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The key NBA standings races to watch in the final weeks of the season

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The NBA’s trade deadline is officially in the rearview mirror and most of the top players to hit the post-deadline buyout market have already landed with their new teams. That means the league’s collective attention shifts from player movement to movement in the standings, and how the key races will shake out over the final 48 days of the regular season.

This is the first season in which each of the top 10 teams in each conference will qualify for at least a play-in round, giving more teams than ever something to play for down the stretch.

A quick refresher on how the play-in tournament works: The teams that finish seventh and eighth in the standings will play each other. The winner gets the 7-seed. The teams who finish ninth and 10th also face each other. The loser of that game is eliminated. The winner faces the loser of the 7-8 game, and the winner of that game is the 8-seed.

What that all means is there are three key races to follow for the play-in tournament:
• The race to finish in the top six, to guarantee a playoff spot
• The race to finish seventh or eighth, and get into the playoffs with one win
• The race to get to 10th, and give your team a shot

Every night for the rest of the season, there will be at least one game with some impact on key standings battles. Here’s a breakdown of the most important, starting with the top of the East.

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Stephen A. Smith explains why he’s not a fan of the Nets adding LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.

The East’s top seed

The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have separated themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference. The team that emerges from that group to finish with the East’s best regular-season record gets two key benefits.

First, they’ll get home-court advantage at least until the NBA Finals. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the top seed among those three teams gets to avoid facing the other two until at least the conference finals.

While there are several intriguing teams lower in the standings, including the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, right now every team in the East playoff picture aside from the trio at the top is hovering around .500. For a team like the 76ers, who currently lead the Nets by a half-game, getting to face one of those middling teams in the second round would be a huge advantage over having to play an earlier playoff series against Milwaukee or Brooklyn.

All three teams at the top have made recent moves to strengthen their rosters for the stretch run. The Bucks traded for forward P.J. Tucker, the 76ers traded for guard George Hill and the Nets added bigs Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge after they were bought out by their previous teams.

The Nets visit the 76ers on April 14 (7 p.m. ET on ESPN), while the Bucks face the Sixers twice in a row, April 22 (7 p.m. ET on TNT) and April 24 (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). While the outcome of those games could play a major role in the final order of this trio, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives the Sixers the inside track to keep the top spot, in part because Philadelphia has the fifth-easiest schedule remaining, significantly ahead of Milwaukee (14th) and Brooklyn (19th).

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Jalen Rose says the Heat’s moves at the trade deadline are the reason he’s picking them to win the East.

The East play-in

When the NBA resumed play last season, the league added the wrinkle of a play-in game for the final playoff spot, if the eighth and ninth place teams were separated by four games or less in the standings after the seeding games. That wasn’t the case in the East, where the Washington Wizards faded badly in the bubble, so this will be the first year that fans see an Eastern Conference play-in game.

And getting to that point could be complete chaos.

As of right now, the Knicks and Charlotte Hornets tied for fourth, just two games ahead of the 9th-place Indiana Pacers by just two games. The Chicago Bulls are in 10th, two games behind Indiana and two games ahead of the Toronto Raptors. Any one of those teams, along with the Celtics, Heat and Atlanta Hawks, could finish in the top six to avoid the play-in round or fall all the way to 11th.

BPI projects that the Celtics and Heat — last year’s Eastern Conference finalists — will finish fourth and fifth, respectively. Boston added Evan Fournier and Miami picked up Trevor Ariza, Victor Oladipo and Nemanja Bjelica ahead of the trade deadline. The Hornets, meanwhile, are projected to finish sixth, and make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

The Bulls, on the other hand, are projected to finish 11th, missing the play-in entirely, despite making a pair of deadline day deals to add All-Star Nikola Vucevic and big man Daniel Theis.

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Jay Williams praises Zion Williamson’s game and wonders what his success means for Brandon Ingram’s future with the Pelicans.

The West play-in

Things aren’t quite as chaotic in the West, where a stratification has developed between the top six teams and the rest of the playoff hopefuls.

The ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies and 10th-place Golden State Warriors are looking to hold off the surging Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans, with those four teams separated by just two games. While both Sacramento and New Orleans traded away players at the deadline — Nemanja Bjelica and JJ Redick respectively — they held on to other players in hopes of making a playoff push.

The 7/8 game isn’t out of reach for any of those teams either, with the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks just 1 ½ games up on Memphis. In fact, BPI projects that the Warriors will most likely end up in the 7-8 game against the Mavs, with the Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs most likely to face off in the 9-10 game.

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Stephen A. Smith outlines why he sees the Lakers coming out of the West after the addition of Andre Drummond.

Where will the Lakers wind up?

As recently as March 18, the Los Angeles Lakers were second in the West, having pulled to within 1 ½ games of the Utah Jazz. The idea they could end up in the play-in tournament was laughable. But then LeBron James went down with a high ankle sprain and joined fellow superstar Anthony Davis on the sidelines.

Suddenly, the defending champions looked vulnerable, dropping four games in a row before pulling out a pair of home wins against two of the league’s worst teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic. Now, the Lakers are as close to the seventh-place Mavericks as they are to the top-seeded Jazz, and the idea of a short-handed Lakers squad falling into a play-in spot isn’t as far-fetched.

James is set to be out for several weeks. Davis, who has been out with a calf strain and tendinosis in his right leg, has only just resumed on-court activities. Neither star will be coming back to help anytime soon, which doesn’t bode well for the team’s offense. The Lakers rank 23rd in the league in scoring since Davis left the lineup in mid-February, and 29th in the five games both James and Davis have missed.

They did get a boost over the weekend with the addition of Andre Drummond, who averaged 17.5 PPG in Cleveland this season before being bought out.

The Lakers have the league’s second-hardest remaining schedule, and the two teams directly behind them in the standings — the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers — both made moves to improve at the trade deadline. ESPN’s BPI currently projects the Lakers to hold on to the fourth spot in the West, but pulling that off with both of their stars out will not be easy.

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USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas

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For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.

The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.

USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.

The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.

It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.

“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”

The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.

Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony DavisLos Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.

All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”

Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.

“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”

The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.

GAME SCHEDULE

July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia

July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria

July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain

PREQUELS

The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.

The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.

The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.

FIBA RANKINGS

Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.

The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.

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Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets

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It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.

“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.

“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”

In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.

The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.

“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”

Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.

When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.

“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”

The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.

“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”

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NBA playoffs 2021 – Chris Paul couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for the Phoenix Suns

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Chris Paul plans.

He planned when he forced a trade out of New Orleans a decade ago. He planned when he creatively leveraged a contract option to get himself to Houston. He planned when he helped change an arcane age rule in the collective bargaining agreement that enabled him the chance to earn tens of millions in extra salary.

Even in the moments after Paul’s Phoenix Suns finished a 125-98 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets to take a 2-0 series lead, Paul was planning. In the locker room, knowing the Nuggets twice came back last season from 3-1 deficits, he was getting his teammates to think about Game 3 on Friday night in Denver. Paul told stories of going up 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 while with New Orleans, only to eventually lose in seven games.

But even on his most rosy drawing board, he probably couldn’t have seen the situation that is unfolding.

The Suns have won five straight playoff games and, with each victory, appear to be getting stronger. His long-time adversaries are falling off the board. Stephen Curry is home. LeBron James is home. Injuries are mounting across the league and this time the one Paul had in the playoffs, his shoulder stinger that almost wrecked this run before it started, seems to be healed.

The Suns are healthy and playing brilliantly as a group. In both games of the second round, five players have scored in double figures.

People around the league are starting to talk about how this might be Paul’s best shot ever at a Finals. It might be premature to say that considering his Houston Rockets team was up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals before a hamstring pull sidelined him three years ago.

But after the routine disappointments with the LA Clippers and the letdowns and near misses in Houston, this rising Suns streak feels like the most unexpected playoff situation of Paul’s career.

“I’m telling you,” Paul said after scoring 17 points with 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2. “I really haven’t been on a team quite like this one.”

Working with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul had several hopes when picking a trade destination last offseason. He wanted to be close to his family in Los Angeles, be in good weather and have a shot at playing next to a star; he would have that in Devin Booker. Represented by the same agency, Booker was desperate to get some help. “I’m done with not making the playoffs,” Booker said three years ago after a 21-61 season. “I’m serious.”

After going a perfect 8-0 in Orlando to narrowly miss the playoffs in 2020, the Suns were upwardly mobile — but they were not seen as real contenders. Different people in their fanbase and organization may have jumped to that conclusion as this special season unfolded, but now that it’s actually happening, Paul is basking in the position he’s found himself in.

Booker has been the star he believed in, his 47-point closeout game to knock out the champion Lakers being the gem so far. Paul can’t believe how effective his teammates are at shooting, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne lighting up the opposition from outside.

Paul, who was the centerpiece of Lob City with the Clippers and on an offensive juggernaut in Houston, says he’s never seen anything like it.

“Everybody shoots,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy. Everybody [on our team] are knock down shooters.”

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Chris Paul connects with Deandre Ayton for a roaring two-handed slam.

During the five-game winning streak Paul has 53 assists and four turnovers. That’s 53-4. With his shoulder better — he couldn’t even attempt long shots for several games in the last round — he’s made 14-of-24 shots and 4-of-5 3-pointers in this series. His two 3s Wednesday were fourth-quarter daggers.

“He manages games better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something I take for granted, it’s not something our team takes for granted.”

It is dangerous to think this fairy tale will continue, Paul’s playoff career is one long string of unexpected setbacks. But it’s also human nature to watch him, at age 36, and wonder whether there is some bit of karma heading his direction.

Outwardly Paul will not allow it, he has literally done dozens of commercials about insurance covering unexpected disasters. But inwardly he probably can see the road ahead and start to feel some warmth.

“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”

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