NBA Playoff Picture: The Cavs can't get right and the Blazers can't go wrong

Things stayed ugly for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday. (AP)

WHAT MATTERED MOST

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

1. Chicago Bulls 99, Cleveland Cavaliers 93

“We’re gonna be just fine,” Kyrie Irving said late Thursday. But “it’s ugly right now. It’s real, real ugly.”

If you’re looking for a word to cover Cleveland’s fifth loss in seven games, and 11th in 19 since the All-Star break — a game in which Irving, Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert combined to shoot 12-for-38 from the field, that saw Love foul out in just 20 1/2 minutes of floor time, and that turned on a third quarter in which Cleveland allowed the Bulls to shoot 60 percent from the field with 11 assists on 15 made field goals — then yeah, sure. “Ugly” does the job.

So does LeBron James’ post-game claim that the Cavs, who fell a half-game behind the Boston Celtics in the race for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, are “in a bad spot” right now. On the defensive end, they’ve been in one for about three months, meaning that on nights where they don’t feature elite firepower (44.6 percent shooting as a team, 10-for-27 from 3, just 12 points from the bench), they can be in trouble. They’ve been in trouble a lot lately; whether it means they’ll be in trouble come the postseason, though, remains to be seen.

“It’s no time to kind of back up into the wall and panic,” Irving said. “I’m not panicking and I don’t think anyone in this locker room should panic.”

Nikola Mirotic and Jimmy Butler combined for 53 points in the win, Chicago’s fourth in the last six games, which improved the Bulls to 36-39. They now trail the seventh-seeded Miami Heat and eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers by one game in the Eastern Conference playoff race with seven games left. The Bulls split their season series with the Pacers, and own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami.

“It’s never too late,” Mirotic said.

It is if both Miami and Indiana take care of business. But with the Heat missing shooting guard Dion Waiters and the Pacers evidently coming apart at the seams, the door’s still open, if the Bulls can keep stringing together performances like the one they turned in Thursday.

2. Portland Trail Blazers 117, Houston Rockets 107

One of the great joys of the Blazers over the last few weeks has been watching them discover not just a winning formula, but the confidence that goes along with it. Up 55-46 at the half and by 13 after one possession of the fourth quarter, the Blazers saw the visiting Rockets go on a 20-7 run to tie it at 105-105 with 2:28 left. Instead of folding, though, Portland took firm control and posted what looks like a comfortable win in the box score. Jusuf Nurkic started a game-closing 12-2 run with a nifty move in the post, and the Blazers opened up a 1 1/2-game lead for the West’s final playoff berth.

It’s now nearly impossible to imagine them losing it. The No. 9 Denver Nuggets will have to make up that gap and pass the tiebreaker-holding Blazers despite a comfortable schedule for the leaders. Portland hosts the Suns on Saturday and then heads out for its final two road games of the season (at the Minnesota Timberwolves and at the Utah Jazz) before heading home for its final four. Meanwhile, Denver plays six of its last eight on the road, all out of their Mountain time zone.

Plus, the Blazers just look like the better team right now. Nurkic’s effect on the interior cannot be overstated, but a number of players have rebounded from off-years to step up in these final weeks. Five players scored at least 15 points on Thursday, and C.J. McCollum wasn’t one of them (he only had 12). Damian Lillard led the way with 31 points, but we’ll talk about him more later.

3. Detroit Pistons 90, Brooklyn Nets 89

With 94 seconds left in the fourth quarter, it looked like it was about to happen again.

Brook Lopez had just made two straight three-pointers — one a step-back off the dribble on the left wing, the other a super-deep catch-and-shoot bomb from the right — to give the Nets an 86-82 edge, putting Detroit on the brink of falling to the NBA’s worst team (who, for what it’s worth, have been downright respectable of late) for the second time in nine days.

Brook was pumped.

But the Pistons, bad as they’ve been of late, refused to just let go and head into the light.

Point guard Ish Smith, getting another start in favor of injured/ineffective $80 million man Reggie Jackson, created enough room to fire a midrange pull-up jumper that cut the deficit to two. And after a strong defensive possession that saw Detroit block two Brooklyn tries within 5 feet of the basket, Smith — a career 28.8 percent 3-point shooter — spotted up in the left corner, took a swing pass from Tobias Harris, and saved the day:

Smith’s corner 3 would hold up as the game-winner, as Lopez’s attempt at another deep answer with eight seconds left came up short. Some free throws and an at-the-buzzer 3 by Brooklyn’s Justin Hamilton later, the Pistons held on for a 90-89 win.

Smith finished with 21 points, six rebounds and five assists while forward Marcus Morris led the way with 28 points on 12-for-18 shooting and 13 rebounds for Detroit. The Pistons now sit at 35-41, 2 1/2 games behind the seventh-seeded Miami Heat and eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers, and one game behind the No. 9 Chicago Bulls, with six games remaining.

With an upcoming slate that includes the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies, the Pistons’ odds of making the postseason are … well, you tell them, Aron Baynes:

But, even if only just barely, their postseason hopes are still alive.

4. Los Angeles Clippers 124, Phoenix Suns 118

It wasn’t exactly a stellar road performance for the Clippers, who entered the fourth quarter up just one point and nearly blew a seven-point lead after Devin Booker (33 points and nine assists) fouled out with 4:45 left in regulation. However, L.A. avoided an embarrassing collapse, extended the Phoenix skid to 10 straight, and both added a half-game to their lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder for No. 5 and drew just a bit closer to the Utah Jazz for homecourt advantage in the first round.

Yet each of those gains could be snuffed out easily enough. At 46-31, the Clippers have played more at least one more game than every other team in the NBA. In fact, their 1 1/2-game lead on OKC exists entirely in the win column, which means that a particularly good run for the Thunder could erase the gap and trigger a conference record tiebreaker they currently lead. If anything, it could be easier for the Clippers to catch the Jazz, a team they trail by just one game with a tiebreaker in hand, than to maintain their lead on the Thunder.

Which isn’t to say either task will be easy. The Clippers defense has been a shambles of late and didn’t fair especially well here. Phoenix shot 53.3 percent from the field and very well could have won if not for a subpar 7-of-23 mark beyond the arc. In many ways, they were just as impressive as the visitors — the difference is they didn’t have Chris Paul (29 points and 10 assists) or Blake Griffin (31 points on 12-of-19 FG).

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.

Blurb to come.

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.

Blurb to come.

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

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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: The courts are alive with the sound of seeding

The Warriors are on fire and Kevin Durant is still wearing a suit with a t-shirt. (AP)

WHAT MATTERED MOST

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

1. Golden State Warriors 110, San Antonio Spurs 98

Playoff seeds and berths ultimately matter most to the extent they determine a champion. So a game in which the team with the league’s best record comes back from a 15-0 hole and 22-point deficit to dominate the second half against the team with the second-best record — one night after controlling proceedings against the team with the third-best record! — is always going to show up near the top of this list. When that elite team also opens up a 3 1/2-game lead for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs with only seven left to play, they’re going to get the top spot.

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Yes, the Warriors did all that in just 48 minutes. What looked like a banner night for San Antonio after just four minutes became something very different by halftime (when the Warriors trailed by three points) and turned around completely after a few possessions of the third quarter (when the Warriors took the lead and went on to never trail again). The defense was great, the offense was nifty, and everyone from Stephen Curry to David West (in the year 2017!) looked like a potential playoff difference-maker. Oh, and Kevin Durant is still on track to play before the end of the regular season.

The Spurs are still six games ahead of the Houston Rockets for the No. 2 seed, so they don’t have much to worry about when it comes to facing an acceptable playoff opponent. On the other hand, the Warriors tore apart Pau Gasol and David Lee in the pick-and-roll and could have exposed a severe matchup problem against any functional NBA offense. But maybe it’s best not to worry about that now. We are here for explanations of playoff scenarios, not real basketballular analysis.

2. Milwaukee Bucks 103, Boston Celtics 100

The good news for the Celtics is that they’re still in a virtual tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the East’s top seed. The bad news is that they held sole possession of that No. 1 spot for all of two days and lost it by dropping a home game to the kind of squad they’re going to have to handle to win a playoff series, let alone impress over several rounds. A solid night for Isaiah Thomas (32 points on 9-of-17 shooting) could not overcome a 39.8 percent teamwide performance from the floor with 16 turnovers, and the Bucks shot 52.6 percent at the other end to keep up a steady stream of offense.

Even then, the Celtics had a chance to tie on the last possession of the game, which ended in an off-balance, low-percentage miss for Marcus Smart. They could have had a chance to win with a two, but rookie guard Malcolm Brogdon knocked down this big jumper at the shot-clock buzzer to stretch the margin to three:

That dagger capped off a stellar night for Brogdon, who finished with 16 points and nine assists. His play was part of an impressive showing for the Bucks, now winners of 13 of their last 16 games. The Bucks remain tied with the victorious Hawks (who hold the tiebreaker via a 3-1 season series win) and stuck in the No. 6 spot, but there’s no question which squad looks like the tougher playoff opponent right now. Draw Milwaukee at your own risk.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder 114, Orlando Magic 106 (OT)

With five minutes left in the third quarter, Orlando held a 21-point lead, stunning the Thunder behind the hot shooting of guard Evan Fournier and a sound enough defensive effort to hold OKC to just 37.7 percent shooting as a team.

With 6:01 remaining in the fourth, the Magic held a 14-point lead, as swingman Terrence Ross had cranked up his shooting and the rest of the Thunder continued to struggle to get on track.

And then Russell Westbrook happened, and nothing else mattered.

Well, nothing else except what the win meant to OKC, officially our newest postseason participant. The sixth team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff berth, the Thunder now sit at 43-31, one game back of the Clippers, who beat the Wizards at Staples Center on Wednesday, in the race for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference. The Magic fell to 27-48, hanging onto their hold on the fourth-worst record in the NBA, and thus the fourth-best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Tight game, Russ goes nuts, home crowd gets entertained and home team loses — a real win-win-win-win in Central Florida!

4. Memphis Grizzlies 110, Indiana Pacers 97

This result isn’t going to help the ever-worsening mood around the Pacers. One day after Paul George called out his teammates for lacking “winning pride,” Indiana trailed 72-53 at the half and only made a cosmetic comeback after to make it four losses in its last five (and they weren’t world-beaters before then, either). But, hey, at least they’re stuck with Lance Stephenson for three seasons.

This particular defeat puts the Pacers under .500 at 37-38, bad enough to drop them into the East’s No. 8 spot via a lost 2-1 season series tiebreaker with the surging Heat. The Pacers are still 1 1/2 games up on the equally depressing Chicago Bulls, and at this point I don’t think anyone would complain if the East’s top seed gets a bye in the first round.

Mike Conley added to Paul George and the Pacers’ pain. (AP)

The Grizzlies are very likely headed for the West’s No. 7 seed no matter what, but they at least ended a four-game losing streak and kept pace with the Clippers and Thunder ahead of them. Perhaps most importantly, they looked good doing it while Marc Gasol missed his third-straight game with a left foot strain. Mike Conley dominated with 36 points and seven three-pointers, and Vince Carter added 21 on only eight attempts from the field.

5. Atlanta Hawks 99, Philadelphia 76ers 92

What’s the cure for what ails a team that has lost seven straight games to cast their playoff positioning in doubt? Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that it’s Back-to-Back Matchups with Two of the Six Worst Teams in the NBA.

After getting off the schneid against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, the Hawks traveled to Philly and mostly took care of business, knocking off the Sixers behind a monster outing from center Dwight Howard: 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting, 20 rebounds, four assists and a blockin 36 minutes of work.

The 76ers made an early fourth-quarter push, rolling up an 11-2 run to draw within two points, 83-81, with just under 8 1/2 minutes left. But a big 3-pointer by Atlanta wing Tim Hardaway Jr., a couple of stops, and some Howard free throws kept Philly at bay, and a driving layup by point guard Dennis Schröder with 1:44 remaining sealed the deal for the Hawks, who improved to 39-36 to stay in fifth place in the East, keeping pace with the also-victorious Milwaukee Bucks, over whom they own a 3-1 head-to-head tiebreaker.

Atlanta got a big boost from the return of swingman Kent Bazemore, who had missed the previous five games with a bone bruise on his right knee and returned with a flourish against Philly. Baze knocked down six of 10 shots and four of five 3-point tries to score 19 points in 20 minutes, adding four rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. Nice to have you back, dude. Now just get your friend Paul healthy, too, and maybe the Hawks might be able to make things interesting come the start of Round 1.

6. Los Angeles Clippers 133, Washington Wizards 124

Why does a game between two confirmed playoff teams sit so low on this list? Because both the win and loss merely allowed these squads to tread water in their seeding fights. The Clippers’ home victory allowed them to keep pace with the No. 4 Jazz (1 1/2 back, but with a tiebreaker) and No. 6 Thunder (one game ahead), but they’re still stuck in the middle at No. 5. Meanwhile, the Wizards’ defeat means they neither opened up more than their one-game lead over on the No. 4 Raptors nor closed any of their two-game gap behind the No. 2 Celtics.

Also, boy, maybe reconsider planning on either of these teams to stop anyone in the playoffs. The Clips and Wizzies combined for 67 points in all but one quarter — the fourth, when everyone must have been tired of running from end to end. We would list individual stat highlights, but how can you pick just one? (John Wall had 41 points in the loss.)

7. Miami Heat 105, New York Knicks 88

Even without shooting guard Dion Waiters, who missed his sixth straight game as he continues to tend to a severely sprained left ankle, and even on the second night of a back-to-back after an emotional last-second win in Detroit, the Heat just had too much firepower for the circling-the-drain Knicks.

Goran Dragic became the latest in a long, long, long line of opposing guards to torture New York’s perimeter defenders, scoring 20 points with nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals. Ace reserve James Johnson continued to turn in his best Peak Spurs-Era Boris Diaw impression as a top ball-handling big man off the bench — 18 points on 11 shots, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks in 27 minutes — to help pace the Heat, who improved to 37-38 and moved up to seventh place in the East by virtue of holding a 2-1 edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker over the slumping Indiana Pacers.

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Miami’s also just two games back of the Hawks and Bucks, owning the head-to-head advantage over Milwaukee and having split the season series with Atlanta, so it’s possible the Heat aren’t done climbing just yet. Left for dead amid injury and inconsistency somewhere after New Year’s, Miami is now 26-8 since Jan. 15, with the NBA’s seventh-best offense and third-best defense in that span. Erik Spoelstra for president, or prime minister, or grand vizier of dark magicks. Whichever you prefer.

7. Charlotte Hornets 110, Toronto Raptors 106

Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, the Raptors could have drawn into a tie with the Wizards had they not given up 44 points in the fourth quarter and blown a six-point lead after three. The Hornets made eight three-pointers in the period and managed to keep their very slim playoff hopes alive. They’re three games back of the No. 8 Pacers but would have to jump several teams to get there.


Then again, there’s always a chance that the Pacers, Bulls, and Pistons will decide its not worth it to slog through a few playoff games and forfeit the remainder of the season. One can hope!

8. Utah Jazz 112, Sacramento Kings 82

Congrats to the host Kings, who dropped the first and fourth quarters by a combined 39 points to avoid the win. Utah can maybe look for areas to improve after making a terrible sandwich with amazing bread, but at least they got the win. They stay 1 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers for the No. 4 seed and its all important homecourt advantage in the first round.

9. New Orleans Pelicans 121, Dallas Mavericks 118

The Pelicans win was notable in that Anthony Davis (30 points and 13 points) and DeMarcus Cousins (29 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) both excelled at the same time, which is a good sign for their playoff prospects next season. Alas, they are still 4 1/2 games out the No. 8 spot with only seven left on their schedule. Still, we include them here, because this post is nothing if not comprehensive.

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.

Look, this section exists so we can talk about big-time performances from players who aren’t in the NBA MVP discussion. But what Russell Westbrook did on Wednesday means this bit can’t go as planned.


Nineteen points in the final 6:01 of the fourth for the NBA’s most irrepressible force to erase the deficit and force overtime. Seven more, plus four rebounds and two assists, in the extra session. Another triple-double in a season full of them, and this one especially remarkable — 57 points, the most in a triple-double in NBA history, to go with 13 rebounds and 11 assists — to key the biggest comeback in Thunder franchise history, and to make Oklahoma City the sixth team in the West to clinch a playoff berth, and to add yet another set of highlights to an already-full-to-burstin’ MVP sizzle reel.

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.

Yeah, sorry, we’re going to talk about Westbrook again. The guy hit a 31-foot three-pointer to send his team’s game to overtime. That’s pretty damn important.


We swear tomorrow’s blurb will be about a crisp bounce pass.

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

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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

Jusuf Nurkic shows Nuggets what they're missing, gives Blazers playoff position

Jusuf Nurkic soaks up the love. (AP)

It is already well established that the Portland Trail Blazers’ deal with the Denver Nuggets to obtain big man Jusuf Nurkic was the steal of this season’s trade deadline. What was reported at the time as a deal for Mason Plumlee is now something quite different — Nurkic has been a godsend for the previously slumping Blazers, while Plumlee has been a non-factor as Nikola Jokic’s backup for the Nuggets.

Yet the trade wouldn’t be half as notable if these teams weren’t also fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Blazers and Nuggets entered Tuesday night’s big matchup at Moda Center tied in the standings at 35-38. A win for the Blazers would give them the season series tiebreaker (and an effective two-game lead in the standings), so the stakes could not have been higher.

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It’s only fitting that Nurkic proved the difference. The burly Bosnian dominated the paint and scored 13 of his career-high 33 points (12-of-15 FG, 9-of-11 FT) in the first quarter and added 16 rebounds (six offensive) and three blocks to lead the Blazers to a huge 122-113 win. For those keeping track, Plumlee finished with no points (on four attempts), three assists, two rebounds, and a minus-11 in 16 minutes.


Oh, and Nurkic also took the time to wish his old teammates a fun vacation after the game:

Is that a bit much for a member of a team that still hasn’t hit .500? Perhaps. On the other hand, Nurkic is thriving with regular time and understandably wants to prove to Denver that it made a mistake in dealing him. Can you blame him for getting in a dig or two?

But the Nurkic-Blazers experience isn’t just about revenge. He appears to have found a real home in Portland, where he has quickly become one of the team’s most popular players. Tuesday’s crowd ate up his incredible performance:

Nurkic was such a force, in fact, that it’s almost shocking he didn’t lead the Blazers in scoring. Star guard C.J. McCollum was just as impactful with 39 points (15-of-24 FG) and, along with Damian Lillard, flummoxed the Nuggets again and again by combining with Nurkic in the high pick-and-roll. This game found the Blazers offense at its best — the guards made good decisions, Nurkic exploited space, and everyone limited mistakes to come away with the win.

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Denver had little trouble scoring, too, but it lacked the star power of Portland in this one. That difference proved important in the third quarter, when the Blazers put together enough solid defensive minutes to limit the Nuggets to 21 points. That stretch was enough to open up a 10-point lead heading into the fourth, and the visitors lacked the defensive ability to put together a meaningful comeback.

The standings say the Blazers are just one game up on the Nuggets, but the gap feels much larger. In addition to the tiebreaker, Portland has the luxury of playing six of its final eight games at home (including the last four). That slate only feature one real gimme (vs. Phoenix), but the comfort factor should give them an edge over Denver, which hits the road for all but two of their last eight. After a rough first half of the season, the Blazers look to be on their way to salvaging a playoff berth. And they largely have Nurkic to thank for it.

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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

The Cavs defense had another rough night against John Wall and Wizards

John Wall was terrific for the Wizards on Saturday. (AP)

It’s been a rough string of games for the Cleveland Cavaliers defense. The last week has brought a number of concerning contests, from Wednesday’s 126-113 loss at the potent Denver Nuggets to last Sunday’s 125-120 win at the flailing Los Angeles Lakers. Win or lose, though, the signs are not great. Cleveland came into Saturday’s home game against the Washington Wizards ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, had a notably poor transition defense well before this recent stretch, and boasts enough worries to raise questions about their viability to repeat as champions. The Cavs made the NBA Finals with a substandard in 2015 defense and will still enter the playoffs as favorites to win the East for a fourth-straight season, but that doesn’t mean everything is going to be fine.

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The events of Saturday’s game won’t make anyone more confident. The Wizards got out to a very hot start, scoring 40 points in the first quarter and 31 in the second for a 71-61 halftime lead. That offensive explosion included a 69 percent mark from the field and an 18-point first quarter for All-Star point guard John Wall, who finished with a game-high 37 points (14-of-21 FG, 2-of-2 3FG, 7-of-8 FT) and 11 assists.


The second half occasionally looked like a return to form for the full-strength Cavs, who managed to cut the lead to 96-91 by the end of the third quarter and back to within five points on several occasions in the fourth. However, the Wizards always had an answer and never allowed the hosts to get closer than five. Their eventual 127-115 win was perhaps their best of the season so far — a show of offensive force against the East’s elite squad, a bit of revenge for the Cavs’ win in a thrilling contest in D.C. in early February, and a nice way to continue a three-game winning streak following a questionable run of four losses in five.

This particular loss need not raise significant concerns for the Cavaliers, because they’re in the midst of a hellish stretch of the schedule that could make any team look a little out of sorts. A March 1 loss at the Celtics began a month of 12 road games and just four home games, two of which broke up road trips with mere one-game stints at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs have started that 16-game March at 6-7 and will visit the San Antonio Spurs on Monday for the toughest matchup of the bunch.

These circumstances do not sound fun at all, and it’s possible we should view this period as Cleveland’s version of the Golden State Warriors’ road trip that raised significant worries about their ability to hold on to the West’s No. 1 seed. The Warriors lost their position to the Spurs during that skid, and the Cavs are now in danger of doing the same to the Celtics. They hold a mere half-game advantage in the standings and could find themselves in a virtual tie for the top spot if Boston beats the Miami Heat at TD Garden on Sunday. All it took for the Warriors to find themselves again was a short homestand after so much time on the road.

On the other hand, the Cavs weren’t exactly dominating the competition before March, either:

At some point, the problems with the Cavs defense cannot be waived away with contextual explanations. On Saturday, the Wizards managed to score in a variety of ways — Wall was merely the most explosive of their seven players in double figures. Bradley Beal (27 points on 9-of-19 FG) joined his backcourt partner with big numbers, but it was arguably reserves Jason Smith (10 points on 4-of-4 FG) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (16 points on 7-of-8 FG) whose contributions stood out more. Whether via jumpers (for Smith) or drives to the basket (for Oubre), the Wizards found plenty of ways to get on the board.


When the opposition scores so much, it takes near-superhuman efforts from the Cavs’ capable offense to get the job done. They shot reasonably well (49.4 percent from the field and 12-of-33 from deep), but such numbers cannot compete with such dominance on the other side. If not for the presence of LeBron James (24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists), who nearly missed the game with a scratched cornea (and who ditched his protective glasses in the first quarter), Cleveland likely would have been blown out.

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The question is how much any of these supposed problems will matter once the Cavaliers get into the playoffs. Even if they lose homecourt advantage in the East, the Cavs will enter the postseason as the conference’s clear favorite, a battle-tested group with the best player in the world, more playoff-ready stars, and plenty of capable veterans to match up with any opponent. For that matter, everyone is now healthy after a season full of nagging and long-term injuries. Cleveland also plays six of its last eight games at Quicken Loans Arena and should be able to put together some sort of winning streak to move past this ongoing run of form.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, though, it’s a safe bet that the Cavaliers will begin the playoffs with questions to answer about the strength of their defense. And it’s possible that nothing but another championship will silence them.

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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

Rudy Gobert destroyed the Knicks with a career high and all the offensive rebounds

Rudy Gobert was everywhere for the Utah Jazz. (AP)

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has reached a new level of fame this season as a member of a no-doubt playoff team in line to hold homecourt advantage in its first-round series. In most cases, Gobert gets attention for his defense, and rightfully so. He leads the NBA in blocks per game with 2.6, is the single most important member of a top-five defense, and generally strikes fear into the hearts of opposing scorers. Those contributions he should find himself on an All-NBA team this spring.

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Yet it sometimes goes unmentioned that Gobert has made great strides at the offensive end this season, averaging career bests in points (13.2 ppg), field-goal percentage (65.1 percent), and free-throw percentage (65.5 percent) heading into Wednesday night’s home game against the New York Knicks. After his performance in that contest, it’ll be much harder to ignore Gobert’s offense.

The Utah center did plenty on defense, blocking four shots. But his offensive performance was on another level. Gobert set a new career high in points with 35, a stunning total considering he’d only scored as many as 25 points (with a high of 27) twice before. He also added 11 offensive rebounds (of 13 total), missed just one of his 14 field goal attempts, and shot a respectable 9-of-12 from the line in a truly dominant showing. Those points, rebounds, and blocks totals have only been matched by two players since 1983-84 — Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning.


The Knicks simply had no answer for Gobert in the Jazz’s 108-101 win. Utah trailed three heading into the fourth quarter in what would certainly have qualified as a bad loss, particularly with the No. 5 Los Angeles Clippers lurking just a half-game behind them in the standings at the start of the night. But Gobert scored eight points in the period (six off offensive boards) to help Utah put up 36 and out-pace New York late. It was a team effort, to be sure, but Gobert was the most physical force as the Jazz took control of the contest.

The win was a big one ahead of the Jazz’s next game, a Saturday tilt against the Clippers at Staples Center that could go a long way towards deciding which side hosts four games in their near-certain first-round series. A Clippers win would give them a 3-1 season series win and a seeding tiebreaker, but the Jazz can force a move to the conference record tiebreaker they currently hold by a one-game margin. Homecourt advantage could prove big for a young-ish core that has not yet played in the postseason together.

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Regardless, the rise of Gobert should add intrigue to Utah’s return to the postseason. The 24-year-old is now one of the NBA’s best centers, and he has a chance to ascend to a new level of popularity next month.

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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!

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