Three Things to Know: Lakers find way to upstage even NBA’s biggest nights

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There is a lot to unpack heading into the final day of the NBA regular season, but here’s what you need to know, including playoff scenarios.

1) Lakers find a way to upstage even NBA’s biggest nights: Magic Johnson unexpectedly steps down as Lakers’ president. Nobody saw this coming. Not Laker owner Jeanie Buss — Magic didn’t even face her and tell her before stepping in front of the cameras at Staples Center. Not LeBron James, who had met with Magic Johnson and Laker GM Rob Pelinka days before and got not even a hint. Not Luke Walton, the Lakers’ coach who expected to be out of a job within 24 hours.

Magic Johnson stepped in front of the cameras at Staples Center Tuesday night and resigned as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations in what was a 40-minute, impromptu, rambling, emotional press conference.

It leaves the Lakers with oh-so-many questions. What is the fate of Luke Walton? GM Rob Pelinka? Who do the Lakers get to take over next? Will this impact free agents’ decisions this summer?

This can be a good thing for the Lakers because Magic Johnson wasn’t good at this job.

Sources told me last summer he was the kind of boss who had a lot of different things going on — time with family, a $700 million business empire, HIV activism, much more — so he would parachute in a few days a month, throw around edicts, then leave and let everyone else deal with the fallout. Pelinka (who is more likely than Walton to soon be out of a job now, Pelinka is not loved by other league executives) stumbled learning the GM job on the fly. Magic and Pelinka together came up with the plan to surround LeBron James with playmakers, not shooters, and the guys they could get on one-year contracts. That failed spectacularly.

Now the pressure falls on Jeanie Buss. The Lakers’ lead owner has to reach beyond her comfort zone and bring in someone who can turn the assets the Lakers still have — LeBron, max cap space, some nice young players, being in Los Angeles — into a winning team and culture again.

When Buss forced out her brother Jim and Laker loyalist Mitch Kupchak, she turned to a trusted friend in Magic, even if he didn’t have experience in the job. The Lakers have acted for a while now like their powerful brand is an organizational culture, that if they just do things “the Lakers way” everything will work out. But a brand is not a culture. Buss needs to go out and get a new basketball president from outside the organization with a track record of success, pay him well, give him complete power over the basketball side of the building, then get out of the way.

Oh, and she needs to do it fast because this upcoming draft and free agency will be huge for the Lakers and their chance to win a ring in LeBron’s window.

2) Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki each receive touching tributes in their final home games — then each of them drops 30. Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki both are more than just future Hall of Famers who had great careers. Both became the face of a franchise and led their respective teams to titles.

Both are retiring next season and both received an emotional sendoff from their hometown fans Tuesday night.

Then both went out and dropped 30 points.

Wade’s family was with him on the court in Miami, watching touching — if a bit too sponsor driven — tributes. However, the Heat were still playing for something, the game mattered, and Wade was not going to leave on a loss — he had 30 points to help the Heat past the 76ers. (Miami was still eliminated from the playoffs because both Detroit and Charlotte won.)

Nowitzki went into the night never having officially said he was retiring, even though everyone knew it was coming and his final season had basically been a farewell tour. Tuesday, in front of the Dallas fans, he said this was it, he was walking away.

Then Nowitzki dropped 30 points and had 8 rebounds to lead a Mavericks win against Phoenix (despite 51 from the ageless Jamal Crawford for the Suns).

Dallas is well positioned for the future with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but it’s just not going to be the same without Nowitzki.

3) One playoff spot and seven playoff matchups still to be decided on the final night of the NBA season. This weekend, the Indiana Pacers will travel to Boston to open the first-round playoff series between those teams.

That’s all we know. Not one other matchup. We don’t know all the playoff teams in the East yet — Detroit and Charlotte are still fighting for the final slot — and the other three series in that conference hang on the outcome of games on Wednesday night.

In the West, we know the eight playoff teams but not one matchup is yet official.

Here is a quick bullet-point rundown of what to watch for Wednesday night.

• If Detroit beats New York, the Pistons are in the playoffs. The Pistons control their own destiny for the final playoff spot in the East.
• If the Pistons lose and the Hornets beat the Magic on Wednesday, then the Hornets are in. (Charlotte has to win or they can book flights to Cabo.)
• There are still eight different scenarios for the 6/7/8 seeds in the East depending on what happens in three games: Miami at Brooklyn, Orlando at Charlotte, Detroit at New York. Brooklyn and Orlando have clinched playoff spots but their seeding is up in the air still.
• The top five seeds in the East are locked in: Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana.
• Denver will finish with the No. 2 seed with a win at home against the Timberwolves. A Nuggets loss and a Rockets means Houston is the two seed, Denver the three seed.
• Denver tried to manipulate the playoff standings over the weekend, and it may work. Denver rested key players against Portland and lost to them in a not-so-subtle attempt to give Portland a boost to the three seed. If Portland can win at home Wednesday against Sacramento it ties Houston for the season, and the Trail Blazers have the tiebreaker, meaning Portland is the three seed (and the team Denver would see in the second round). Houston would then fall to the four seed and the Warriors side of the bracket.
• There are eight different scenarios of how the 6/7/8 seeds can still play out in the West.
• If Oklahoma City can beat Milwaukee Wednesday it will be the six seed in the West. Lose and they can fall to 7/8.
• San Antonio can be the six seed with a win Wednesday and an OKC loss. However, if the Spurs lose while the Thunder and Clippers both win, then San Antonio drops to 8. Nobody wants the eight seed and the Warriors in the first round.

LeBron James on Lakers clinching No. 1 seed: ‘They said I couldn’t do it’

Lakers star LeBron James
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

LeBron James, via Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

“They said I couldn’t do it.”

“I’ll enjoy this one,” James said, nodding as he grinned. “They said I can’t do it.”

The Lakers entered the season fifth in the West in over-under wins (behind the Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets).

But nobody credible thought the Lakers couldn’t get the No. 1 seed. With LeBron and Anthony Davis, the Lakers obviously had that type of upside. Their championship odds were far more favorable. The main doubts stemmed from how seriously LeBron would take the regular season.

That said, in the age of social media, players hear both more praise and more criticism than ever before. LeBron surely heard from haters who ruled him out. Crowning himself the Washed King, LeBron probably internalized that fringe opinion.

Many players find slights to use as motivation. It worked for Michael Jordan. It works for LeBron.

But it does sound silly when an exalted player like LeBron talks this way.

Report: Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president because team didn’t spend enough

Pacers owner Herb Simon and executives Donnie Walsh, Larry Bird, and Kevin Pritchard
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Paul George said he left the Pacers because they weren’t willing to spend enough.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president in 2017, citing a desire to do more things outside basketball. Yet, he also reportedly had another reason.

Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

Indiana is a small-market team that consistently has not gone out and paid big money. We know that this was something that frustrated Larry Bird, who is a legend in the state of Indiana and elsewhere, I might add. It frustrated him enough that he stepped aside.

Pacers owner Herb Simon has a certain way of doing things. Indiana hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2006, the first year the tax line was set before the season.

Despite that, the Pacers have been pretty good. They’ve qualified for the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons, peaking with appearances in the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

Still, Indiana has lost in the first round four straight years. Another first-round loss appears the most likely outcome for this season.

That’s not exactly satisfying for players who want to win championships. Spending big isn’t absolutely necessary to compete on the highest levels. But it helps.

Pacers star Victor Oladipo is approaching 2021 unrestricted free agency. He’s a competitor who’ll evaluate, among other things, whether his current franchise matches his ambitions.

It’s easy to spend someone else’s money. Simon can decide his own limits. But there are consequences of his spending restraint – especially as perception grows about his relative thriftiness.

J.J. Redick describes thought behind meme: ‘I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing’

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J.J. Redick has made the playoffs all 13 of his previous NBA seasons.

The Pelicans have put that streak in jeopardy.

New Orleans lost its first two games in the bubble, a nail-biter against the Jazz and a rout against the Clippers. During that loss to L.A., cameras captured Redick – on the floor exercising his back while out of the game – with a distant stare that became an instant meme.

Redick on ESPN Daily:

I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing, and I think my face summed up that first half pretty well.

There’s so many circumstances you could apply the emotions that I was going through in that moment.

Redick is right: That meme fits many occasions, which gives it staying power.

However, it has plenty of competition. Though the feelings displayed aren’t the exact same, Redick didn’t even have the best reaction inside the bubble by an exasperated NBA player. That belongs to Nuggets star Nikola Jokic:

At least Redick got reason to perk up. The Pelicans beat the Grizzlies yesterday to gain ground in the playoff race.

Darren Collison says talk of him playing for Lakers was “overhyped”

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Darren Collison shocked the NBA last summer when he walked away from the game at age 32 — and a likely contract in the four-year, $70+ million range — and retired. His reasons were legitimate, he wanted to focus on his religion — “While I still love basketball, I know there is something more important, which is my family and my faith,” Collison said at the time — but the league has seen a lot of players say they were walking away for good reasons only to come running back.

The rumors about a Collison return started just after January 1 and spun out of control in Los Angeles when he sat with Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss at a game.

Collison stayed retired, and told the “Minute til 6” podcast it wasn’t even close. He was never coming back.

“To keep it 100, they overhyped the whole thing. Like, I wasn’t even thinking about coming back.”

That game he went to? He just came to watch his friend Russell Westbrook.

“I just wanted to come watch the game as a fan.”

Collison also is smart enough to know how him sitting with Buss would be perceived.

Collison was wanted. The Lakers run LeBron James at the point but could have used the veteran Collison in the role Rajon Rondo filled as a secondary playmaker (Rondo is currently out with a thumb injury). Collison was rumored to the Clippers as well, and Doc Rivers can always find a way to use more guard depth.

Collison, however, seems at peace with his decision. If he wanted to return, he would have done it last summer for 10 figures a season, not for the minimum in January.