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NBA Daily: Race to the Eastern Conference Playoffs

With only seven days remaining, the Eastern Conference Playoff picture remains murky. Drew Maresca examines the situation for each of the four teams still fighting for a spot.

Drew Maresca

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The race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference will be decided in the final week of the regular season, as will much of the conference’s seeding. But the final three playoff spots (along with the ninth spot, which, of course, doesn’t qualify) can shift dramatically over the final week as only one game separates the sixth place Detroit Pistons and the ninth place Miami HEAT in the loss column.

Let’s examine the remaining schedles, results from recent games and successes (and failures) of each of the four teams against the top three teams in the East, since that’s who they’ll end up facing if they qualify for the 2019 Playoffs.

As it stands today, the Pistons are alone in the sixth spot at 39-39 and would play the 76ers in the playoffs were to start immediately. The Nets and Magic are tied for the seventh spot at 39-40. And the HEAT are in ninth place with a 38-40 record.

Each of the four teams contending for the final three spots were in action on Wednesday, so we’ll start by examining how they fared in their most recent outings. The Magic defeated the Knicks, while the Pistons lost to the Pacers, Nets dropped a close game to the Raptors and the HEAT were outclassed by the Celtics.

Looking beyond last night, the Magic are 8-2 in their last 10 games – the best record over that span of all four teams. The HEAT are 6-4 in their last 10, while the Pistons are 4-6 and the Nets are 3-7.

But the Magic have more than momentum going for them; they also have the 11th easiest remaining schedule in the NBA according to Tankathon.com with games against the Hawks, Hornets and Celtics. The Pistons have an even easier go of it, with the fourth easiest remaining schedule in league and games against the Thunder, Knicks, Grizzlies and Hornets.

Conversely, the Nets have the fourth hardest remaining schedule in the league with games against the Bucks, Pacers and a head-to-head match-up with the HEAT. The HEAT also have a challenging schedule (eighth hardest remaining) with games against the Raptors and 76ers, Timberwolves and Nets.

According the ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Pistons have a 94.8% chance of making the playoffs as of Thursday evening. The Magic have an 89.5% chance of qualifying, whereas the Nets have a 69.8% chance and the HEAT have only a 39.3% chance.

But basketball is a game decided on the court. And despite all of the momentum against the Nets, they are nearly at full health – a state in which they haven’t operated since November (Caris LeVert tallied his first 20 point game since his November leg injury on April 1). Allen Crabbe is the only Net listed on the team’s injury report.

Pistons’ star Blake Griffin, on the other hand, is recovering from a knee injury he suffered last week. Griffin has missed the Pistons’ past three games, in which time the team is 1-2. If Griffin doesn’t play, the Pistons’ odds of winning games are severely inhibited.

Unlike the Nets and Pistons, the HEAT are dealing with a number of injuries. Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, Ryan Anderson and Derrick Jones Jr. are all listed as day-to-day. Richardson’s injury is most damaging of all and will keep the talented forward sidelined for as many as two weeks – past the end of the regular season. Richardson returned from a heel injury Wednesday against the Celtics but injured his groin in the loss.

Conversely, the Magic are mostly healthy – or, at least as healthy as they’ve been for the past few months. Mo Bamba remains sidelined due to a stress fracture (diagnosed on February 7) and Markelle Fultz continues to rehab from thoracic outlet syndrome. But all of their top nine players in minutes per game are healthy and available and Orlando just signed Michael-Carter Williams for the remainder of the season.

With the Bucks, Raptors and 76ers clinging to the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference, any celebration in winning a playoff spot will likely be short lived. The Nets are probably the most prepared team of the four to go head-to-head with an elite team, but even they will be lucky to take any of the top three teams past a sixth game. The Nets lost all three of their games against the Bucks this season. Additionally, they are 2-2 against the 76ers and are 1-3 against the Raptors.

Similarly, the Magic are 1-2 against the Bucks, 2-2 against the Raptors and 2-2 against the 76ers.

The Pistons are 0-4 against the Bucks, 3-0 against the Raptors and 1-3 against the 76ers.

And finally, the HEAT are 1-3 against the Bucks, 0-3 against the Raptors and 0-2 against the 76ers.

The first-round of the playoffs may not be the round that attracts the most attention, but the run-up to it will be a nail-bitter in the East. The HEAT may look like the most vulnerable of the four, but they’re also probably the team most people want to see given that it would be Dwyane Wade’s swan song. Further, with Griffin’s uncertain status thanks to a knee injury, the likelihood that the Pistons qualify hinges squarely on their star’s ability to return to the court quickly and effectively.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Denver Nuggets

Following a surprisingly successful postseason run, the Nuggets are off to a relatively slow start. Drew Maresca examines what’s going on in Denver in the latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets have been on the rise for a while, but it all came together for them last season. If they weren’t already on your radar, a postseason that included two come-from-behind series wins should guarantee that they are now.

The Nuggets finished the 2019-20 season with a record of 46-27 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Along the way, Nikola Jokic proved that he’s one of the best players in the league, while they also received a significant boost from the rising star Jamal Murray, who scored 30 or more points in six of the team’s 19 postseasons games. Michael Porter Jr. also proved his back is just fine after a serious pre-draft injury and that he’s a real threat in the NBA. So what’s there to fix?

Well, the Nuggets are off to an uninspiring start. They are currently 6-6, good for just seventh in the Western Conference. While they’re supremely talented, they must get back on track – otherwise, the team could be in for a long 2020-21 offseason.

What’s Working

Denver’s offense is still effective. Entering play last night, they were scoring 116.5 points per game, good for fifth in the NBA. They draw a lot of fouls, too – 22.3 per game to be exact – which is tied for first in the entire league. So, that’s a start.

Jokic, meanwhile, is still Jokic. He’s playing better than ever and has legitimately entered the MVP conversation. As of last night, he was averaging a triple-double with 24.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game. He’s also shooting an insane 41.2% on three-point attempts and 82.1% from the charity stripe.

Porter Jr., who has missed the last seven games with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, began the season on a tear. He showed flashes last season, but he’s done it with consistency so far this season. Porter Jr. is averaging 19.5 points on 42.3% shooting from deep – and he was really hooping in his last game, scoring 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting with 10 rebounds.

JaMychal Green is another bright spot that has done a lot to help replace Jerami Grant, who was lost to free agency. He came over from the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent and he’s fit in very nicely. Green began the season on the bench due to an injury and, in the four games for which he was out, the Nuggets went 1-3 and gave up 120 or more points in three of those four games. Since Denver has surrendered only 109 points per game, which would be good for the 11th fewest in the NBA. He’s also shot the ball incredibly well (52.8% on three-point attempts), while his presence means that the Nuggets won’t have to rely as heavily on 35-year-old Paul Millsap. The hope is, if Green can stay on the court, the defense will continue to even out.

What’s Not Working

A number of things aren’t working right now for Denver. First and foremost, the Nuggets haven’t put forth a complete effort too often. For example, they built up an 18-point lead in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week in which they scored 70 points. They went on to only score 46 in the second half and lost the game 122-116.

On a related note, Denver has also failed to close out tight games. Of their six losses, four were within three points or went to overtime.

Then there are the high-level defensive issues. Entering play last night, the Nuggets had the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league and were allowing opponents to shoot 39% on three-point attempts – also good for sixth-worst. Worse, all of that has been done while playing the fourth easiest schedule in the league.

Drilling down to individual player issues, Murray’s struggles haven’t helped. Yes, his numbers are alright, but 19.7 points, 3.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds is a bit underwhelming considering the performance he put on in the bubble last season. His shooting is down slightly, most notably from between 3-10 feet from the basket (36.8%), and he’s struggled a bit from the free-throw line, too (76.3%, down from 88.1%).

What Needs To Change

First of all, the Nuggets need time to acclimate to one another; the team added seven new players this offseason and when you consider the shortened training camp and limited preseason – which was really only one week long – that leaves little time to build synergy. Theoretically, that should improve with time.

Porter Jr.’s defense is another aspect that must change. He is regularly Denver’s soft spot in the defense because he either loses focus or takes defensive shortcuts. The upside, Porter Jr. is still just a sophomore and his defensive should improve with time – he certainly has the requisite skills needed to be a successful defender (e.g., length and athleticism). So let’s give him a little more time before we make any bold claims about him.

Finally, the Nuggets have to find a way to deploy Bol Bol. Bol is averaging just 6 minutes per game. Sure, he’s incredibly lean and might not match up well in the half court with most bigs. Additionally, he’s a bit hesitant to shoot, despite a solid range. But, while the Nuggets are clearly in win-now mode, what contender couldn’t use a 7’2” shooter with a 7’8” wingspan? If they get Bol a bit more burn and he can mature, it would give the Nuggets one of the most unique weapons in the entire league. And, to Denver’s credit, Bol did receive the first two start of his young career in back-to-back games this week — perhaps that change is already underway.

The Nuggets may have started slowly, but all should be well in Denver. The Western Conference is incredibly competitive, but the Nuggets have more talent than most and, assuming finishing the season is realistic given COVID-19’s impact on it already, the Nuggets should be comfortable with where they are, regardless of their early-season record.

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NBA Daily: Fixing The Houston Rockets

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking a look at the newly-minted Houston Rockets, a team that now has given itself plenty of options.

Matt John

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In the most well-timed edition of Fixing ever, we’re taking a look at the very recently-revamped Houston Rockets. We all knew that one trade was coming one way or the other and now the time has arrived. For how well-designed this beautiful era of basketball was for the Rockets, it surely didn’t deserve the anti-climactic ending it got. Yet here we are. For the first time since Yao Ming’s retirement, Houston is starting from scratch.

Is all hope lost in H-Town? Well, losing Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Harden is basically like the Justice League losing Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in one swift motion. It would be a major setback for anyone. In situations like this, it’s not about what you lost. It’s about how you respond to what you lost. To their credit, Houston had time to prepare for the disintegration of the Harden-D’Antoni-Morey era, and they haven’t taken their departures lying down.

They’ve wiped the slate mostly clean and, even if there’s definitely room for improvement, the new-look Rockets are a little more exciting than what meets the eye.

What’s Working?

It is a shame that Harden never gave this group a chance. Houston had a better offseason than they were given credit for because the high-profile personnel that they lost (or were about to lose) overshadowed what they brought in. Compared to past teams that faced similar circumstances, Houston could have done a lot worse. Let’s start with the best-kept secret that gets more and more exposed by the hour: Christian Wood.

NBA nerds hyped up Wood throughout the offseason for how great he looked during the brief time he was the full-time center in Detroit – averaging nearly 23/10 on 56/40/76 splits. When you take the sample size (13 games) and how Detroit fared in that stretch (they lost all but one game) into account, it’s understandable why it was hard to buy stock in Wood’s potential during the mini off-season.

That’s why Houston got him at the value they did and he’s already one of the league’s better bargains. Those numbers he put up as a Piston have carried on with the Rockets; while his 53/34/66 splits with almost two blocks per game have put him on the map. Wood’s ascension hasn’t led to much team success yet, but he’s the last player to blame for that.

Then there’s Houston’s more well-repped new addition, John Wall. Wall’s probably never going to live up to the $40+ million deal that Houston is paying him, but they didn’t acquire him for that reason. They acquired him in the hopes of him giving them more bang for their buck than Russell Westbrook did. The results have been a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected after what he’s been through. It’s been encouraging to see that on a good day, he still has most of his form.

There are plenty of games left for him to find consistency. We also have to keep in mind that Wall’s just getting his feet wet following two awful injuries. Even if he’s not the same Wall from his prime, this has worked out a lot better for Houston than Westbrook has in Washington. Having the better player as well as an additional first-round pick should be counted as an absolute win for the Rockets.

There are other stand-out players: It looks like the Rockets found another keeper in rookie Jae’Sean Tate who, along with David Nwaba, have infused the Rockets with badly needed energy.

Things were obviously better last year when Harden and co. were content, but the Rockets are far from a disaster.

What’s Not Working?

Well, James Harden. Plain and simple. When a superstar wants out, it wears the team down internally. That elephant is too big for the room to ignore, clear that both sides were done with each other by the end. Houston deserves props for willing to get “uncomfortable” just as they promised, but a superstar wanting out brings down the team’s morale no matter what.

It’s why Houston started 3-6 with the league’s ninth-lowest net rating at minus-1.8. There were other factors at play here with all the shuffling parts, but there’s no need for fluff. Harden’s trade demand loomed too large for it not to affect the Rockets. It’s hard for everyone when the best player on the team isn’t buying in. His teammates were complaining about him publicly.

The upshot is that it’s over now. Losing James Harden the player certainly isn’t addition by subtraction – in Houston’s case, that’s Westbrook – but losing James Harden the distraction could certainly be for this season.

What’s Next?

Now that the dust has settled, the Rockets can finally take a deep breath and sort out both their present and their future. Presently, there’s going to be even more shuffling now than there was before. At the very least, the roster is going to have players who should be on the same page.

Houston may still have some loose ends from its previous era. From the looks of things, PJ Tucker could be the next one to go. Houston’s prospects are on the come up, but a player with Tucker’s abilities should be on a contender. That’s something that the Rockets, as of now, are not. The same goes for Eric Gordon, but it’s tough to see any of the elite teams willing to put up enough salaries to trade for his contract.

Then there’s the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo.

Oladipo has been a good soldier in spite of the trade rumors that have buzzed around him over the last several months. Indiana trading him to Houston signified that he wasn’t re-signing with them. Houston provides a unique opportunity for Oladipo to further re-establish his value as a star. It’s hard to foresee if he’s in their long-term plans or if he’s another asset to move in their rebuild.

With all that said, new head coach Stephen Silas seems to have won over the players. After beating the San Antonio Spurs last night without Harden or Wall, the Rockets, despite not being in the tier of elite teams anymore, should be excited for what the season holds.

As for what the future will bring, their outlook is a lot brighter than it was back in September. Even if they’ll face the repercussions of giving up most of their own first-round picks for Westbrook and Robert Covington last year, they just hauled in a massive load of first-round picks and four pick swaps combined for Westbrook, Covington and Harden since then.

The development of players should put Houston in a good light, which could pay huge dividends for their chances in free agency. We’ve seen teams establish a great team culture while building up a promising future – ahem, the very same Brooklyn Nets that just cashed in for Harden proved that.

The Rockets might be next in line.

The days of Houston being a contender are gone for now. But, thankfully, the days of the Rockets becoming one of the NBA’s premier League Pass favorites may have only begun.

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NBA Daily: Payton Pritchard — Boston’s Bench Band-Aid

Basketball Insiders’ Shane Rhodes breaks down the fortuitous start to Payton Pritchard’s rookie season and what it’s meant to the Boston Celtics.

Shane Rhodes

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For the Boston Celtics, Payton Pritchard has been exactly what the doctor ordered.

Boston sported, arguably, the NBA’s worst bench unit a season ago. Despite a fearsome-foursome of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, their lack of depth hurt them all season long. It stood in direct contrast to their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, the Miami HEAT, and, ultimately, sank the Celtics’ shot at the NBA Finals.

Now, with Hayward gone to the Charlotte Hornets and Walker on the mend, it was only logical to expect that dearth to once again be their Achilles heel. But, on the contrary, the bench has been rejuvenated — or, at the very least, much improved — to start the 2020-21 season.

And, albeit unexpectedly, Boston has the rookie out of Oregon to thank for that.

Pritchard, the 26th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, faced some serious questions about his game in the lead up to the season. He left the NCAA as the recipient of both the Bob Cousy and Lute Olson awards, given to the nation’s top point guard and non-freshman player, respectively, and served as a leader for the Ducks throughout his four years with the team.

However, in the NBA, a league that’s far bigger, faster and stronger than any competition he’s ever faced, plenty were concerned as to how Pritchard’s game might translate. He’ll never be the most athletic player on the court and, when combined with his 6-foot-2 frame, that raised some serious concerns about his defensive viability at the game’s highest level.

On top of that, Pritchard was far from the only addition the Celtics made this offseason; fellow rookie Aaron Nesmith was thought by some to be the best shooter in the draft, while Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson are battle-tested veterans that would demand a rotation spot from the jump.

Despite those stacked odds, however, Pritchard immediately took a rotation spot for his own, ahead of the higher drafted Nesmith and alongside the veteran Teague in Boston’s pecking order. In doing so, he’s brought a major spark to a bench that desperately needed one.

Save for a 23 point, 8 assist performance against the Toronto Raptors, he hasn’t jumped out of the boxscore. But Pritchard’s played with a veteran’s confidence and has contributed in nearly every game so far this season.

In fact, he’s played with a tenacity that even some of the more hard-nosed veterans lack, while his knack for the timely play has put Boston in the position to win on almost every possession. Pritchard is a +45 in his 10 games played, good for second among rookies and third among Celtics.

Like on this steal and drawn foul with the clock winding down against the Washington Wizards. Or his tip-in game-winner against the HEAT. Pritchard, at all times, is aware of where he needs to be on the court and, more importantly, when he needs to be there to put the team in the best position to succeed. Likewise, he’s moved with or without the ball and put himself in the position to help his teammates make the easy play as often as possible.

That presence of mind is something you just can’t teach — and Pritchard has it in spades.

Beyond the court, Pritchard has easily endeared himself to his Celtics teammates. Brown referred to him as “the GOAT” after just his fourth game, a win over the Pacers in which Pritchard finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in just over 27 minutes and was clutch down the stretch. Marcus Smart, known for his tenacious style of play, has said “the sky’s the limit” for Pritchard and has noted many similarities between himself and the rookie as far back as the preseason.

A bit more reserved, head coach Brad Stevens said “[Pritchard]’s had more good nights, for sure, than not,” after the rookie flashed against the Raptors.

Still, it’s clear Stevens, like the others, has quickly taken a liking to Pritchard and, further, has expected a lot of the late-first rounder. Pritchard, on multiple occasions and despite his lack of NBA experience, has served as part of Boston’s closing lineup, an ultimate show of respect from a coach like Stevens that values defensive execution above most else on the court.

“We’re going to ask him to do a lot right now. And, fair or unfair to him, he’s going to have to be consistent for us, for us to have a chance to be a good team.”

And Stevens is right; to be the best version of themselves, Pritchard must continue to improve his own game and help push the bench even further.

Of course, that kind of pressure is nothing new to Pritchard who, over his four seasons with the Ducks, carried the team on his shoulders and constantly stepped up when they needed him most. And, while he’s been lauded with praise, the rookie has continued to stay humble.

“Coming in, I’m just trying to do my part,” Pritchard said after the team’s aforementioned win over the Pacers. “It’s my fourth game, everything’s coming at me fast and I’m still figuring things out.”

“I just want to win and I want to help as much as I can to get a win.”

As the Celtics forge their path ahead and continue to outfit the roster, players that not only contribute right away but can elevate the play of Boston’s star duo, Tatum and Brown, will be the priority.

And, if any of them are as rock-solid as Pritchard has been so far, the Celtics will be well on their way to an NBA title.

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