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Ten things to watch for during the NBA restart

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The deals are done. The NBA is coming back. The season will resume on July 30 at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida.

Here are 10 things to know about the restarted season:

1) THE RACE FOR 8

There are six teams in the race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference — Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix. (Technically, Dallas is also in that race, though the Mavericks need only one win and one Memphis loss to clinch no worse than the No. 7 spot.)

There are seven games where those six teams will go head-to-head, including four featuring the Pelicans — who play Sacramento twice, Memphis once and San Antonio once. The other games: Sacramento vs. San Antonio, Memphis vs. San Antonio and Portland vs. Memphis.

Phoenix doesn’t play any of the other five teams in the race for eighth.

The Grizzlies start with a 3 1/2-game lead over Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento, along with a four-game edge on San Antonio. Unless the Grizzlies open up space on all four of those clubs, it seems likely that there will be a best-of-two play-in series for the final spot in the West playoffs and a probable first-round matchup with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The play-in games will take place if the ninth-place team in either conference is within four games of eighth when the seeding round ends.

In the East, it’s a bit simpler. No. 7 Brooklyn is six games ahead of Washington and No. 8 Orlando is 5-1/2 games clear of the Wizards in the race to clinch a berth and avoid a play-in series. None of those teams can move past the No. 7 spot on the East bracket.

2) MAGIC NUMBERS

Milwaukee needs a combination of two wins or Toronto losses to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East. The Lakers need a combination of three wins or Los Angeles Clippers losses to clinch the No. 1 spot out West.

Denver also has a mathematical chance at the No. 1 seed out West — but would need to go 8-0 and have the Lakers go 0-8 for that to happen.

Most of the races at Disney will be for seeding. Milwaukee cannot finish lower than No. 2 in the East and Toronto needs only one win to be assured of a top-four seed. The West can still see some shakeups, with four games separating second place from sixth place and only 2 1/2 games separating fourth place from seventh.

3) HEAT CHECK

Miami had a league-high eight games remaining against the eight teams that didn’t qualify for the Disney restart.

Now the Heat will have a fight on their hands just to hang onto the No. 4 spot in the East.

Miami plays Boston, Denver, Indiana twice, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Toronto and Phoenix in the seeding games. That schedule ranks harder than Indiana’s or Philadelphia’s — the Pacers and 76ers both will head to Disney two games behind the Heat in the East standings.

Orlando and the Lakers both saw seven games against the eight Disney-non-qualifiers canceled, tied for second-most in the league behind Miami. Memphis had the fewest such games lost, with just one — a matchup against New York.

4) HOME ON THE ROAD

All 22 teams will be staying at the Disney campus for the rest of their seasons. Yes, that includes the Orlando Magic — whose home arena is about 20 miles from Disney World.

The Magic simply see it as doing their part to make the restart happen.

“We appreciate the leadership of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, our longtime partner, Disney, and our local leaders in this unprecedented time,” Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “We look forward to providing assistance as needed in restarting the NBA season in Orlando, while using our collective platform to drive meaningful social impact.”

5) SPEAKING OF ROAD

Philadelphia was the NBA’s best home team this season, going 29-2 — on pace to be the second-best home record in a season in franchise history. The 1949-50 Syracuse Nationals were better, going 36-2 at the State Fair Coliseum in the franchise’s inaugural season.

Problem is, the 76ers won’t be playing in Philly again until next season.

Philadelphia went just 10-24 on the road in the regular season, the second-worst road mark of the 22 teams that will be playing at Disney. Only Washington (8-24) was worse.

If the 76ers are going to go deep in these playoffs, they’ll need to figure out how to win without the raucous Wells Fargo Center advantage.

6) THEY WILL BE MISSED

Milwaukee has the NBA’s best record, and one of the reasons the Bucks hold that mark right now is because of how good they were against the eight teams (Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, New York, Minnesota and Golden State) that didn’t qualify for the Disney restart.

The Bucks were 22-0 against those eight teams — one of three NBA teams to go unbeaten against that group. Oklahoma City was 15-0 and the Lakers were 12-0. Toronto and Boston were both 19-1 and Utah was 15-1.

Only one remaining team had a losing record against those eight clubs: San Antonio went 7-8.

7) LAKER BREAK

The schedule means that the Lakers won’t play a back-to-back-to-back after all.

The Lakers would have played home games on April 7, 8 and 9 against Golden State, Chicago and the Clippers — the last of those coming because a game that was scheduled to be played shortly after Kobe Bryant’s death was moved until later in the season.

8) HELLO, AGAIN

For 26 players on the rosters of the 22 teams, Disney is going to look familiar. They played there in college.

The Disney campus plays host to the Orlando Invitational over Thanksgiving, and some alumni of that event are headed back there now for NBA contests. Among them: Heat teammates Jimmy Butler (Marquette, 2009) and Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga, 2012), Portland’s Zach Collins (Gonzaga, 2016), Washington’s Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga, 2016), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton (Texas A&M, 2010), Indiana’s Edmond Sumner (Xavier, 2015), Phoenix’s Kelly Oubre Jr. (Kansas, 2014) and Boston’s Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State, 2013).

And lest we forget, the Lopez brothers — Milwaukee teammates Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez — are huge Disney fans, and have made their affinity for the place very well-known in recent weeks.

9) NO 3’S RECORD

For the first time in eight seasons, the league record for total 3-pointers made won’t get broken.

It was on pace to be smashed.

NBA teams have combined for 23,560 3-pointers made so far this season, which is already the fourth-most of any season in league history. The league was on pace for 29,844 3-pointers, which is 1,889 more than the record of 27,955 set last season.

10) STATE OF BASKETBALL

Florida — the Sunshine State — will be the epicenter of basketball this summer.

While the NBA is headed to Disney, the WNBA season is also scheduled to begin next month and be headquartered in Bradenton, Florida. That’s about 100 miles from where the NBA will be playing.

The WNBA plan is for its players to be housed at the IMG Academy, with games to be played at the nearby Feld Entertainment Center.

Portland’s Damian Lillard named seeding games MVP

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The NBA restart bubble gave us surprises — from the Suns going 8-0 and almost making the playoffs, to the much-hyped Pelicans going an ugly 2-6 — but one thing we knew going in rang true:

Damian Lillard can light it up.

His dominating performances lifting the Trail Blazers to the West play-in game made him the unanimous choice for Seeding Games MVP. The NBA announced the All-Seeding Games teams on Saturday (these awards are based only on the eight seeding games). The awards were voted on by media members in the bubble for the seeding games.

Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game, but what won him the MVP was his performance in the final three games when his team needed it to qualify for the play-in — 61 points, then 51, then 42 in the final seeding game. Lillard was the emotional leader who set the tone for his team and refused to let them lose. That is an MVP.

Lillard was the unanimous first choice for MVP. Phoenix’s Devin Booker finished second, followed by Indiana’s T.J. Warren, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, and Houston’s James Harden.

Here are the All-Seeding Games teams:

FIRST TEAM
SECOND TEAM
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Devin Booker (Suns) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) Caris LeVert (Nets)
James Harden (Rockets) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

DeMar DeRozan of the Spurs and Paul George of the Clippers were the players who finished with the most votes just out of the running.

New Orleans Pelicans fire head coach Alvin Gentry

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No team entered the NBA restart bubble in Orlando with the buzz of the New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson was back, they had an All-Star in Brandon Ingram and solid veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday around them. With all that, no team was as disappointing in the bubble as the Pelicans, who went 2-6. They looked like they were going through the motions, and all season long were less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry paid the price for that and was fired, the team announced. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez of ESPN and soon after confirmed by the organization.

It was not a surprise. Gentry was considered on shaky ground before teams flew to Florida and the disappointing play of his team while there led to team VP of basketball operations David Griffin making the change. (A sitting coach is always on shaky ground when the management above him changes, as happened with Gentry.) While Zion was not in the bubble the entire time, this is still a talented roster, one that came out like it was just going through the motions, with Lonzo Ball reportedly having checked out. No one seemed focused on the opportunity to make the postseason. That attitude is why the Pelicans fired their coach.

“I want to thank Alvin for his contributions to the Pelicans and the New Orleans community,” Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We believe that making a head coaching change is necessary at this time. I truly appreciate Alvin’s leadership, dedication and perseverance through some challenging circumstances over the past five seasons. He will always be a part of our Pelicans family, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future. Our intention moving forward is to find the right head coach that will guide this Pelicans team to compete for championships. That is what our fans deserve.”

Clippers lead assistant Tyronn Lue and Lakers lead assistant Jason Kidd — two veteran coaches who are considered player-friendly — were mentioned as potential replacements by ESPN and Marc Stein of the New York Times. Lue and Kidd have both been mentioned in connection with the open Brooklyn Nets coaching job. Both also are in the Orlando bubble with their respective teams as the playoffs are about to begin (and both likely will be there for a while). Another name to watch is current Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, who is not expected to be brought back with the Rockets and favors the kind of up-tempo system that would suit Zion. n

The challenge with big-name replacements in New Orleans is money — this is the smallest market in the NBA and ownership has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Lue, Kidd, and D’Antoni will be expensive and demand five-year contracts. The Pelicans could look at seasoned assistant coaches who have not yet held a top spot — Sam Cassell, Ime Udoka, and there are many others — who could do the job and come at a price more within their budget.

The key for whoever gets the head coaching job is to form a strong bond with Zion, the future of the franchise, and figure out how to get the most out of him.

 

 

 

Portland, Memphis where they want to be as play-in series tips-off

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.

For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.

For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.

And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series. The Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”

Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.

“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”

The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.

Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.

“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”

Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell expected to play Monday against Dallas

Montrezl Harrell play
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When the Clippers take the court Monday for their first playoff game in the bubble, going against Luka Doncic and a dangerous Mavericks’ team, Montrezl Harrell will be suited up and ready to play.

The Clippers’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate, who excused from the bubble due to the death of his grandmother and missed all eight seeding games, will be out of quarantine and cleared to play, report Adrian Wojnarowski and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

Doc Rivers said he plans to play Harrell against an active Dallas front line.

“I’m just going to throw him in there, he’s earned that right,” Rivers said. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game. We’re hoping that at this point.”

Harrell came off the bench to average 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. Harrell was often part of the Clippers closing lineup this season because of his improved defense, but he always brought relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. They will need that against a Dallas team that rolls out a front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic.

Not having Harrell for eight games in the bubble added to that versatility, Rivers said.

“We got to play JaMychal [Green] at the five far more than we ever thought we would. We needed to work on that because he’s such a floor spacer,” Rivers said. “We got way more work on that than we thought, but we actually liked it.”

Expect to see more of that — and some Harrell — against Dallas starting Monday.