Ja Morant
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Three Things to Know: Memphis loss, Portland win tightens race for eight seed in West

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Memphis loss, Portland win tightens race for eight seed in West. There is only one race left in the NBA this season. We know who the top seeds in each conference will be, and in the East we know who the eight teams headed to the postseason will be (although there is some jockeying for seedings still taking place).

What we don’t know is who will be the eighth seed in the West.

Tuesday night, the current eight-seeded Memphis Grizzlies took an early lead but couldn’t hold it against Orlando, ultimately falling 120-115. That opened the door a little for Portland, which beat Phoenix behind 25 points from Damian Lillard, while San Antonio got LaMarcus Aldridge back and beat the Mavericks. Memphis’ loss also helped out New Orleans and Sacramento, who had the night off.

Here are the standings at the bottom of the West and what the playoff picture looks like:

Traditionally a 3.5 game lead with 17 games to play would be seen as nearly insurmountable, but that’s where the remaining schedule comes into play. Let’s break it down for each team:

• Memphis (32-33). The Grizzlies have the eighth seed in hand thanks to a Rookie of the Year season from Ja Morant and the rest of a young core stepping up in a way few expected (maybe less than few). However, the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the West, including facing the Bucks once and the Raptors twice. It’s so tough that fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projects them to go 6-11 the rest of the way. Memphis, however, is getting Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. back healthy soon, and they have been pulling off upset wins (the Lakers at the end of last month, for example). If they can win showdowns like the one at Portland on Thursday, and at least split the home-and-home with New Orleans in just more than a week, they will hold on to this spot.

• New Orleans (28-36, three games back in the loss column). With Zion Williamson making the Pelicans must-watch television, this is the team a lot of fans want to see go up against the Lakers in the first round. (You can be sure this is the team television executives are rooting for to get the spot.) If Zion wants to win Rookie of the Year, he has to lead New Orleans past Morant and Memphis (and that may not be enough, but it makes it interesting). What the Pelicans have going for them is the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA — two games against Atlanta, two against Washington, plus a home-and-home against Memphis. It’s that schedule that has fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projecting them to go 40-42 — meaning a 12-6 record the rest of the way — and with a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s a lot of things that have to come together, but the Pelicans have been better than their record all season and they are due for a run of good luck and good wins.

• Portland (29-37, four games back in the loss column). Their case for catching Memphis goes like this: We have Damian Lillard, we are about to get Jusuf Nurkic back, and we have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. Which is a pretty good case to make; fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projects them to go 9-7 the rest of the way, finishing with 38 wins. Any chance they have has to start with a win Thursday against Memphis, then holding together during an upcoming six-game road trip. It’s a longshot, fivethirtyeight.com gives them just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs, but bet against Lillard at your own peril.

• Sacramento (28-36, three games back in the loss column). The Kings are the hottest team in this group, having won 7-of-10, and they have a softer schedule than the Grizzlies (although the Kings do have the Lakers twice and the Clippers once remaining). De’Aaron Fox is trying to lift the Kings to their first playoff berth since 2006 (the longest drought in the league, one of the longest in league history). Kings ownership and management are desperate to get in, but fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projects them to go 9-8 the rest of the way and fall just short. It gives them an eight percent chance at the playoffs, if the Kings are getting in they need to pull a few upsets down the stretch.

• San Antonio (27-36, three games back in the loss column). The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, are you going to bet against them? San Antonio also has a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way and they just got LaMarcus Aldridge back, the question is can they overcome what has been a terrible defense all season? Fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR doesn’t think so, projecting the Spurs will go 8-11 the rest of the way, and it gives them just a two percent chance at the postseason. San Antonio beat Dallas on Tuesday and will need a few more upsets like that to extend its playoff streak to 23.

2) Lakers fall into trap game, LeBron James and Anthony Davis miss in the final seconds, Lakers lose to Brooklyn. After beating the Bucks and Clippers over the weekend in emotional, showcase games, this was always a trap game on the schedule for the Lakers. It was a game where they would relax and would then run into a scrappy Brooklyn team that finds a way to compete.

No player on the Nets better epitomizes this ethos than Spencer Dinwiddie, and he hit what proved to be the game-winner.

The Lakers had their chances — and with the ball in the hands of their best players. LeBron James’ game-tying layup attempt rimmed out, and Anthony Davis’ three ball to end it did not fall.

The Lakers are still solidly the top seed in the West and may try to get their stars a little rest down the stretch of the season. The only question is if they want to push to catch Milwaukee for the top seed in the entire league (the Lakers are three games back of the Bucks), and knowing LeBron’s history that should matter less than rest and health.

3) The NBA is increasingly serious about moving games or playing in front of empty arenas. The more you talk to people around the NBA, the more you get the sense the league is dead serious about making some bold moves in the face of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States (the number of confirmed cases climbed in the USA climbed north of 1,000 yesterday).

Wednesday, the NBA owners will have a conference call with Adam Silver and other top officials from the league, then on Thursday it’s team presidents and GMs on more conference calls. On those calls, the league is going to lay out a range of options, including trying to move games to cities where outbreaks have not hit, or to playing games in empty arenas with no fans. The idea of pausing the league is not off the table, but that is the most desperate of acts.

Teams are already facing choices. On Tuesday, Ohio governor Mike DeWine requested there be a pause in mass indoor gatherings to watch sporting events, which would impact the Cavaliers. Other states are expected to follow suit.

It’s tough to say what the NBA will choose to do, in part because the lack of testing has left the United States with an incomplete picture of just how much the virus has spread and where. The league is listening to experts and following guidelines, and that could mean a few radical shifts coming in the next few days. Maybe. Nobody really knows.

Must watch: Lonzo Ball halfcourt alley-oop to Zion Williamson

Lonzo Ball Zion Williamson
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Damn. This is just a thing of beauty.

Lonzo Ball and Zion Williams have a connection on the court and the Grizzlies got a look at it up close and personal Monday.

NBA TV has another angle

In a must-win game for 0-2 New Orleans, Zion played more in the first half than we have seen recently, but he was still under 10 minutes total. He had 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting, leading an energized Pelicans team that led by seven at the half.

Thunder’s Dennis Schroder leaves bubble for birth of child

Dennis Shroder child
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Dennis Schroder was not in uniform when Oklahoma City lost to Denver Monday. He wasn’t even in Orlando.

Schroder left the bubble to be with his wife for the birth of his child, something the team knew was coming but came up suddenly Monday morning, coach Billy Donovan said pregame (reporting from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin inside the bubble).

 

“I’m not gonna leave my wife by herself while she’s having a second baby,” Schroder said when he talked about this with reporters previously. “(Dennis) Jr. is still 17 months old, so I’m for sure gonna go there and support her and try as much as I can to be there for my family.”

Congratulations to the Schroder family, we hope everyone is happy and healthy.

The Thunder will miss Schroder while he’s gone. He is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaging 19 points per game while shooting 38.1% from three. The Thunder are at their most dangerous when Schroder is paired with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rotation that we will not see for a while.

The first round of the playoffs starts Aug. 17. Schroder can return to the team, the question is how long he will be in quarantine when he does. If Schroeder has a negative coronavirus test for seven consecutive days before his return, he will be in quarantine for four days. If he does not get tested, or if he exposes himself to the virus unnecessarily while outside the bubble — for example, picking up wings from a strip club for dinner — he will have a 10-day quarantine.

The Thunder could use him for what will be a tight first-round playoff series in a very balanced West. Schroder may or may not be there, he has higher priorities right now.

Oklahoma state Rep. threatens to increase Thunder’s taxes for kneeling during national anthem

Oklahoma City Thunder kneel during national anthem
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The Oklahoma City Thunder – like all NBA teams (minus a few individuals) – kneeled during the national anthem.

That powerful protest calls attention to racism, particularly through police brutality. It is highly patriotic to work toward ending those shameful practices. Though some have distorted the underlying message, the protests have largely worked. In the years since Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, Americans have developed a heightened sensitivity to racism and police brutality.

Of course, there are still many opponents of anthem kneeling. The demonstration causes a visceral reaction (which is also why it has been so effective). At this point, it’s hard to stand out among the critics of anthem kneeling who keep making the same, tired arguments.

Oklahoma state representative Sean Roberts found a way.

Roberts, via Oklahoma’s News 4:

“By kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, the NBA and its players are showing disrespect to the American flag and all it stands for. This anti-patriotic act makes clear the NBA’s support of the Black Lives Matter group and its goal of defunding our nation’s police, its ties to Marxism and its efforts to destroy nuclear families.

If the Oklahoma City Thunder leadership and players follow the current trend of the NBA by kneeling during the national anthem prior to Saturday’s game, perhaps we need to reexamine the significant tax benefits the State of Oklahoma granted the Oklahoma City Thunder organization when they came to Oklahoma. Through the Quality Jobs Act, the Thunder is still under contract to receive these tax breaks from our state until 2024.

Perhaps these funds would be better served in support of our police departments rather than giving tax breaks to an organization that supports defunding police and the dissolution of the American nuclear family.”

This is outrageous.

It’s outrageous that the Thunder get such a targeted tax break. The franchise is a private company that should succeed or fail based on its own merits. While it’s easy for NBA fans (like readers of this site) to get caught up in the league, professional basketball isn’t actually important for the greater good.

It’s outrageous that a company’s tax status could depend on how its employees exercise their freedom of expression. The First Amendment still exists.

Ultimately, Roberts almost certainly doesn’t have the power to do what he’s threatening. This is grandstanding for political gain. It gets Roberts into national headlines and little else. Mission accomplished, I guess.

So, Roberts builds a reputation as another big-government politician – someone who wants to use the heavy hand of government to dissuade free expression.

NBA referee Brent Barnaky explains standing for the national anthem

NBA referee Brent Barnaky
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Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, Heat big Meyers Leonard and Spurs coaches Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon drew plenty of attention for standing during the national anthem while nearly all NBA players, coaches and referees kneeled.

Referee Brent Barnaky also stood.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

This isn’t much of an explanation. Nor does it need to be. Barnaky explained that he wasn’t countering the message of kneeling players (opposing racism, particularly through police brutality). That’s sufficient for Barnaky to maintain his neutral positioning – important for an official.

For decades, nearly everyone stood for the national anthem. For many people, that was just about following norms. Even NBA players espousing social-justice messaging previously stood for the national anthem.

But Colin Kaepernick’s brave defiance caused some people to thoughtfully consider their national-anthem posture. So, while many people continued to stand for the national anthem because that’s just was done, some made deliberate choices based on their own values. Sometimes, that led to kneeling. Sometimes, that led to standing.

The thoughtful standers blended into the crowd… until kneeling became widespread in the NBA. Now, they’re the noticeable outliers within the league.

It can take courage to go against the grain. I commend Barnaky for that – and for voicing his support for social justice and peaceful protest.

Barnaky made a personal choice that can stand alone. It doesn’t undermine what anyone else is doing.