Three Things to Know: Portland comeback makes Denver’s gambit work

Associated Press
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Even on the final day of the regular season, there can be a lot to unpack around the NBA, so here to help are the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Portland comeback makes Denver’s gambit work, drops Rockets to four seed (and the other side of the bracket). Last Sunday, the Denver Nuggets — having just clinched at least the three seed in the West — decided to rest Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, and Jamal Murray against Portland (a team they had beat Friday night).

Except rest wasn’t really the goal of that move: Denver wanted Portland to rack up wins and climb past Houston to get the three seed in the West. Why? The Nuggets expected to get the two seed and they wanted the Rockets — the team most people see as the second-best team in the West heading into the playoffs — on the other side of the bracket. The Warriors side of the bracket. The hope for the Nuggets was that Portland would get the three seed and Denver would only need to face one of Houston or Golden State, not both.

Denver’s gambit worked. Barely.

It required the Thunder coming from 14 down in the final 10 minutes on Tuesday to beat the Rockets on a Paul George game-winner. It required Denver itself coming from 11 down in the final 3:30 on Wednesday night to beat Minnesota. It required Portland’s end-of-bench guys (they rested everyone) to come from 25 down in the second half to beat Sacramento Wednesday. (Portland’s management put out a team it thought would lose, trying to pick the Jazz as their first-round opponent, only to watch the bench mob play well when the game was on the line.)

It all worked out for Denver the way they wanted and set up these Western Conference playoffs (see the schedule here):

• Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers
• Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs
• Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
• Utah Jazz vs. Houston Rockets

2) The East playoffs are set, too, and they are wide open. If you picked any one of the top four seeds in the East and said, “This team would make it to the NBA Finals,” the general reaction around the NBA would be, “Sure, I could see that.”

Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston all have distinct strengths, all have weaknesses, and all have questions only the cauldron of the playoffs can answer. There’s a certain “rock, paper, scissors” element to the top of the East — teams are a matchup problem for one of the four, but another causes trouble for them — but really any of those top four could represent the East in the Finals and it would not be a shock.

Before those four faceoff, however, they have to get through the first round, which was finally set on Wednesday. The big game was Detroit beating the Knicks, which secured a playoff spot for the Pistons and sent Kemba Walker and the Hornets home for the summer.

Here are the East playoff matchups (see the schedule here):

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Detroit Pistons
Toronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers

Difficult to see an upset in that group, but that is why they play the games.

3) One final farewell to Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade — and one last show from both of them. Magic Johnson’s theatrics upstaged the final home games for Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki on Tuesday. However, both of those stars had to play their final games on Wednesday, on the road, and it led to emotional moments.

Nowitzki teared up after an emotional Spurs video tribute:

Nowitzki scored 20 points in his final game, then got some love from Gregg Popovich.

Dwyane Wade’s final game was in Brooklyn, and look who showed up:

Then Wade went out and put on a show, dropping a triple-double of 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists (Wades first triple-double of the season).

The game will not be the same without them.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Check out Frank Kaminsky’s “The Office” shoes. If you miss Dunder Mifflin and the crazy crew that worked there in Scranton, then you need to get yourself a pair of the Nikes that Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky wore Wednesday. The shoes featured the “Prison Mike” version of Michael Scott and the assistant to the regional manager Dwight K. Schrute.


Watch Austin Reaves score career-high 35, lead Lakers past Magic


LOS ANGELES (AP) — Austin Reaves scored a career-high 35 points, D’Angelo Russell added 18 points and the Los Angeles Lakers hung on for a 111-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday night.

Anthony Davis had 15 points and 11 rebounds on another rough shooting night, but Reaves carried the Lakers to victory with 13 points in the fourth quarter, including Los Angeles’ last 10 points over the final 1:33. The undrafted second-year pro has earned a vital role his star-studded team, and Reaves factored in almost every big play down the stretch as the Lakers snapped a two-game skid.

Lakers fans serenaded Reaves with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” as he repeatedly earned trips to the line in the fourth quarter. Reaves shot a career-high 18 free throws, while the Magic shot 17.

“For them to recognize what I do – obviously I’m not an MVP-caliber player, those guys are really good – but for them to do that is special,” Reaves said. “It means a lot to me.”

The Lakers entered this game off back-to-back losses to Houston and Dallas, imperiling their tenuous position in the playoff race. This win put Los Angeles (35-37) back in ninth in the Western Conference, tied with Minnesota.

“I thought it was (Reaves) being his normal self,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “What he’s been all year. Coming up in clutch moments for us, trying to make plays downhill, putting the defense in uncomfortable situations with his ability to attack the paint and draw fouls. He was great. He ended up with 35, and we needed all of them.”

Rookie Paolo Banchero scored 21 points for Orlando, but got an unwise technical foul with 25.3 seconds to play after repeatedly arguing with officials during the night.

“It just puts you in a hard situation when they’re calling it like that,” Banchero said. “You want to defend without fouling, but we keep getting called. We keep fouling, I guess. We keep getting foul calls against us, so it just makes it hard, but we still had a chance to win. You can’t blame it all on that.”

Franz Wagner also scored 21 points in the Magic’s sixth loss in eight games to wrap up a four-game road swing. Wendell Carter Jr. had 16 points and 11 rebounds, but Orlando couldn’t repeat the dominance of its 39-point fourth quarter in a victory over the Clippers one day earlier in the same arena.

“It’s difficult, because I think we’re an aggressive, attacking team,” Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley said. “We’ve got to just, I guess, continue to do a better job of defending without fouling, show our help early and earn the respect of being able to get those calls.”

Cole Anthony hit a tying 3-pointer with 2:37 left for the Magic, who had trailed throughout the second half. Banchero fouled Reaves on a 3-point attempt a minute later, and Reaves hit two free throws before Wagner tied it again.

But Reaves hit a mid-range jumper with 57 seconds left and then grabbed the long rebound of Wagner’s missed 3 before making two more free throws. Banchero missed a layup and got the technical foul that helped the Lakers to seal it.

The Lakers improved to 6-5 during the latest injury absence for LeBron James, who has been out for three weeks with a sore right foot. Ham reiterated before the game that Los Angeles expects James to return before the regular season ends in three weeks.

Ham on LeBron return: ‘We anticipate him coming back at some point’ during season


The Lakers have kept their heads above water in a tight bottom half of the West, going 5-5 since LeBron James went out with a tendon issue in his foot. However, if they are going to be any kind of postseason threat, the Lakers need peak LeBron back.

With rumors swirling he might be out for a while, Lakers coach Darvin Ham gave the most concrete update yet on a LeBron return.

“At some point” is vague, but at least it means the team expects him to return.

LeBron has hinted on social media he is close to a return and will come back recharged.

In a West without a dominant team, Lakers fans — and players — can dream of a playoff run despite their 34-37 record. They looked good for the five games this team was healthy after the trade deadline, and it’s not inconceivable if the Lakers could get everyone back they could beat any team in the West in a best-of-seven. Whether a team with no margin for error (even when healthy) and health issues could string together three series wins to reach the Finals appears too big an ask, but do you think Denver/Memphis/Sacramento want to see LeBron and Anthony Davis in the first round?

Dillon Brooks, Klay Thompson beef gets fun as Grizzlies beat Warriors


Dear basketball gods: We need another Warriors vs. Grizzlies playoff series this April. Please. (It’s lining up for a possible 2/7 or 6/3 matchup.)

Mainly because we need more of the Klay Thompson and Dillon Brooks beef, which was on full display Saturday.

The Grizzlies easily handled the Warriors — who have now lost 11 straight on the road — and Brooks was savoring the moment and talking trash, so Thompson went Kobe and reminded him about the ring count.

Brooks laughed it off after the game (hat tip Evan Barnes at the Commercial Appeal).

“He’s got four rings. That’s all he was saying. It’s motivation to us,” Brooks said. “We want a ring as well. Being able to go through the process of steps that we did last year, we keep going and learning from it all.

“It’s friendly trash talk, but I just hold a lot of real estate over there in San Francisco.”

Thompson responded:

“I don’t care about Dillon Brooks,” Thompson said. “When he retires, I don’t think anyone will ever talk about Dillon Brooks ever again. I promise you. It’s sweet right now, but wait 10 years.”

Brooks enjoys being the antagonist, particularly against the Warriors, he’s already got a beef going with Draymond Green. While Brooks can take it a little too far at points, he is at the heart of what NBC Sports’ Corey Robinson describes as the “punk rock” attitude of Memphis — which is both part of what fuels them and part of what can at times undercut their discipline.

As for the Warriors, the four in the past can’t help them this season if they can’t figure out how to win some games on the road.

Whatever the outcome, seven games between these sides is what we need this postseason.

Celtics blown lead to Jazz, plus another Embiid-fueled 76ers win, drops Celtics to third in East


The Boston Celtics led by 19 in the first half in Utah. They led by four with 1:19 remaining. But the Celtics have played lately like a team that is comfortable — plus they miss Robert Williams III — and that led to another loss, this time 119-118 to the Jazz on the road.

This one came dramatically when Grant Williams — who was hot and hit seven 3-pointers in the game — broke off a play designed to be a dribble hand-off for Jayson Tatum and went to the rim, only to get rejected by rookie Walker Kessler.

Despite the loss, the Celtics clinched a playoff spot with the Heat’s loss to the Bulls. Utah’s Lauri Markkanen was hot and led all scorers with 28.

Earlier in the day, the 76ers had little trouble with the Pacers and picked up their eighth-straight win while Joel Embiid scored 31 points — his ninth straight game with 30+ points as he makes an MVP push.

The 76ers’ win and the Celtics’ loss moves Philadelphia percentage points ahead of Boston into the No. 2 seed in the East.

The Celtics and 76ers are destined to finish as the two and three seeds in the East, setting up a second-round clash (barring any first-round upsets). The seeding matters mostly for home court in that series and that could make a difference in what will be a physical, intense match-up that likely goes at least six games.

Meanwhile, the Bucks sit as the top seed with a two-game cushion and would love to watch the Celtics and 76ers beat each other up in the second round before having to face either.

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