WHAT MATTERED MOST
A subjective ranking of the results that mattered most to the playoff bracket.
Playoff seeds and berths ultimately matter most to the extent they determine a champion. So a game in which the team with the league’s best record comes back from a 15-0 hole and 22-point deficit to dominate the second half against the team with the second-best record — one night after controlling proceedings against the team with the third-best record! — is always going to show up near the top of this list. When that elite team also opens up a 3 1/2-game lead for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs with only seven left to play, they’re going to get the top spot.
Yes, the Warriors did all that in just 48 minutes. What looked like a banner night for San Antonio after just four minutes became something very different by halftime (when the Warriors trailed by three points) and turned around completely after a few possessions of the third quarter (when the Warriors took the lead and went on to never trail again). The defense was great, the offense was nifty, and everyone from Stephen Curry to David West (in the year 2017!) looked like a potential playoff difference-maker. Oh, and Kevin Durant is still on track to play before the end of the regular season.
The Spurs are still six games ahead of the Houston Rockets for the No. 2 seed, so they don’t have much to worry about when it comes to facing an acceptable playoff opponent. On the other hand, the Warriors tore apart Pau Gasol and David Lee in the pick-and-roll and could have exposed a severe matchup problem against any functional NBA offense. But maybe it’s best not to worry about that now. We are here for explanations of playoff scenarios, not real basketballular analysis.
The good news for the Celtics is that they’re still in a virtual tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the East’s top seed. The bad news is that they held sole possession of that No. 1 spot for all of two days and lost it by dropping a home game to the kind of squad they’re going to have to handle to win a playoff series, let alone impress over several rounds. A solid night for Isaiah Thomas (32 points on 9-of-17 shooting) could not overcome a 39.8 percent teamwide performance from the floor with 16 turnovers, and the Bucks shot 52.6 percent at the other end to keep up a steady stream of offense.
Even then, the Celtics had a chance to tie on the last possession of the game, which ended in an off-balance, low-percentage miss for Marcus Smart. They could have had a chance to win with a two, but rookie guard Malcolm Brogdon knocked down this big jumper at the shot-clock buzzer to stretch the margin to three:
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 30, 2017
That dagger capped off a stellar night for Brogdon, who finished with 16 points and nine assists. His play was part of an impressive showing for the Bucks, now winners of 13 of their last 16 games. The Bucks remain tied with the victorious Hawks (who hold the tiebreaker via a 3-1 season series win) and stuck in the No. 6 spot, but there’s no question which squad looks like the tougher playoff opponent right now. Draw Milwaukee at your own risk.
With five minutes left in the third quarter, Orlando held a 21-point lead, stunning the Thunder behind the hot shooting of guard Evan Fournier and a sound enough defensive effort to hold OKC to just 37.7 percent shooting as a team.
With 6:01 remaining in the fourth, the Magic held a 14-point lead, as swingman Terrence Ross had cranked up his shooting and the rest of the Thunder continued to struggle to get on track.
Well, nothing else except what the win meant to OKC, officially our newest postseason participant. The sixth team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff berth, the Thunder now sit at 43-31, one game back of the Clippers, who beat the Wizards at Staples Center on Wednesday, in the race for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference. The Magic fell to 27-48, hanging onto their hold on the fourth-worst record in the NBA, and thus the fourth-best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Tight game, Russ goes nuts, home crowd gets entertained and home team loses — a real win-win-win-win in Central Florida!
This result isn’t going to help the ever-worsening mood around the Pacers. One day after Paul George called out his teammates for lacking “winning pride,” Indiana trailed 72-53 at the half and only made a cosmetic comeback after to make it four losses in its last five (and they weren’t world-beaters before then, either). But, hey, at least they’re stuck with Lance Stephenson for three seasons.
This particular defeat puts the Pacers under .500 at 37-38, bad enough to drop them into the East’s No. 8 spot via a lost 2-1 season series tiebreaker with the surging Heat. The Pacers are still 1 1/2 games up on the equally depressing Chicago Bulls, and at this point I don’t think anyone would complain if the East’s top seed gets a bye in the first round.
The Grizzlies are very likely headed for the West’s No. 7 seed no matter what, but they at least ended a four-game losing streak and kept pace with the Clippers and Thunder ahead of them. Perhaps most importantly, they looked good doing it while Marc Gasol missed his third-straight game with a left foot strain. Mike Conley dominated with 36 points and seven three-pointers, and Vince Carter added 21 on only eight attempts from the field.
What’s the cure for what ails a team that has lost seven straight games to cast their playoff positioning in doubt? Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that it’s Back-to-Back Matchups with Two of the Six Worst Teams in the NBA.
After getting off the schneid against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, the Hawks traveled to Philly and mostly took care of business, knocking off the Sixers behind a monster outing from center Dwight Howard: 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting, 20 rebounds, four assists and a blockin 36 minutes of work.
The 76ers made an early fourth-quarter push, rolling up an 11-2 run to draw within two points, 83-81, with just under 8 1/2 minutes left. But a big 3-pointer by Atlanta wing Tim Hardaway Jr., a couple of stops, and some Howard free throws kept Philly at bay, and a driving layup by point guard Dennis Schröder with 1:44 remaining sealed the deal for the Hawks, who improved to 39-36 to stay in fifth place in the East, keeping pace with the also-victorious Milwaukee Bucks, over whom they own a 3-1 head-to-head tiebreaker.
Atlanta got a big boost from the return of swingman Kent Bazemore, who had missed the previous five games with a bone bruise on his right knee and returned with a flourish against Philly. Baze knocked down six of 10 shots and four of five 3-point tries to score 19 points in 20 minutes, adding four rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. Nice to have you back, dude. Now just get your friend Paul healthy, too, and maybe the Hawks might be able to make things interesting come the start of Round 1.
Why does a game between two confirmed playoff teams sit so low on this list? Because both the win and loss merely allowed these squads to tread water in their seeding fights. The Clippers’ home victory allowed them to keep pace with the No. 4 Jazz (1 1/2 back, but with a tiebreaker) and No. 6 Thunder (one game ahead), but they’re still stuck in the middle at No. 5. Meanwhile, the Wizards’ defeat means they neither opened up more than their one-game lead over on the No. 4 Raptors nor closed any of their two-game gap behind the No. 2 Celtics.
Also, boy, maybe reconsider planning on either of these teams to stop anyone in the playoffs. The Clips and Wizzies combined for 67 points in all but one quarter — the fourth, when everyone must have been tired of running from end to end. We would list individual stat highlights, but how can you pick just one? (John Wall had 41 points in the loss.)
Even without shooting guard Dion Waiters, who missed his sixth straight game as he continues to tend to a severely sprained left ankle, and even on the second night of a back-to-back after an emotional last-second win in Detroit, the Heat just had too much firepower for the circling-the-drain Knicks.
Goran Dragic became the latest in a long, long, long line of opposing guards to torture New York’s perimeter defenders, scoring 20 points with nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals. Ace reserve James Johnson continued to turn in his best Peak Spurs-Era Boris Diaw impression as a top ball-handling big man off the bench — 18 points on 11 shots, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks in 27 minutes — to help pace the Heat, who improved to 37-38 and moved up to seventh place in the East by virtue of holding a 2-1 edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker over the slumping Indiana Pacers.
Miami’s also just two games back of the Hawks and Bucks, owning the head-to-head advantage over Milwaukee and having split the season series with Atlanta, so it’s possible the Heat aren’t done climbing just yet. Left for dead amid injury and inconsistency somewhere after New Year’s, Miami is now 26-8 since Jan. 15, with the NBA’s seventh-best offense and third-best defense in that span. Erik Spoelstra for president, or prime minister, or grand vizier of dark magicks. Whichever you prefer.
Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, the Raptors could have drawn into a tie with the Wizards had they not given up 44 points in the fourth quarter and blown a six-point lead after three. The Hornets made eight three-pointers in the period and managed to keep their very slim playoff hopes alive. They’re three games back of the No. 8 Pacers but would have to jump several teams to get there.
Then again, there’s always a chance that the Pacers, Bulls, and Pistons will decide its not worth it to slog through a few playoff games and forfeit the remainder of the season. One can hope!
Congrats to the host Kings, who dropped the first and fourth quarters by a combined 39 points to avoid the win. Utah can maybe look for areas to improve after making a terrible sandwich with amazing bread, but at least they got the win. They stay 1 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers for the No. 4 seed and its all important homecourt advantage in the first round.
The Pelicans win was notable in that Anthony Davis (30 points and 13 points) and DeMarcus Cousins (29 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) both excelled at the same time, which is a good sign for their playoff prospects next season. Alas, they are still 4 1/2 games out the No. 8 spot with only seven left on their schedule. Still, we include them here, because this post is nothing if not comprehensive.
MVP OF THE DAY
A subjective choice for the player most valuable to his team, on just one day and determined by the NBA playoff picture.
Look, this section exists so we can talk about big-time performances from players who aren’t in the NBA MVP discussion. But what Russell Westbrook did on Wednesday means this bit can’t go as planned.
Nineteen points in the final 6:01 of the fourth for the NBA’s most irrepressible force to erase the deficit and force overtime. Seven more, plus four rebounds and two assists, in the extra session. Another triple-double in a season full of them, and this one especially remarkable — 57 points, the most in a triple-double in NBA history, to go with 13 rebounds and 11 assists — to key the biggest comeback in Thunder franchise history, and to make Oklahoma City the sixth team in the West to clinch a playoff berth, and to add yet another set of highlights to an already-full-to-burstin’ MVP sizzle reel.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
A subjective choice for the most important play of the day as determined by all the same stuff listed in the last section.
Yeah, sorry, we’re going to talk about Westbrook again. The guy hit a 31-foot three-pointer to send his team’s game to overtime. That’s pretty damn important.
We swear tomorrow’s blurb will be about a crisp bounce pass.
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