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Playoff Scenarios: What’s at stake on final night of season

HANG TIME BIG CITY — 81 games down, one to go. After Wednesday, the NBA regular season will be over, but even with the end around the corner, there are still more questions than answers. Luckily, we’ve got Wednesday night, the results of which will determine the playoff matchups. So what’s the scenario? Let’s take a look at all the different ways this could play out …

  • For a few playoff teams, Wednesday’s games will have no impact on their postseason standing. In the Western Conference, the top four teams are locked in: the Golden State Warriors (1), San Antonio Spurs (2), Oklahoma City Thunder (3) and Los Angeles Clippers (4) are set. In the Eastern Conference, Cleveland (1), Toronto (2), Indiana (7) and Detroit (8) are assured of their spots. So the Cavs will host the Pistons, while the Raptors will host the Pacers.
  • The 3, 4, 5 and 6 seeds in the Eastern Conference couldn’t be much closer. The Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat both enter Wednesday night with 48-33 records, while the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets are both 47-34. Miami owns the tiebreaker over Atlanta and Charlotte, Atlanta owns the tiebreaker over Boston and Charlotte, and Boston owns the tiebreaker over Charlotte and Miami. If Miami wins or Atlanta loses, the Heat win the Southeast Division. If Atlanta wins and Miami loses, the Hawks win the Southeast Division. Got all that?
  • Miami could finish anywhere from the No. 3 spot to the No. 6 spot. No matter what else happens, if the Heat beat the Boston Celtics (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), they will be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Hawks will be the No. 4 seed.
  • After that, it gets pretty complicated. If the Heat and Hornets lose and the Hawks beat the Washington Wizards (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass), the Hawks will be the 3 seed. The Heat and Celtics would then have the same record, with Boston holding the tie-breaker, meaning the Celtics would get the 4 seed, and the Heat would finish 5th, leaving the Hornets 6th. If the Heat win or the Hawks lose, the Hawks finish 4. If Miami loses and the Hawks and the Hornets win, the Hawks would finish 3, while Boston would be 4, Charlotte in 5, and the Heat would finish in the 6 spot.
  • The highest the Celtics can finish is the No. 4 seed, if they beat Miami and Atlanta beats Washington. If Boston loses and Charlotte wins, the Celtics will finish 6.
  • The best the Charlotte Hornets can achieve is a No. 5 seed. If the Hornets beat the Orlando Magic (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass) and Miami wins, the Hornets will finish No. 5 and the Celtics will finish No. 6. The Hornets also clinch the 5 spot if the Hornets, Hawks and Celtics all win. If the Hornets lose to the Magic, they are guaranteed the No. 6 seed. Same if the Hornets and Celtics win and the Hawks lose.
  • In the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are all still jockeying for the 5, 6 and 7 positions. The Blazers enter Wednesday’s games 43-38, while the Grizzlies and Mavericks are 42-39.
  • Dallas can finish No. 5 if it wins and Portland loses. Dallas will finish No. 6 if it wins and Portland wins, or if Dallas and Memphis both lose.
  • Memphis has one game left, and it’s a big one: at Golden State (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), with the Warriors trying to go to 73-9, breaking the 72-10 regular season mark held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. If Memphis wins and Dallas loses, the Grizzlies will finish in the No. 6 spot. If the Grizz lose, or if they win and Dallas wins, Memphis lands in 7th.
  • For the final Western Conference playoff spot, Houston and Utah are both still alive, although the Rockets hold the tiebreaker edge thanks to their 2-1 record against the Jazz this season. The Rockets host the Sacramento Kings (8 p.m., ET, NBA League Pass), and if the Rockets win, they’re in. For Utah, the Jazz have to not only hope for a Rockets loss, but also find themselves needing to win what will be an emotionally-charged game in Los Angeles, where Kobe Bryant will play his final regular season game as the Lakers host the Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Morning shootaround — April 8


VIDEO: Highlights from Thursday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kerr may want to rest players | Rockets’ playoff hopes take hit | Bulls’ swoon affecting Gasol’s decision | Why Hinkie left Sixers

No. 1: Warriors win No. 70 … is rest next? — The Golden State Warriors etched their names in the NBA history books again last night, becoming just the second team to win 70 games. A 112-101 win against the San Antonio Spurs gave them that as well as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and the No. 1 seed in the league. If they run the table, they can surpass the 72 wins the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls amassed, but will they still push for that accolade? Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com has more:

With the Golden State Warriors having wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, coach Steve Kerr said he is leaning toward resting his players but that the team will meet to discuss the issue.

“We are going to talk about it tomorrow,” Kerr said Thursday night after the Warriors’ 112-101 win over the San Antonio Spurs, their 70th victory of the season. “We’ve been putting it off for as long as we were able to, which was until we got the 1-seed. Now that we have that, I’m inclined to give some guys some rest if they need it, but I’ve sort of made a pact with the guys that if they are not banged up and they are not tired and if they want to go for this record or whatever then — so we got to talk.”

The Warriors have three games remaining and must win them all to surpass the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who set the NBA record for wins in a season with 72. Clinching the No. 1 seed was Kerr’s primary goal.

Asked about his concerns, Kerr said, “I’m a little uneasy about it. It’s not that I’m worried about injury. You can get injured in practice. It’s not so much that I want to rest guys to avoid injury, but we do have a back-to-back here. It will be our third game in four nights.”

All-Star forward Draymond Green said he thinks most of his teammates are aiming for the wins record over rest.

“Think about the year we’ve had: started 24-0, haven’t lost two in a row all year, have had several streaks of seven-plus wins in a row, yet we’re still sitting here needing three in a row,” Green said. “That tells you how hard this is to do.

“So to get this far and kind of just tank it and say, ‘Aw, never mind.’ … Let’s face it, we probably will never get to this point again. That’s why it’s only been done one time. I think most guys in the locker room are all-in, and we’ll figure that out this weekend.”

All-Star guard Klay Thompson was direct about what his decision will be, telling ESPN, “I’m not going to rest.”

“I’m only 26. When I’m 36, I’ll be looking to rest more,” he later told the assembled media.

Forward Harrison Barnes echoed that sentiment, saying, “I’m 23, so I’ve got no problem playing the rest of these games, and we’ll go from there.”

Reigning MVP Stephen Curry said the Warriors aren’t finished yet.

“We wanted to take care of tonight and clinch home court for the playoffs, was a goal of ours,” Curry said. “With three games left and 73 still there, it’s obviously a lot to play for.”


VIDEO: Golden State’s players talk after Thursday’s win

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Blogtable: Most memorable career moment from 2016 HOF class?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Predicting East’s middle seeds? | Predicting West’s bottom seeds? |
Top moment from 2016 HOF class?



VIDEOGet to know the 2016 Hall of Fame class

> Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and Allen Iverson headline the new Hall of Fame class. Which player had the most memorable moment, what was it and why does it still resonate with you?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I’m going with Shaq and the moment is personal, because I was in Orlando on April 20, 1994 when the big man dropped 53 points on Minnesota. Wait, make that threw down 53 points. I know Shaq eventually would top that – he got 61 for the Lakers on his 28th birthday – and he had lots of other unforgettable plays. But I’ll never forget the cannon sound effect the Magic used back then for dunks and how, with Shaq destroying Christian Laettner, Mike Brown and Stanley Jackson inside, it sounded like they were playing the “1812 Overture” without the band. O’Neal made 22 of 31 shots, grabbed 18 rebounds and even hit nine of his 13 free throws that night. It was as if he was playing against Jabbawockeez, not Timberwolves.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comOne moment for these three? Really? It’s just not possible. That single tear that Shaq shed in the moment after he won his first championship with the Lakers? The smile of acceptance when the combative, criticized Iverson raised his first All-Star Game MVP trophy in Washington, D.C. in 2001? But I will say the one that made me chuckle loudest was a Dec. 2006 game with the Rockets at Clippers. A dominant Yao Ming scored 32 points and after making one especially nifty fourth quarter turnaround jumper over Chris Kaman that sealed the win, he turned and shouted at the Clippers bench: “You can’t (bleep)ing stop me!” It was a positively raw moment that bridged the cultures of China and the United States. Pure playground, pure basketball, pure Yao.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comIt’s Shaq taking the lob from Kobe Bryant, slamming it through the net with his right hand and running back downcourt with his eyes bugging out in marvel at what had just happened. That exclamation moment had just happened, for one thing, in the final minute of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals, but it was the entire fourth quarter at Staples Center really. It changed history. The Lakers went from 15 points down with about 10 minutes to play, well on their way to being eliminated, to a six-point lead with 41.3 seconds remaining after the Kobe-Shaq connection. It was the final step to the pair winning the title together as part of a fourth quarter that was a huge step in what became a threepeat.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Yao Ming couldn’t get anywhere in the playoffs and also dealt with too many injuries. This is really a two-man contest between Shaq and Iverson, and does any pure “moment” from Shaq compare to Iverson’s step-back and step-over shot against Tyronn Lue in the 2001 Finals? That gets replayed almost as much as Iverson’s rant about practice.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: There are more basketball fans in China than there are people in the United States. I got a little taste of that when I was sitting near the top of the arena on the first night of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The atmosphere was electric for China-USA and the building exploded when Yao opened the scoring by hitting a 3-pointer. He was recovering from foot surgery and out of shape, but he had an obligation to be out there for the biggest game in his country’s history. Shaq and Iverson had incredible careers, and basketball was popular in China before Yao came along. But that moment, for me at least, just illustrated how much of an impact he’s had on a global scale.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Shaq won four championships, the first three when he was the world’s dominant player, and it is not any single moment that resonates so much as his run with the Lakers when all of the NBA was loading up to overcome a single player. The 2003-04 champion Pistons collected four 7-footers around center Ben Wallace; they were inspired by Shaq to gamble the No. 2 pick in 2003 on Darko Milicic. It speaks to O’Neal’s majesty that his “moment” carried on for three years.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: This is a particularly memorable class for me, because I began my career as a writer as Shaq and Iverson were entering the NBA. I got to spend a good bit of time with each of them during their careers, and as a fan I enjoyed watching both of them play, a couple of polar opposites of the NBA. But while Shaq seemed like a Hall of Famer from the moment he was drafted, Iverson’s professional path was never guaranteed, so his ascension to the HOF seems like a geniune accomplishment. As for a single moment, I have to go with Iverson crossing over Michael Jordan. That was a true changing of the guard.

Blogtable: Predicting the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Predicting East’s middle seeds? | Predicting West’s bottom seeds? |
Top moment from 2016 HOF class?



VIDEOBlazers take down Kings in Sacramento

> By this time next week, which teams will be seeded No. 5, 6, 7 and 8 in the Western Conference? And which team is most at risk of missing the playoffs and why?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

No. 5: Grizzlies
No. 6: Blazers
No. 7: Jazz
No. 8: Mavericks

I think the Jazz-Mavericks slotting will hinge on their game in Salt Lake City Monday. And I don’t think any of the four is in danger of missing the playoffs, because if there’s any justice in this silly association, the Houston Rockets need to suffer the same fate in the West that the disappointing Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards experience in the East. They’ve been playing with fool’s gold, kidding themselves that they had the makings of a title contender built around their version of a bearded Carmelo Anthony and the Big Tease.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

No. 5: Blazers
No. 6: Grizzlies
No. 7: Rockets
No. 8: Jazz

If the broken Grizzlies had built themselves one game less of a cushion, I might have said they were headed for one of the great swan drives since Greg Louganis retired. But a big win at home Tuesday night over the Bulls means they’ll only lose a spot and slip to sixth, moving the Blazers up into fifth, where they could even have a longshot upset chance in first round against the Clippers. I believe Houston at Dallas Wednesday night is the elimination game in the West. If the Rockets win, they hold tiebreaker over Utah and take seventh. If Mavs win, they’ll barely hang at No. 8. The loser is the odd man out of the playoffs.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

No. 5: Blazers
No. 6: Grizzlies
No. 7: Mavericks
No. 8: Jazz

Memphis is heading in a bad direction, with enough reason for concern the last couple weeks or so that the Grizz might be fortunate to only drop one spot from the current standings. Obviously Dallas and Utah are both at risk of dropping out of the top eight. The Mavs are probably at a greater risk because the closing schedule is Rockets, Grizzlies, at Clippers at Jazz, Spurs.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com

No. 5: Blazers
No. 6: Grizzlies
No. 7: Jazz
No. 8: Rockets

The Mavericks have own four straight but that was a soft stretch. Their remaining games are all difficult and they close out in San Antonio, where the Spurs haven’t lost, although admittedly Dallas will likely see the B team.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com

No. 5: Blazers
No. 6: Jazz
No. 7: Mavericks
No. 8: Rockets

Another “who the heck knows” question. So much depends on Wednesday’s Houston-Dallas game, and you never know what version of the Rockets you’re going to get. I’ll guess that Portland wins out and finishes 45-37, while the other four teams in the mix finish tied at 42-40. That would leave Memphis as the odd team out, with a 4-7 record against the rest of the group. Of course, they would just need to win one of their last four games to avoid that fate (if I somehow correctly guessed the results of the other 17 games involving these teams).

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com

No. 5: Blazers
No. 6: Mavericks
No. 7: Rockets
No. 8: Jazz

“The Revenant” turned out to be a bad omen for the tormented Memphis Grizzlies: As ravaged as they’ve been by injuries, they’re unlikely to win any of their remaining five games against winning teams. And so everybody gets to move up. The unreliable Rockets (along with the Blazers) have a favorable schedule, which can enable them to jump two spots. Am I showing too much faith in them? Maybe.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog

No. 5: Blazers
No. 6: Mavericks
No. 7: Jazz
No. 8: Grizzlies

I hate to say this, but I don’t think the Rockets are gonna make it. When they’re on, they can be a lot of fun, but when they aren’t clicking, they are a disaster. And I know Memphis is the five seed now, but they’ve lost six straight, have more players injured than healthy, and have a killer schedule down the stretch, including two games against the Warriors, plus games at the Clippers and Mavericks. If I’m Golden State and have the wins record locked up, would you rest guys the final game against Memphis if it guarantees facing them in the first round?

Morning shootaround — April 1


VIDEO: Highlights from Thursday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Irving: Cavs ‘still team to beat’ in NBA | Report: Kobe turned down Euroleague offer | Westbrook saves OKC against shorthanded Clippers | Report: Terry interviews for UAB opening

No. 1: Irving says Cavs still ‘team to beat’ in NBA — The Cleveland Cavaliers have already matched last season’s win total (53) with seven games to play. They seem to have a solid grip on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They are also, however, 2-2 in their last four games and have looked a bit shaky at times since the All-Star break. Cavs star guard Kyrie Irving isn’t hearing any of that doubt, though, and had some strong words to say about his team’s place in the NBA hierarchy after last night’s win against the Brooklyn Nets, writes Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“We’re still to the team to beat honestly, regardless of what anybody else says,” he said after the 107-87 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. “‘[Pundits talking about] what we need and what we don’t need and what we need to get better at. . . . ‘ Us internally, we know we have to improve on a lot of things but we’ve just got to handle business as professionals and continue to get better.”

Clarification was needed. I asked him if he’s saying the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference or in the entire league. He didn’t backtrack.

“I feel like we’re the team to beat,” he replied. “Honestly, it’s open season until we get into the playoffs. I’ve got a lot more confidence than I think that anyone realizes in our team and what’s going on in our locker room.”

Their latest victory put them at 53 wins for the season, the total they accumulated last season. When LeBron James was informed of Irving’s comments, he didn’t completely join in on the “we’re the team to beat” narrative.

“I think we’re all confident in our ability when we’re playing at a high level,” James said. “We want to continue to use these games to get better. When the postseason starts, hopefully we can lock in, which I believe we can and make a run at it.”

A team with James, Irving and Kevin Love will always be a force to be reckoned with. At times the team has played down to the level of its competition and lost games it shouldn’t have. But the Cavs also have had some impressive road wins over some of top teams this league has to offer.

Cleveland has the third-best record in the association. So why aren’t the Cavaliers getting the respect they feel they deserve?

“It seems like that because everybody is watching Golden State. That’s why,” big man Tristan Thompson told cleveland.com. And that could be true. The Warriors are on pace to eclipse the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ NBA record of 72 wins, and Stephen Curry is rapidly becoming the face of the league.

“We’ve had a damn good season to this point and we’re going to continue that,” James said.


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving has some strong words after Thursday’s win

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Morning shootaround — March 26


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Dallas capable of 2007 payback? | Rest takes priority for Spurs | Pistons getting cozy at home | Gentry gets ‘confidence’ vote

No. 1: Dallas capable of 2007 payback? — It’s not the ideal way to go about knocking off one of your conference’s elite teams. But if the Dallas Mavericks have to go the underdog route and angle for a first-round upset of the NBA defending champion Golden State Warriors, well, they know such a crazy thing can happen. Back in 2007, it was Golden State in eighth place in the West, ousting a Mavericks team that won 67 games and was hoping for a return trip to the Finals that spring. Dallas played well enough in its loss to the Warriors in Oakland Friday – with star Dirk Nowitzki sitting for rest – to entertain such thoughts, wrote Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com:

“They did it to us, so hey, you never know,” said Mavs guard J.J. Barea, a rookie towel-waver on that 2006-07 Dallas team who scored 21 points as a fill-in starter in Friday’s 128-120 loss to the Warriors. “We could do it to them.”

If the playoffs started now, the Mavs would have the opportunity to trump the “We Believe” bunch for the biggest postseason upset in NBA history.

Those Warriors in ’07 had good reason to believe they could beat the Mavs. Golden State swept the season series, including a blowout in the final week when coach Avery Johnson foolishly rested his stars instead of attempting to prevent the Warriors from making the playoffs. It also helped that Golden State had Don Nelson, who knew all the deep secrets about Dirk’s game, scheming to stop his former prodigy.

These Mavs, who have a coach in Rick Carlisle whose schematic sorcery pushed the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the first round a couple of seasons ago, can convince themselves that they can compete with the best team in basketball.

Dallas players point to their Dec. 30 rout of the Warriors without focusing too much on the minor detail that reigning MVP Stephen Curry sat out that game. And the Mavs’ two meetings with the Warriors this month were close well into the fourth quarter.

“We’ve definitely proven we can play with them,” guard Raymond Felton said after scoring 17 points. “We’ve proven we can beat them. … If that happens that we play them in the first round, it’s going to be a battle, that’s for sure.”

There’s no such thing as a moral victory for a team that’s fighting for its playoff life. However, the Mavs hopped on their bus for the drive to Sacramento with their heads held high after somehow making it a one-possession game with a few minutes remaining despite Nowitzki and Deron Williams wearing warmups and watching from the bench, and Chandler Parsons viewing from home hours after undergoing season-ending knee surgery.

“If we’re at full strength, I think we have the firepower to put up a fight,” said center/forward David Lee, sporting the championship ring he received in a pregame ceremony before putting up 12 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in his Bay Area return.

“They would obviously be the heavy favorites, and they’ll be the heavy favorites against anybody they play not named the San Antonio Spurs.”

One minor problem for the Mavs: They’d have to figure out a way to stop the Splash Brothers, who have combined to average 71.5 points in the Warriors’ two wins over Dallas in the last week.

It’s unclear how much help Dallas owner Mark Cuban might be if the teams clash in the postseason. Cuban, who did not travel to Oakland for Friday’s game, got busy from afar with criticizing the game’s officiating. He put out some strong stuff for the 4.9 million followers of Twitter feed about which he might just hear from league HQ:

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 No. 2: Rest takes priority for Spurs — For many NBA fans, this is Easter Weekend and will be celebrated as such right through Sunday. For the San Antonio Spurs, it’s more like Festivus – as in, “the rest of us.” Rest annually is a priority for the Spurs at this time of the season and rest is what several of the Western Conference powerhouse’s key players were scheduled from what otherwise would have seemed a crucial clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder Saturday:

Granted, in the case of forward Kawhi Leonard, injury is the concern rather than fatigue. Leonard still is nursing a bruised right quadriceps suffered against Miami Wednesday. It kept him out of the Spurs’ game against Memphis Friday, a game from which coach Gregg Popovich withheld Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. Leonard’s sore thigh muscle remains too “tight” to play, but the plan to sit out Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker from Saturday’s ABC prime-time game at OKC and a Grizzlies rematch Monday in Memphis is entirely discretionary. We’ve all been down this road before with the Spurs, per ESPN.com.

That’s a luxury San Antonio can afford, considering the win Friday night locked up no worse than the No. 2 seed for the Western Conference playoffs with 10 games remaining in the regular season. The Spurs can now rest key veterans as the regular season comes to a close, which in turn increases the minutes for inexperienced role players such as Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons, as well as newcomers Andre Miller and Kevin Martin, who could all be called upon during the postseason.

The victory on Friday was San Antonio’s 37th straight at home, which ties the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the longest home winning streak to start a season in NBA history

“You just try to do your best,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “You don’t want to decondition them and you don’t want to lose rhythm. But you want to rest.”

LaMarcus Aldridge made that an easier proposition by knocking down 7 of 8 shots in the first quarter on the way to 17 points, the most he has scored in a single quarter all season. Aldridge poured in a total of 32 points, including 21 in the first half, while

Duncan started off the opening half hitting 4-of-5 for eight points. He also recorded five rebounds and five assists before finishing with 12 points and eight rebounds.

Heading into the game, Miller averaged 8.3 minutes in his previous 10 contests, while Martin averaged 10.4 minutes over the same span. The duo contributed 16 and 34 minutes, respectively, versus Memphis and gained a level of comfort in their new surroundings and new teammates that could pay dividends for San Antonio in the postseason.

Duncan called the situation “a good experience game for a lot of different guys, a good execution game for us. A lot of these guys haven’t been in our offense and executed everything perfectly to this point.”

They didn’t execute perfectly against the Grizzlies, either. But that’s inconsequential as the Spurs accomplished their goal of keeping everyone as healthy as possible heading into the playoffs, while providing needed game experience for their role players.
“It’s obviously good for these other guys to get minutes and play in situations where they get used to the guys,” Popovich said. “Kevin just got here. Kyle has … rarely started. It’s all good experience. It can only be good for them.”

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No. 3:  Pistons getting cozy at home — If a man’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes, the Detroit Pistons’ Palace (of Auburn Hills) has been their refuge and salvation in chasing a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Two-thirds of the way through their franchise-record nine-game homestand, the Pistons are 5-1 and now two games in front of the Chicago Bulls for eighth place in the East standings, thanks to their impressive victory Friday over conference rival Charlotte. Detroit scored 72 points in the first half and survived a considerable late scare from the Hornets. While veteran teams in Chicago and Washington deal with East angst, the young Pistons took another step in their quest to play with the league’s big boys. Here are some details from the Detroit News:

Throughout their up-and-down season, the Pistons have been plagued by stretches of playing to the level of their opponent. In several of their marquee games, the Pistons have come up with an empty effort.

Not this time.

In a critical matchup for their final playoff push, the Pistons played one of their best games of the season, against a team that had dominated them in both meetings this season.

Reggie Jackson said it was as satisfying a win as the Pistons have had this season, especially given the implications.

“Definitely with the way we’ve been punched in the mouth by them twice, especially with the position we’re in, fighting for a playoff spot,” said Jackson, who had 17 points, six rebounds and seven assists. “This is one of the better wins for us, where we felt like we controlled the game. The only thing better would be if we closed out those last few minutes.”

In those last few minutes a 26-point lead with 7:49 remaining shriveled to five with 37.6 seconds left. But the Pistons were able to close it out, with four free throws in the final stretch

That lapse normally might have driven coach Stan Van Gundy berserk, but given the need for wins to solidify a playoff spot, he wasn’t nearly so critical.

“We need to win and move on,” Van Gundy said. “We played 39 great minutes. We really outplayed a very good team for 39 minutes and then their last five guys played really well. Against their best players, we were dominant and it was a great 39 minutes.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 21 points and seven rebounds, Marcus Morris 20 points and seven rebounds and Andre Drummond notched his 60th double-double of the season with 18 points and 14 rebounds for the Pistons, who are 5-1 — ensuring a winning record — on their nine-game home stand.

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No. 4: Gentry gets ‘confidence’ vote — When you add up the pieces – 45 defeats against just 26 victories, an emergency room’s worth of injuries and the capriciousness with which NBA head coaches get fired these days – you might reasonably conclude that New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry would be dealing with some job insecurity. But Gentry doesn’t see or feel it, nor should he if we’re to take Pelicans GM Dell Demps at his word. Demps gave Gentry the proverbial vote of confidence Friday for reporters while expressing some for himself, according to ESPN.com:

With Alvin Gentry standing by his side, New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps dismissed a report indicating friction between the two and emphasized his support for the head coach.

“I just want to say, my confidence in Alvin has not wavered,” Demps said Friday. “The only regret that I have is that our team is not at full strength. And Alvin hasn’t had the opportunity to coach the team at full strength. I think he’s done a fantastic job.”

The Vertical reported earlier Friday in a video on its website that Demps has second-guessed Gentry often this season, including in front of Pelicans players and staff and opposing teams.

But Demps, in his first interview with local media since September, disputed the claim
“I told [Gentry] this last week: I think our guys are playing hard. Last night was a great example of how hard our guys played and competed,” Demps said. “All the credit goes to Alvin and the coaching staff. I think our guys are still getting better, I think guys are showing up and working every day, and they’re buying in.

“I’m thrilled with the system, I’m thrilled with everything that’s happened. And I think it’s irresponsible reporting for someone to come and say something like that. Because it’s totally untrue.”

Coming off a 45-win campaign that saw them earn their first postseason berth since trading Chris Paul, the Pelicans were widely expected to make a leap this season.

But injuries have ravaged the roster. New Orleans, now 12th in the Western Conference with a 26-45 record, has lost 243 games to injury and shut down five players — Anthony Davis (left knee), Tyreke Evans (right knee), Eric Gordon (right finger), Quincy Pondexter (left knee) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (right wrist) — for the rest of the season.

Asked if he has any concerns about his job security as a result of the struggles, Demps said, “I feel great about my job. I come to work every day, and I feel great about it.”

Gentry, in the first year of a four-year contract that he agreed to amid last season’s NBA championship run with the Golden State Warriors, said he expects to be back in New Orleans next season.

“Yeah, I do. I do,” Gentry said. “I don’t have any doubt about that. I’ll be back, and we’ll be much better because we’ll be much healthier.”

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Hard to blame a Splash Brother for some sibling overconfidence these days:

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: D’Angelo Russell’s “ankle touched the ground when I rolled it” but the Lakers are hoping the “crazy pain” he felt is nothing serious for the rookie. … The Houston Rockets are getting effort and production from James Harden that, let’s face it, without which they they can’t survive as a playoff aspirant in the West. … Kevin Durant, who won’t have Kawhi Leonard to worry about on the court Saturday night in OKC, stands by his long-ago opinion and still likes Paul George’s game better than Leonard’s. … David Lee had to wait longer than the rest of them, but he got both his 2015 NBA championship ring and some overdue love from the fans in Oakland Friday. … As the days dwindle down to a precious few…

Morning shootaround — March 24


VIDEO: Highlights from Wednesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kerr won’t keep Warriors from chasing 73 | Young Jazz get big win on road | LeBron discusses his behavior with coach, GM | Casey won’t risk players’ health for No. 1 seed

No. 1: Kerr won’t stop Warriors from chasing 73 — As the Golden State Warriors have rolled through the 2015-16 season, their success has been compared against that of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who set the NBA single-season record for wins. That Chicago crew amassed 72 wins and Golden State is more than on pace to break that mark. Yet questions remained about whether or not coach Steve Kerr (a reserve on that 1995-96 Bulls team) would led the Warriors pursue the mark … or rest his players for another Finals push. Wonder no more, writes Tim Kawakami of The Mercury News, as both Kerr and star Stephen Curry backed the team’s push for history:

The Warriors are going for 73 regular-season victories — to top the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10 — on their way to an attempt at repeat championships.

Because: Why not?

After weeks of hints and evasions, coach Steve Kerr and star Stephen Curry all but made the official announcement in the hours before Wednesday night’s 114-98 victory over the Clippers at Oracle Arena.

That performance raised the Warriors’ overall record to 64-7, their home record to 33-0 (no team has ever gone undefeated at home for a full regular season) and put an exclamation point on their grand stretch-run plans.

It’s all out there, and the Warriors are no longer going to pretend they don’t know it or want it.

“Now we’re right there,” Kerr said before the game. “That’s pretty enticing.

“It’s really the players’ record. I know they want to get it. So we’ll act accordingly.”

The Warriors’ immediate priority is to secure the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, and the Warriors still have to keep winning games to fend off San Antonio.

And most of all, obviously, the Warriors want to maximize their chances to win back-to-back titles.

A more cautious team — a less historic team — might find a game or two of rest Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green over the next handful of games.

There are risks to going after a record that guarantees them nothing for the playoffs.

So stipulated.

But if they’re all feeling good over these next few weeks, the motivation is clear: The Warriors need nine more victories with 11 to play, and it’s right there for them.

The larger point is that this epic season has been fueled by pure competitive fire, and now that the Warriors are on the brink of history, why would they throttle it down now that it’s tangible?

“It’s probably a different answer for each person,” Curry said after the team’s shootaround Wednesday, “but this is probably a good checkpoint.

“Going 10-2 for us is kind of on pace for what we’ve been doing all season.”

“Yeah, this whole idea of setting a record does make things a little trickier,” Kerr said. “It’s the players who are setting a record. It’s not the organization. It’s the players who are doing it.

“So they will absolutely have some say in matters down the stretch in terms of how we approach everything.”

“For us, we don’t want to limp into the playoffs,” Curry said. “We want to continue to play better and fine-tune on both sides of the ball, our execution.

“We want to continue to establish winning habits and a winning mentality as you go into the playoffs.

“Whatever it takes to motivate us at this point, whether it’s just continue what we’ve been doing, searching for that 73, No. 1 seed, whatever it is.”

Also, Curry added: “Sitting out and watching is just boring. I don’t like watching games if you have the opportunity to play in them.”


VIDEO: Golden State tramples the Los Angeles Clippers for win No. 64

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Morning shootaround — March 23


VIDEO: Highlights from Tuesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook keeps rolling along | No timetable yet on Griffin’s return | Howard says Rockets can win 2016 title | Raptors closing in on team history

No. 1: Westbrook racks up another triple-double — Entering this season, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook had 19 career triple-doubles. After collecting his third straight triple-double last night in a win against the Houston Rockets (21 points, 13 rebounds, 15 assists), Westbrook has 15 this season alone. That would give anyone reason to brag, but Westbrook remains as humble and driven as ever, something his teammates never fail to notice. Royce Young of ESPN.com has more on Westbrook’s triple-double run and its affect on OKC:

He doesn’t like talking much about himself or the things he has done, making it a point to redirect the conversation toward his teammates or about the big picture of winning the game. It’s what most professional athletes are programmed to do, redistributing praise and letting one’s play speak for itself.

But Westbrook just seems downright uncomfortable any time he gets asked about historical context or some supersized statline. That’s unfortunate, because he’s doing things at a rate that keeps the ESPN Stats & Info Twitter timeline at a steady flow.

For instance: He just put up his 15th triple-double — 21 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 111-107 win over the Houston Rockets — that put him in the company of one Michael Jordan for the second most in a season in the last 30 years. Magic Johnson had 17 in 1988-89, and with 11 games left, it almost seems probable Westbrook will jump that number with the way he’s stacking them up (six in his last nine games). That’s pretty crazy, right?

Westbrook somehow seems to stat-pad in the most selfless way possible, effectively by consuming as much of the game as he possibly can when he’s on the floor. He doesn’t go after the numbers; the numbers just come to him.

“Yeah, that’s good, man,” Kevin Durant said of Westbrook’s 15 triple-doubles. (An aside: Durant said in a decidedly ho-hum kind of way, which says a lot about how routine Westbrook has made these nights). “One thing about Russell is he doesn’t really play for that stuff. That’s not really important to us. For him, of course it’s cool to have that many triple-doubles, but it’s about winning at the end of the day.”

And here’s the thing: That’s what the Thunder do when he gets them. With Tuesday’s effort, Westbrook and the Thunder made it 15-for-15 — 15 triple-doubles, 15 wins. If the Thunder want to reach the level of the Golden State Warriors, the answer to getting there apparently is pretty simple: Westbrook just has to get a triple-double every game — or at least 73 of them, maybe.

“Nah, man,” Westbrook said, laughing. “Just play, man. Just play my game. The game will tell you what to do. Like I said all season, if it’s scoring, then I’ll score, if it’s rebounding, that’s what it is, passing, whatever it is. The game will tell you what to do, and that’s what I try to do.”

It seems as if there’s something to that, though; 15-0 is hard to ignore. Just statistical happenstance, or is something working in those games?

“I’m not sure, man,” Westbrook said. “I think just trying to find the right way to play. All those games are big games for us, because we came out with a win.”

The narrative with Westbrook once upon a time was that he shot too much, but it was never out of a ball-hogging selfishness. It was more about survival instinct and a lack of overall trust. But with more well-rounded offensive weapons playing around him now — such as Enes Kanter, namely — he has turned into the league’s best creator.

He has entirely bought in — which is the most important part. There were fears about his coachability under a new regime, moving away from Scott Brooks’ more liberal “Let Russ Be Russ” philosophy into coach Billy Donovan‘s slightly more democratic approach. All Westbrook talks about is winning, and as he has matured appears to understand and believe in the process it takes to do that. For example: The Thunder are 19-1 this season when he shoots 15 or fewer times. They’re 30-12 when he records 10 or more assists. Like the triple-doubles to wins and losses, they’re possibly just arbitrary stats that connect some dots — or maybe the combination to unlock the full potential of the Thunder.

To see Westbrook grow into the kind of player who has gone from one of the most polarizing and debated players in the league to one who now has 12 games of 15 or more assists has been a remarkable evolution. To see a player who has put up 15 triple-doubles with still 11 games to go — well, even Westbrook is shocked by that.

“Never, man. Never,” he said when asked if he ever expected that. “I’m just blessed to be able to play the game I love and have an opportunity to play with such great guys. My teammates do a great job of helping me out and I just go out and try and compete at a high level every night.”


VIDEO: Westbrook talks with Inside the NBA after his monster game

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Reports: Durant to play tonight; Harden questionable

HANG TIME BIG CITY — Tonight’s marquee match-up between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder (8 ET, TNT) should have both of its previously questionable participants. Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who was nursing an elbow injury, will play tonight, according to reports…

Durant is averaging 28 points a game for the Thunder, who are 48-22 and in third place in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, Houston is fighting for a playoff spot at 35-35, and clinging to the seventh seed. Their leading scorer, James Harden, who is averaging 28.6 points per game, is still listed as questionable as he recovers from an ankle sprain, although the Rockets sound optimistic he will play…

Morning shootaround — March 22


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant questionable vs. Rockets | Why LeBron unfollowed Cavs on social media | Wade to Davis: Don’t rush back | Hammond praises Antetokounmpo’s development

No. 1: Durant (elbow) questionable tonight vs. Rockets — The Oklahoma City Thunder were not their sharpest right after the All-Star break, amassing a 4-8 mark after March 12 loss on the road to the San Antonio Spurs. Things have picked up a bit lately for the Thunder, though, as they are in the midst of a four-game win streak as the Houston Rockets visit tonight (8 ET, TNT). However, it’s not all positive for OKC as leading scorer Kevin Durant has an elbow injury that may keep him out of tonight’s game. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more:

Late in the third quarter on Saturday night in Indianapolis, Kevin Durant flew in for an acrobatic block, but was undercut and fell hard on his right elbow.

He stayed down for a little while, wincing in pain during a timeout, but remained in and closed out the game. But after an off-day Sunday, he didn’t practice on Monday. Durant was seen walking across the floor with an ice-pack on his elbow.

“Did a little bit on the side,” coach Billy Donovan said. “But in terms of the contact stuff we did, he didn’t do anything.”

Does Donovan expect Durant to be available against the Rockets on Tuesday night?

“Gonna see how he’s doing tomorrow, but it’s nothing too serious, nothing that’s a major problem,” Donovan said. “He’s got some discomfort, but we’ll probably find out (if he’s available) at shootaround.”


VIDEO: OKC gears up for its showdown with Houston tonight

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