdown Wednesday.

The Thunder looked like they enjoyed the South Beach nightlife a little too much the night before and fell behind 23-5 early to the Heat Monday. However, Oklahoma City fought back and punched its ticket to the playoffs thanks to a Russell Westbrook triple-double and 27 points from Paul George, propelling them to a win in Miami.

The Spurs trailed the Kings by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter vs. the Kings, but Manu Ginobili sparked a comeback that led to a 98-85 win, and with it the Spurs are in the playoffs for the 21st straight year. The Pelicans went into Los Angeles and beat the Clippers, securing their playoff spot — something that would have seemed impossible when DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles, but Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level since then.

Maybe the most important game of the night in the West was Denver getting clutch plays down the stretch from Nikola Jokic (who had a triple-double) and Jamal Murray to beat the Trail Blazers. First, that win set up the one-game showdown between the Nuggets and Timberwolves Wednesday — winner is in, loser goes golfing. Or to Cabo to go fishing. Or whatever they want to do, because they will have time on their hands.

It also was the fourth straight Portland loss, and that opened the door for Utah to snag the three seed — if the Jazz can beat the Warriors Tuesday night (no easy task, but Golden State has nothing to play for and may rest guys) then it sets up a Wednesday Jazz vs. Trail Blazers game where the winner gets the three seed, the loser falls to four.

2) Cavaliers clinch 50 wins, division title, but if they want three seed they need some help. For all the talk this season about the vulnerability of Cleveland — and with the way that team has defended, that talk is valid — it is still a very good team. The Cavaliers locked up the central division crown and picked up their 50th win of the season LeBron James drops 26 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds while Kevin Love scores a game-high 28 points as the Cavaliers beat the Knicks 123-109.

The Cavaliers are the four seed in the East, half a game back of the Sixers in the three seed (Cleveland is one game back in the loss column). They want the three seed because that puts them in banged-up Boston’s side of the bracket, meaning an easier road to the conference finals. However, Cleveland needs help. The Cavs need either the Hawks to snap the Sixers 14-game winning streak Tuesday night (good luck with that) or the Bucks to beat the Sixers on Wednesday night. A 76ers loss means the Cavaliers get the three seed (assuming Cleveland beats New York again on Wednesday); otherwise, the Cavaliers are the four seed and likely face Toronto in the second round.

3) Robert Pera is going to pay up and hold on to ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies. That may be a win for the status quo there. Minority owners frustrated with the majority owner and wanting more say is an NBA tradition right up there with Christmas Day games and a lack of defense in the All-Star Game. However, in Memphis two of the minority owners — Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus — had a unique situation where they were offered the chance to potentially buy out the majority owner Robert Pera.

It was a buy/sell clause and, in a nutshell, here’s how it worked: Kaplan and Straus each were allowed to make a bid and with that set a valuation for the Grizzlies franchise (an option both took back in October). From there Pera, the controlling owner, had two choices: let one of the two men buy out Pera’s 30 percent of the team at the valued price, or Pera had to buy out those two minority owners at that price. This was all behind closed doors, we don’t know what values Kaplan and Straus set for the team.

We do know Pera decided to pay up and keep the team, buying out Kaplan and Straus. The Grizzlies announced that Monday night.

What does this mean for the Grizzlies on the court?

We don’t know for sure, but the sense around the league is that Pera backs the status quo with the Grizzlies — that means keeping, not trading, Marc Gasol, and trying to put together a playoff team around him and Mike Conley (who should be healthy for next season). Pera has not wanted to break this team up, and while he’s a bit of an absentee owner (Pera spends a lot of his time overseas with business interests), he and Gasol are reportedly in regular communication.

It also means interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has a real shot to keep his job. Yes, Bickerstaff is 15-47 as the Grizzlies coach after they fired David Fizdale, but Bickerstaff has done what management asked in helping the team tank, and because of that it’s impossible to evaluate how well he could coach this team under normal circumstances. Other coaches may well be interviewed, there could be a change, but Bickerstaff is likely in play to stay.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

San Antonio playoffs
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac suffers torn ACL in left knee

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Jonathan Isaac, who returned from a left knee injury to play for Orlando in the bubble, has torn his left ACL and is out for the remainder of this season. And likely the next one.

It was a non-contact injury that occurred when Isaac drove into the paint Sunday, tried to plant on his left leg, and felt his knee buckle under him.

Isaac had been in the news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds.

It’s a blow to the Magic, who believe Isaac is one of the cornerstones of their future. He was having a breakout season until he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and a bone bruise back in January. Now comes this. Teammate Aaron Gordon said he was in tears when the injury happened.

All those injuries came in a season Isaac was making a leap on the court. On offense, he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. However, his bigger impact is on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He might have made the All-Defensive team if healthy.

Now, it will be a couple of years before we get to see Isaac on the court again.