Race in the East beginning to take shape

It’s no surprise that the Pacers and Heat are poised to claim the top Eastern Conference seeds when the postseason begins. But who could have guessed the Raptors might join them in the top four? Not even Toronto, writes Sam Smith.

A funny thing happened on the way to the NBA Draft Lottery…

It seemed that was plan of the Toronto Raptors. Wink, wink. New general manager and his staff. So they trade top scorer Rudy Gay for bench players with expiring and smaller contracts like John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and Chuck Hayes to get well under the salary cap. Point guard Kyle Lowry was supposed to be next out, perhaps followed by DeMar DeRozan. Until they started winning, and pretty impressively this past week on the road in Dallas and Oklahoma City, delivering the seemingly invincible Thunder Sunday their first home loss after a 13-0 start.

The chemistry improved with Gay and DeRozan not competing for shots and the ball began going as well to the big guys, Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, who began producing and defending. The bench got much deeper with Salmons, as he often revives when traded as the Bulls know. The Raptors beat up the Bulls in Chicago pretty badly Dec. 14 and look serious. And after missing the playoffs since 2008, you don’t exactly give up this season in the Eastern Conference as the Raptors now lead the Atlantic Division and look like a lock to win it and a guaranteed top four seed in the playoffs.

Yes, watch out for your 11-14 Raptors. It may well be a change of plans.

So now that the conferences are beginning to take shape, here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference playoffs should develop:

1. Pacers: They gave up a couple of late threes last week in their terrific matchup with the Heat, but they didn’t go kindly. The Pacers lured Miami into finishing with a big lineup with Chris Andersen and when reporters asked David West afterward about LeBron James playing with a sprained ankle, West gave his best Joakim Noah and huffed: "You guys buy into the hype of him being hurt and all that other stuff. We don't believe that." Chris Bosh even admitted the Heat saw it as a statement game. They don’t play again until March. Plus, the Pacers got Danny Granger back this weekend and he made five of nine threes in two games.

2. Heat: They survived being swept by the Pacers, and Dwyane Wade did look very good as they came back from trailing by 15. But they also had Roy Hibbert in foul trouble most of that game last week and can’t count on that. The Pacers looked like the better team in both games.

3. Hawks: It’s a pleasure just to watch the best three-point shooter ever, Kyle Korver. Sorry Reggie and Ray. Korver’s going for 100 straight games hitting a three. Here’s a guy everyone knows is shooting threes and still has made 30 in the last eight games. With new coach Mike Budenholzer they have adopted the Spurs way, at least a lot better than Mike Brown’s teams, Atlanta is among the league leaders in assists and though small up front, tough to play.

4. Raptors: I don’t see them with the fourth best record. But they should get the top spot in the division with the Knicks and Nets in disarray, the 76ers one of those teams that is going to contend for the most losses and the Celtics coming back to preseason lottery expectations. Get your locker room division champion hats and t-shirts. It would be nice if they can at least get to .500.

5. Wizards: It’s not easy to keep Nene healthy as he’s constantly recovering from something. But he does keep coming back. Their backcourt can take you out of any game and what if Otto Porter could play. Yes, that lottery is no guarantee as four of the top six picks from this past draft barely have played.

6. Pistons: Someone said they finally told Josh Smith he might be better not shooting so many jump shots. Perhaps no one there had ever see him play before. They’ve got dynamic scoring with Smith and Brandon Jennings and young big men who should be good enough to keep them around .500.

7. Bulls: Hey, it’s Miami again in the first round. They better watch out this time! April’s a great time down there, anyway. It’s difficult to see the Bulls falling much farther than this given they will get guys back from injury and have made a nice addition with D.J. Augustin. Of course, inevitable injuries could change everything.

8. Nets: Really, there’s little way to predict beyond the top six, who all should make the playoffs. I’m still not convinced about the Bobcats. The Celtics could change if they trade Rajon Rondo or someone or everyone else. The Cavs have enough scorers to make it as well. And who ever knows with the Knicks. It’s tough for Brooklyn losing Brook Lopez, but you never put it past them taking on someone with a 52-year deal. They’ll always do something to win the next day.

Portland and Phoenix surprise stories this season

-- ‘Tis the season to be jolly. Especially if you are the Trail Blazers and the Suns. Portland and Phoenix are probably the two biggest surprise stories in the NBA this season. The Trail Blazers have a league best record of 23-5, and that’s a tough one to figure given they added just awkward center Robin Lopez and journeyman guard Mo Williams on his sixth team. After all this was a team that closed last season with 13 straight losses to fall to 33-49 and their best player, LaMarcus Aldridge, was talking about being traded. Or those Suns who got new management coming off a 25-57 season and got rid of their top scorers, Michael Beasley, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Caron Butler.

Portland second-year point guard Damian Lillard has made a big jump and Aldridge has played his best ever with the protection of a rebounder in Lopez. The Suns made a good deal for guard Eric Bledsoe to pair with guard Goran Dragic and have seen the emergence of young players Marcus and Markieff Morris. They’re 8-5 over winning teams. And in the West. But what both teams have in common, along with many others in the NBA, is playing faster.

Portland coach Terry Stotts, the early favorite for Coach of the Year, calls it flow, a sort of motion offense. Both teams in a trend you see more in the NBA now shoot quicker, shoot more threes and play a faster paced game. The Trail Blazers are up 11 points per game from last season and the Suns eight. The Bobcats are an exception having a better season with defensive emphasis. But every Western Conference playoff team is averaging more than 100 per game and 11 of the 15 are as well. The Heat, Hawks and Pistons all are averaging more than 100 and the Raptors and Wizards are less than a point below. All are considered playoff teams. Only the Pacers are under 1000 per game, but by far with the best defensive team. It’s a transition in the NBA not unlike in the NFL where the rules have favored the offense and more teams are playing faster and shooting longer and making up for their errors with aggressive, quicker offense. Not that you can eschew defense. It still wins in the playoffs. But you better be scoring these days to get there.

NBA news and notes

-- But scoring more than 100 per game hasn’t helped the 76ers, the league’s poorest defensive team. “I think we were just being exposed," coach Brett Brown said after a blowout loss to the Nets. "We can't guard anybody. We can't guard our own man.”… Evan Turner, who is having a career year and one of the main names in trade rumors, credits former coach Doug Collins with some lessons he says finally are taking hold. “I just stopped with the fried foods as much, all of the feel good foods,” Turner told Philadelphia media. “I feel better longer in (games), especially playing 38, 39 minutes a night. My previous coach, coach Collins, always talked to me about my eating.” … Basketballs with the signature of Adam Silver, the next commissioner, are starting to show up in team practices replacing those with the signature of David Stern. Can’t they at least let him get to his farewell speech? … It’s the third time Brook Lopez has a break in his right foot. Former Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had multiple breaks in his feet early in his career but went on to have a long playing career. Though the names of Yao Ming, Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, who had varying, though shortened careers, with similar foot problems. … Uh oh. As part of the Joe Johnson trade, the Hawks have the right to swap first round draft picks with the Nets, unprotected, in both the 2014 and 2015 NBA Drafts.

-- They love to fire coaches in New York, the media and fans, anyway, and it’s Mike Woodson now. It may well happen this time with a few incredible player meltdowns lately: Andrea Bargnani shooting a three when holding the ball would have ended the game. The Knicks did win that one in overtime. Then there was the ending mess in the loss to Washington with the foul to give not given and multiple timeouts ignored. It sounds like a team that’s tuned out its coach. It hasn’t helped that Carmelo Anthony in his obtuse way basically keeps second guessing Woodson. … How great would it be to have a team executive like Larry Bird? At least for fans. Bird should be Executive of the Year for the way he’s continued to build the Pacers without top draft picks or a free agent destination. But in telling the Indianapolis Star he’d like to retain Danny Granger at least for this season, Bird said: “I'm not looking to trade him. But you never know. If the right thing came along that would help the franchise, I would have to look at it. But I'm not out there looking at deals." Asked about Granger’s return, Bird said he’ll struggle: "He doesn't work hard enough (in the offseason). He's not a guy who'll push himself to the brink like a lot of our guys do. He works hard but he doesn't push himself. That's why he starts slow every year and he just works his way back. Now this year, he's been hurt, so it's a different deal." You have to love the candor. And message to his player. … If the Bulls were to amnesty Carlos Boozer as this is his last summer eligible, they could be facing what the Rockets did with Luis Scola, now with the Pacers and with 13 points in 16 minutes last week in a blowout of the Rockets. Houston amnestied Scola, who signed with the Suns and was traded to the Pacers and now comes off the bench for a deep, contending team. Said Scola to the Houston Chronicle: “It’s a good situation for me. I don’t get to play the minutes I used to play in my life. But I’m focusing on other things. This is a very loaded team. It’s all about winning.” Scola is the third highest paid Rocket this season.

-- Not that you can shut down James Harden, but the Pacers have figured a way. It helps to have Paul George. The Pacers put a tall defender on Harden, who is 14 of 57 against them the last two seasons. … Bucks owner and former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl is obviously an astute businessmen as he once ran the Kohl empire. He announced last week he’s seeking additional ownership that is committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee as they work toward a new arena. "I'm a single individual and I've had the team now for almost 29 years,” said Kohl in a news conference. “And I'm not going to live forever. I believe that adding to ownership provides more strength, more stability, more certainty. Just by way of an off-the-wall thought, if I were hit by a bus tomorrow, people might wonder, 'What's going to happen to the Bucks?'" But by saying he only will sell to investors committing to keeping the team in Milwaukee and never moving it, estimates are Kohl would be giving up $200 million to $300 million in the potential sale. You’d assume the community would step up to do its part to save the team after a commitment like that. … It was terrific to watch the end of the Spurs/Clippers game last week when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after the loss warmly greeted former player Doc Rivers and playfully joked and rubbed the head of Stephen Jackson, whom Popovich cut in the playoffs last season. “It’ll sound crazy since I booted him before the playoffs, but I love the guy,” said Popovich. “He lives in my neighborhood.” It’s also why players love Popovich. And in talking to reporters about why he thinks Rivers continues to succeed, Popovich opened up a window to his own success: “With both of us, I think a sense of humor is huge. I think we both enjoy screwing with the guys, basically sticking it to them, giving them some static, and they give it back to us. People who can laugh at themselves and have a good time during the season are fun to be around. We both enjoy players who can do that and I think we both have players who have senses of humor, and it’s an important thing to get you through the season.” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, also a Coach of the Year contender, said there’s another key element to the Spurs unique success as a franchise: “I think the model is when guys can take less money and stay together. When you look at the money Tim Duncan and Ginobili and Parker have made, they probably could have made a lot more money somewhere else. But they decided they wanted to stay together. I’ve been through almost getting to the Finals here in Phoenix, then going to Philadelphia and then finally getting a chance to be in a championship type thing (in Utah). It’s a lot more fun when you’re playing together and winning together. And you’re making plenty of money anyway. So those guys kind of put that out there, ‘We’ll take less money and we want to stay together.’ To be successful in this league, you’ve got to stick together for a few years. You look at great teams, San Antonio and now Miami with those guys, they know each other’s moves so well, no matter what you do to them, they have an adjustment.”

-- With the Rockets now losing point guard Patrick Beverley and with Jeremy Lin in and out with injuries, they’re looking to welcome back Omer Asik from injury. “We’ll get him back in the rotation and play him,” coach Kevin McHale told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s a big part of what we do and can be a big part of our success. There’s a lot of nights that second big body playing with Dwight gives you an advantage. And we need that.” But you assume Asik still will be traded and you can see Houston now looking toward Boston’s Rajon Rondo. If I were Boston I’d hold out also for Donatas Montiejunas, a good big man the Rockets have buried in their small ball game. Houston could get desperate soon and maybe Boston also gets a draft pick, though some GMs joke that Houston’s Daryl Morey would prefer to win the trades than the title. … So why has Damian Lillard with three game winners in the last two weeks made such a jump? “Over the past few games, my game has felt the best because I’m starting get a few more naps in,” Lillard told Portland media. “I always tell my teammates and my staff, I could never take naps. I just could never do it. I’ve been taking naps, so that might be the difference.” Nah, didn’t work in New York where Woodson had the team have a curfew before an early Saturday game, which they lost, anyway.

-- Moving up fast in the Rookie of the Year race is Utah’s Trey Burke, now averaging 13.2 per game after sitting out injured the first month and helping make the Jazz competitive, at least. Said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra to Utah media: "Since he’s been healthy, he’s changed that team. It’s not a coincidence that everything starts to look a little bit more organized. That’s what happens with very good guard play. He has a very promising future.”… The Suns have made at least seven three pointers in 18 consecutive games. … It’s been quietly suggested that Kobe Bryant is hoping to be around long enough to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and become the greatest scorer in NBA history if he cannot get those seven titles to pass Michael Jordan. But now with his latest injury and assuming Bryant returns in six weeks, he’d need to average 33 per game through 2015-16. If he can add a third season after the two year extension then about 24 per game.

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