HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – While the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs occupy the minds of most NBA fans right now as the conference finals end and we get ready for The Finals, Kobe Bryant is quietly plotting his comeback in Los Angeles.
“I hope so,” Bryant said . “That’s the challenge. With the tendon, there’s really only but so much you can do. There’s a certain amount of time that they deem necessary for the tendon to heal where you don’t overstretch it and now you never get that spring back.
“So, you just have to be patient, let the tendon heal and then when that moment comes when they say, ‘OK, we can take off the regulator so to speak and now it’s on you to train as hard as you can to get back to where you want to be,’ that’s going to be a good day.”
In addition to plotting his own return, Bryant plans on being an active recruiter for the Lakers’ biggest free-agent target, center Dwight Howard. Howard is sure to be entertaining suitors from coast to coast July 1 when free agency kicks off. Bryant and Howard got off to a rocky start as teammates this season but appear to have grown closer throughout the tumultuous ride.
Bryant said he’ll step in when needed and make sure to impress upon Howard the importance of the big man being a part of the master plan in Los Angeles:
“For me, you kind of let him do his due diligence and then move in and talk to him and figure out if this is a place he wants to be,” Bryant said. “We all want him here. But then that’s when the selling begins [after Howard is courted by other teams]. You don’t start the selling process right before he goes and does all this stuff. You want to get the last word. You want to have the final word and the closing argument.
“I’ll give him a little opening statement, but then I have to make sure I have the final word.”
That has to be music to the ears of Lakers fans. Having the man who has served as the face of the franchise for much of the past decade and a half work this hard to make sure Howard serves as his eventual franchise successor speaks volumes about where Bryant is in his career.
With the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are all reportedly preparing recruiting pitches for Howard (who, along with Chris Paul and Josh Smith, are the headliners in the free-agent class), the Lakers have to be prepared with a pitch of their own. The more input and influence from Bryant it seems, the better.
Only time will tell if it works out for Bryant on both fronts. We’d be foolish to doubt his resolve as he attempts to come back earlier than expected from his injury. In fact, convincing Howard to stick with the Lakers might be the more difficult of the two tasks.
Howard has managed to avoid doing any interviews since the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Spurs, so anyone assuming what he might do is going off of sourced information and little else.
Indiana is not only up against a great team. It’s up against great odds. Historically speaking, when a best-of-7 series has been tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 has won the series 83 percent of the time.
Still, nothing will come easy for Miami. Over the past 33 seasons, only nine teams have claimed the championship. (The Heat have done it twice.) Only four teams (the Lakers, Bulls, Rockets and Pistons) have won back-to-back titles. And a Miami repeat would give the Heat a chance to do what only two other teams have done: pull off a threepeat. (Michael Jordan’s Bulls did it twice; the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers were the other ones.)
Indiana has had only one trip to the NBA Finals, 13 years ago, when the Pacers lost to the Lakers in six games in L.A.’s first leg of its threepeat. These Pacers have had their chances. In fact, they might look back on Game 1 in Miami, when LeBron James beat them with a spin-drive to the left that beat the buzzer, as the game that cost them a second chance at The Finals.
Ominous, too, was the Heat’s 90-79 win Thursday night in Miami. The Pacers led 44-40 at halftime even after a handful of missed shots at the rim and a spate of turnovers. But James, after delivering a fiery speech to his huddled teammates, dominated the third quarter and carried Miami to the pivotal Game 5 victory.
The good news for the Pacers? Half the teams that lost Game 5 after being tied at 2-2 gave themselves a chance for a Game 7 by winning Game 6.
Here’s a look at the teams that have successfully defended their title since 1980 and the toughest challenges they faced: (more…)
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – For months it appeared the Los Angeles Lakers’ free-agent summer plans would hinge on the relationship between two men, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers’ two biggest stars had to find common ground if this multi-million dollar experiment is going to bear fruit in the future. They had to be on the same accord going into the summer for Howard to ignore the other options he has as an unrestricted free agent and stick with the Lakers after a tumultuous first season in Hollywood.
Not everyone is convinced that the Howard-Bryant dynamic is the linchpin to the Lakers’ plans, though. Another man, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, could very well be the central figure on the Lakers’ side. Perhaps it’s his relationship with Howard, and not Bryant, that holds the key to the future between the All-Star big man and the franchise known for Hall of Fame big men.
As folks in Orlando can attest, this could be the start of Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak‘s very own Dwightmare!
While Howard hasn’t so much as spoken a word publicly about his future, there are rumblings in Los Angeles that he plans on entertaining free-agent pitches from the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, as well as the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, instead of simply agreeing to the $118 million offer the Lakers have planned for him on July 1 when free agency opens.
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, part of the discussion between Howard and Kupchak centered around Howard’s frustration with D’Antoni — particularly how the center felt marginalized as the coach looked to Bryant and Steve Nash for leadership and suggestions and discounted Howard’s voice.
Every player was afforded the opportunity to meet with Kupchak individually after D’Antoni left the room, but few spent as much time as Howard and Kupchak did together. Antawn Jamison also had a separate meeting with Kupchak without D’Antoni present, but that was because of a scheduling conflict.
Kupchak left the meeting with Howard undeterred, telling reporters he was “hopeful” and “optimistic” that Howard would be back with the Lakers next season and beyond, yet there have been several developments in the last couple weeks that could have an effect on Howard’s decision.
D’Antoni chose not to retain assistant coach Chuck Person, a Howard confidant, on his staff for next season. Also, Lakers assistant coach Steve Clifford, who was with Howard in Orlando for five seasons before both of them came to L.A. last year, has become a hot head coaching candidate, interviewing with Milwaukee and receiving interest from Charlotte.
One source described the potential departure of Clifford, coupled with the loss of Person as “removing the buffers,” between Howard and D’Antoni, “which is a bad thing.”
Howard’s relationship with Bryant seemed much healthier at the end of the Lakers’ season than it did at any other time throughout the season. He visited Bryant at the hospital after he’d had Achilles surgery and Bryant spoke glowingly of Howard during his exit interview.
Bryant is going to do his best to mend fences and rebuild bridges this summer for the Lakers in what is truly a colossal summer for the franchise. The NBA’s social media king took to Twitter to spread that message to the masses:
Interesting off season looming.. Will spend time with d12 #stay and talk with the Buss family in hopes that Pau stays as well #my2cents— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) May 21, 2013
But if there is a rift (spoken or not) between Howard and D’Antoni, even Kobe might have a hard time fixing it. Especially with all of the other options that will be presented to Howard in about six weeks.
The Lakers cannot afford to enter the 2013-14 season with Bryant still on the mend from that Achilles injury and only Nash and Pau Gasol as headliners in a Western Conference that could be as deep as it’s been in years. Having Howard on board would keep the Lakers among the playoff crowd. Without him, there is no telling where the Lakers land.
While the situation seems dire to some, Kupchak believes he has a better grip on things than the rest of us think. More from McMenamin:
Kupchak did not seem worried about any potential rift between player and coach.
“I think Dwight likes winning, he likes performing at a high level,” Kupchak said. “I think he’s fine with Mike D’Antoni, but I’m not really concerned if players like a coach, so I don’t ask that question. Our coaches are evaluated by wins and losses.”
Kupchak was further pressed about the possibility of a coaching change being dictated by a player.
“This organization has a precedent with that kind of a situation and I think we learned our lesson,” Kupchak said, referring to when Paul Westhead was fired in the early ’80s and the decision was tied to Magic Johnson‘s wishes. Whether that was the real story or not, both Johnson and the Lakers organization took a hit for how it was perceived.
We’ll know better in six weeks just how big a rift there is, if at all, between Howard and D’Antoni.
In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your latest Dwightmare!
OKLAHOMA CITY –Kevin Martin was in a deep funk and the pressure, bearing down on him from multiple angles, was starting to crush him.
For one, Martin had sat on the postseason sidelines since 2006 when he was a 23-year-old, third-year scorer for the Sacramento Kings, so his adrenaline raced to overload levels as he started the 2013 playoffs for the title-contending Oklahoma City Thunder. Two games in and Russell Westbrook tears his meniscus and is declared out for the remainder of the playoffs, instantly and drastically altering Martin’s role from a sixth-man spot-up shooter.
His burden, though drove much deeper. He was matched up against his old team, the Houston Rockets, and the first-time All-Star he was traded for, James Harden, a beloved figure during his three seasons with Oklahoma City. Failure here would be personally damaging and very likely make for an abbreviated stay with OKC when he becomes a free agent this summer.
Martin is an unrecognizable 17-for-69 from the field through the first give games, 9-for-32 in the first three games without Westbrook and 1-for-10 in a Game 5 home loss that brought the Rockets from down 3-0 to 3-2 with Game 6 in Houston. Martin seemed zapped of confidence and to be losing the battle against himself.
“I think it was all the above,” Martin said. “I hadn’t been to the playoffs in a while. I didn’t know what to expect when I was 23, I was just a kid and I was out there running around as really the sixth or seventh option on that Sacramento team. And then being in the series with Houston, I got a lot of friends over there and had some good years there. It was just an emotional series all the way around.”
Then came Game 6 on his former home court and Martin sprung to life. He started becoming aggressive, becoming playmaker again, slashing, cutting, driving off the dribble, getting to the rim and the free throw line. He dropped 25 points on Houston as the Thunder surged ahead in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to move into the semifinals.
On Sunday, Martin did it again, scoring 25 points to help the Thunder to a 1-0 lead in their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Consider the difference: In the first five games against Houston, Martin made just five field goals and went to the free throw line 17 times. In the last two games, he has nine field goals (15-for-27 overall and 6-for-10 beyond the arc) plus 15 free throw attempts. He’s getting in the paint and making the opposition pay.
“Throughout the year I knew my role, I had to be that third-leading scorer beside K.D. [Kevin Durant] and Russ,” Martin said. “And now I need to be that second option. That’s just what the team needs out of me and that’s what I’ll do.”
Martin’s Game 1 production — 8-for-14 from the field, 3-for-5 from 3-point range and 6-for-7 from the free throw line — will force Memphis coach Lionel Hollins to reassess his decision to largely allow Martin to roam without defensive specialist Tony Allen guarding him.
Allen played less than 21 minutes in Game 1 and fewer than seven minutes came with Martin on the floor. And during a three-minute stint in the second quarter when Martin scored 15 of OKC’s 33 points, he burned Allen backdoor for an and-1 layup and then buried a 3-pointer.
During the season with Westbrook in the lineup, Martin’s shooting often told the story of OKC’s outcomes. When he scored in double-digits, the Thunder largely won. And when he didn’t, they struggled, particularly against playoff teams. Now it’s a question of consistency. Martin won’t average 25 points as he has in the last two games, but for OKC to beat Memphis — and beyond — he must continue to be a multidimensional playmaker and shoot at a high percentage.
“We want him to move. He’s our best mover,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “We don’t run an offense for him to stand around in the corner, but he has to do that at times because we have some other dynamic players. But I thought his effort, moving and cutting and allowing himself to get easy shots and get to the free throw line, that’s his game.”
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – No team in NBA playoff history has ever lost a best-of-seven series after surging ahead 3-0. So the odds of one team choking it away are worse than a freak Midwest snow storm in the heart of spring.
Suddenly we have two teams trying to make it rain on their opponents’ parade.
The Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets return to their respective home arenas Friday night with the objective of extending their first-round series to the wire after losing the first three games. Trying to avoid postseason infamy and outright humiliation is the second-seeded New York Knicks, the clever characters who dressed in black on Wednesday for a Game 5 “funeral” at Madison Square Garden. However, as Knicks Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith dutifully pointed out afterward, they were the ones that got buried by the resilient Celtics.
Over in the Western Conference, the eighth-seeded Rockets in Game 5 dominated a discombobulated Oklahoma City team without their heart-and-soul point guard Russsell Westbrook. Former Thunder guard James Harden splashed seven 3s for Houston and scored 31 points.
So what are the odds that either the Celtics or Rockets can at least get their respective series to a Game 7? Cloudy, at best.
Only three teams down 3-0 have ever won the next three to go the distance: The Knicks did it against Rochester in the 1951 Finals; the Denver Nuggets against the Utah Jazz in the 1994 West semifinals; and the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2003 West first round. The latter two were double-digit victories for the home team.
“Mainly because the other team is a lot better,” Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked why teams down 3-0 typically bow out in Game 4 as his injury-depleted club did against the San Antonio Spurs.
And truth be told, if Westbrook doesn’t tear the meniscus in his right knee, the Thunder are likely sitting back waiting to see if the Memphis Grizzlies close out the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 or if those two are headed back to L.A. for one final bludgeoning.
But Westbrook’s absence has changed everything. The Rockets, the youngest team in the playoffs as the Thunder once were, are feeling confident. They have to believe that if they continue to run-and-gun and don’t allow anyone not named Kevin Durant to go crazy that they have a great chance to force a Game 7 back at Oklahoma City on Sunday.
The Celtics, logic insists, don’t have as good a chance as Houston because they don’t have a built-in opening like the Rockets with the catastrophic injury to the all-important Westbrook. The Knicks aren’t missing a star player. They possess the league’s scoring champion in Carmelo Anthony (18-for-59 from the field in Games 4 and 5), the Sixth Man in Smith (suspended for Game 4, 3-for-14 in Game 5), last season’s Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler, a more threatening offense and they’re deeper at just about every position, if not at every position.
But, as long as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are wearing green — and add cold-blooded Jason Terry, a champ himself in 2011 with Dallas — the Celtics just don’t die. A raucous TD Garden on Friday will put the Knicks’ veteran poise to the test.
The Knicks must dig down to avoid the No. 1 derogatory label in all of sports — chokers. And the Thunder must figure out how to pick themselves up without Westbrook.
The odds remain steep for the Celtics and Rockets. Then again, as Jason Collins proved this week, there’s always a first for everything.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Forget about The Finals, for now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have to worry about getting out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, now that we know they’ll have to finish the Houston Rockets without one half of their superstar dynamic duo. Russell Westbrook needs surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee and could be out anywhere from four to six weeks, depending on how quickly he recovers.
“We hope [he comes back in the playoffs],” Kevin Durant said. “Our firs thing is to make sure he gets healthy and gets that knee back right. We’re not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he’s healthy and his knee is right. That’s our only concern right now.”
There is a time frame that would allow Westbrook to return later in the playoffs, perhaps late in the conference finals or the start of The Finals.
But again, the Thunder will have to make it that far without the league’s resident iron man. Love him or hate him, no one can question Westbrook’s durability, before now. He hadn’t missed a game during his five-year career, having played in 394 consecutive regular season games and all 45 playoff games the Thunder have played during that same span.
But he won’t be on the floor for Saturday night, joining a long list of game changers who are watching this NBA postseason from the bench of or beyond due to injury. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee and Danny Granger are all watching their teams toil without them in this postseason. They all serve as human reminders for their peers that your next false step could be your last, of this season.
But none of those aforementioned stars plays on a team that had the supposed inside tack to get back to the conference finals and then The Finals, for that rematch with the Miami Heat. Westbrook’s injury opens the door in the Western Conference for the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors to start eyeballing the calendar in early June for a possible trip to The Finals of their own. Shoot, even the Los Angeles Lakers, down 2-0 to the Spurs in their first round series, can start dreaming about doing the unthinkable.
Simply put, the West is wide open now.
“Kevin Durant needs to take the Carmelo Anthony approach,” said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “Take around 25-30 shots per game, his team already has a 2-0 lead. The one thing about professional sports, and life for that matter, when opportunity knocks, you have to seize it. So trust me, all of the teams in the Western Conference, their ears perked up today. They feel like they have chance to advance.”
The Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the West this season but entered the postseason with plenty of worthy challengers who did not plan on the fragile nature of things to swing in their favor with Westbrook’s injury. No offense to Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher or anyone else in a Thunder uniform, but it’s Durant and Russell Westbrook who do the headlining. In fact, the Thunder have never had to work for an extended period of time without both of their stars in the lineup.
Trying to navigate these rough playoff waters with only one half of that devastating combination sounds more like mission impossible for a Thunder team that, truth be told, spent much of this season learning how to operate without the former third member of their superstar crew, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden.
Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Scott Brooks and Durant all did their part to rally the troops today after the news spread of the severity of Westbrook’s injury.
“Our team as a whole, we’ve got a resilient group of guys, a lot of character within that locker room and a group that enjoys playing together and has been through some adversities over the last several years that they’ve been together.” Presti said. “We’d expect them to adjust, come together and have different guys step in and play well collectively. Once we were able to gather all of the necessary information and everything was accumulated, it was an easy decision for our medical team.”
The decision on how to play in Westbrook’s absence won’t be nearly as easy. The Rockets’ defensive strategy shifts now from worrying about picking between two lethal performers to focusing solely on Durant and daring that Thunder supporting cast to beat them. Westbrook averaged 24 points and seven assists through those first two games while also serving, as always, as the Thunder’s primary facilitator.
Jackson’s been solid in spurts of relief this season. Doing it daily, however, could be more than he’s capable of handling. And even if does acquit himself well in the first round, either Chris Paul or Mike Conley and their teams, will be waiting on the Thunder’s replacement for Westbrook in the next round.
Durant insists that the Thunder’s “Next Man Step Up” mantra applies in this case, just as it does any other.
“We have good depth on our team,” Durant said. “Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment. He has been working his tail off ever since he got here. So he’s ready for this. We just have to rally behind him and know that we have to give him confidence, because he’s going to make mistakes like everybody else. But we just have to keep encouraging him.”
All the courage and encouragement in the world won’t make Jackson into Westbrook. Their is certainly survival after losing a superstar. The Lakers (Kobe) and Celtics (Rondo) are proof of that much.
But we’re talking about a team focused on competing for championships, not just surviving.
“It doesn’t matter who we throw out there. We’re a 15-man team and we still are, even with Russell being hurt,” Brooks said. “We’re a 15-man team and everybody believes in each other and that’s what you have to do. You don’t win in this league with one player. You don’t win with five or six players, you win it with your team. We talk about that and we believe in the things that we talk about. We don’t jus throw it out because it looks cool on a t-shirt or a billboard. We believe in each other, we believe in what we do and we take pride in it and we’re proud about what we do.”
We’re all going to find out exactly what the Thunder do when they are forced to play a man down.
Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbook has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery to correct it in the upcoming days. His return for the playoffs is possible, but uncertain.
From Turner Sports’ Rachel Nichols
GM Sam Presti: "Player health is our 1st & foremost concern. Our medical team & several specialists determined Russell undergo a procedure"— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 26, 2013
And more from Presti’s release:
“We have thoroughly discussed this with Russell. Despite being the competitor and teammate that he is, he respects and understands the decision and is committed to come back even stronger. Certainly Russell is a leader and core player for this team, but we are in the midst of the playoffs and I know other players are determined to step up and contribute. We have a resilient group of players who have always taken pride in playing as a team and that approach will continue.”
The Thunder next play on Saturday in Game 3 of their first-round series against the Houston Rockets, a series that Oklahoma City leads 2-0. It figures to be the first missed game of Westbrook’s five-year NBA career. He has played in all 394 regular-season games since he was drafted fourth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics in the 2008 NBA Draft and all 45 playoff games. He has been a starter for all but his first 17 games.
Russell Westbrook had played in 439 straight games for OKC (incl playoffs) – was longest active streak in NBA.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 26, 2013
The Thunder did not set a timetable for Westbrook’s return. Los Angeles Lakers star Metta World Peace had a meniscus tear in his knee and was back on the court in less than two weeks. But others have taken much longer.
Westbrook’s injury also tightens the race for the Western Conference title. Reggie Jackson, who averaged a little over 14 minutes a game during the regular season, is expected to start in his place.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The playoffs are here. And to get you ready, we’ve got statistical nuggets for each series, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.
Western Conference basketball was faster and more efficient than Eastern Conference hoops. We’re sure to see three high-paced series in the first round, because six of the eight West playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in pace, with the only exceptions being the Clippers and Grizzlies, who will face each other.
Pace won’t be the only reason scoring will be higher in the West. Seven of the eight West playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency.
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank) OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank) DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank) NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank) The league averaged 94.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 103.1 points scored per 100 possessions.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The start of the NBA playoffs is just days away and that’s always a signal for superstars to ready themselves to step into the spotlight on the game’s biggest stage.
It’s also the time for those unsuspecting guys, the unsung contributors on playoff teams from throughout the league, to raise their level of play with their respective seasons on the line. We like to call them Hang Time’s Playoff Wild Cards, guys who will impact their teams and potentially the outcomes of their respective team’s first round series.
The Starting Five of HT’s Playoff Wild Cards Team (and just like Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, we don’t get caught up in positions. We’re going with the best five Wild Cards):
JEREMY LIN, PG, HOUSTON ROCKETS
By now Rockets fans know that the star point guard they snatched away from New York last summer is not the same guy who inspired Linsanity. What they’ve got is a guy who is much steadier and just as productive, statistically, through 82 games with the Rockets (13.4 ppg, 6.0 apg and 3.0 rpg) as he was in 25 games with the Knicks (14.6, 6.2 and 3.1). What makes Lin a Wild Card is knowing that he’s capable of getting on the kind of roll that created the Linsanity phenomenon. The right matchup in the playoffs could be all he needs to morph back into the player we saw during his magical ride in New York.
DANNY GREEN, SG, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Green is easily overlooked on a team with superstars like Tony Parker and even Tim Duncan who are often foolishly overlooked by the masses when the conversation turns to the true superstars in the league. What cannot (and should not) be overlooked is Green’s season-long penchant for taking and making big shots, not to mention his 43 percent shooting (for the second straight season, mind you) from beyond the 3-point line. Green is the beneficiary of defensive attention being paid to Parker and Duncan, and he takes full advantage of defender’s inattention to detail all the time.
JEFF GREEN, SF, BOSTON CELTICS
If the Jeff Green that showed up after All-Star weekend is the same Jeff Green that shows up for the playoffs, the Celtics will be one of the postseason’s most dangerous lower seeds. Green has averaged 17.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.7 apg in 34.1 minutes a night since the break (compared to the 10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 1.0 apg he posted in 24.6 minutes before the break). Green has the size, athleticism and skill on both ends of the floor to battle elite small forwards. The Celtics need him to do it every night in the postseason.
JIMMY BUTLER, SF, CHICAGO BULLS
In a season when Derrick Rose‘s supporting cast has been under scrutiny every single night, Butler has shined in his opportunities to contribute, particularly on the defensive side of things. He’s the battled the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and more than held his own in those matchups. Some young players struggle with a sudden increase in minutes, many of them spent in different roles. But not Butler. The more he’s played the better he’s played, giving Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau yet another rugged contributor on a team filled with them. If Butler continues to score the way he has recently (15.6 ppg on 53 percent shooting in his last five games), he’ll have an even greater impact than expected in the playoffs.
COREY BREWER, SF, DENVER NUGGETS
This Wild Card thing is easy for Brewer. He does it daily for a talented and deep Nuggets team that has thrived all season by unleashing that depth on the opposition. What makes Brewer so effective in this role is his non-stop motor, his activity on both ends of the floor, his ability to shoot it from distance and the fact that he finishes at the rim and in transition. It’s pretty remarkable considering he doesn’t appear to have gained a single pound since middle school (we’re joking here). Brewer averages 12.2 ppg without any plays being called for him … ever. He should have “Wild Card” stitched across the back of his jersey instead of “Brewer.”
There is just one day left in the 2012-13 regular season and 15 of the 16 total possible playoff spots have been wrapped up (Utah and the L.A. Lakers are still slugging it out for the last berth in the West). While things get a little clearer each day, here’s a look at which teams are headed where — and which teams can still change their fate.
UPDATED THROUGH GAMES PLAYED APRIL 16
EASTERN CONFERENCE TEAMS
No. 1 Heat (65-16) — Clinched Southeast Division, No. 1 in East, No. 1 overall seed in playoffs
No. 2 Knicks (53-28) — Clinched Atlantic Division, No. 2 in East
No. 3 Pacers (49-31) — Clinched Central Division, No. 3 in East
No. 4 Nets (48-33) — Clinched No. 4 in East
No. 5 Bulls (44-37) — owns tiebreaker (won season series with Atlanta 2-1); (1 game left — April 17 vs. Wizards)
No. 6 Hawks (44-37) — trail Bulls for No. 5 by virtue of tie-breaker rules; (1 game left — April 17 @ Knicks)
No. 7 Celtics (41-39) — Clinched No. 7 in East
No. 8 Bucks (37-44) — Clinched No. 8 in East
The quick recap: Miami is assured of home court throughout the playoffs and the division-winning Knicks and Pacers have locked up the No. 2 and 3 spots. The Nets, Celtics and Bucks are all locked into their playoff spots as well, leaving the No. 5 and No. 6 spots (which are between Atlanta and Chicago) up for grabs.
ATLANTA: The Hawks (seeded No. 6 as of Wednesday morning) and the Bulls (No. 5) can still swap spots if Atlanta finishes with a better record than Chicago. But, the Hawks do not have the tie-breaker as they lost the season series to the Bulls, 2-1.
CHICAGO: Has tiebreaker (season-series victory) over Atlanta for the No. 5 seed. The Bulls have one game left on the schedule (April 17 vs. Washington) and, should they finish tied with the Hawks record-wise, Chicago would pass Atlanta and clinch No. 5 in the East.
WESTERN CONFERENCE TEAMS
No. 1 Thunder (60-21) — Clinched Northwest Division, No. 1 overall in West
No. 2 Spurs (58-23) — Clinched Southwest Division, No. 2 in West
No. 3 Nuggets (56-25) — No. 3 in West; Assured of home court in first round; Can clinch No. 3 with a win Wednesday against Phoenix OR if the Clips lose finale (April 17 @ Kings).
No. 4 L.A. Clippers (55-26) — Clinched Pacific Division; Clinched at least No. 4 in West; May or may not have home court in first round; needs either a win (April 17 @ Kings) or a Grizzlies loss (April 17 vs. Jazz) to clinch home court.
No. 5 Grizzlies (55-26) — Clinched No. 5 in West
No. 6 Warriors (46-35) — No. 6 in West; Cannot fall lower than No. 7
No. 7 Rockets (45-36) — No. 7 in West; Can climb up or fall one spot
No. 8 Lakers (44-37) — No. 8 in West; controls own fate (April 17 vs. Houston); can move as high as No. 7
No. 9 Jazz (43-38) — 1/2 game behind Lakers for No. 8 seed; owns tiebreaker with Lakers (won season series 2-1); can only clinch No. 8 spot
The quick recap: The Thunder have home court throughout the Western Conference playoffs, the Spurs are the No. 2 seed and the Grizzlies are the No. 5 seed. Other than that, there are still plenty of things left to be decided.
DENVER: The Nuggets are assured of home court in the first round, but their seeding can still change. Denver can clinch No. 3 with a win Wednesday against Phoenix OR if the Clips lose either of their last two games. If the Clippers and Nuggets finish with the same record, the Clippers own the tiebreaker advantage; although the Nuggets won the season series with the Clips, the Clippers’ division title trumps a head-to-head series win. In this case, the Clippers would be the No. 3 seed and the Nuggets would be the No. 4 seed.
L.A. CLIPPERS: By virtue of winning a division, they can’t fall further than No. 4. However, they can lose home court in the first round despite the division title. Memphis is locked into the 5th seed and can’t pass Denver, and the Clippers are guaranteed a top 4 seed. But, if Memphis finishes with a better record than the L.A. Clippers, they would host a Grizzlies-Clippers series despite being the lower-seeded team.
GOLDEN STATE: They can clinch the No. 6 spot by winning their season finale in Portland on April 17. But if they lose and the No. 7-seeded Rockets win their season finale against the Lakers, Golden State loses the tiebreaker with Houston and falls to No. 7 in the West.
HOUSTON: The Rockets can finish anywhere from No. 6 to No. 8 in the West. Here’s how:
They climb to No. 6 if: They beat the Lakers in their season finale and the Warriors lose in Portland. Houston won the season series with Golden State 3-1.
They stay at No. 7 if:The Warriors win their season finale in Portland. The Rockets would be unable to catch Golden State in the standings.
They fall to No. 8 if: They lose to the Lakers in their season finale on April 17. With a victory, the Lakers would tie the season series with Houston and, by virtue of the next tiebreaker (record against conference foes), would leapfrog Houston. In that scenario, the Warriors would be the No. 6 seed, the Lakers would be the No. 7 seed and the Rockets would be the No. 8 seed.
L.A. LAKERS: First things first — they control their own playoff fate. Win on April 17 against the Rockets (or have Utah lose in Memphis earlier in the night) and L.A. clinches the last playoff berth still available. A victory by Utah coupled with a loss to Houston means L.A. misses the playoffs by virtue of the Jazz winning the season series, 2-1.
They will be No. 8 if: They lose, but the Jazz lose to the Grizzlies, too.
They will be No. 7 if: They defeat Houston in their season finale.
They miss the playoffs if: They lose to Houston in their season finale and the Jazz defeat the Grizzlies.
UTAH: The Jazz need to win their season finale in Memphis … and then hope the Lakers lose at home to the Rockets (who, as you can read above, could fall to No. 8 if they lose). If the Jazz get in, they can’t move up higher than No. 8, even if the Warriors lose and Rockets win their final games. Both teams would finish with better records than the Jazz.