NBA Playoff Picture: The Cavs can't get right and the Blazers can't go wrong
WHAT MATTERED MOST
A subjective ranking of the results that mattered most to the playoff bracket.
1. Chicago Bulls 99, Cleveland Cavaliers 93
“We’re gonna be just fine,” Kyrie Irving said late Thursday. But “it’s ugly right now. It’s real, real ugly.”
If you’re looking for a word to cover Cleveland’s fifth loss in seven games, and 11th in 19 since the All-Star break — a game in which Irving, Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert combined to shoot 12-for-38 from the field, that saw Love foul out in just 20 1/2 minutes of floor time, and that turned on a third quarter in which Cleveland allowed the Bulls to shoot 60 percent from the field with 11 assists on 15 made field goals — then yeah, sure. “Ugly” does the job.
So does LeBron James’ post-game claim that the Cavs, who fell a half-game behind the Boston Celtics in the race for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, are “in a bad spot” right now. On the defensive end, they’ve been in one for about three months, meaning that on nights where they don’t feature elite firepower (44.6 percent shooting as a team, 10-for-27 from 3, just 12 points from the bench), they can be in trouble. They’ve been in trouble a lot lately; whether it means they’ll be in trouble come the postseason, though, remains to be seen.
“It’s no time to kind of back up into the wall and panic,” Irving said. “I’m not panicking and I don’t think anyone in this locker room should panic.”
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Nikola Mirotic and Jimmy Butler combined for 53 points in the win, Chicago’s fourth in the last six games, which improved the Bulls to 36-39. They now trail the seventh-seeded Miami Heat and eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers by one game in the Eastern Conference playoff race with seven games left. The Bulls split their season series with the Pacers, and own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami.
“It’s never too late,” Mirotic said.
It is if both Miami and Indiana take care of business. But with the Heat missing shooting guard Dion Waiters and the Pacers evidently coming apart at the seams, the door’s still open, if the Bulls can keep stringing together performances like the one they turned in Thursday.
2. Portland Trail Blazers 117, Houston Rockets 107
One of the great joys of the Blazers over the last few weeks has been watching them discover not just a winning formula, but the confidence that goes along with it. Up 55-46 at the half and by 13 after one possession of the fourth quarter, the Blazers saw the visiting Rockets go on a 20-7 run to tie it at 105-105 with 2:28 left. Instead of folding, though, Portland took firm control and posted what looks like a comfortable win in the box score. Jusuf Nurkic started a game-closing 12-2 run with a nifty move in the post, and the Blazers opened up a 1 1/2-game lead for the West’s final playoff berth.
The @trailblazers improve to 15-5 since acquiring Nurkic.
They close out on a 12-2 run, beat @HoustonRockets 117-107.#NBAGIF pic.twitter.com/5l8DzOYwJ1
— NBA (@NBA) March 31, 2017
It’s now nearly impossible to imagine them losing it. The No. 9 Denver Nuggets will have to make up that gap and pass the tiebreaker-holding Blazers despite a comfortable schedule for the leaders. Portland hosts the Suns on Saturday and then heads out for its final two road games of the season (at the Minnesota Timberwolves and at the Utah Jazz) before heading home for its final four. Meanwhile, Denver plays six of its last eight on the road, all out of their Mountain time zone.
Plus, the Blazers just look like the better team right now. Nurkic’s effect on the interior cannot be overstated, but a number of players have rebounded from off-years to step up in these final weeks. Five players scored at least 15 points on Thursday, and C.J. McCollum wasn’t one of them (he only had 12). Damian Lillard led the way with 31 points, but we’ll talk about him more later.
The Rockets loss doesn’t really mean much in the standings, because they’re just a few days from locking up the No. 3 seed. Unfortunately, it could be a few days before they see another win — they have to face the Warriors at Oracle Arena on Friday night.
3. Detroit Pistons 90, Brooklyn Nets 89
With 94 seconds left in the fourth quarter, it looked like it was about to happen again.
Brook Lopez had just made two straight three-pointers — one a step-back off the dribble on the left wing, the other a super-deep catch-and-shoot bomb from the right — to give the Nets an 86-82 edge, putting Detroit on the brink of falling to the NBA’s worst team (who, for what it’s worth, have been downright respectable of late) for the second time in nine days.
Brook was pumped.
Brook Lopez out here acting like Stephen Curry trying to avoid that worst record in the NBA pic.twitter.com/CouhGVABhx
— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) March 31, 2017
But the Pistons, bad as they’ve been of late, refused to just let go and head into the light.
Point guard Ish Smith, getting another start in favor of injured/ineffective $80 million man Reggie Jackson, created enough room to fire a midrange pull-up jumper that cut the deficit to two. And after a strong defensive possession that saw Detroit block two Brooklyn tries within 5 feet of the basket, Smith — a career 28.8 percent 3-point shooter — spotted up in the left corner, took a swing pass from Tobias Harris, and saved the day:
Smith’s corner 3 would hold up as the game-winner, as Lopez’s attempt at another deep answer with eight seconds left came up short. Some free throws and an at-the-buzzer 3 by Brooklyn’s Justin Hamilton later, the Pistons held on for a 90-89 win.
Smith finished with 21 points, six rebounds and five assists while forward Marcus Morris led the way with 28 points on 12-for-18 shooting and 13 rebounds for Detroit. The Pistons now sit at 35-41, 2 1/2 games behind the seventh-seeded Miami Heat and eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers, and one game behind the No. 9 Chicago Bulls, with six games remaining.
With an upcoming slate that includes the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies, the Pistons’ odds of making the postseason are … well, you tell them, Aron Baynes:
— LØØPSØØP (@vineydelnegro) March 31, 2017
But, even if only just barely, their postseason hopes are still alive.
4. Los Angeles Clippers 124, Phoenix Suns 118
It wasn’t exactly a stellar road performance for the Clippers, who entered the fourth quarter up just one point and nearly blew a seven-point lead after Devin Booker (33 points and nine assists) fouled out with 4:45 left in regulation. However, L.A. avoided an embarrassing collapse, extended the Phoenix skid to 10 straight, and both added a half-game to their lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder for No. 5 and drew just a bit closer to the Utah Jazz for homecourt advantage in the first round.
Yet each of those gains could be snuffed out easily enough. At 46-31, the Clippers have played more at least one more game than every other team in the NBA. In fact, their 1 1/2-game lead on OKC exists entirely in the win column, which means that a particularly good run for the Thunder could erase the gap and trigger a conference record tiebreaker they currently lead. If anything, it could be easier for the Clippers to catch the Jazz, a team they trail by just one game with a tiebreaker in hand, than to maintain their lead on the Thunder.
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Which isn’t to say either task will be easy. The Clippers defense has been a shambles of late and didn’t fair especially well here. Phoenix shot 53.3 percent from the field and very well could have won if not for a subpar 7-of-23 mark beyond the arc. In many ways, they were just as impressive as the visitors — the difference is they didn’t have Chris Paul (29 points and 10 assists) or Blake Griffin (31 points on 12-of-19 FG).
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.
Jusuf Nurkic has been the biggest beneficiary of the Blazers’ late-season excellence — he’s gone from blog-famous reserve in Denver to fan favorite, internet superstar, and season savior. On the other side, though, no one had more to lose from not making the playoffs than star point guard Damian Lillard. One year after impressing everyone in the postseason and remaking the Blazers in his image, Lillard has seen his star fade as C.J. McCollum has taken over more backcourt responsibilities. Failing to match last season’s playoff appearance would have been a severe disappointment, but now the 37-38 team even has an outside shot at equaling 2015-16’s 44 wins.
What Lillard did vs. Houston on Thursday proves he’s not just one of the pieces — he’s still the team’s star, even if the attention has waned a bit. With an efficient 31 points (10-of-18 FG) and 11 assists, Lillard was the biggest reason Portland gutted out the win and opened up meaningful room in the race to finish eighth. He was terrific, and it’s a safe bet that we’ll see more games like this one in the next week or two.
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.
A game-closing 12-2 run that breaks a tie, fends off a comeback, and turns a playoff berth into something that would necessitate a collapse not to reach deserves special commendation. The Rockets haven’t looked especially crisp lately, but this is the kind of stretch that turns a team that gets in because someone has to into one that could be a genuine first-round threat.
Really, the only wonder is why the Blazers couldn’t play this way earlier in the season. They’re as fun to watch as any team right now.
Dan Devine (@yourmandevine) also contributed to this post.
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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!