No. 1: Ready or not, playoff run looms for Cavs -- A 12-14 mark since the All-Star break and three separate three-game losing streaks (including the current one) since then has caused much worry for the Cleveland Cavaliers. As they enter tonight's game vs. Toronto (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) with an outside shot at securing No. 1 in the Eastern Conference, Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com takes the temperature of the reigning Eastern Conference champs:
There’s just one game remaining in the regular season for the Cleveland Cavaliers before their title defense officially begins in the playoffs. For a team careening toward the finish line -- the Cavs’ current three-game losing streak puts their record at 11-14 in their past 25 games (and we thought that 19-20 start in 2014-15 was alarming) -- a chance to regroup is welcome. To some, at least.
“I think we’re just ready,” Kyle Korver said following the Cavs’ 124-121 overtime loss to the Miami Heat on Monday. “We just want it to come. ... I think everyone’s just ready for the regular season to be done and I think we’ve shown when we’re focused that we can be a really good team, and when we’re not we’re not a very good team. But I think we’re just ready for Wednesday to come and go and get ready for the weekend.”
Channing Frye disagrees, however.
“I mean, I wish we had another 10 games,” Frye said. “We got some s--- to work out. You know what I’m saying? That’s just my take on it. I haven’t been to the playoffs too many times, maybe three, so I think for me, I’m like, let’s just play and make sure we’re a well-oiled machine before we go in there.”
It’s hard to imagine a 50-win season being more underwhelming, yet perhaps there is simply a recency bias going on. Cleveland's struggles in the past month make it easy to forget LeBron James putting up career highs in assists, rebounds and triple-doubles while inexplicably tying his single-game record for dunks, when he had eight against Detroit as a 14-year veteran. They cloud the 21 straight games in which Kyrie Irving scored 20 points or more. They block that 34-point first quarter by Kevin Love against Portland, his peak moment as he went on to be named an All-Star for the first time since he joined Cleveland. They delegitimize Love’s Grant Hill-like outlet pass to James for a buzzer-beating 3 against the Wizards. They mar the NBA-record 25 3s Cleveland splashed against Atlanta.
Is it tempting to write off the Cavs? Sure. Their bloated $128 million payroll, the biggest in NBA history, rarely seems fully motivated. Their longest winning streak of the season was a measly six, when they started 6-0, and they had five separate three-game losing streaks, which suggests the whole, “they might be vulnerable, but how are they going to lose four times in seven games?” argument might be misguided. Their 20-21 road record is troubling for a team that could have to open up and close out both the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals away from the friendly confines of The Q should it get that far.
There is doubt, even within the Cavs’ locker room, about the product we’ve seen thus far.
“I thought we’d be playing a little bit better, a lot better actually than we’re playing, and things would jell, but there’s been a lot of variables,” Deron Williams said. “Lot of injuries, lot of incorporating guys in, guys resting at times, so the rotations haven’t been steady and substitution patterns have been off. Like I said, we’ve had some bright spots, so that’s what gives you hope.”
As Korver put it, the Cavs have seesawed between really good and not very good all season long. This weekend, the real team will show itself.
“I think just the idea of getting locked in and having a do-or-die type mentality knowing that we can be sent home, I think that has a good calling for this team,” Love said. “I think we need that right now, and having one game left in the regular season, yeah, I think we’re ready to get this over with, and then it will be go time. I’m definitely confident in this team, but you never like having to think that you have to flip a switch.”
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No. 2: Celtics have job to do tonight -- It's simple for the Boston Celtics tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) -- win and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is theirs. That task is solely on the mind of All-Star Isaiah Thomas and the rest of his crew, writes Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
The Celtics know that regardless of whether they nail down the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed with a win against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight or a Cleveland Cavaliers loss to the Toronto Raptors, few believe they actually deserve the status.
“I mean, we are, so it doesn’t matter what people think,” Avery Bradley said after yesterday’s practice. “We’re the No. 1 seed right now, and it’s our job to take care of business tomorrow.”
The one emotion the C’s don’t express regarding this kind of thinking is surprise. The NBA world naturally is going to keep thinking Cleveland is the team to beat once the playoffs begin this weekend.
“You have to just go out and prove what you’ve done,” Al Horford said. “People are always going to rely on experience. Cleveland’s done it for so many years — I should say LeBron (James) has done it for so many years — that that’s just the way it is. So why would you bet against that? For us, we’re not going to get caught in that. We’re going to keep working as a group and keep getting better and see what we can do. I feel really good about our team.”
In fact, Horford feels better than good about his new team after making playoff appearances with the Atlanta Hawks.
“These are the playoffs that I’ve looked forward to the most probably since I’ve been in this league,” he said. “I feel very strong about this group. I think we have a special group. I can’t wait for us to get started.”
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No. 3: Nets will bench six players in season finale vs. Bulls -- The Bulls host the Brooklyn Nets tonight (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) in a game Chicago must win to keep its playoff dreams alive. The Bulls' path to victory may have gotten significantly easier after word came out last night the Nets will rest six players, including the team's top three healthy scorers in Trevor Booker, Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez. Brian Lewis of the New York Post has more:
With the Nets’ all-time scoring mark safely in Brook Lopez’s back pocket, Brooklyn will go into full-on evaluation mode in Wednesday’s season finale. And it’s sure to cause all sorts of wailing and lamentation in Miami.
The Nets are set to play the Bulls without a half-dozen players at United Center, including Lopez, Jeremy Lin and key backup Trevor Booker. It’s noteworthy considering how hard they have played down the stretch — 11-12 since March 1 — and how much the game means to both the Bulls and the Heat.
Despite being guaranteed of finishing with the NBA’s worst record, the Nets (20-61) had taken solace in finishing strong and playing spoiler against teams vying for the playoffs. And Lopez had insisted that included knocking twin brother, Robin, and the Bulls out of the postseason.
“Absolutely. Ruin Robin’s season? It’s like a dream,’’ Brook Lopez had said.
But as it happens, he won’t be a part of it.
The Bulls (40-41) enter Wednesday clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot, thanks only to a tiebreaker with Miami, which faces Washington. When Lopez was told a Miami writer had posted he might sit out Wednesday rather than risk eliminating his brother, he replied, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not. That’s not in our genetic makeup at all to cheat. Not at all.”
But on Wednesday, Lopez, Lin and Booker are all expected to be rested, while Quincy Acy (ankle), Joe Harris (shoulder) and Sean Kilpatrick (hamstring) are injured.
Instead, coach Kenny Atkinson — and general manager Sean Marks — will give over completely to evaluating and weighing their roster against the Bulls.
“Our young guys are trying to prove themselves. That helps. They’re fighting for minutes, they’re fighting for contracts, they’re fighting for their future,’’ Atkinson said. “So, we have a nice mix of young kids that are trying to come up and then a veteran group that cares a lot.”
The Nets have six players without guaranteed deals for next season. And even though Acy and Kilpatrick are among them, they’re also among the oldest. Youngsters like Spencer Dinwiddie, 24, K.J. McDaniels, 24, Archie Goodwin, 22, and the likes of Justin Hamilton and Andrew Nicholson will be measured.
“A lot of guys will get opportunity. Andrew Nicholson and J-Ham will get in there and get some shots up. It will be a good opportunity for them,’’ said Atkinson.
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No. 4: Jazz left with something to play for in final game -- The Utah Jazz need help to lock up the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. They must beat the San Antonio Spurs in Salt Lake City (9 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) and then hope the LA Clippers falter at home to the Sacramento Kings (10:30 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) to pull off the feat. However that all shakes out, the Jazz are happy to be in this position after several disappointing seasons, writes Jody Gennesy of Deseret News:
“We’re trying to play well going into the postseason,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We know how good (the Warriors) are. They’re the best team in the NBA, and they’re still the best team in the NBA. We played well enough tonight to win. We’re fortunate in that sense. I’m proud of our team and the way we competed. They were obviously playing without some guys. We were playing without some guys. I thought both teams played to win and played hard.”
Veteran Joe Johnson, who scored 19 and played well in the win, was pumped up that the Jazz are in this position.
“It feels great. Obviously, we still have work left to do,” Johnson said. “Obviously, we need some help from the Clips, but for the most part we just coming out, playing hard, for 48 minutes, enjoying the game, having fun and playing for the next guy that makes you, that’s what’s most important. Tonight was beautiful to watch, man, because we had highs and lows in this game and we were able to bounce back easily every time.”
“It means a lot. I think the Jazz did a great job signing on with some guys like myself,” he said. “Boris Diaw and George Hill go along with these great young guys, but things are only going to get better. I just think it was a great match and we still got a lot of work left to do, but 50 wins is pretty good.”
Snyder wasn’t exactly sentimental about winning the Northwest Division title this year, and his excitement level was close to the same level for reaching 50 wins even though he only had 38 wins his first season and 40 his second year as head coach.
For Snyder, the focus is on how his players have rallied around each other to win a lot games together despite a rash of injuries.
“I guess I’m proud of our team for what they’ve done this season. I’m not as big on 50 wins. I’m big on us improving. I’m glad we’re in the playoffs,” Snyder said. “It’s a round number. It’s divisible by 10. If it represents anything, whether it was 49 or 48, it doesn’t need to be 50 to represent what our players have done this year fighting through a lot of adversity. If it were 46, I would be really proud of these guys.”
The Jazz are hoping to have all of their players available for the beginning of the first round with the exception of Raul Neto. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood are listed as probable for Wednesday's finale.
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No. 5: Heat keep playoff hope alive as finale nears -- Whether they make the playoffs or fail to do so, the Miami Heat's turnaround this season has been nothing short of remarkable. How it has gone from an 11-30 start to the team's current 29-10 run has been one of the top stories of the season. Miami has faint playoff hopes -- it needs help from either Chicago or Indiana to clinch a berth tonight -- and is ready to go all-out one last time against the Washington Wizards tonight (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS). Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald has more:
So this is what it has come down to for Miami Heat fans: rooting as hard against Dwyane Wade Wednesday as they will against longtime rival Paul George and the Indiana Pacers, while also hoping their favorite team’s fourth attempt to reach the .500 mark is finally the charm.
The Heat, in its quest to make the playoffs and complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NBA history after a dreadful 11-30 start, will host the Southeast Division winning Washington Wizards (49-32) in their regular season finale Wednesday night.
But as much as fans will be glued to the action on the court at AmericanAirlines Arena, many will also be looking for score updates from Chicago and Indiana.
“There’s only a select few that are playing for something," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And I think that’s what everybody always dreams, what this league and competition would be about when you're a kid – every game would have significance. It's our Game 7. Our guys are looking forward to it. We love competition. I’m just thrilled our guys get to experience something like this.”
Whether the Heat qualifies for the playoffs or not, with a win Wednesday Miami would complete the greatest turnaround by any team in league history to get off to a rough start and finish with a .500 or better record.
“It’s kind of like a weird record to set,” captain Udonis Haslem said of being the first team to rally from 19 games under and finish .500. “I think we want to make the playoffs. That’s our goal and that doesn’t change. We’ve got to take care of business [Wednesday] and let the chips fall where they may.”
With all three games tipping off at 8 p.m. Wednesday, there’s a chance if the Heat wins fans will get a chance to watch the conclusion of the Indiana-Atlanta game or Chicago-Brooklyn game on the big screens inside the arena.
Odds are players and coaches will be huddled together somewhere on the court. It’s become a new tradition following the Heat’s last two victories in Washington Saturday and over Cleveland Monday.
“I’ve got an amazing amount of respect and love for these guys,” Haslem said. “Even including the Big 3 teams, this is probably one of the more fun teams I've been around. These guys really come with a lot of energy. They enjoy being in the gym. They like having fun. They play hard. They work hard. I’m their captain and I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to have an opportunity to lead.”
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