Sunday NBA Roundup: Chaotic Eastern Conference Race Tightening by the Second

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 6, 2015

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The last time Paul George played in a regular-season NBA game, his Indiana Pacers were the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, a full 19 games clear of the ninth spot.

He returned on Sunday to a far more complicated scenario.

Seeing his first action since breaking his leg in a USA Basketball scrimmage last August, George sparked the Pacers to a 112-89 win over the Miami Heat that further constricted an already suffocating postseason race.

The win moved Indiana into a deadlock with the Heat at No. 9 (though Indy's 3-1 mark against Miami this year gives it the tiebreaker), one full game behind the Boston Celtics for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. The Brooklyn Nets, idle along with the C's and Charlotte Hornets on Sunday, are one-and-a-half games up on Indiana and Miami.

Confused yet? Here's a breakdown:

Updated Eastern Conference Playoff Picture
7Brooklyn Nets35-4122
8Boston Celtics35-4222.5
Indiana Pacers34-4323.5
Miami Heat34-4323.5
Charlotte Hornets33-4324

It's hard to pick two clear favorites from that lot, and the smart money might be on the status quo holding up. Do you bank on the Celtics' youth and chemistry, or do you look at a remaining schedule that features the Cleveland Cavaliers twice, the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks and write them off?

Do you trust Brooklyn's six straight wins from March 25 to April 3, or do you see their 32-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks on April 4 as the true measure of their quality?

Those "maybe they will, maybe they won't" angles apply to every team in the race right now, making it tough to isolate likely survivors.

At the same time, the emotional lift George's return provided the Pacers felt real. Forget his 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. That didn't matter. What mattered was the electricity his return sent coursing through his teammates.

Maybe that'll give Indy the boost it needs.

George was clearly rusty, and the lack of lift was noticeable throughout—particularly on a missed breakaway opportunity. When George came out for his first breather, his fatigue served as a reminder that his comeback will be a long process, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:

Candace Buckner @CandaceDBuckner

Paul George comes back to scorer's table to drop off mouth piece. Breathing heavily, he says to statistician, "I felt like a rookie."

But George gives a Pacers squad with stout defense, proven coaching and established chemistry a tiny emotional edge going forward. Even if he doesn't log huge minutes, and even if this is really just a dry run before a full-bore return next season, George's mere presence could be the difference in a race this tight.

Performance aside, Indy is happy to have its superstar back, per Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports:

Scott Agness @ScottAgness

Frank Vogel on what he said to Paul as he left the floor. “Damn, I missed you.”

George isn't the only potential X-factor in the congested East: Jared Sullinger returned for the Celtics after he was thought to be done for the year, Al Jefferson is struggling to the finish in Charlotte, and the Heat are as banged up as any team in the league.

Michael Beasley left Sunday's game with a hyperextended knee, and Luol Deng's injury issues might be even worse, according to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

With stars coming back, key cogs barely holding it together and rotation players everywhere struggling to stay upright, the stretch-run swings are going to be huge.

It's difficult to avoid cynicism when it comes to the last two spots in the East. Five sub-.500 teams are basically falling over one another as they stagger to the finish of a mostly underwhelming race. But on a night when George made the season's most inspiring comeback, we'll belay the snark.

The East is going to keep things interesting down to the wire, and that's really all you can ask as the season winds down.

Around the Association

Harden Pushes Old Teammates Closer to the Abyss

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- APRIL 5:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on April 5, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

James Harden notched his 10th 40-point game of the season, Russell Westbrook logged a triple-double, and the Oklahoma City Thunder had another mildly contentious interaction with the media.

The subject of the dustup between Kevin Durant and Grantland's Bill Simmons was Harden, of course, who treated OKC fans to yet another dose of "what could have been" on Sunday.

Harden and Westbrook: Sunday Stat Sheet Showdown

In other words: just another run-of-the mill NBA day for all parties involved.

The 115-112 loss was the Thunder's third in a row, shrinking their lead on the New Orleans Pelicans to just a half-game. The loss column is key here, as New Orleans and OKC both have 35 defeats on the season. The Pelicans' schedule is significantly more difficult going forward, but with the tiebreaker in hand and one more game to play, the Pelicans are very much alive.

Remaining Schedules
Oklahoma City ThunderDateNew Orleans PelicansDate
San Antonio SpursApr. 7Golden State WarriorsApr. 7
Sacramento KingsApr. 10@ Memphis GrizzliesApr. 8
@ Indiana PacersApr. 12Phoenix SunsApr. 10
Portland Trail BlazersApr. 13@ Houston RocketsApr. 12
@ Minnesota TimberwolvesApr. 15@ Minnesota TimberwolvesApr. 13
San Antonio SpursApr. 15

Oklahoma City has a defensive rating of 109 since March 1, according to NBA.com. That's the third-worst figure in the league during that span. If the Thunder hold on to the No. 8 spot, they won't scare the top-seeded Golden State Warriors with defense like that.

Cavaliers Keep Cruising

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 5:  J.R. Smith #5 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the game against the Chicago Bulls on April 5, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers won again at home, which isn't a new thing. Their 99-94 victory over the Chicago Bulls Sunday was their 18th straight at Quicken Loans Arena.

There was some novelty, however, in LeBron James' stat line. He collected his first triple-double of the season with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.

Even in a game that saw James pile up the stats, the highlights belonged to his teammates.

J.R. Smith went a little nuts from long range, knocking down eight of his 17 (yes, 17) three-point field-goal attempts. The number of deep flings isn't a stunner on its own; Smith holds the NBA single-game record with 22 triple tries, a mark he set almost exactly one year ago on April 6, 2014.

What stood out about Smith's shot profile was his singular devotion to deep shots. He didn't attempt a single two-pointer. According to Basketball-Reference.com, nobody had ever taken that many threes without trying a two.

Until now.

Oh, and Kyrie Irving, who had 27 points, made his way into the highlights as well.

Cleveland has been a monster lately, transforming into a legitimate contender since shaking up its roster in January. With James doing his usual kingly things and supporting players contributing in big ways, it's difficult to figure out a game plan for stopping this club.

For what it's worth, James isn't even convinced his team has peaked, according to B/R's Ethan Skolnick:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

With No. 2 seed in sight, LeBron says he likes where Cavs are at, though "we still make some young team mistakes."

Just be glad you're not one of the other seven Eastern Conference playoff coaches.


The Spurs Make A Statement

The momentum had been building for a few weeks, but Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs removed any lingering doubts about their fitness as title threats with a dominant 107-92 defeat of the Warriors.

The Dubs were on the back end of a back-to-back set and didn't have much to play for, long since having clinched the West's top seed. But an effort like this against a club that now appears to be the biggest obstacle in their conference is worrisome nonetheless.

Head coach Steve Kerr thought so anyway, according to Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:

Dan McCarney @danmccarneyNBA

Kerr: "They kicked our ass. That's the team with the rings."

Leonard was thoroughly destructive, tying his regular-season career high with 26 points. Thanks to him, the Spurs weathered a scary Stephen Curry explosion in the third. The Dubs' MVP candidate scored 13 of his team-high 24 in a two-minute span early in the period.

But Leonard ended the run and blew the Spurs' lead back up to 20 when he picked Curry's pocket and broke away for a one-handed jam shortly thereafter.

It was Leonard's seventh steal of the game.

Golden State has been a beast all year, but the Spurs have quietly been their statistical equal since the middle of February.

Warriors and Spurs Since Feb. 15, 2015
TeamOffensive Rating (Rank)Defensive Rating (Rank)Net Rating (Rank)
Warriors109.2 (3)98.6 (2)+10.6 (2)
Spurs110.2 (2)99.5 (4)+10.7 (1)

Panic isn't the right word, but the Dubs should be concerned. Nobody in the league has a better chance of spoiling their season than the Spurs.

The Best of the Rest

So, there were technically three other games Sunday night, but only one of the six teams involved will participate in the playoffs.

That's why Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan leads off the highlight lightning round.

Note: He also leads it off because his alley-oop finish in the Clips' 106-78 win over the Los Angeles Lakers was ridiculously tough. That's a catch-and-stretch finish only DJ could have completed.

Next up we have Andrea Bargnani, who improbably totaled 25 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four blocks in the New York Knicks' 101-91 triumph over the Philadelphia 76ers. Alan Hahn of MSG Network was stumped as to the source of Bargs' big night:

Alan Hahn @alanhahn

This is as engaged and competitive as I think I've ever seen Andrea Bargnani in a #Knicks uniform. And I can't explain why.

Here's an idea: Never underestimate the motivational powers of a last-ditch contract push.

Out west, we may soon be hearing the return of cowbells at Sacramento Kings games. Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm noted the way DeMarcus Cousins was moving bodies around the paint and offered an appropriate comparison for reputed cowtown Sacramento:

Despite Boogie's best efforts (he finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds), the Kings couldn't hold off the late-charging Utah Jazz, ultimately falling 101-95.


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