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NBA playoff debate – Big play-in tournament questions and bold predictions

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The NBA’s return-to-play plan, which includes a likely 22-team field competing in Orlando, Florida, in regular-season games and a play-in tournament to decide postseason berths, is expected to pass in a Thursday board of governors vote.

The Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic were holding the No. 8 seeds in their respective conferences when the league was suspended on March 11, but it looks like they will have to compete for their spots in the postseason when the season resumes.

Our experts break down what they’re most excited for in a play-in tournament, debate who has the most at stake and share their bold predictions for the playoffs.

MORE: When will the NBA return? Latest updates and big questions


1. What intrigues you most about the proposed play-in tournament?

Kevin Arnovitz: We’ve been openly debating the merits and drawbacks of a play-in tournament for years, and now we’ll finally have a pilot program to measure its value. We’ll find out whether this product is something players and fans respond to and something broadcast partners are intrigued by. If it works, it could generate a significant amount of revenue for the NBA in the next broadcast deal, which consequently might afford the league the chance to shave a few regular-season games off the schedule.

Kevin Pelton: How wide open it might be in the West this year. Despite the 3 1/2-game lead the Grizzlies enjoyed in the race for eighth, all six teams that might be invited to Orlando are separated by barely a point per game in terms of differential, from the minus-0.8 mark for the New Orleans Pelicans to minus-1.9 for the Sacramento Kings.

Mike Schmitz: I’m interested in the viability of a play-in tournament every season moving forward. If all goes well, starting the playoffs with a quick-hitting tournament to determine back-end playoff slots could be a great way to hook viewers early, providing more of an NCAA tournament feel that would surely be welcomed by the sports betting community.

Andrew Lopez: I like the idea that the NBA is allowing itself to experiment at this point, but so many questions remain. How many times will Washington have to beat Orlando (or Brooklyn) to get the eighth spot in the East? What will happen in the race for No. 8 in the West? Is this something the NBA implements moving forward? The time for experimentation is now, so let’s get wild.

Royce Young: The novelty of it. Bringing the win-or-go-home mentality of the NCAA tournament to the NBA could produce games like we haven’t really seen before. There’s a fine line between feeling gimmicky and feeling energized, and a play-in tournament will walk it. But if it adds intensity and weight to early postseason games, it could bring the kind of moments typically reserved for a Game 7.

2. Which potential first-round playoff matchup would you most like to see?

Arnovitz: Philadelphia and Boston have a rich history and contrasting styles, schemes and personnel. If Ben Simmons returns healthy for the Sixers, the matchup would be an unusually strong one for a first-round series.

Schmitz: Mavericks-Clippers. I’m fascinated to see how Luka Doncicthe third-most efficient isolation player in the NBA (minimum 200 possessions) — will fare against elite wing defenders Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in his potential playoff debut. Mismatch nightmare Kristaps Porzingis was also starting to hit his stride before the hiatus. This one has far more star power than your traditional 2-7 matchup.

Pelton: Boston-Philadelphia. Coming into the season, I think the expectation was that Celtics-Sixers might be a conference semifinals matchup — maybe even one we’d see in the conference finals. For these two talented teams, connected by Al Horford and Jayson Tatum, to square off in the opening round would be a heavyweight battle.

Young: There’s something of a perfect serendipity to the Thunder and Jazz picking up the NBA season where it left off, but put me down for Luka and the Mavs against the superteam Clippers. What the NBA is going to need out of the gate in these unusual circumstances is a good product, and both teams can play high-level, pretty basketball. Playoff Luka is something we haven’t seen before, and it isn’t hard to imagine some epic individual battles between him and both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

Lopez: The potential Boston-Philadelphia matchup in the 3-6 spot takes on a new life in the bubble. The Sixers were one of the worst road teams in the league this season. Now that this matchup could take place in Orlando, does that eliminate Philly’s road woes? Does it amplify them? I think it elevates what was already a fun matchup.

3. Which player’s return will you be most interested to watch?

Schmitz: Zion Williamson. Not only is he already one of the league’s most entertaining young stars, but his post-quarantine conditioning will also be a point of interest. If Zion is somehow able to lead New Orleans into the playoffs, potentially knocking out the Grizzlies in the process, is that a large enough body of work to move him ahead of Ja Morant in the Rookie of the Year race?

Pelton: I’m going to cheat and say Jusuf Nurkic or Zach Collins, the Blazers’ ideal starting frontcourt that has played a combined 86 minutes this season. How well Collins and Nurkic play together as starters will go a long way toward determining whether Portland can replicate last season’s playoff success.

Young: LeBron is the easy answer because it’s probably the best one. Did the time away freshen him to a level we’ve never seen before in a postseason setting? Or will he be rusty? How will he handle the circumstances? Other players are interesting — I’m curious about Russell Westbrook not having any courtside fans to play off of for motivation — but LeBron’s approach is without question the most fascinating individual situation.

Lopez: What will Zion look like? According to Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, Williamson was cleared by the NBA to use the Pelicans’ facility to keep rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. When Williamson spoke to Ernie Johnson in early May, he said he was ready to return to basketball right away. Williamson was coming into his own in March, when the season was suspended, so what he looks like after three months of rest will be something to behold.

Arnovitz: LeBron James. This season, we saw what happens when James is afforded eight months off in lieu of a 100-game grind through late-June. Can we expect the same kind of production after he got a four-month hiatus on the eve of the postseason? If so, the Lakers — already prime title contenders — will be even more dangerous in a bubble postseason than they’d have been with LeBron logging a full season headed into the playoffs in April.

4. Which player or team has the most at stake in a return?

Arnovitz: The Blazers in that they’ll be playing for their postseason chances in any play-in scenario. Portland owns the fourth-longest current playoff streak. Although the Blazers are currently on the outside looking in, they’ll likely be equipped with their starting frontcourt of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins for the first time this season, essentially fielding the core of last year’s Western Conference finalists.

Young: Again, LeBron. In basically every situation, LeBron has the most at stake. But there will be a certain pressure on Giannis. The Bucks were on track to be historically dominant, and Giannis is probably headed for another MVP. The bizarreness of the situation reshapes the outcome some, but Giannis is reaching the level of being judged by what he does — and doesn’t — have on his fingers. This Bucks team is good enough to win it all, but their chances rest largely on Giannis rediscovering his dominance.

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Short-handed Nets reach deal with veteran guard Jamal Crawford

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When the Brooklyn Nets boarded their plane out of New York on Tuesday, there were only 12 healthy players on board. But reinforcements are coming. Jamal Crawford is signing with the Nets for the remainder of the season, league sources told ESPN.

Crawford, 40, will fill one of the Nets’ three vacant substitute roster spots. Crawford is eligible to be signed after Brooklyn had three players — Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince — test positive for the coronavirus. All three have been ruled out for the season restart in Orlando, Florida. Wilson Chandler, citing familial obligations, also did not make the trip. The team signed forward Justin Anderson in his place.

Now the Nets have two roster spots available to be filled.

According to NBA rules, Crawford could fly or drive to Florida. If he hasn’t been tested regularly since June 23 — when the league started testing players every other day — he will need to quarantine and be tested every day for a week in Orlando before he will be eligible to join his new teammates on the court.

Crawford hasn’t played in the NBA in the 2019-20 season. He most recently played for the Phoenix Suns and scored 51 points in the last game he played in 2019. The 20-year veteran has averaged 14.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game over the course of his career.

The deal was first reported by The Athletic.

The Nets arrived in Orlando on Tuesday as one of the 22 NBA teams scheduled to resume games on July 30. They are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Orlando Magic, who currently hold the final playoff spot.

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Stephen Jackson — Comments could have been clearer but had nothing to do with anti-Semitism

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Stephen Jackson apologized Wednesday night for using what he said were the “wrong words” in defending DeSean Jackson, but the former NBA player told CNN that what he said a day earlier should not be misinterpreted as support for anti-Semitism.

“As I first stated when I got on here, I could’ve changed my words,” Jackson told CNN’s Don Lemon. “But there’s nothing that said that I support any of that. There’s nothing that I said that I hate anybody.”

Jackson received criticism throughout Wednesday for saying that DeSean Jackson was “speaking the truth” with his social media posts in recent days that included an anti-Semitic message that he attributed to Adolf Hitler.

Stephen Jackson took to Instagram on Tuesday night to defend the Eagles receiver, saying in part: “You know he don’t hate nobody, but he’s speaking the truth of the facts that he knows and trying to educate others.” In the Instagram video, which was later deleted, Jackson did not mention Hitler or anti-Semitism, but he did speak of social injustice and police brutality and how “none of you NFL owners spoke up on that.” Jackson also spoke about Riley Cooper, the white receiver who shouted a racial slur at a Black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert in 2013. Cooper was fined by the Eagles and apologized, then was signed to a five-year extension by the team the following year.

The Eagles called DeSean Jackson’s posts “absolutely appalling” on Tuesday. The receiver later apologized multiple times.

“Maybe I could’ve been more clear of what I thought DeSean was correct about, but I didn’t feel the need to go into a conversation that me and him had about how they were treating him and Riley Cooper,” Stephen Jackson told CNN. “I could’ve changed those words, but the people that know me — my Jewish friends that I talked to today — they know that the last thing I was spewing was to defend Hitler or any other post. That’s why I didn’t speak on Hitler or even speak on his post. I spoke on exactly what I agreed with, and they was handling him different than they was handling Cooper. That’s the end of it. They can twist it how they want, but that’s exactly what it is. I don’t hate nobody.”

Jackson, who retired from the NBA in 2014 after playing 14 seasons and winning a championship with San Antonio in 2003, has been a voice for social activism since the death of his friend George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

“I’ve been out here fighting for justice and equality,” Jackson told CNN. “And I was speaking on equality — why they wasn’t handling Cooper and DeSean Jackson any other way. Like I said, they can twist it how they want to. You didn’t hear a word out of my mouth saying, ‘I hate Jews.’ You didn’t hear a word out of my mouth saying, ‘I’m supporting Hitler.’ They can twist it how they want. I don’t hate nobody. I’ve been standing up for everybody. I’mma continue to. And that’s just the end of it.”

A former NBA analyst for ESPN, Jackson played in the Big3 in 2018 and ’19 (the 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic) and now helps host the “All The Smoke” video podcast on Showtime.

Earlier Wednesday, Showtime addressed Stephen Jackson’s initial comments about DeSean Jackson.

“Regardless of his intentions, Stephen’s comments were hurtful and inconsistent with the values espoused by this network,” it said in a statement.

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Short-handed Nets reach deal with veteran guard Jamal Crawford

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When Brooklyn boarded their plane out of New York on Tuesday, there were only 12 healthy players on board. But reinforcements are coming. Jamal Crawford is signing with the Brooklyn Nets for the remainder of the season, league sources tell ESPN.

Crawford, 40, will fill one of the Nets’ three vacant substitute roster spots. Crawford is eligible to be signed after Brooklyn had three players — Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince — test positive for the coronavirus. All three have been ruled out for the season restart in Orlando. Wilson Chandler, citing familial obligations, also did not make the trip. The team signed forward Justin Anderson in his place.

Now, the Nets have two roster spots that are available to be filled.

According to NBA rules, Crawford could fly or drive to Florida. If Crawford hasn’t been tested regularly since June 23 — when the league started testing players every other day — he would need to quarantine and be tested daily for a week in Orlando before being eligible to join his new teammates on the court.

Crawford hasn’t played in the NBA in the 2020-21 season. He last played for the Phoenix Suns and scored 51 points in the last game he played in 2019. The 20-year veteran has averaged 14.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game over the course of his career.

The deal with first reported by the Athletic.

The Nets arrived in Orlando on Tuesday as one of the 22 NBA teams scheduled to resume games on July 30. They are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Orlando Magic, who currently hold the final playoff spot.

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