With just about two weeks remaining until the NBA postseason, every night can impact the standings. The NBA Playoff Picture Update keeps you up to date on all the most important news for all 16 berths and seeds.
Spurs of the moment: Another Sunday, another statement game from the San Antonio Spurs.
After dismantling the East-leading Atlanta Hawks on March 22 and hammering a potential Round 1 opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, on March 29, the Spurs faced off with the Golden State Warriors — winners of 12 straight, owners of the league's best record and home-court advantage throughout the entire NBA playoffs — and mopped the floor with 'em.
The 107-92 final's impressive enough — it's the largest margin of defeat the Warriors have tasted during this season for the ages — but it scarcely tells the story. Golden State never led, trailed by as many as 28 and finished the third quarter down 22 before turning the final frame over to the likes of Leandro Barbosa, Justin Holiday, James Michael McAdoo and Festus Ezeli.
San Antonio blitzed Steve Kerr's crew from the opening tip. Emerging star Kawhi Leonard keyed both a game-opening 8-1 run (six points of his own, plus an assist on a Tim Duncan jumper) and a 14-3 mid-quarter jolt that knocked the 63-win Dubs on their heels and gave the Spurs a 15-point lead less than eight minutes into the contest.
The Spurs' ball movement had the Warriors' league-best defense scrambling early ...
... and often, as San Antonio logged 27 direct assists on 44 made field goals. The Spurs beat the Warriors with backdoor cuts in the half-court, with alley-oops on the break, with long-distance bounce passes in transition, and with just about every other weapon Pop and company could muster.
San Antonio's most dangerous weapon, once again, was Leonard, who served as the tip of the spear that punctured the Warriors' free-flowing offense:
The quick-as-a-cat perimeter mauler with the massive hands snared a career-high seven steals on Sunday. He opened the game by making life miserable for Harrison Barnes (four points on 2-for-7 shooting) and later switched assignments to cool down a Stephen Curry early third-quarter explosion. The MVP candidate scored 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting in just under two minutes to cut the Warriors' deficit to 14; Popovich called a timeout and put Leonard on Curry; Curry didn't score another point for the rest of the quarter, and the Spurs ripped off six straight to rebuild the lead.
Leonard's offense might never impress quite as much as his masterful defense, but his ascent into something like San Antonio's primary scorer continues. The 23-year-old tied a regular-season career-high with 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting in just 24 minutes, topping the 20-point mark for the 12th time in his last 19 games. He showed his combination of improving handle, increased confidence and strength against contact with plays like this drive and finish right through Andre Iguodala:
Duncan (19 points on 6-for-7 shooting, seven rebounds) and Danny Green (18 points on 7-for-10 shooting, 4-for-6 from 3-point land, six rebounds, three assists, three blocks, great defense on the Warriors' Klay Thompson) also turned in great games for the Spurs, who have now won seven straight, 10 of their last 11 and 17 of their last 20 overall. During that stretch, San Antonio's outscoring its opposition by 15.2 points per 100 possessions — the best net rating in the league over that span, head-and-shoulders above even the league-best Warriors' historic full-season mark.
There remain bits of disharmony in the system that keep the Spurs from looking exactly like the well-oiled machine that overwhelmed the Miami Heat last June — Tony Parker (eight points on nine shots in 23 minutes) still seems to look more like a caretaker than a gamebreaker, the "Foreign Legion" shot a combined 6-for-22, etc. But as the regular season draws to a close, San Antonio's offense is humming and its defense is suffocating, which is the kind of thing that can make a No. 6 seed look an awful lot like the team to beat.
The Warriors likely won't panic much about Sunday's whitewashing: "This is the first time I think since Christmas that we haven't really been in a game," Curry said, according to Raul Dominguez of The Associated Press. For his part, Kerr intimated after the game that Golden State will have some different looks to offer San Antonio should these two teams meet in the postseason and Pop decides to once again sic Kawhi on Curry.
Even so, after seeing San Antonio short-circuit his squad — making the Spurs the only team to have beaten the Warriors twice this season (Golden State also beat San Antonio right after the All-Star break) — you wouldn't blame Kerr if he'd just as soon not see No. 2 in black and silver again come playoff time.
“Kawhi was phenomenal,” Kerr said after the game, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “He was the best player on the floor.”
Which helped serve notice that, on any given Sunday, the Spurs can still be the best team on the floor, too.
Star Wars: Sunday's marquee matinee matchup between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder largely lived up to its billing, with MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook matching big shots in trying to propel their teams to a much-needed victory in their respective tight playoff fights. But despite a league-leading 11th triple-double — 40 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds — for the Thunder star ...
... it was his hirsute former teammate who'd carry the day:
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Harden scored a game-high 41 points on 12-for-22 shooting (6-for-9 from 3-point land) to go with six rebounds, six assists and three steals in 38 minutes to push the Rockets to a 115-112 win.
It was the league-leading 10th 40-plus-point performance for Harden this season. He cranked up the heat late, scoring eight points in a 70-second span to break a 100-all tie, to quell a comeback that had seen the Thunder rise up after trailing by as many as 13, and give the Rockets just enough breathing room to finish the game at the foul line.
And I mean just enough — Oklahoma City had a chance to tie it up in the closing seconds, but Westbrook's 3-point try came up short, thanks in part to a close contest by Rockets wing Corey Brewer.
It was a little too close of a contest for Russell's liking, actually:
Westbrook on if he was anticipating a foul from Brewer on the last play: "He did. He did actually."
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 5, 2015
Be that as it may, it was lacking defense on the interior (54 points in the paint for the Rockets, including 22 in 23 minutes from Dwight Howard) and in transition (26 fast-break points or Houston) that did Oklahoma City in far more than a swallowed whistle. Steven Adams and Mitch McGary battled foul trouble throughout, and Enes Kanter continued to put up big numbers (21 points, 17 rebounds, including 10 on the offensive glass) while giving just about all of it back on the other end.
It's bad enough that Oklahoma City has given up 106.5 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, a bottom-five mark over that period. But during the 1-5 skid that's put their playoff hopes in jeopardy, that's dropped to 112.7 points-per-100 allowed, barely above the defensive efficiency marks of league lowlights like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers. With no Kevin Durant, with no Serge Ibaka and with San Antonio coming to town Tuesday, the 42-35 Thunder must stop the bleeding immediately if they're to hold off the New Orleans Pelicans, who sit a half-game behind OKC in the race for the eighth playoff spot out West.
Houston, on the other hand, has now won three in a row, seven of eight and 10 of 12 to improve to 53-24. The Rockets now have a one-game lead over the Grizzlies in the race for the No. 2 spot in the West and seem to be weathering their recent rash of injuries well, thanks to both the depth provided by general manager Daryl Morey and the irrepressible offensive orchestration of their bearded wonder.
Here comes the Ax and here comes the Smasher: When the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers met on Sunday, the result — as has tended to be the case over these past couple of "Freaky Friday" seasons — was demolition.
There were flashy, thunderous dunks:
And there was Chris Paul dribbling the ball through Carlos Boozer's legs at midcourt in a moment that neatly encapsulated just how vastly the fortunes of the two Staples Center tenants vary right now:
The Clippers won, 106-78, and the game wasn't that close.
Well, that's not entirely true. This was a seven-point game after 12 minutes, a 13-point game at halftime, and a 13-point game midway through the third. But then the floodgates opened, with the Clippers ripping off a 22-5 run that got the lead to 29 after three, followed promptly by a 16-2 burst to open the fourth that pushed the advantage to its high-water mark of 43 points with 8:09 remaining in the game.
It's the second one that likely really hurt Lakers fans. I mean, at least the first came primarily with stars Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the floor. The 16-2 spurt was produced entirely by the Clippers' threadbare second unit — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Austin Rivers, Spencer Hawes and recent addition Lester Hudson. That's the kind of thing that'll make Byron Scott fold his arms in a huff on the Laker sideline. Then again, so is literally everything.
The Clippers, who boast the NBA's top offense (110 points scored per 100 possessions) and second-best efficiency differential (+6.9 points-per-100, behind only the Warriors) this season, have now won 10 of their last 11 to keep pace in the pack behind Golden State in the West's second tier. Doc Rivers' club sits just a half-game below No. 3 Memphis and, just as importantly, a full game above the No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers. (That's a weird thing that we'll discuss in some more detail later.) With injured sixth man Jamal Crawford expected to return this coming week, everything seems to be going the Clips' way right about now ... including the schedule, which matches them up with these very same Lakers again on Tuesday night.
Quick, somebody find the Pharrell hat: Yeah, his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the division-rival Chicago Bulls to win for the 31st time in their last 38 games, but LeBron James didn't seem too happy afterward, according to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin:
With two weeks until the NBA playoffs open up and fewer and fewer dress rehearsals remaining for James to direct his group into postseason form, he saw Sunday's win as somewhat hollow because of the shoddy way the Cavs closed things out.
Cleveland was ahead by 13 with 9:59 remaining, but ended up winning by just five as the Cavs had as many turnovers in the fourth quarter (five) as they had in the first three quarters combined and also attempted 12 of their 15 shots as a team from outside the paint.
"I think we turned the ball over and we got out of attack mode," James said. "I think we settled for a lot of jumpers in the fourth quarter. And those are things that we, as a young team, will have to just learn from and get better with it the next time. So, we controlled the game, but we allowed them to get back in the game because of what we did offensively and that's a very good team. You know a Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) team is never going to give up and we have to understand every single possession means everything and we can't take one off."
Despite not quite sticking the landing, Cleveland won its 50th game of the year behind an all-around effort from James, who chipped in 20 points on 8-for-17 shooting, 12 assists, 10 rebounds, three steals and a block for his first triple-double of the season. LeBron did a bit of tone-setting, too. In the early going, he took Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler into the post for several scores just to prove he's too strong for the Chicago defensive ace down there. Later, he locked up power forward Nikola Mirotic just to show the Bulls rookie sensation that, when he puts his mind to it, he can make just about any scorer's life miserable on the defensive end.
While LeBron was out here handing down life lessons, his teammates were bombing awary from deep.
Like, really deep:
J.R. Smith went 8-for-17 from 3-point land — no, he did not attempt a 2, and yes, that is a record — for 24 points. Kyrie Irving added a game-high 27 on 8-for-19 shooting, including a 4-for-5 mark from downtown, as the Cavs extended their lead over Chicago both in the Central Division and for the No. 2 seed in the East to four games.
And yet, despite the absence of guards Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich, the Bulls wound up playing Cleveland close enough that Smith and Irving's circus shots — "three heaves that went in," as Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau called them — constituted the difference. That didn't exactly rattle the veteran Bulls' confidence that they could hang with a Cavs squad that's been arguably the best team in basketball since mid-January.
"It would be great to play them in the playoffs," said Bulls center Joakim Noah, who finished with six points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals in the loss, which cut Chicago's lead over the Toronto Raptors for the No. 3 seed in the East to just one game. "That would be very, very exciting. That's something I really hope happens."
We're with him.
Our man Jeff Eisenberg has your full on-the-scene story from Paul George's first game back after breaking his right leg last August, so I'll go with the broad strokes.
The Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat, 112-89, behind 23 points and 12 rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench from Luis Scola and a somewhat un-Pacer-y 14-for-30 mark from 3-point land, with wings Solomon Hill and C.J. Miles combining for eight triples in 15 tries. Indy pulled even with the Heat at 34-43, but nudged ahead of Miami in the standings by virtue of a 3-1 season-series win over Erik Spoelstra's club.
The Pacers now sit in ninth place in the East, one game behind the eighth-seeded Boston Celtics (to whom they lost the head-to-head tiebreaker) and 1 1/2 games back of the No. 7 Brooklyn Nets (ditto). The Heat won their season series with both Brooklyn and Boston, but in order to cash them in, they'll need to stop their current four-game skid and get back on the good foot against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.
Most Important Games Only Game
Knowing the eyes of the basketball-watching world will be focused on the NCAA championship game, the NBA's scheduling wizards decided to go light on Monday, slating just one game. (Actually, there weren't supposed to be any, but a January snowstorm interceded, so here we are.)
Blazers at Nets, 7 p.m. ET: The Nets have been a tough squad to draw a bead on over the past three weeks. Lionel Hollins' crew has won 10 of its last 13 games, but has operated in feast-or-famine fashion, amassing both gut-it-out victories with boat-race beatdowns:
In last 13 games, Brooklyn is 10-3 & a minus-8. Avg. margin of victory: 6.8 Avg, margin of defeat: 25.3 http://t.co/qceh9kkxys
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 5, 2015
Sitting in seventh place in the East at 35-41, just a half-game ahead of a Celtics squad that owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nets, Brooklyn could surely use the former on Monday. The Blazers seem to have made the Nets' job a bit easier by deciding to keep three key contributors — All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, starting swingman Nicolas Batum and backup center Chris Kaman — back in the Pacific Northwest.
On one hand, it's a bit of a surprise that the Blazers would leave three major rotation players at home while still in the midst of a tough race for home-court advantage in the West playoffs. While Portland's guaranteed a top-four seed after locking up the Northwest Division title on Friday night, the Blazers head into Monday's game at 50-26. The fifth-seeded Clippers now sit at 52-26; the sixth-seeded Spurs are 51-26. If whoever finishes fifth ends the season with a better record than Portland, the Blazers will open the playoffs on the road, so it'd seem to be in their best interest to go after every win they can.
Then again, all three players are dealing with injuries — torn thumb ligaments for Aldridge and Kaman, a lower back injury for Batum — and played heavy minutes to help Portland seal up the Northwest. With three more road trips on the way before the end of the regular season, the Blazers' brass seems to have decided that it just made more sense to let the wounded rest rather than flying them across the country for one measly game before flying 'em back for Wednesday's home game against the Timberwolves.
While several Blazers didn't make the trip, center Robin Lopez did, meaning we'll get yet another installment in his ongoing rivalry with his twin brother, Brook Lopez. The Brooklyn big man sounds ready for battle, according to Anthony Puccio of NetsDaily:
"Ah," Lopez said, laughing. "Same old same old. I hate that guy and we'll probably hopefully destroy him."
That probably wouldn't make the rest of the Lopez family too happy, but it'd be just fine for Nets fans eager to see their club get a bit more breathing room.