Heat rally to beat LeBron and Kyrie-less Cavs in OT, keep stunning playoff chase alive

Hassan Whiteside smiles like a man who knows he's still got a shot. (Getty Images)
Hassan Whiteside smiles like a man who knows he’s still got a shot. (Getty Images)

After the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls each won on Monday night, the Miami Heat had to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers to keep their playoff hopes alive. Even with superstars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving getting the night off after logging heavy minutes in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks, victory didn’t come easily or quickly … but eventually, an extra five minutes later, the Heat got what they needed.

[Sign up for Yahoo Fantasy Baseball: It’s not too late to get in the game]

After falling behind by double-digits early and by 14 in the third quarter, the Heat rallied to take a seven-point lead midway through the fourth with a hellacious 26-8 run fueled by point forward James Johnson and reserve shooter Wayne Ellington. The Cavs came back, though, with vets Kyle Korver, Kevin Love and Deron Williams hitting big shots down the stretch to put Cleveland up by two with one minute left, forcing a tough Goran Dragic jumper to knot the score at 108 heading into the closing seconds of regulation.

Cleveland had the chance to win it, but Heat center Hassan Whiteside blew up a Deron Williams-Kevin Love pick-and-roll to give Miami a chance of its own …

… which amounted to nothing, sending the game to overtime. Miami came out hot in OT, scoring the first six points of the extra session, but the 3-ball got Cleveland back on track … or, for the sake of accuracy, the 4-ball:

With 13.6 seconds left in overtime, Heat guard Tyler Johnson stepped to the line for two free throws that could give Miami a three-point lead, setting the stage for a wild final possession:

Johnson made his pair, and with no timeouts, the Cavs had to push the ball in pursuit of a game-tying answer. But Miami guard Josh Richardson hounded Williams into not only giving up the ball, but running straight into Korver, eliminating any chance of a quick-release 3 off a dribble handoff.

Korver passed to Frye, who looked to pitch the ball to J.R. Smith, but Dragic was in his hip pocket to stop any handoffs, forcing Frye to work against Whiteside from beyond the 3-point arc, straight away, with less than five seconds left on the game clock. Frye eventually spun free and rose for a triple fading to his left, but the shot went wide, sealing a 124-121 overtime win that kept Miami in the hunt for a once-unthinkable playoff berth into the final day of the season.

Playing without their two top scorers, the Cavs got a surprising turn-back-the-clock performance from Williams, the former All-Star point guard turned veteran backup, who led the way with a game-high 35 points on 14-for-25 shooting, nine assists (albeit with 10 turnovers), seven rebounds, a steal and a block in 46 minutes:

But despite Williams’ throwback game, 25 points and 10 rebounds from Love (who was listed as questionable with an illness prior to the game) and 21 points from Frye in his fourth straight start in place of the injured Tristan Thompson, the Cavs didn’t have enough to put away a Heat team that has just kept scratching and clawing its way back toward the light for three straight months. The loss dropped Cleveland to 51-30, a full game behind the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Tyler Johnson made four critical free throws in the final 30 seconds, and finished with a team-high 24 points on 7-for-12 shooting with five rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes off the bench. Whiteside added 23 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks, while Richardson turned in a stellar two-way game (19 points on 14 shots, six rebounds, five steals, four assists, and a block in 46 1/2 minutes) for the Heat, who have gone a stunning 29-11 since falling to 11-30 on Jan. 13.

[Follow Ball Don’t Lie on social media: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Tumblr]

Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have a better record or net rating (whether you outscore your opponent over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa) during that stretch than the Heat, who now sit at 40-41, one game behind the seventh-seeded Pacers, and tied on record with the Bulls for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Chicago occupies the No. 8 spot by virtue of holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, but by winning on Monday, Miami gave itself a chance that nobody in their right mind would’ve given the Heat after Miami fell 19 games under .500 in mid-January.

Now, if they can beat the Washington Wizards — who are locked into the East’s No. 4 seed, but that can reach the 50-win mark for the first time since 1979 by knocking off Miami — and if either Indiana or Chicago loses their final games of the season, the Heat can make the playoffs. And if they both lose and the Heat win, then Miami, which beat Indy twice in three meetings this season, can even rise to the seventh spot:

Indiana, winners of four straight, will finish out the season against the Atlanta Hawks, while the Bulls will face the Brooklyn Nets, the team with the worst record in the NBA. (But also, to be fair, one that has played near-.500 ball and boasted a top-10 defense since the All-Star break, and that just knocked off Chicago on Saturday.)

The odds are not in Miami’s favor, but that’s been true for the last three months, and it hasn’t stopped the Heat yet.

“We think it’s meant to be,”‘ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the game. “But we have to take care of business.”

More NBA coverage:

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

NBA Playoff Picture: The Bucks are in, the Clips are up and the race for 8 rages on

WHAT MATTERED MOST

A subjective ranking of the results that mattered most to the playoff bracket.

1. Los Angeles Clippers 98, San Antonio Spurs 87

Three and a half weeks ago, the Clippers were playing sub-.500 ball since the All-Star break and utterly unable to get stops with any consistency; they were, in the words of shooting guard J.J. Redick, “in a bad place.” Now, though, the Clips are much closer to where they want to be, thanks to another strong effort to take down the West’s No. 2 seed on the road.

Chris Paul led six Clippers in double-figures with 19 points on 9-for-16 shooting, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block in 30 1/2 minutes of floor time, pacing L.A. to a convincing victory in which the Clips never trailed again after the 4:07 mark of the second quarter. DeAndre Jordan muscled the Spurs’ big men inside, putting up 17 points and 17 rebounds in the win, which continued an impressive season-closing kick for Doc Rivers’ club.

Since that three-game skid that had us wondering if they’d lost their bearings heading into the postseason, the Clips have now won five straight and nine of 11. Only the rampaging Golden State Warriors have outscored opponents by a higher margin since St. Patrick’s Day.

L.A.’s defense has tightened considerably since its slide, including a sharp performance on Saturday in holding the Spurs to just 42.5 percent shooting as a team. Kawhi Leonard (28 points, five rebounds, five assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (18 points on 9-for-17 shooting) got theirs, but the Clippers were able to quiet the rest of San Antonio’s contributors, limiting points in the paint and second-chance opportunities to bank another win and lock in a top-five seed. That means we’re now assured of seeing a first-round matchup between the No. 3 seed Houston Rockets and No. 6 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. (Get your popcorn ready.)

Now, about the other team battling with L.A. in the middle of the Western pack …

2. Portland Trail Blazers 101, Utah Jazz 86

… well, they ran into a flaming poisoning raging sword of doom on Saturday night, and his name is Damian Lillard.

Damian Lillard lets everyone in the gym know what time it is. (Getty Images)
Damian Lillard lets everyone in the gym know what time it is. (Getty Images)

Lillard nuked the Jazz for a Portland franchise-record 26 points in the first quarter. And after Utah walked the Blazers down in a second stanza that saw Lillard get a rest and C.J. McCollum go 1-for-10 from the floor, Dame came back with a vengeance after intermission, pouring in 19 more in the third quarter to put the Jazz down for the count. The Oakland-born star point guard finished with a career-high and franchise-record 59 points to lead Portland to its 11th win in 14 games.

The Blazers are now 40-40, and hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the Denver Nuggets in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. One more Blazers win, against either the Spurs on Monday or the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday, punches Portland’s postseason ticket. So does one more Nuggets loss, since the Blazers clinched the head-to-head season series with Denver late last month.

The loss dropped Utah to 49-31 — the same record as the Clippers — but because L.A. owns the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams after beating the Jazz last month, the Clips moved up to No. 4 on Saturday, while the Jazz slid to No. 5. As it stands, L.A. would hold home-court advantage over the Jazz in a 4-vs.-5 opening-round matchup.

With the tiebreaker in hand, the Clips could clinch the No. 4 spot on Monday if they can beat the Houston Rockets and the Jazz fall to Golden State. The Jazz are reeling a little bit, are dealing with injuries to point guards George Hill (groin strain) and Raul Neto (sprained ankle), and saw Gordon Hayward suffer a quad contusion on Saturday. The Warriors, on the other hand, have won 14 straight games and just got Kevin Durant back. So, y’know, we could know exactly where this long-expected middle-of-the-bracket matchup will begin late Monday night.

3. Milwaukee Bucks 90, Philadelphia 76ers 82

They had to weather a strong first half from Rookie of the Year candidate Dario Saric and their own poor long-range shooting, but the Bucks eventually took control on Saturday, using their length and athleticism to suffocate the Philly defense to the tune of just 12 points on 4-for-18 shooting in the third quarter. A couple of Giannis Antetokounmpo drives and a pair of Matthew Dellavedova 3-pointers helped fuel a 15-2 mid-third-quarter run that turned the game around, and the Bucks would keep the Sixers at arm’s length long enough to clinch a playoff berth, returning to the postseason after dropping out of the East’s top eight in 2015-16.

The Bucks now sit at 41-39, a half-game behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 5 spot in the East, and a game up on the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers. The fluidity in the seeding, even at this late date, means we don’t yet know who Milwaukee will be facing in Round 1.

The young Bucks, who have made it this far despite losing major pieces for significant chunks of the season, don’t seem to care.

“When the playoffs start, we’re going to be ready,” said Antetokounmpo, who battled a stomach flu to lead the way with 20 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks in 40 minutes. “It’s not going to be fun to play against us in the playoffs, because we’re going to play hard defensively and run, move the ball. We don’t have anything to lose. We achieved our goal and now we have to go even farther.”

OK, so the Bucks have one of the final four playoff spots in the East. What about the rest of the bottom of the conference bracket?

4. Brooklyn Nets 107, Chicago Bulls 106

The Bulls won big on Sunday to put themselves in great position to lock down one of the final spots in the Eastern playoff chase this week. Then they sputtered Tuesday against the Knicks, raising some doubts about whether they’d be able to stick what looked like a soft landing against a comfortable closing schedule.

Chicago righted the ship somewhat in an appropriately commanding Thursday win over the Sixers, setting the stage for a Saturday evening visit to Brooklyn that could have gone a long way toward clinching a playoff berth. If you’ve been following the pattern, though — or paying attention to Chicago throughout this generally disappointing season — you know what the Bullsiest possible outcome in this one would be … and this, friends, was Bullsy as hell.

The Nets relished the opportunity to spoil things for the Bulls. (Getty Images)
The Nets relished the opportunity to spoil things for the Bulls. (Getty Images)

With 4:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bulls held a nine-point lead. From that point on, the Nets — who own the NBA’s worst record, but who have been downright decent and awfully frisky since the All-Star break — ripped off a 19-9 run to close out the game, riding the energy, shooting and defensive activity of their young wings.

Rookie Caris LeVert knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to start the late surge. Sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson controlled the defensive glass and barreled to the front of the rim for a pair of transition layups. And Spencer Dinwiddie — whom the Bulls cut in October, and who later spent part of the season with Chicago’s D-League affiliate before eventually catching on with Brooklyn — scored seven of his 19 points in the final 1:23 of the fourth.

The 6-foot-6 guard out of Colorado drilled a big 3-pointer to tie the score at 101 after the just-returned-from-injury Dwyane Wade doubled down on Brook Lopez in the post and no help rotation came behind him. Then, with 13.6 seconds left, he went one-on-one against Wade, attacked and drew a foul, getting himself to the line for two free throws that put Brooklyn in front for good. He’d later knock down another pair to give the Nets just enough breathing room to survive a final-second 3-pointer by Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler and still come out on top.

Butler once again led the way for Chicago, scoring a game-high 33 points on 12-for-22 shooting with seven rebounds and four assists. Wade added 14 points, seven rebounds and two assists against five turnovers in 24 1/2 minutes off the bench in his first game action since March 15 for the Bulls, who fell to 39-41. They’re still the East’s No. 8 seed, though, and could punch their postseason ticket on Monday:

… not that Fred Hoiberg’s team has given us a whole lot of cause to believe they’ll do anything other than take this thing down to the absolute last possible second on the season’s final day before either squeaking into the playoffs or petering out just before the finish line.

The Bulls’ loss clinched a postseason berth for the idle Hawks, who remain the East’s No. 5 seed at 41-38. Atlanta has now made the playoffs in 10 straight seasons, the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference.

5. Miami Heat 106, Washington Wizards 103

A tense, tight game that featured 15 ties and 17 lead changes came down to which team could execute better in the closing seconds. Despite being at the end of a three-game road trip on the second night of a back-to-back after a hardfought two-point loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday, it was Erik Spoelstra’s Heat that held fast when it counted to keep their playoff hopes alive.

After Wizards All-Star John Wall split a pair of free throws to give Washington a 103-102 lead with 20 seconds left, the Heat needed a bucket to avoid a second straight dispiriting loss that could have shattered their postseason dreams. So, naturally, Spoelstra gave the ball not to star point guard Goran Dragic, or to beastly center Hassan Whiteside, but to James Johnson — for seven years a journeyman combo forward who could never quite seem to find the right fit, and now a linchpin do-everything frontcourt playmaker for this delightfully weird-ass Heat team — and said, “Go get a bucket.”

And he did.

The other four Heat players on the floor fanned out across the baseline, taking their defenders with them and allowing Johnson to go one-on-one with Wizards power forward Markieff Morris. Johnson drove right at Morris and used his strength to bump the defender off the spot, then spun to his left, elevated and finished with a smooth lefty layup at the rim to give Miami a 104-103 edge with 11 seconds left.

After Miami stepped up to the plate, the Wiz had a chance to answer … and they blinked.

Washington swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. botched the inbounds play, throwing the ball over the head of Wall and into the open court. Miami guard Josh Richardson tracked it down, and Wall was forced to foul, sending him to the line for a pair of free throws. Richardson would calmly make them both, putting the Heat up by three with 9.7 seconds left.

Washington had one last chance to extend the game. Again, the Heat were equal to the task, leaning on the defense that has carried them all year to pull out another W:

Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal dribbled to his right, taking a ball screen from center Marcin Gortat that pinned Heat defender Tyler Johnson and forced the 7-foot Whiteside to switch onto the smaller, quicker ball-handler. But Whiteside hung with Beal, using his superior length to make up for Beal shaking him with a left-to-right crossover on the right wing and staying with the shooter all the way into his motion, deflecting a would-be game-tying 3-point try and sending the ball harmlessly away as the clock wound down, sealing a win that leaves Miami as the only team currently outside the top eight still capable of making the playoffs in the East.

Whiteside was dominant in the middle, leading six Miami players in double figures with a game-high 30 points on 12-for-19 shooting. The big man also added with 12 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals in 37 1/2 minutes of work for the Heat, who improved to 39-41. They have the same record as the Bulls, but Chicago remains in the East’s No. 8 spot by virtue of owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami.

Taking their race for the conference’s final postseason spot into the season’s final three days means a chance for an extremely interesting Monday matchup in South Florida with an old friend …

… which could feature the reappearance of a present-day Miami folk hero who’s been sidelined by a severe ankle sprain since St. Patrick’s Day:

Morris scored 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting to lead the Wizards, who fell to 48-32, one full game behind the idle Raptors in the race for the No. 3 seed in the East. Washington will need to win both of its final games of the season — at Detroit on Monday, and another meeting with Miami in Biscayne Bay on the campaign’s final day — to finish with 50 wins for the first time since 1979.

6. Boston Celtics 121, Charlotte Hornets 114

Boston appeared to have snapped out of its recent funk with a monster first half. The C’s hung 71 points on the shell-shocked Hornets through the first two quarters behind blistering long-range shooting and huge halves from stars Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, taking a 19-point edge into intermission.

They gave it all back, though, allowing the Hornets to chip away at the lead in a listless third quarter before surrendering a 10-0 run early in the fourth that but Charlotte back on top by seven with just over 6 1/2 minutes left to play.

The Celtics did just that, riding their small-ball lineup — Horford at the five and Jae Crowder at power forward, flanked by guards Thomas, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart — to a late-game blitz that saw Boston outscore Charlotte 24-10 down the stretch.

Thomas, Bradley and Smart combined for 17 points on seven shots in the final 4 1/2 minutes. Boston took the lead for good on a driving layup by Thomas with 2:13 to go, and put the nail in Charlotte’s coffin on back-to-back 3-pointers by Thomas and Bradley that put the C’s up 119-111 with 54 seconds left.

The loss eliminated the 36-44 Hornets from playoff contention, marking both a disappointing departure from a successful 2015-16 season and an unfortunate bit of consistency in Charlotte:

The Hornets’ loss also officially eliminated the Detroit Pistons from playoff contention. After clonking their way to a 36-43 record, Stan Van Gundy’s club needed an awful lot of help to stay alive in the closing days of the season, and Charlotte’s exit extinguished the Pistons’ slim hopes of making a second straight playoff trip.

Thomas scored a game-high 32 points on 10-for-18 shooting for the Celtics, who improved to 51-29 and moved within a half-game of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the East. Boston needs to finish one game ahead of Cleveland to snag the top spot, thanks to the Cavs putting a hurt on the C’s at TD Garden last week. The Celtics wrap up with home games against Brooklyn and Milwaukee, while Cleveland finishes out with road games at Atlanta and Miami before heading home to take on the Raptors.

7. Indiana Pacers 127, Orlando Magic 112

Man, Paul George is really intent on making things tough on voters who have to figure out which six forwards will appear on their All-NBA ballots, isn’t he?

Indiana’s All-Star struck again on Saturday, blasting former coach Frank Vogel for 37 points on 14-for-22 shooting with seven rebounds and six assists in 39 1/2 minutes to lead the Pacers to their third straight victory. The win brings the Pacers back to .500 at 40-40 and, combined with Chicago’s loss, bumps Indy up to the No. 7 spot in the East, a half-game up on the eighth-seeded Bulls.

The Pacers shot a blistering 59.3 percent as a team, dishing 35 assists on 51 made field goals and pounding Orlando on the interior for 64 points in the paint. Myles Turner had 23 points and 10 rebounds, reserves Kevin Seraphin and C.J. Miles each produced offensively, and Lance Stephenson continued to look incredibly comfortable back in his old uniform, much to the delight of everybody else in a Pacer uniform:

Eight points, six rebounds, three assists and a block in 22 minutes off the bench for Lance, plus two more triples, which was decidedly not a part of his game outside the boundaries of the Hoosier State:

“I haven’t been hitting 3s since I left here,” a smiling Stephenson said after the game, according to Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star. “Hitting 3s for me is like winning a championship game. I feel good.”

He’ll feel better if the Pacers can clinch a playoff spot on Monday. They’ll need a win over the Sixers and either a Heat loss to the Cavs or a Bulls loss to the Magic to get it.

MVP OF THE DAY

A subjective choice for the player most valuable to his team, on just one day and determined by the NBA playoff picture.

I adhere by a very strict code in matters such as these: if you score 59 points to put your team on the brink of securing a playoff berth, then you get MVP of the Day. Listen, I don’t know if it’s “cool” or “uncool,” but it’s just the way I was raised.

So, with apologies to Paul George, Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside, big up yourself, Dame Dolla:

Lillard’s numbers since the All-Star break: 24 games, 29.7 points, 6.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals in 35.9 minutes per game, shooting 46.7 percent from the floor, 41.3 percent from 3-point range (on 8.6 attempts a night) and 88.4 percent from the foul line (on 7.5 attempts a night). I think it’s safe to say he’s gotten himself kicked into gear heading into the playoffs.

Of course, Lillard’s scorching run of form might not wind up mattering all that much should he push the Blazers into the playoffs, because …

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

A subjective choice for the most important play of the day as determined by all the same stuff listed in the last section.

… KD’s back. And while it’s premature to put too much on one performance after 19 games on the shelf with something as tricky as a knee sprain, he did look an awful lot like Kevin Durant.

More to the point: he looked like Kevin Durant from the game’s very first possession, when he reminded us all that no, as a matter of fact, Alexis Ajinca can’t guard him one-on-one and that yes, now that you mention it, it has been over a month since he dunked in a game, a streak that he’d very much like to end, thanks.

The avalanche of efficiency wasn’t there, as KD scored 16 points on 6-for-15 shooting without a 3-pointer in four tries. But he grabbed 10 rebounds, dished six assists, played 31 minutes and looked none the worse for wear as the Warriors destroyed the New Orleans Pelicans while Stephen Curry, who’s been dismantling the opposition in Durant’s absence, got the night off. Golden State hasn’t lost since March 11, and with one swooping, lethal KD reverse, they became whole again. In the grand scheme of the title chase, that seems pretty significant.

More NBA coverage:

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

NBA Playoff Picture: Ragtag Hawks, tough Raptors make the East a lot more interesting

DeAndre Bembry guards LeBron James during the Hawks’ unlikely win. (AP)

WHAT MATTERED MOST

A subjective ranking of the results that mattered most to the playoff bracket.

1. Atlanta Hawks 114, Cleveland Cavaliers 100

Just when we thought the Cavs had turned a corner, they go and lose comfortably to a ragtag roster full of resting regulars. The Hawks sat Dennis Schröder, Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap, and Kent Bazemore (several of whom are recovering from injury) on the second night of a back-to-back despite not yet having locked down a playoff berth and ended up not needing any of them. Tim Hardaway Jr. led the way with 22 points, but this was a team effort. Atlanta shot 50.6 percent from the field, assisted on 38 of their 45 field goals, and out-scored the Cavs 31-22 in the fourth to ensure there would not be a comeback.

It’s hard to know what to make of Cleveland after this loss. Their offense was mostly fine (despite 9-of-36 shooting from outside), and LeBron James finished with 27 points (12-of-15 FG), eight rebounds, and seven assists in 41 minutes. Only Kevin Love was truly bad (6-of-17 FG), and the Cavs are usually able to withstand such performances from one star. As usual, the defense was the issue.

The good news for the Cavs is that the lead for the No. 1 seed still stands at one game with just three games left to play for both them and the Boston Celtics. Head coach Ty Lue has said that LeBron and Kyrie Irving will continue to play until Cleveland clinches the top seed, which could come as soon as Sunday’s rematch against the Hawks in Atlanta. The magic number is now two, so a Celtics loss at the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday would give the defending champions a chance to win and get that much-desired rest time.

Atlanta’s surprising road win makes their lead for the No. 5 spot a full game over the Milwaukee Bucks, a team they also defeated 3-1 in the season series to grab the tiebreaker. After a very rough stretch without Paul Millsap, the Hawks now look in line to clinch a playoff berth this weekend and perhaps lock down their seed.

2. Toronto Raptors 96, Miami Heat 94

Neither team one over any neutrals in this one, an offensive struggle in which both sides shot worse than 42 percent from the field with fewer than 10 made threes. The Heat had an especially rough go of things — they turned it over 19 times with only 16 assists.

The Raptors were lucky enough to have DeMar DeRozan to cover for everyone else’s difficulties. He scored 38 points (14-of-32 FG, 10-of-11 FT) for his 31st 30-plus game of the season, breaking Vince Carter’s franchise record. It was otherwise a tough night for Toronto, which did not see Kyle Lowry continue the excellent form he showed in his first game back from wrist surgery. The star point guard put up 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting and turned it over five times.

A representative sample of Friday’s Heat-Raptors game. (AP)

The flipside of Toronto’s ugly win is that, well, they won, which is always a positive. The Raptors now lead the Washington Wizards by one game in the race for the No. 3 seed and hold the tiebreaker, which means their magic number to lock down the spot is two. Toronto also now has an outside shot to catch the Celtics for the No. 2 seed, although it may be too much to make up 1 1/2 games with only two of their own left to play (even with a tiebreaker already won).

The Heat are now in the unenviable position of potentially missing out on the playoffs despite holding one of the NBA’s best records since the All-Star break. Miami is now a game back of both the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in the race for the East’s final two playoff spots, but for purposes of practicality they’re probably better left focusing on catching the latter. Chicago holds a tiebreaker over each opponent, including in a three-way tie, but the Miami would win a tiebreaker against Indiana. Unfortunately, the Heat’s remaining schedule — two against the Wizards sandwiching a matchup with the Cavs — could preclude them from grabbing the wins necessary to get in. They’re certainly going to have to earn it.

3. Denver Nuggets 122, New Orleans Pelicans 106

A Denver loss would have lowered Portland’s magic number to clinch the West’s final playoff spot to just one, and a mere 51-50 halftime lead made that seem like a real possibility. But the Nuggets dominated the third with a 41-24 third quarter and held on throughout the fourth to grab a must-win game. Nikola Jokic was terrific with 23 points (9-of-13 FG), 12 rebounds, and five assists, and rookie guard Jamal Murray added 30 points (10-of-14 FG). Their top-five offense continues to hum along — they shot 55.1 percent from the field with eight players scoring at least seven points.

It’s still going to take a lot for them to finish ahead of the Blazers. Denver finishes with two games against Oklahoma City and has to travel to Dallas for what could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final home game. Those will all be tough ones, and even one loss would open a significant opportunity for Portland. They don’t have it especially easy either — Utah, San Antonio, and New Orleans are left — but they don’t have to leave Moda Center and can probably depend on pulling out at least one game at home.

4. Utah Jazz 120, Minnesota Timberwolves 113

The Jazz trailed by as many as 11 and seemed in danger of losing to draw even with the Clippers, a result that would knock them back into the West’s No. 5 seed via a lost tiebreaker. Yet Utah adjusted to the faster pace of this game and dominated the third, taking that period 40-25 and holding on in the fourth to come away with the win. Gordon Hayward starred with 39 points on just 22 shots, but the offensive success went beyond his big night. The Jazz shot 60 percent from the field and made 14-of-25 threes to withstand 32 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and Minnesota’s 28-of-28 performance from the free-throw line.


Utah also saw the return of big man Derrick Favors, who had missed 14 games with a knee injury. He put up 13 points in 15 minutes and could be a meaningful factor once he becomes more comfortable in NBA action.

The Jazz have a tough remaining schedule — at Portland, at Golden State, vs. San Antonio — that could jeopardize their chances to hold homecourt advantage in the first round. On the plus side, the Clippers don’t have it much easier — they play their last road game at the Spurs on Saturday and finish up at Staples Center with the Rockets and Kings.

5. Phoenix Suns 120, Oklahoma City Thunder 99

If you missed this one, you failed to see history. Russell Westbrook finished with eight assists to clinch a triple-double average for the season. He’s the second player in NBA history to do so, and he can pass Oscar Robertson for the single-season record with a triple-double in any of OKC’s final three games. MVP or not, Westbrook has had one of the greatest statistical seasons anyone will ever see.

On the other hand, the game didn’t exactly feel like a crowning moment for Westbrook. He missed committed five turnovers in the opening 10 minutes and missed his first 11 shots, all factors in Phoenix building a 23-point lead at the half. OKC made a few runs to gesture towards a comeback, but they were never able to keep the Suns from scoring. It was ugly enough that Westbrook and the Thunder completely gave up on the game with roughly four minutes left and focused instead on padding his assist stats to get The Big O’s record out of the way. The Suns started intentionally fouling to stop it, and Westbrook finally left the court in defeat with roughly 2:33 on the clock.

The loss doesn’t mean much to the Thunder. They can technically catch the Clippers for the West’s No. 5 seed, but it would take a perfect storm of three wins and three L.A. losses to do it. It looks all but certain that leading MVP candidates Westbrook and James Harden will match up in the first round. Sharpen your pencils — we all have narratives to write.

6. Memphis Grizzlies 101, New York Knicks 88

I regret to inform you that I made a mistake in Wedneday’s playoff picture post when I said the Grizzlies had been locked into the No. 7 seed. They were still capable of being caught by the Blazers at the time, which means they did not solidify their first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs until they beat the Knicks on Friday. We regret the error.

Otherwise, this game had two big stories. The first was clear enough — Mike Conley returned from a one-game absence with an eye injury and 31 points on 7-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc. He was the best player on the court and at least proved that he can dominate one of the league’s worst defenses.

Mike Conley’s eye injury didn’t stop him from dominating the Knicks. (AP)

The other story only really matters to gamblers. Memphis led 98-88 and held the ball with the shot clock turned off on the game’s final possession. However, rookie guard Wade Baldwin IV hoisted a three-pointer at the buzzer instead of dribbling out the clock to make it a 13-point game, which changed the fortunes of anyone who bet the 12.5-point spread.

Whoops!

7. Detroit Pistons 114, Houston Rockets 109

The Rockets have already locked down the No. 3 seed in the West, so the fact that they allowed the Pistons to win the fourth quarter 39-22 for a comeback win doesn’t mean much to their standing. However, it does technically keep hope alive for the Pistons, who would have been eliminated from contention with a loss. It’s just a matter of time before that occurs, but at least they’ll live another day. Stanley Johnson buried a tiebreaking three in the final 30 seconds to win it for the Pistons.

Otherwise, the internet should be happy to hear that Boban Marjanovic was the difference in the game. The fun-loving Serb scored a career-high 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting and brought smiles to the faces of children anywhere.


8. San Antonio Spurs 102, Dallas Mavericks 89

The Spurs came into the night already established as the West’s No. 2 seed and rested Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green to celebrate. The Mavericks countered by not playing anyone more than 30 minutes, which could be why Bryn Forbes (27 points) was able to lead San Antonio to its 61st win.

This is a photo of Bryn Forbes:

Drive to the hoop, well-known NBA player Bryn Forbes! (AP)

MVP OF THE DAY
A subjective choice for the player most valuable to his team, on just one day and determined by the NBA playoff picture.


It’s difficult to deny the performance of DeMar DeRozan, who toughed out 38 points in an ugly game to lift Toronto to a very meaningful win. DeRozan was up and down at times in the playoffs last season, but his consistent play throughout 2016-17 and excellent form with Kyle Lowry out for 21 games suggests that he may have taken a leap beyond his prior improvement. If Toronto keeps playing well through the end of the regular season, they may enter the postseason as a popular pick to return to the conference finals.

– – – – – – –

Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @FreemanEric

NBA Playoff Picture: A huge win for Portland and more trouble for Boston

Damian Lillard and the Blazers came from behind for a huge win. (AP)

WHAT MATTERED MOST

A subjective ranking of the results that mattered most to the playoff bracket.

1. Portland Trail Blazers 105, Minnesota Timberwolves 98

If the Blazers go on to clinch the West’s final playoff spot, this win and its fourth–quarter comeback could end up as one of the biggest reasons why. Portland struggled mightily to contain Karl-Anthony Towns (24 points and 16 rebounds) and Andrew Wiggins (36 points) over the first three quarters and trailed by as many as 15 in the third and by seven heading into the fourth. The absence of injured center Jusuf Nurkic continued to hurt the Blazers’ offensive versatility and interior capabilities, and it looked as if they’d head into the season’s final three games with a half-game lead on the Denver Nuggets and potentially dependent on the head-to-head tiebreaker they claimed last week.

[Sign up for Yahoo Fantasy Baseball: It’s not too late to get in the game]

Then everything changed considerably in the final period. The Blazers scored 25 points thanks to some big plays from Damian Lillard (22 points, eight assists, nine rebounds) and a huge performance from Allen Crabbe (25 points on 8-of-10 3FG), and suddenly they have a chance to clinch a playoff berth (with some help) this weekend.


Outcome aside, the real story of the night was the Wolves’ offensive woes in the fourth. Minnesota missed its first 13 field goal attempts on its way to a 3-of-20 period, bad enough for a season-low 11 points. It takes a lot for a team with nothing to play for to lose in a disheartening fashion, but this one certainly qualifies for the Wolves. On the other hand, maybe everyone’s used to losing a game in which they held a double-digit lead when it happens for the 21st time.

Portland now leads Denver by 1 1/2 games with three of their own to play. The schedule is not especially easy — Utah, San Antonio, and New Orleans — but all three come at Moda Center. The Blazers’ magic number is now just two, and the Nuggets could very well lose two of their final four against the Pelicans, Thunder (twice), and Mavericks.

If the Blazers do make it, though, then they better hope Nurkic is able to return from his leg fracture on his previously stated two-week timetable. They’ve been fortunate to go 2-2 without him, and it’s difficult to imagine them putting up any fight against the NBA-best Golden State Warriors without a steady interior presence. If Nurkic can’t play at a high level, this playoff berth could end up being more cosmetic than meaningful.

2. Atlanta Hawks 123, Boston Celtics 116

It has not been a good two days for the Celtics. One night after getting blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers to fall back in the race for the East’s top seed, Boston traveled to the Highlight Factory and struggled to stick with an Atlanta squad that had lost nine of its last 11 and forced itself into clinging to a playoff berth that once seemed assured. Perhaps fatigued after Wednesday’s thumping at TD Garden, the Celtics fell into a 16-point halftime hole and appeared a step slow all night. They now trail the Cavs by 1 1/2 games (and a lost tiebreaker) and should probably focus on maintaining their two-game lead on the Raptors and Wizards for the No. 2 seed.

Really, though, this win was much more about how much better the Hawks look with All-Star forward Paul Millsap in the lineup. Millsap came off the bench again in his second game back from a knee injury but was clearly one of the best players on the floor, finishing with a team-high 26 points and 12 rebounds in 29 minutes. Head coach Mike Budenholzer has already said that he won’t play on Friday against the Cavs, but the mere fact that he looked this good against a playoff team should bring fresh confidence to a group in need of it.

The victory also combined with the Bucks’ loss to put the Hawks up a half-game for the East’s No. 5 seed. That spot isn’t necessarily a great one with Cleveland looming in the next round to dole out an elimination for the third-straight season, but finishing fifth would be an accomplishment for Atlanta in what’s been an up-and-down season. The only problem is that their next two games come against those same Cavaliers.

3. Indiana Pacers 104, Milwaukee Bucks 89

It’s hard to imagine a better indicator of just how inconsistent the Pacers have been in 2017 than the fact that they entered Thursday having failed to win consecutive games since Feb. 4 and 6. (As a reminder: it is now April.)

Those wins capped a seven-game winning streak that pushed the Pacers to 29-22. They promptly followed that with a six-game losing streak to fall within one game of .500, then alternated wins and losses for nearly one full month before losing four straight to drop to 37-40. But after falling in double
overtime
to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers got back on the good foot against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, giving them the chance to notch two straight victories for the first time in two months when they took on Giannis Antetokounmpo and company on Thursday.

We don’t know if we can safely say the Pacers have found consistency, but at least we now know, for the record, that they once again have the capacity to win back-to-back outings.

[Follow Ball Don’t Lie on social media: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Tumblr]

Paul George led six Pacers in double-figures with 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, four steals and an assist in 35 minutes. Thaddeus Young added a double-double, reserve big man Kevin Seraphin chipped in 11 points and seven rebounds in 22 1/2 minutes off the bench, and prodigal catalyst Lance Stephenson scored nine points with five assists in 23 minutes for the Pacers, who improved to 39-40 to take a half-game lead over the idle Miami Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Indiana has the same record as the Chicago Bulls, but the Bulls hold the East’s No. 7 seed by virtue of having a superior record within the Central Division.

The Pacers took control midway through the second quarter, breaking a 38-all tie with a 10-0 run in which they snagged six steals in a 2 1/2-minute span:

The Bucks would stay within shouting distance, cutting the Indiana lead to 63-61 on an and-one layup by Antetokounmpo just under three minutes into the third quarter. But the Pacers would once again push Milwaukee away, ripping off a 13-0 run in just under three minutes of game time to go up by 15. The Bucks never really threatened after that, dropping their third straight to fall to 40-39, one back in the loss column behind the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, and one game ahead of seventh-place Chicago and eighth-place Indiana with three games left.

“We’ve got to be mindful of what [Miami and Chicago] are doing. We don’t really control our destiny, to an extent,” George said after the game. ”We’ve got to, again, rely on a little help with those [teams] losing games. Only thing we can do is give ourselves a fighting chance.”

If the Pacers can keep getting nine dudes to score at least six points apiece, keep forcing 21 turnovers that lead to 29 points, keep putting up plus-13 margins on second-chance points and keep limiting the opposition to just six points on fast breaks, they’ll have done their part. For now, though, baby steps: try to win a third straight game on Saturday night in Orlando.

4. Chicago Bulls 102, Philadelphia 76ers 90

A no-nonsense win against a surefire lottery team should be a prerequisite for playoff contention this time of year, but sadly plenty of teams do not always meet that low standard. The Bulls deserve some credit, then, for heading to Philly and handling the Sixers with relative ease. The offense never really got going, but a 10-point lead after one and a triple-double for Jimmy Butler (19 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) were enough to get the job done. Any win is a good one in the last week of the season.


This particular victory adds to the feeling that the Bulls will make the playoffs. At 39-40, they’re tied with the Miami Heat for seventh place and hold the tiebreaker in that matchup via a superior divisional record (9-7 over 8-8 with no games left to play). The Miami Heat sit only a half-game back of both teams, but the Bulls hold a tiebreaker over them via a 2-1 season series win and would win the three-way head-to-head tiebreaker. Chicago’s also lucky enough to play their last three games against the Brooklyn Nets (twice) and Orlando Magic, two of the five worst teams in the NBA.

Add in Dwyane Wade’s scheduled return from his elbow fracture this weekend, and it’s very difficult to imagine them losing their spot. The only question is if they can avoid the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.

5. Washington Wizards 106, New York Knicks 103

The Wizards do not deserve gushing praise for winning a game in which they blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to the awful Knicks, needed a Bradley Beal corner 3 with 49 seconds left, and had to sweat out a potential game-tying triple by Carmelo Anthony with two ticks remaining. But when you’re scrapping for positioning and trying to get ready to make some postseason noise, every little bit helps, and it doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective.

Beal and backcourt partner John Wall combined for 49 points on 31 shots, including four 3-pointers apiece, for the Wiz, who improved to 48-31. While that’s the same record as the idle Toronto Raptors, the Raps hang onto the East’s No. 3 seed because they won their season series with Washington two games to one, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Marcin Gortat made all seven of his field-goal attempts to score 16 points in the win, and Otto Porter Jr. (seven points, nine rebounds, including five on the offensive glass) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (13 points, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks, sound defense) each pitched in on the wing.

Backup Wizards point guard Brandon Jennings didn’t have his strongest game — four points on 1-for-5 shooting, three rebounds, three assists, a pair of turnovers, a minus-seven line in 19 1/2 minutes off the bench — but he did come away with a win over the team with whom he started the season, and he couldn’t help but notice the relative lack of atmosphere in the arena he briefly called home:

Well, yeah. A fourth straight losing season highlighted by the owner calling a franchise legend an alcoholic and a season-ticket holder an a*****e kind of takes the starch out of the old home-court advantage.

To move up to the No. 3 seed in the East — and thus postpone a meeting with the likely No. 1 seed Cleveland Cavaliers until the conference finals — the Wizards will need to finish one game ahead of the Raptors in the standings. Washington finishes out the season with two games against the Miami Heat, split up by a road trip to Detroit, while Toronto wraps up with the Heat, Knicks and Cavs.

MVP OF THE DAY
A subjective choice for the player most valuable to his team, on just one day and determined by the NBA playoff picture.


Other players had bigger games than Paul Millsap on Thursday, but none played with such potential to change the course of the team’s season. The Hawks have been awful of late, and Millsap’s return in Sunday’s loss to the Nets didn’t exactly inspire hope that things would turn around. But three days off clearly helped him and the team as a whole, because the group that handled the Celtics looked like one with the potential to win a series and at least test a significant favorite in the second round. The team simply makes more sense with its star in the lineup — he links the offense and defense, covers holes at both ends, and generally makes life easier for the likes of Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway Jr. Atlanta certainly got Boston on the right night, but there’s still reason to feel better about what lies ahead in the next few weeks.

Dan Devine (@yourmandevine) also contributed to this post.

– – – – – – –

Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @FreemanEric

Lance Stephenson expects a Michael Jordan-like reception in his 1st Pacers home game

“‘I’m back.’ – Michael Jordan” – Lance Stephenson

It’s a bad time to be associated with the Indiana Pacers. They’ve lost five of fix, fallen out of East’s playoff spots for at least a bit, and got called out by franchise star and subject of trade rumors Paul George last week for having “no winning pride.” You know things are bad when the Chicago Bulls look competent and drama-free by comparison.

[Sign up for Yahoo Fantasy Baseball: Get in the game and join a league today]

Or maybe we outsiders have it all wrong. The Pacers made news this week when they signed Lance Stephenson, former standout and LeBron James pest during the team’s best years during the early part of this decade, to a three-year deal worth $12 million. Stephenson has failed to stick with six teams since leaving Indianapolis for the Charlotte Hornets in free agency in 2014 and played just six games apiece for the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves this season, but the 26-year-old could still contribute as a playmaker off the bench. As Pacers team president Larry Bird sees it, the man they call “Born Ready” could recapture what made him a difference-maker with the only team that’s ever really figured him out.

It’s not clear if fans feel the same way. Yet that uncertainty has not kept Stephenson from expecting a legend’s welcome when he plays his first game back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night against the Toronto Raptors. In fact, he thinks it will be like Michael Jordan’s return from retirement (via SB Nation):

It’s difficult to know if Lance is being serious here, in part because he’s historically been so unpredictable and goofy on the court. Anyone who thinks it’s worthwhile to blow in LeBron’s ear during a playoff game is going to be hard to read. (On the other hand, Jordan’s return did take place at the Pacers’ Market Square Arena, so maybe Stephenson was just using it as a point of comparison.)

[Follow Ball Don’t Lie on social media: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Tumblr]

For the sake of argument, let’s take Stephenson literally. Is it really so bad if he means that his return will matter this much to Pacers fans? Outside of the fact that he’s probably wrong, this is exactly the kind of positivity and outside-the-box thinking the increasingly moribund Pacers need right now? In a perfect world, the game-changing losing would be attended by stable leadership. But anything’s better than what’s been happening for Indiana over the last few weeks.

More Lance Stephenson coverage:

– – – – – – –

Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @FreemanEric