Five dark horse teams to watch during NBA Orlando restart

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We all know the contenders: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. In the East, Boston or Toronto will be there should Milwaukee stumble.

But who are the NBA dark horse teams? What teams could come out of the pack to make a surprising deep playoff run?

Here are the five dark horse teams to watch at the NBA restart in Orlando.

1) Houston Rockets

Small ball — microball, really, with their best center being 6’5” P.J. Tucker — could be big in Orlando.

While Houston’s unorthodox style gets all the press — they do put out athletic lineups that can score a lot of ways — the real key is James Harden and teammates are rested. In his last five games before the league was shut down Harden looked worn down, shooting just 37.4% overall and 25% from three. His legs were not under him. Same with Tucker, who was asked to play more minutes and a larger role in this small-ball system and shot 30% overall and 25% from three in his last five games before the break.

Now Tucker and Harden are rested (Harden had 24 points and 10 assists in the Rockets first scrimmage), paired with the athletic Russell Westbrook (whose shot selection improved over the course of the season). Plus, Eric Gordon is finally healthy and the addition of Robert Covington should be a perfect fit. The Rockets are going to launch threes, attack the rim, put up points, and unapologetically be who they are under Mike D’Antoni. It all could come together and surprise some teams — the Rockets and their small-ball ways are poised to make a deep playoff run.

2) Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have been a sleeping giant all season long. The problem was their big off-season acquisition, Al Horford, was just not fitting in. When Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Horford shared the court this season, Philadelphia’s offense scored less than a point per possession (0.98) and had all the spacing of a New York subway at rush hour.

At the Orlando restart, Horford will come off the bench and Ben Simmons will start at the four, working more off the ball. That means Shake Milton will get the start at the point, adding a second ball handler and a catch-and-shoot threat. The starting five will be Embiid, Simmons, Milton, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson. Will it work? Who knows, that lineup has played zero minutes together this season. But it works on paper, especially now that Simmons is now fully healthy — he even hit a corner three in a scrimmage this week.

If this comes together quickly, Philadelphia is a serious threat to Milwaukee to come out of the East. It could work. If not, coach Brett Brown likely pays the price.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were already better than you realized: From Dec. 1 until the shut down they were 33-13 with a +3.9 net rating, and OKC had a top 10 offense and defense. Chris Paul, in the midst of a bounce-back season, has been arguably the most clutch player in the NBA all season — he has shot 57.7% in the clutch (last five minutes of a game within five minutes) and orchestrated a dangerous offense.

Oklahoma City has been at its best this season with a three-guard offense of CP3, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+28.6 net rating in those minutes, giving up less than a point per possession defensively).

Roll that threesome out for some key minutes, get the usual solid minutes from Steven Adams, and the Thunder could surprise teams in the West. OKC simply is better than many fans realize and are a real dark horse in the NBA Orlando restart.

4) Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic. Do we need to say more?

Dallas has the ultimate pick-and-pop partner for Doncic in Kristaps Porzingis (he can roll and finish a lob, too), plus a lot of shooting depth across this roster. Seth Curry looked fantastic in his first game back. They have guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith who knocked it down this season.

Most importantly, Dallas has depth — which can translate into versatility — and a coach in Rick Carlise who knows how to use it. Look for Dallas to move up the West ladder in the seeding games and be a real threat once the playoffs start.

5) Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler showed up and was a perfect fit with the Heat culture this season — now he’s healthy, rested, and ready to go. Remember how far he led Philadelphia last season in the playoffs (but for a couple of crazy Kawhi Leonard bounces the 76ers could have been in the Finals).

The Heat have Bam Adebayo at center, who made the leap to All-Star level player this year. They have scoring off the bench in Goran Dragic. They added veterans who should fit in perfectly in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. They have talented rookies in Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. There is just a lot to like about this roster, and how a smart coach like Eric Spoelstra can make it all fit together.

Miami could burn a few teams in the East this postseason.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

NBA COVID-19
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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.