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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.

Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead peaceful protest

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While many NBA players have spoken out on social media and attended rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, maybe none has been as vocal and active as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown.

Saturday, he drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest at the Martin Luther King National Historic Park.

Brown was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Brown’s protest still had a run-in with Atlanta police.

This protest is one of many nationwide happening for a fifth straight night in the wake of the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That death happened not long after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Brown, like many nationwide, hope these protests and this frustration can be channeled into real change. Something this nation needs.

Pistons’ Dwane Casey’s says “we all have to be and do better” in wake of George Floyd’s death

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A lot of NBA players have spoken out about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer. Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s, has been the most vocal. Recently players have spoken out about the racism they felt at other times in their lives.

Few have had the experience of Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey. He grew up in Kentucky during desegregation and was in the midst of some of the uglier days of our nation.

Casey released this statement in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Fifty-four years ago I was an eight-year-old boy living in rural Kentucky when the schools were desegregated.  I walked into a white school where I was not wanted nor welcomed.  At that time there were no cell phones to record my treatment, no cable news stations with 24/7 coverage, no social media to record the reality of the situation or offer support nor condemnation.  But I can remember exactly how I felt as an eight-year-old child.  I felt helpless.  I felt as if I was neither seen, nor heard, nor understood.  As I have watched the events unfold in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city where I coached and once called home, I see how many people continue to feel those same feelings – helpless, frustrated, invisible, angry.

“I understand the outrage because it seems the list continues to grow: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.  The injustices continue to mount and nothing seems to be changing.

“Fifty-four years later, my son is now eight years old and I look at the world he is growing up in and wonder, how much has really changed? How often is he judged on sight?  Is he growing up in a world where he is seen, and heard, and understood?  Does he feel helpless?  Will he be treated like George Floyd or Ahmaud Abrey?  What have we really done in the last 54 years to make his eight-year-old world better than mine was?  We all have to be and do better.

“We have to change the way we see and hear each other.  We have to work together to find solutions to make the justice system just.  Black, white and brown people have to work together to find new answers.   The only way we can stop the systemic problems that people of color have faced all our lives is through honesty and transparency.  We have to understand why people are at their limit at this moment.  It takes empathy, in its truest form.  It takes a culture shift, it takes action.  Let’s stop the injustice now.  Let’s not allow another generation to continue to live in a world where they are treated as unequal.  Now is the time for real change.”

Now is the time for change, but we need to act to make it happen, not just hope.

Jerry West: Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals “would be the ultimate competition”

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Jerry West is a Lakers’ legend, a Hall of Fame player who led the franchise to its first championship, later helped put together the Showtime Lakers as the GM. He has a statue outside Staples Center and has a case for greatest Laker ever.

Right now, West is a consultant to Steve Ballmer and the Clippers.

If the NBA goes with a 1-16 seeding in its return, it sets up a potential Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals — and West wants to see it, he said on the Dan Patrick Show.

“For me, Dan, that would be the ultimate competition. I think in Los Angeles, they have so many Laker fans, my goodness. The enormous success that the Lakers have had over the years, they are a really good team now, two of the best players we’ve seen in a long time on one team. I think it would be incredible for the people in the west. I’m not sure how that would go over for the teams back east who want to see their respective teams get an opportunity to play.

“That would be a situation where I think it would be unbelievably competitive. It would be compelling. I don’t know how many teams in the same city have competed for a championship in any sport, much less the NBA. It would make a compelling story, but, in all likelihood, I think you’re going to see things that will be a little bit more normal.”

Some teams are pushing back again the 1-16 seeding, not because of this season when all the teams are in Orlando but because if it happens it would open the door to that seeding every playoffs (a lot of teams oppose it in a traditional season).

That hallway series between the Lakers and Clippers would lose some luster being played in a fanless building on the other end of the country (the Lakers would basically have seven home games, their fans have at least a 50/50 split at Clippers’ home games). However, in a league driven by star power, LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — with Patrick Beverley talking a lot of smack — would draw ratings.

One way or another, we need to see this series these playoffs.

 

GMs want more players, roster flexibility when NBA restarts games

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If the NBA had polled general managers last summer — long before the coronavirus had upended our lives and the league — GMs would have wanted more roster flexibility and players. They want more options. It’s the default position for any GM.

However, throw in the coronavirus and the restart of the NBA coming in July, and those GMs see that flexibility as a must. That’s what they said in the GM survey given recently by the league, as reported by Tim Bontemps at ESPN.

One thing that achieved widespread consensus was the need for teams to have more flexibility with their rosters no matter how the league chooses to resume play. When asked if the playoffs should have expanded rosters or teams should have more of an ability to replace players sidelined by injury or illness, only two teams voted for neither option. Twelve voted for expanded rosters, and 16 voted for an increased ability to replace players who are injured or sick…

There also was a strong preference to add two-way players to playoff rosters — something that previously wasn’t the case. Only three teams said they would vote against adding two-way players to playoff rosters, while 19 said they would support it if rosters remain the same size. The eight other teams said they would support adding two-way players even if rosters expanded beyond 15.

In addition, 16 teams said they preferred that the league add two roster spots for the playoffs, while nine voted for one extra spot and five voted for three.

Making two-way players — guys already in the team’s system — available for the playoffs feels like a no-brainer for the league. Adding a roster spot so playoff teams could add a veteran at a position of weakness makes sense as well.

The reason the GMs want the flexibility is obvious — this is an unprecedented situation, the schedule will be condensed (with teams playing every other day), and it’s possible a player or players could be sidelined by the virus for a couple of weeks. Depth is going to matter to teams.

Expect the league to allow some modifications to rosters, and some of those may well carry over into next season.