NBA Playoff Picture: The West is coming to order, but chaos still reigns out East
WHAT MATTERED MOST
A subjective ranking of the results that mattered most to the playoff bracket.
Note: The NBA featured just one game on Monday, so we’re adding it here instead of writing a whole new playoff picture update. Please check back again after Tuesday’s games for another full report.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves 110, Portland Trail Blazers 109
The Blazers created separation for themselves last week in the race for the West’s final playoff spot, but a few more losses like this one — in a contest rescheduled from March 7 due to condensation on the court — could combine with Jusuf Nurkic’s leg fracture to create an opening for the No. 9 Denver Nuggets. For now, though, Portland can rest easy knowing that it had a chance to win on the last possession and lost to one of the more talented lottery teams.
None of that is to say the visitors played well. The Blazers dominated the second quarter to take a 57-49 halftime lead and promptly gave it up in the third, allowing the Wolves to score 37 points to enter the final period with a narrow three-point advantage. The margin stayed within two possessions for the entire fourth quarter (with a few lead changes, as well), but the Blazers forced a late-clock 3-pointer to get the ball back with a chance to win and four seconds on the clock. Unfortunately for them, Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater drew iron:
The loss ended Portland’s six-game winning streak and dropped them back under .500 at 38-39, but they still hold a 1 1/2-game lead on Denver and a tiebreaker that effectively adds an extra game to the margin. The Blazers would still have to lose at least two of their final five games (the last four of which are at home) and see the Nuggets handle a six-game slate with four road games to blow their lead. That outcome would qualify as a collapse, given every factor at play.
Still, this loss helped show how the Blazers could do it. With Nurkic out, the Portland offense relied too heavily on Lillard and C.J. McCollum (a combined 42 points on 35 shots), whose off-night could not compensate for a typically inconsistent effort by the Blazers’ 23rd-ranked defense. A nice game from Al-Farouq Aminu (20 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks) helped, but a huge night for Karl-Anthony Towns (34 points and 12 boards) was ultimately the difference.
Games like this one do not inspire much confidence in the Blazers without Nurkic, but it’s worth remembering that we assumed the West’s No. 8 seed would lack luster for most of this season. The last few weeks were the exception, not the norm.
But, yeah, please get well soon, Nurk.
Now, back to Sunday’s games.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers 135, Indiana Pacers 130 (2OT)
LeBron James and Paul George gave Game 7 effort with two weeks left in the regular season, and it was amazing:
LeBron was just a little more amazing. (Really, the Cavs were just a little deeper.)
And so, Cleveland wins, and stays within a half-game of the Boston Celtics in the race for the East’s No. 1 seed. And Indiana loses, cedes seventh place in the East to the Chicago Bulls, and drops all down to ninth, even on record with the No. 8 Miami Heat, but behind them due to Miami owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Three of Indy’s final five games are against playoff teams, but Sunday’s marathon thriller spurred an about-face in George from his recent displeasure with how the Pacers have been competing:
Paul George: “If we play like that to finish this season out, I’ll be happy with where we land & our results."
— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) April 3, 2017
Paul George: "I think if we give this effort (in the final 5 games), we’ll make the playoffs.”
— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) April 3, 2017
Well, getting 43-9-9 from George in each of the next five games sure wouldn’t hurt.
2. Chicago Bulls 117, New Orleans Pelicans 110
With all due respect to Dwyane Wade, whose season-ending elbow injury is obviously not something that anyone wanted to see … over these last few games, you’re kind of starting to see what all those Bulls fans who wanted to see the squad built around surrounding Jimmy Butler with ball-movers and shooters were talking about, right?
Another day, another monster game for the All-Star shooting guard, who poured in 39 points on 14-for-26 shooting with six rebounds, five assists, a steal, a block and just one turnover in 39 minutes. In the nine games since Wade’s final appearance on March 15, Butler has soared, averaging 28.6 points, 8.1 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals and just 1.4 turnovers in 39.4 minutes per game, shooting a blistering 54.3 percent from the field, 60 percent from 3-point range, and 81.2 percent from the free-throw line on 9.4 attempts a night, doing his damnedest to carry an admittedly rickety and largely disappointing Bulls squad over the finish line to an eighth straight postseason berth.
Bobby Portis chipped in 21 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes off the bench, while Rajon Rondo continued his recent resurgence with a near-triple-double (10 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, three steals) and one of the season’s more humorous flops to incense DeMarcus Cousins:
Rajon Rondo goes down Paul Zipser to the rescue. pic.twitter.com/VNw6tuu6ED
— ⓂarcusD2.0 (@_MarcusD2_) April 3, 2017
Thank goodness Paul Zipser was there. Rondo might’ve been a goner!
The Bulls have won four straight and six of eight to improve to 38-39, moving into sole possession of the East’s No. 7 spot. They hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the eighth-seeded Heat and 10th-seeded Charlotte Hornets, and while they split their season series with the ninth-seeded Pacers, they’ve got a better record within the Central Division than Indy. Basically:
This weekend could not have gone better for Bulls fans hoping for the playoffs.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 3, 2017
The Pelicans, meanwhile, got a pair of giant double-doubles from big men Cousins (26 points, 18 rebounds, three assists) and Anthony Davis (30 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two assists), but still fell to 33-44, and now sit 5 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. One more New Orleans loss, or one more Blazers win, and it’s all over in the Big Easy.
3. Toronto Raptors 113, Philadelphia 76ers 105
DeMar DeRozan would much rather have Kyle Lowry back on the floor, all things considered. He joked Sunday that he finds running point at times for the Raps “exhausting.” But until his running buddy’s wrist is healthy enough for a full return to action, he’ll have to keep doing his part, as he did to the tune of a career-high-tying nine assists against Philly on Sunday.
Four of those helpers came in a second quarter that saw the Raptors rip off a 15-2 run to take control of the proceedings. Two of them set up buckets for Serge Ibaka, who turned in one of his strongest performances since joining Toronto before the trade deadline, scoring a game-high 24 points on 11-for-17 shooting with six rebounds, six blocks and a steal in 28 minutes. The Raptors are now 14-6 since the All-Star break, and sit at 47-30, a game ahead of the Washington Wizards in the race for the No. 3 spot in the East, thanks to …
4. Golden State Warriors 139, Washington Wizards 115
… Stephen Curry, who on Sunday continued to bear a striking resemblance to the weapon of mass destruction that incinerated the NBA last season en route to the first unanimous MVP award in the league history.
This game stopped being close late in the second quarter and turned into an outright laugher midway through the third, as the Wizards — the poor, tired, bedraggled Wizards, coming to the end of a five-game, nine-day road trip that included matchups with the Cavs, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz before concluding at Oracle — never led and eventually just ran out of resistance.
Not that there was much resisting of Steph to be done anyway: 42 points in 35 1/2 minutes, 15-for-22 from the floor, 9-for-14 from 3-point land (which pushed him over the 300 made triple mark; he is the only player ever to hit 300 3s in a season, and he’s now done it twice, in consecutive years), eight assists, one steal and just one turnover.
Remember when Curry and the Warriors were in a slump after Kevin Durant went down with a sprained left MCL? Here’s Steph over the last 11 games, all of which have been Warrior wins, by the way: 27 points, 7.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 2.3 steals in 33.1 minutes per game, shooting 50 percent from the field, 46.5 percent from 3-point range on 10.4 attempts a night, and 91.7 percent from the foul line. So, slump over, I guess!
Golden State’s now 63-14, and stayed 3 1/2 games up on the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the West’s top spot. Washington falls into fourth in the East, a game back of the Raptors, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Wiz.
5. San Antonio Spurs 109, Utah Jazz 103
With starters LaMarcus Aldridge (sprained left thumb) and Danny Green (bruised left quadriceps) nursing injuries, and the Spurs facing down a four-games-in-five-nights set before closing out the season with a pair of road games in Portland and Salt Lake City, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to give three other rotation players — Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and David Lee — a day off, too. No matter: Kawhi Leonard scored 19 of his 25 points in the third quarter and dished seven assists, Tony Parker chipped in 21 points and five assists, Pau Gasol added a double-double of the bench, and San Antonio held off a late Jazz charge sparked by the scoring of Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson and the two-way interior menace of Rudy Gobert.
With the loss, Utah’s lead over the Clippers for the No. 5 seed in the West — and home-court advantage in the expected and anticipated Round 1 matchup between the two teams — is down to just a half-game. The Jazz still have to face a feisty Portland team twice, deal with Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins, go to Oracle, and finish the season against San Antonio, and they lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Clips, which could be a recipe for Utah opening the playoffs on the road.
The Spurs, for their part, are all but locked into the No. 2 seed and another prospective postseason matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. They’ll have to spend the downtime between now and the start of the playoffs entertaining themselves somehow … and some Spur appears to have figured out his preferred brand of self-entertainment.
Someone throws a towel at Kawhi during post game interview, but the bot remains undisturbed https://t.co/ouvJjLM7Od #NBA
— All Ball (@allballapp) April 2, 2017
You can really tell how much that towel toss flustered Kawhi. He was downright Duncan-level furious.
6. Charlotte Hornets 113, Oklahoma City Thunder 101
Kudos to the Hornets, who looked to be dead in the water when they fell 10 games under .500 midway through March, only to storm back with a 7-2 surge to stay alive in the race for the East’s final playoff spot.
Behind 29 from Kemba Walker and some timely shot-making from the likes of Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets built up a 21-point edge early in the fourth quarter, and had more than enough juice to withstand Russell Westbrook’s attempt to stage another double-digit late-game comeback.
Charlotte’s now 36-41, one game behind the No. 8 Heat and No. 9 Pacers, and two behind the No. 7 Bulls, with five games left on their schedule. All five will come against Eastern playoff teams — at Washington on Tuesday, home for Miami (in a game that could determine the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two clubs) and Boston, then finishing out the season on a road back-to-back in Milwaukee and Atlanta — so the Hornets will need to eke out some more Ws and get some help.
Westbrook logged his 40th triple-double of the season, putting him one behind the great Oscar Robertson for the most ever in one single campaign …
… but his 40 points on 14-for-31 shooting, 13 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals just weren’t enough to drag the Thunder out of the hole they dug themselves in a third quarter that saw OKC score just 16 points on 17 shots while committing eight turnovers leading to 13 Hornet points. The Thunder fell to 43-33, 3 1/2 games behind the fourth-seeded Jazz and three back of the No. 5 Clippers, and are getting close to locking in a 3 vs. 6 matchup with the Houston Rockets.
7. Denver Nuggets 116, Miami Heat 113
Denver’s playoff hopes took a major hit last week when they dropped a head-to-head showdown with the Blazers, who continued their roll while the Nuggets hit an exceptionally ill-timed three-game skid. But an unfortunate leg injury to ex-Nuggets center/current Blazers season-saver Jusuf Nurkic left the door open a crack, provided Denver could get off the schneid and get back to winning some games.
The Nuggets did that Sunday, outlasting Miami down the stretch behind 29 points from veteran scorer Danilo Gallinari, another big all-around game (19 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, two steals) from rising-star center Nikola Jokic and timely contributions off the bench from forward Wilson Chandler (19 points, nine rebounds, two assists) and oft-maligned second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay (17 points, nine assists, four rebounds and a block in 31 1/2 minutes). Denver had to sweat out a Josh Richardson 3-point attempt at an equalizer at the buzzer, but held on to improve to 36-40, two games back of the 38-38 Blazers for the West’s final playoff spot with six games left in each team’s season.
The Nuggets will finish out the season with two games each against New Orleans and OKC, as well as individual contests against the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks. Portland wraps up with a pair each against Utah, plus games against Minnesota, San Antonio and the Pelicans. Denver needs the Blazers to struggle mightily without Nurkic to have a prayer of getting back on top, but the Nugs can help their own cause with more performances like the one they managed against Miami.
Despite the loss, the 37-40 Heat kept the East’s No. 8 seed, even as the Bulls leapfrogged them into seventh and the Pacers dropped beneath them to ninth. The bottom of the East is bag-of-cats crazy, and very well might wind up being decided entirely by tiebreakers. Prepare for exploding brains.
8. Boston Celtics 110, New York Knicks 94
The very good Celtics hammering the very bad Knicks is only notable because carrying a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter against a punchless New York side operating without Carmelo Anthony (sore lower back) and Derrick Rose (out for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee) allowed head coach Brad Stevens to sit four starters for the full final frame. That gave Boston an early start on two full days of rest heading into what ought to be a verrrrrry interesting contest against the Cavs on Wednesday night, with the Celtics (who have now won 50 games for the first time since Stevens took the bench) guaranteed to take at least a share of the East’s No. 1 seed into that matchup.
One thing that will bear monitoring heading into Wednesday: the health of Celtics swingman Jae Crowder.
Stevens said Crowder has some swelling in elbow but didn't really know more than that yet. X-rays negative.
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) April 2, 2017
Crowder says he doesn't know what happened to elbow. Just looked down and saw it swollen, then felt tingling feeling.
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) April 2, 2017
The Celtics have outscored opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions in nearly 2,200 minutes with the hard-nosed Marquette product on the floor, and have been outscored by 3.9 points-per-100 when he’s been on the bench. Boston’s 45-22 with Crowder in the lineup this season, and just 5-5 when he’s been unavailable, including a loss to the Cavs in the season’s first meeting between the two clubs way back in November.
9. Dallas Mavericks 109, Milwaukee Bucks 105
The Bucks were the East’s hottest team in the month of March, going from outside the playoff picture to a tight hold on the No. 5 seed due to the brilliance of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the return of Khris Middleton, and a slew of under-the-radar additions from a group of young, long, athletic contributors shuffled by head coach Jason Kidd. But it’s April now, a season for spoilers; if you’re not about your business, you can get rolled by a team with nothing to play for but pride.
Giannis went off in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of his 31 points in the final frame as the Bucks tried to hold onto the slim three-point edge they’d built up through three quarters. But the reserve bookend combo of point guard J.J. Barea and center Nerlens Noel ripped off a 10-2 run early in the fourth to put Dallas back on top, and Harrison Barnes maintained the lead late just kept attacking his way to the free throw line.
The former Warriors forward went 10-for-10 at the stripe in the last stanza, scoring 15 of his 31 points in the frame to keep Milwaukee at bay and drop the Bucks to 40-37. Milwaukee’s still got a one-game edge over the sinking Atlanta Hawks for the No. 5 spot, a two-game edge on seventh-seeded Chicago, and a three-game advantage over the No. 8 Heat.
10. Los Angeles Lakers 108, Memphis Grizzlies 103
You’d be tempted to give Memphis a break for dropping a game on a night where they didn’t have Marc Gasol (left foot strain), JaMychal Green (sore left shoulder) or Vince Carter (resting up after exhausting himself trying to figure out how he went to college, got drafted one year after Tracy McGrady, and will still be playing as T-Mac goes into the Hall of Fame this summer). And then you remember that they were in L.A. to take on the Lakers, who are very, very bad, and who had dropped four straight and 10 of 11 heading into Sunday’s game, and you feel a bit less charitable toward the Grizz.
“These are games that could have seeding impact for us,” said Memphis guard Mike Conley, who scored 20 points on 6-for-17 shooting with 12 assists in 36 minutes of floor time in the loss.
Conley drilled a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute to get Memphis within one, but an attempt that would’ve knotted the game at 106 with six seconds left drew nothing but air, sealing the fate of the Grizzlies, who fell to 42-35 and sit 1 1/2 games behind the sixth-seeded Thunder with five games remaining on their schedule. Guard Troy Daniels hit six triples and scored 20 points in 31 minutes off the bench for Memphis, which will get its last/best chance to take a real stab at the sixth seed when OKC comes to the Grindhouse on Wednesday night for the final meeting of the season between the two teams; the Thunder took two of the first three.
The good news for the Lakers: their young dudes played really well! D’Angelo Russell bounced back from a turnover-plagued start to score 28 points on 9-for-17 shooting with six rebounds and five assists. Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Thomas Robinson all pitched in double-doubles. Brandon Ingram had 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting. Check out the stylings on the youngbloods! Positive vibes!
The bad news: an L.A. win combined with a Phoenix loss mean the Lakers no longer have the NBA’s second-worst record. As we’ve covered before, if L.A. doesn’t land in the top three at the 2017 NBA draft lottery, this year’s first-round pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, by way of two past trades — the 2012 deal that brought Steve Nash to Lakerland from Phoenix, and the 2015 three-way deal that landed Brandon Knight in Phoenix and Michael Carter-Williams in Milwaukee.
Making matters worse: if the Lakers do send their pick to Philly this June, they’ll also have to convey their 2019 first-round pick to the Orlando Magic, to satisfy the terms of the 2012 deal that shipped Dwight Howard to Hollywood. If they keep their 2017 No. 1 selection, though, the Lakers’ debt to the Magic gets reduced to a pair of second-round choices one in 2017 and one in 2018.
Lakers win today means they no longer control their own destiny to get the No. 2 lottery spot. We'll see if that comes back to haunt them.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 2, 2017
It’s like the great philosopher once said: “Sometimes, when you win, you lose.”
11. Brooklyn Nets 91, Atlanta Hawks 82
On one hand, as I’ve written, the Nets have been better than you might think recently, going 9-12 with the NBA’s eighth-best defense since the All-Star break. On the other … come on, Atlanta.
Nine losses in 11 games for the Hawks, with the two wins coming against the tanking Suns and Sixers. The Nets held Atlanta to 37.5 percent shooting as a team and forced 20 Hawk turnovers. The good news is that Paul Millsap was back in the lineup after missing eight games with a knee issue; the bad news is that he and fellow recent returnee Kent Bazemore combined to score 17 points on 5-for-21 shooting off the bench for the Hawks, who fell to 39-38.
And yet, thanks to the whirling dervish of inconsistency in the lower reaches of the Eastern standings, the Hawks are still holding onto the No. 6 seed, one game up on Chicago and two ahead of the Heat and Pacers.
“I think everyone is disappointed with the loss,” Millsap said after the game. “But at the end of the day, we have to get some wins. We know that. As long as everyone else keeps losing under us, we just have to make it to the playoffs. If we get there, we feel like we have a really good chance.”
Not exactly the most inspiring speech you’ve ever heard in your life, but that’s the lay of the land. Just grit your teeth, hope to scratch out a win or two, and see where the chips fall come April 15. Just one problem: after three days off, Atlanta will finish out the season against the Celtics, Cavs (twice), Hornets and Pacers, all teams fighting for postseason seeding or their playoff lives.
This is why you typically look to avoid losing twice to Brooklyn in a week. Mike Budenholzer and company, though, have chosen a different path. Bold strat, gang.
12. Houston Rockets 123, Phoenix Suns 116
James Harden finally rested, getting the night off due to “acute viral syndrome.” So, naturally, Patrick Beverley went out against the circling-the-drain Suns and put up 26 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in Harden’s stead, because Mike D’Antoni is a point guard warlock.
The win didn’t change anything in terms of Houston’s seeding, as the Rockets are still all but locked into the No. 3 spot, 7 1/2 games back of San Antonio but five games ahead of Utah. It did, however, cost them a contributor in reserve forward Sam Dekker, who went down holding his hand after a mid-fourth-quarter collision while going for a loose ball:
Sam Dekker suffered fractured left hand. Will be seen by specialist Monday in Houston.
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) April 3, 2017
Sam Dekker will see a specialist tomorrow in Houston, but initial prognosis is that he would be out three to four weeks.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 3, 2017
Dekker’s been a valuable piece of D’Antoni’s rotation in his second pro season, averaging 6.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 18.4 minutes per game split between small forward and small-ball power forward duty. The 6-foot-9 Wisconsin product’s got the length and quickness to handle a variety of assignments on the floor; his absence leaves only veteran Trevor Ariza (who wasn’t with the team on Sunday for personal reasons) and recently added rookie Troy Williams in the cupboard in that tweener three/four spot.
To his credit, Williams responded to his first opportunity to play extended minutes by scoring 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting (6-for-9 from 3-point range), five rebounds, three assists and a steal in a team-high 39 minutes. The Rockets can’t bank on that kind of production, though, and will hope that Dekker can get back in the flow sooner rather than later.
What a start by @troywilliams_ !!! Proud of him. I'll be back for the big ones in the playoffs, thanks for the love Red Nation.
— Sam Dekker (@dekker) April 3, 2017
On the other side, Phoenix has lost 12 straight games to fall to 22-56, and has now bumped the Lakers for the NBA’s second-worst record. Happy diving, you submarining Suns, you.
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.
Considering Indiana outscored the Cavs by 15 points in the 48 minutes he played, and got outscored by Cleveland by 20 in the 10 minutes he rested, I’m tempted to identify Paul George as the most valuable player in determining how the day’s biggest game shaped the playoff picture. When he was out there, the Pacers were in line to hold onto their seeding, but he had to rest, and so Indiana suffered.
But they suffered due in large part to the other All-Star forward throwing lightning bolts and crushing competition at the Q on Sunday:
Forty-one points on 16-for-29 shooting, 16 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals, one block, one turnover in 52 minutes. Four assists in the two overtime periods, including the setup on the J.R. Smith corner 3 that gave the Cavs the lead late in the first OT and the helper on the Kevin Love wing triple that proved to be the game-winner with 26.5 ticks left in 2OT. Paul George reached an unbelievable level on Sunday because he had to; LeBron met him there because, well, LeBron lives there.
It’s nearly impossible to believe anyone has ever been better than LeBron.
— Jared Wade (@Jared_Wade) April 2, 2017
At some point, all these minutes and all these miles have to catch up to the four-time MVP. They damn sure haven’t yet, though.
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.
The Wizards dropped a line in the standings for the same reason a lot of teams have slipped a game here or there over the past three years: because Steph Curry is pure, uncut, unadulterated magic.
Better luck next time, Marcin and Kelly. And better hope for better luck come two weeks’ time, Rest of the League.
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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!