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Can Zion and the Pelicans push their way into the playoffs?

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NEW ORLEANS — Alvin Gentry had seen enough. The players had seen enough. Management had seen enough. A change needed to be made.

The night was Dec. 17. The New Orleans Pelicans were on the wrong end of a call that sent their game against the Brooklyn Nets into overtime. New Orleans wilted defensively and lost in extra time, sending the Pelicans to a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak.

New Orleans, a team with playoff aspirations heading into the season, was 6-22. The Pelicans were one game better than the worst record in the league.

The Pelicans didn’t have Zion Williamson. Cornerstones Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Derrick Favors were part of a roster ravaged by injuries.

Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry wanted to play aggressive defense early on, believing they had the personnel to do so. A 114.5 defensive rating (28th in the league at that point) proved they didn’t.

Favors, returning for the Nets game after time-off following the death of his mother in November, would be key to the Pelicans’ resurgence.

Gentry made a simple change on defense with Favors, who returned for the Nets game after time-off following the death of his mother, by deciding to drop him on pick-and-rolls. This allowed the savvy pro to play the passing lanes more and take away angles for the ball handler coming off the screen.

That strategy, along with the team getting healthier, were catalysts for change.

The Pelicans are now 17-10 since the change following their 123-118 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. That mark equates to a 52-win pace over a full season. Even before Williamson’s debut on Jan. 22, the Pelicans seemingly turned a corner.

Favors said dropping the big has allowed the Pelicans to stay at home on the weakside, which takes away the corner three that teams across the league have fallen so madly in love with. It also helps defend against dynamic rollers who just want to run to the hoop.

“(The guards) are trained to look and see that, almost like a quarterback seeing a middle linebacker, and throw it across the court for a corner three,” Favors said on Thursday night.

Favors added that being back also allows the guard to go over on a lot of screens to take away the three-point threat there as well. But with the dropping, it does open up other options for teams.

“You give up that mid-range jumper,” Favors said. “Some guys can make it, some guys not. But it’s not a layup or a three. But you have to give up something.”

Offensively, the team found a closer in Brandon Ingram, who came over in the Anthony Davis trade. The first-time All-Star began flashing the form many expected when the Los Angeles Lakers took him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

With Ingram thriving and their starting backcourt getting healthy, The Pelicans began seeing results. Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin started to see the roster he envisioned coming together during the summer.

After the defensive change against the Timberwolves, the Pelicans put themselves back into the playoff race by winning 12 of 17 games.

But there was still a big piece missing.

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Abdel Nader’s running hook gets sent into the crowd on an unbelievable block by Zion Williamson.

Since Dec. 18, the Pelicans have a top-12 defense. While Favors played a role in that, Williamson did as well.

Williamson gave the Pelicans a second big who could drop back and play the passing lanes. While Williamson’s individual defense has room for improvement, his presence on the court has boosted the team defense.

When Williamson is on the floor, the Pelicans allow 102 points per 100 possessions. When he’s been off? The Pelicans allow 12.8 more points per 100 possessions. For comparison’s sake, when Giannis Antetokoumpo is off the floor, the Milwaukee Bucks allow 5.0 more points per 100 possessions.

“He still has a lot to learn, but he’s able to guard multiple positions,” Favors said about Williamson’s ability on the defensive end. “Able to guard bigger guys on the switch. Able to stay with guards on the perimeter. Able to rebound and protect the basket. He’s almost like a Draymond Green-type where he can switch 1-5 or 1-4 or whatever. If they do four or five pick and roll, he’s able to switch that. He’s versatile on the defensive end.”

Williamson’s effect on the offensive end has been stark. He’s averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds this season while shooting 57.6 percent from the floor.

He’s also changed how the Pelicans run their offense. Before Williamson’s debut, New Orleans averaged 4.7 post-ups a game. Since his debut, New Orleans is up to 10.7.

On Thursday, the Pelicans posted up a season-high 16 times, with Williamson responsible for 13 of those – the most any Pelicans player has posted up in a single game this season. In just 10 games, Williamson has posted up 75 times, more than any other player on the team for the entire season.

New Orleans is 5-5 in games Williamson has played, with two of those losses coming with Williamson on a minutes restriction. His availability will be key as the team pushes for the No. 8 spot.

On Thursday, Williamson finished with a career-high 32 points in the Pelicans’ loss to Oklahoma City but continued to put himself in rarified air in terms of basketball history.

“He creates mismatches,” Gentry said following the Oklahoma City loss. “He can play against bigger guys, quicker guys, smaller guys. He allows us an opportunity to take advantage of those situations.”

According to ESPN Stats and Information research, Williamson became the fourth teenager in NBA history to have consecutive 30 point games joining LeBron James, Devin Booker and Luka Doncic.

The plan now for New Orleans, as it has been all season, is to make the playoffs. When the team was 6-22, Griffin and his staff never had the mentality to sell off veterans like Holiday, Favors or JJ Redick just to get pieces and tank.

Their playoff push has a pulse, as the Pelicans have six games remaining against teams between them and the No. 8 seed. Three against the Spurs, two against the Grizzlies and one against the Blazers, with a 5-1 record against those squads.

The Pelicans have the league’s easiest schedule following the All-Star break while the Grizzlies, currently sit in the eighth spot, have the hardest. It’s still an uphill climb though, especially with New Orleans sitting 5.5 games back of Memphis.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, only one team in NBA history has been that far back at the All-Star break and still made the playoffs – the 1994-95 Denver Nuggets. That Nuggets squad still had 36 games to play after the break though; the Pelicans only have 27.

Gentry has said that his team can control their destiny – but they aren’t looking too far ahead, despite the tough odds ahead of them.

“It doesn’t matter if we look at who is beating who,” Gentry said. “We just have to take care of the business on our side. We’re coming back (after the break) with 27 games. What we have to do is try to look at each and every one of those games and play at a real, real high level.

“I still think we control our own destiny until somebody tells me otherwise. We have to take care of business on our end.”

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NBA bubble intel – Schedule and live updates for Day 3 of seeding games

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The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers gave fans a reason to tune in on opening night of the NBA restart for the reseeding games, with the Lakers edging the Clippers in a close one. They’ll both be back in action Saturday with two games that offer their own intrigue.

The Clippers play first, taking on the New Orleans Pelicans (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) and their dynamic rookie, Zion Williamson. (Can we still call a guy a rookie more than a year after he has been drafted?)

Anyway, both the Clippers and the Pelicans played, and lost, Thursday, which should give the matchup an extra edge. Nobody wants to go 0-2 to start an eight-game seeding scenario, although a loss would certainly seem more consequential for New Orleans.

The Pelicans’ 106-104 loss to the Utah Jazz dropped them to 28-37, and they enter Saturday 3½ games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot in the West — and a game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 9 spot, which is where they need to be if they want to force a play-in game should they not nab the eighth seed outright.

Williamson, whose playing time was limited after he had to leave the campus to attend to a family emergency and had his training camp basically cut in half, still might not be ready to make a full impact. He scored 13 points against Utah on 6-for-8 shooting, but New Orleans was outscored by 16 in the 15 minutes he was on the floor, and Williamson failed to grab a single rebound.

A Clippers loss to the Pelicans wouldn’t be as alarming — in fact, some championship coaches like Doc Rivers invite a little adversity to get their team’s attention. But it would cut into their lead over the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz for the No. 2 spot in the West. And while home-court advantage might be moot at a neutral site, staying as the second or third seed means that the Clippers would avoid the Lakers in the postseason until the conference finals, theoretically giving them more time to get their rhythm and jell again after the hiatus before taking on that challenge.

Later Saturday, the Lakers play the defending champion Toronto Raptors (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Toronto’s first game of the restart. The previous time they met, back in November, Toronto won 113-104 at Staples Center. Raptors role players Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson combined for 38 points off the bench. The Lakers already earned their first 50-win season since 2011 by beating the Clippers, and a victory over Toronto would allow the Lakers to clinch the No. 1 seed in the West. (They can also back their way into No. 1 with the next Clippers or Nuggets loss.)

Which, in all honesty, could run counterproductive to the work Lakers coach Frank Vogel insists still needs to be done.

“We are far from a finished product,” Vogel said Friday. “It feels like we have a long way to go to reach the habits and discipline we were playing with when we entered the hiatus.” –Dave McMenamin

PAST BUBBLE INTEL: July 30 | July 31


The latest buzz

Nuggets down three starters Saturday

The Denver Nuggets will enter their first seeding game short-handed, as starters Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton have all been declared out against the Miami Heat (1 p.m. ET on ESPN). Murray, who played 25 minutes in the Nuggets’ final scrimmage on Monday, has been dealing with left hamstring tightness. Harris, who was a late arrival to the bubble, has a sore hip, and Barton has been nursing right knee soreness. Harris didn’t play in Monday’s scrimmage, while Barton was limited to 18 minutes.


Saturday’s must-see games

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder | 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

The game that started, and, really, stopped it all. After a four-month delay, the Thunder and Jazz finally play. When we left off, this game was about to be for the current 4-seed in the Western Conference. And it maintains those large implications as both teams are firmly in the mix for a top-four seed. It’s an important game — for a lot of reasons. — Royce Young

New Orleans Pelicans vs. LA Clippers | 6 p.m. ET on ESPN

Both teams are 0-1 in the bubble, and in both cases lost tight, toss-up games. The Pelicans looked excellent, even with Williamson’s minutes restriction — for about 3½ quarters. The Clippers fared similarly, except they just couldn’t find enough offense down the stretch. The Pelicans are more desperate than the Clippers here to get their first restart victory, though, because there aren’t many chances available. — Young

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Toronto Raptors | 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

After beating the Clippers on opening night, the Lakers get the defending champs in another high-level matchup. There’s a lot of talk about how the already-great chemistry of the Raptors has only strengthened in the bubble, and while they’re an Eastern Conference threat, they’re still seen as somewhat of a dark horse. There’s an opportunity to make a strong statement here against the presumed title favorite. — Young

Additional games

Full scoreboard for Aug. 1


Play-in watch

The only bubble team playing on Saturday is New Orleans (vs. Clippers). And it is also the last time the Pelicans play a team with a winning record. So while the schedule gets “easier” on paper for New Orleans, the Pelicans will face teams playing for their playoff lives for the rest of the month after Saturday, just like they will be.

Eastern Conference

7. Orlando Magic | 31-35 (.470) |
8. Brooklyn Nets | 30-35 (.462) | 0.5 GB
9. Washington Wizards | 24-41 (.369) | 6.5 GB

Western Conference

8. Memphis Grizzlies | 32-34 (.485) | —
9. Portland Trail Blazers | 30-37 (.448) | 2.5 GB
10. San Antonio Spurs | 28-36 (.438) | 3.0 GB
11. New Orleans Pelicans | 28-37 (.431) | 3.5 GB
12. Sacramento Kings | 28-37 (.431) | 3.5 GB
13. Phoenix Suns | 27-39 (.409) | 5 GB

Full standings | Playoff matchups


Sunday’s must-see games

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Boston Celtics | 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC

The Trail Blazers got off to exactly the kind of start they needed, taking down the Grizzlies in the opener to close the gap because things start to get tougher from here. The Celtics played the Bucks to the wire, getting a terrific game from Marcus Smart and looking every bit prepared, conditioned and ready. The Trail Blazers are definitely a better team today than they were in March. They’re going to need to show it against Boston. — Young

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets | 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC

There’s a decent chance the Bucks might drop 190 points on Houston. But then again, the Rockets might return the favor, because the microball is still cooking. James Harden didn’t show any signs of rust, and for the most part, Houston just continued on with what it was doing in March. If anything, the restart might have given the Rockets more of a chance to work out some issues, and a showdown against the Bucks is a great chance to try it out in a rematch of both teams’ season opener.— Young

Additional games

Washington Wizards vs. Brooklyn Nets | 2 p.m. ET
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies | 4 p.m. ET
Sacramento Kings vs. Orlando Magic | 6 p.m. ET
Dallas Mavericks vs. Phoenix Suns | 9 p.m. ET

Full scoreboard for Aug. 2


Analysis and intel

Why these games matter for seven underrated NBA title contenders

Which teams are gearing up to crash the NBA Finals? Our experts break down the top choices.

Social justice messages each NBA player is wearing on his jersey

Here’s a team-by-team list, including the reasons for some of their choices

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Why these games matter for seven underrated NBA title contenders

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Last year, a dark horse contender pulled off consecutive upsets to win the NBA championship. Who could be this year’s Raptors?

Friday night’s action featured three of those dark horses: the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics.

Saturday’s games in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will show us a handful more:

Miami Heat vs. Denver Nuggets (1 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

New Orleans Pelicans vs. LA Clippers (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET)

Toronto Raptors vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

We asked our experts to break down the leading contenders outside the big three — the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. Here’s how these seven teams can break through in Orlando to make a surprise appearance in the NBA Finals.

MORE: Three ways to beat the NBA’s top team


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI): 7%
FiveThirtyEight: 13%

How the Rockets could crash the NBA Finals
The main reason is a rested James Harden. He looked very fresh Friday, scoring 49 points in 43 minutes during Houston’s opening seeding game. When Harden plays that way, the Rockets are a real threat.

Over the past four regular seasons, Harden’s worst true shooting percentage is .598. In the playoffs, his best mark over that span is .583. Naturally, all players become less efficient against playoff defenses, but this effect has been pronounced for Harden. It’s unclear how much that has to do with Harden’s game being easier to stop with familiarity as compared to the effect of fatigue, but we’ll get a better idea this season with Harden coming into the playoffs more rested. If he’s as dominant as he has been in the regular season, the Rockets will be hard to stop.

Why the Rockets won’t make the Finals
Can Houston really make it through three rounds without encountering a team capable of exposing its small lineup? In particular, the Clippers look like a suboptimal matchup for the Rockets given their ability to match Houston perimeter player for perimeter player and lack of a traditional center to play off the floor.

Given Houston’s previous incarnation appeared incapable of a deep playoff run, it would be a mistake to suggest the Rockets will lose because of going small, but that characteristic might ultimately lead to the team’s demise.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
The extent to which the Rockets can get Harden and Russell Westbrook going at the same time. Westbrook’s surge with better floor spacing matched up with Harden’s game slipping after an MVP-caliber start to the season.

That’s probably not a coincidence. Basketball-Reference.com’s game score shows a consistent inverse correlation between Harden’s success and Westbrook’s, with Westbrook’s game score dropping by a third of a point for each point Harden’s game score improves. Can coach Mike D’Antoni find a way to get the best out of both MVPs at the same time? Keeping his job might depend on it.

Friday’s game was encouraging in that regard, as Harden and Westbrook both topped 30 points in the same game for only the sixth time all season. — Kevin Pelton

MORE: Bubble buzz — Giannis’ MVP form; Blazers’ playoff push


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight:

How the Mavericks could crash the NBA Finals
The Mavs exploded for 149 points in an overtime loss on their first night back. But that was no shocker, because Dallas has, statistically speaking, the best offense in NBA history, averaging 115.9 points per 100 possessions this season after Friday’s game.

Luka Doncic, who posted a 28-13-10 triple double Friday, appears to have his early-season burst back after recovering from a twice-sprained ankle and other bumps and bruises. Kristaps Porzingis, now a full-time center, is a major matchup problem who poured in 39 on Friday, one point short of his career high.

The Dallas offense been even more prolific with Seth Curry in the starting lineup (119.9 offensive rating in 131 minutes with that quintet). Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the two most efficient, high-volume spot-up shooters in the league this season, benefit from all the attention defenses must pay to the Mavs’ young cornerstones. That potent offense makes Dallas dangerous.

Why the Mavericks won’t make the Finals
The Mavs have been absolutely miserable in crunch time this season, and that cost them Friday’s big game against Houston when Dallas put on a dazzling show for three quarters, built a big lead and fell flat in the fourth on the way to a deflating overtime loss.

That’s why the Mavs sit seventh in the standings despite having the third-best point differential (plus-5.9 per game) in the Western Conference. The Mavs rank 28th in clutch net rating (minus-17.9 points per 100 possessions) primarily because that historically elite offense has been horrible down the stretch of close games.

It’s hard to reasonably believe the young Mavs will dramatically improve that flaw under playoff pressure against elite competition. Doncic has proved himself in high-stakes situations with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team, but this will be the first taste of the NBA playoffs for Porzingis and him.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
There are some scouts and team executives around the league who are skeptical that Porzingis can be the second-best player on a legitimate title contender. But he certainly looked the part Friday night, just as he did in the six weeks before the season was suspended, averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in that span.

Porzingis and Doncic have made significant strides in establishing rapport during their first season together, especially since Porzingis shifted to center, putting him in pick-and-rolls on a regular basis. The Mavs believe Porzingis can be an elite two-way big man. If they’re right, Dallas should have an extended window as a contender. — Tim MacMahon

MORE: Doncic — ‘A lot to learn’ after tough loss to Rockets


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 11%
FiveThirtyEight: 19%

How the Celtics could crash the NBA Finals
Despite 2-for-18 shooting from Jayson Tatum on Friday, the Celtics held a fourth-quarter lead over Milwaukee and were tied in the final two minutes, an early demonstration of their ability to compete for the East title in Florida.

Boston’s top six provide the talent and positionless versatility to match up with any team’s six-man rotation, thanks to multiple scorers, playmakers and switch-friendly defenders. Tatum and Kemba Walker are stars, a dynamic one-two scoring punch — assuming Tatum polishes off the rust he showed Friday. Jaylen Brown‘s blossoming game and Gordon Hayward‘s return to health give the Celtics more options on both ends. Marcus Smart is one of the league’s toughest defenders, and Daniel Theis has been a revelation as the starting center. If the Celtics can get enough from these six during what promises to be an intense schedule, they can contend for the East crown.

Why the Celtics won’t make the Finals
Boston’s top-end talent is elite — but there isn’t much after it, which leaves this team with little room for error. Walker’s balky knee is a problem if it continues to bother him; he was limited to 19 minutes in Friday’s game. So, too, is the looming absence of Hayward during the playoffs due to the impending birth of his child. When the Celtics have all of their pieces, they are as good as any team. But take away any of those links in the chain, and things could quickly fall apart against top-end opponents.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
Who will step up to support the top-line talent? The seeding games will be used as a ramp-up period for Boston, which is pretty locked in to the third seed in the East. That means Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III will be battling for spots in the playoff rotation. If any of them can earn coach Brad Stevens’ trust, that will be a boon to Boston’s chances of making a deep playoff run. — Tim Bontemps

Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 5%
FiveThirtyEight: 3%

How the Nuggets could crash the NBA Finals
Two words: Skinny Jokic. Aside from his inexplicably lethargic start to this season, I’ve always found the concern over Nikola Jokic‘s physique a little overwrought. But if getting in better shape during the NBA’s stoppage of play makes Jokic more mobile defensively, giving coach Michael Malone more options for defending pick-and-rolls without the kind of aggressive coverages the Nuggets have favored (per Second Spectrum data, only the Chicago Bulls used either blitz or show defense more frequently than Denver during the regular season), it could make the Nuggets more dangerous.

Why the Nuggets won’t make the Finals
They just haven’t played well enough this season. Denver’s plus-3.0 differential ranks sixth in the Western Conference, and I’m not sure the Nuggets would be in this group if they were sixth in the standings rather than third. The only team since 1999 to make the NBA Finals with a differential as weak as this season’s Nuggets was the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers, and I don’t think that team — which had appeared in the three previous Finals and played in a weak Eastern Conference — is a reasonable comparison.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
Sadly, probably not “Point Bol Bol” now that Denver is at relatively full strength. So instead I’ll be keeping an eye on the Nuggets’ other rookie, Michael Porter Jr. Presumably, part of the logic behind trading Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez was clearing more playing time for Porter after he averaged 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game in January due to injuries. However, Porter’s minutes were still limited to 12.7 per game when he returned from injury after the All-Star break. I’m curious whether he can earn more minutes in these seeding games. — Pelton

MORE: Continuity Rankings — teams with an edge in Orlando


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight: 10%

How the Raptors could crash the NBA Finals
The Raptors’ experience on the big stage — not only having won the NBA Finals last year, but also beating a well-oiled Milwaukee machine to do so — shouldn’t be discounted. Though Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are out of the picture, the Raptors still rated fourth in our recent NBA continuity rankings.

Any reigning champion that was on a nearly 60-win pace and has the likely Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse — especially a team that’s dealt with the ungodly number of injuries Toronto has — should be seen as a contender, especially now that the Raps will finally be at full strength.

Why the Raptors won’t make the Finals
As wonderful a player as Pascal Siakam is (and he’s a legit star), he’s still growing into the role of a true No. 1 option on offense. And not only is Leonard no longer available to get big buckets, he also made life difficult on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Beyond that, Toronto built most of its impressive record by beating up on subpar competition (35-4 vs sub-.500 teams). So it’s fair to wonder whether the Raptors — even at full strength — have enough to put them over versus elite teams (11-14 vs. teams .500 or better this season) in a playoff setting.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
After all the injuries Toronto has been through this season, how will the club deal with having a full deck? Will Nurse tighten up his rotation? How will the players, after so many have taken on big roles this season, deal with those changes? Stability should help things. But now that the competition has ratcheted up, with only playoff-contending teams, perhaps we shouldn’t assume that the Raptors will do far better than before simply because they’re healthy now. — Chris Herring

MORE: Lowe’s picks for All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Rookie


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 6%
FiveThirtyEight:

How the Jazz could crash the NBA Finals
The Jazz are comfortable in close games, going 26-11 in games that are within five points in the final five minutes. Only the Thunder (29-13) had more clutch wins, and only the Bucks (15-4, .789) had a higher winning percentage in those games. As he displayed in the restart opener, Donovan Mitchell has the combination of cool and the ability to create offense required to be a go-to guy with the game on the line. And two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert frequently rises to the occasion with game-saving stops.

Why the Jazz won’t make the Finals
The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgery during the hiatus, leaves a huge void. It’s really hard to replace an efficient 20-PPG scorer, but it’s not just about all the buckets Bogdanovic would get on a consistent basis. As an elite shooter (41.4% on 7.3 3-point attempts per game), Bogdanovic opened the floor for his teammates. Utah averaged 113.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and only 105.0 when he sat — the difference between being the second-best and second-worst offense in the league.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
How can you ignore the dynamic between the Jazz’s two franchise cornerstones after the tension exposed and created since March 11? On the bright side, everything we’ve seen so far in the bubble backs up the belief throughout the organization that Gobert and Mitchell can continue to be one of the NBA’s most productive partnerships. Mitchell assisted Gobert three and four times, respectively, in the Jazz’s past two scrimmages. To put that in perspective, Mitchell had three assists to Gobert in a game only once previously this season. And Mitchell’s feed to Gobert led to the winning free throws in Thursday’s victory. — MacMahon

MORE: 16 things we can’t wait to watch now that basketball is back


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 2%
FiveThirtyEight: 33%

How the Sixers could crash the NBA Finals
The 76ers are the team in the East best suited to beat the Milwaukee Bucks using the strategy the Raptors demonstrated in last season’s playoffs: Have a long, strong, athletic wing defender play up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and funnel him into layers of large, defensive-minded bigs to limit his ability to break down the defense and finish at the rim. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Tobias Harris could implement this approach, and if it again slows the Bucks’ offense, the Sixers would have a legitimate chance to topple the best team in the East.

Why the Sixers won’t make the Finals
The 76ers have not shown the high-level consistency, at either end, to demonstrate their readiness to topple a juggernaut like Milwaukee. Beating the Bucks requires teams to implement and execute a perfect defensive scheme while simultaneously knocking down shots at a high clip against the Bucks’ top-rated defense. The Sixers have the size and ability to do the former and the individual offensive talent to do the latter on nights when shots are falling, but after an up-and-down season, putting together such complete efforts four times in seven games seems unlikely.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
The 76ers need to show that they can consistently score efficiently, particularly from the outside. Shooting and spacing have been weaknesses all season, particularly when they played their big lineup with Simmons at the point and Horford at power forward. Coach Brett Brown has moved Horford to the bench in favor of point guard Shake Milton, with Simmons nominally moving to power forward. The 76ers need to show that this adjustment is enough to generate better shooting and spacing — and ultimately to give Embiid the room to dominate the interior — if they want to legitimately contend. — Andre Snellings

MORE: The Sixers are the most enticing underdog in the NBA restart

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Mavs’ Luka Doncic — ‘A lot to learn’ after tough loss to Rockets

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The Dallas Mavericks‘ young stars, fresh off blowing a double-figure lead in the fourth quarter, tried to put a positive spin on their 153-149 overtime loss Friday night to the Houston Rockets.

“This one is, I would say, a great loss for us,” Mavs center Kristaps Porzingis said after his 39-point, 16-rebound performance in their opener of the seeding schedule for the NBA restart in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “We have to take lessons from this game. We have to look at the film and see what we could have done better at the end to close out the game. That’s it. I feel like we have to take the positive of this tough loss that we had and try to learn from it.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Porzingis has made similar statements after some of the Mavs’ late-game failures this season. Those have been a troubling trend for Dallas, which blew an opportunity to put itself on the heels of Houston, increasing the odds that the Mavs will stay in the Western Conference’s seventh seed and face the LA Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

Statistically, the Mavs feature the most efficient offense in NBA history, which was on display as Dallas torched the Rockets for 119 points through three quarters. However, the Mavs’ offense has sputtered miserably all season in clutch situations, averaging only 92.9 points per 100 possessions when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime. That ranks 29th in the league, ahead of only the bubble-excluded Detroit Pistons.

That’s the primary reason the Mavs have a 14-22 record (.389) in games that fit the clutch designation. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers have had a worse clutch winning percentage among teams with plus-.500 records over the past 20 years.

“We’re a young team. We’ve got a lot to learn,” said Mavs point guard Luka Doncic, who finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists but struggled in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he was 2-of-8 from the floor with three of his eight turnovers. “We’ll get better for sure. I know we’re going to get together when it matters most in the playoffs, so I’m not worried about that.”

It required some extraordinary developments for the Rockets — who got a combined 80 points from superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, their most as teammates — to escape The Arena on the Walt Disney World campus with a win.

Houston trailed by seven with 45 seconds to go in regulation. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, teams had been 2-711 when trailing by seven or more in the final minute of regulation entering Friday.

“We kept telling ourselves that we’re built for it,” said Harden, who had 49 points on 14-of-20 shooting, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. “We’re going to play four quarters. We have legs to be able to push through [and] mental toughness.”

The Rockets, who trailed by 13 early in the fourth quarter, finished regulation with an 8-1 run that started when Harden hit a 32-foot 3-pointer. After Doncic missed a long 3 as the shot clock was ticking down, Rockets forward Robert Covington got fouled and made both free throws. Mavs guard Seth Curry split a pair of free throws, keeping it a one-possession game.

After a timeout, the Mavs intentionally fouled Harden after he received the inbounds pass near half court, wanting to keep him from being able to attempt a 3-pointer. There was some controversy about whether Dorian Finney-Smith fouled Harden before he started his shooting motion, but the referees ruled that the foul occurred on the floor, sending Harden to the line for two free throws, not three, with 3.9 seconds remaining.

Harden made the first and missed the second, but Covington slithered past a boxout by Mavs forward Maxi Kleber to the other side of the basket for a tip-in in traffic to tie the score. The game went into overtime when Doncic airballed another 3, an ugly end to a 20-point quarter for Dallas.

“A lot of this stuff comes down to details,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “Look, I’ll take full responsibility for the loss. I want to keep the pressure off the players. They really played their butts off, but we were unable to make some key plays that we needed to make.”

Harden scored seven of his 49 points in overtime to help the Rockets put the game away.

“We willed our way to that win,” said Westbrook, who had 31 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists. “We went and took that game. They thought they had it, and we went and took it away.”

The Rockets had that opportunity because the Mavs’ offense got stuck in the mud in the fourth quarter.

Dallas shot 57.4% from the floor, including 17-of-30 from 3-point range, through three quarters. But the Mavs bogged down in the fourth, going 7-of-28 from the floor, and made matters worse by missing four of their seven free throws in the frame.

“I think we should have stayed more offensive-minded, the way we were the whole game,” Porzingis said. “At the end, we tried to slow it down, and the pressure was up obviously. We tried to slow it down and kind of just cruise and win the game. Or maybe not to lose the game.”

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