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Playoff matchups beginning to take form

With less than three weeks to go before the NBA regular season comes to an end, Sam Smith looks at how the brackets may break down in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Currently, Luol Deng and the Bulls are tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference with Atlanta. The four/five winner plays the one/eight winner, who certainly would be Miami against Milwaukee. So then who falls to sixth, where you could get Indiana or New York?
(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

So what are some of the magic issues to watch these last 10 games in the 2012-13 NBA regular season, if not necessarily the Orlando Magic?

In the Eastern Conference, the Knicks and Pacers pretty much are locked into the two/three spots, which in their view prepares them for the faceoff to get to play Miami in the conference finals. That makes the battle for who ends up four/five the most interesting. Currently, the Nets are fourth, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Bulls and Hawks tied for fifth. The four/five winner plays the one/eight winner, who certainly would be Miami against Milwaukee. So then who falls to sixth, where you could get Indiana or New York, two much more beatable teams in the second round with a chance to get to the conference finals? Boston looks stuck in seventh with Kevin Garnett out and generally indifferent play of late.

The attention in the Western Conference has been about the final playoff spot with the Jazz making a surprising comeback, at least to me, to get eighth now tied with the Lakers. The Mavs are a game and a half back without tiebreakers. But when you are eighth you have played all season showing you can lose to anyone. So it all can change with the Mavs Tuesday in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are home much of the rest of the season.

The top spot in the West perhaps gets more clarity Thursday with the Spurs, 2-1, playing the Thunder, though Manu Ginobili could be out awhile, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. Denver has moved to third to avoid the four/five matchup, which is generally considered the toughest as the teams have similar records. The Clippers, who will win the Pacific Division, have a slight edge for now, though they have been stumbling lately in close games. Currently, Warriors/Denver and three/six would be a heck of a track meet and the heck with that notion of playoff ball slowing down. The Rockets, meanwhile, are a dangerous seventh with their scoring and fast paced play.

And while nobody pays much attention, the best tanking job is going on with the Phoenix Suns. Though this draft is not the season to begin rebuilding, general managers say, with the top picks a freshman shooting guard and a player who recently had ACL surgery. The Suns get the Lakers draft pick if the Lakers miss the playoffs, so how was this: Playing in Utah last week, the Suns sat their best player, point guard Goran Dragic, after he had a huge game against the Nets. The Suns, of course, were beaten, thus enabling the Jazz to move up in the Western race and perhaps knock out the Lakers. That Steve Nash trade for the Lakers, meanwhile, may build the Suns as they also get the Lakers 2015 pick. Asked about sitting, Dragic told the Arizona Republic: “I can play. I’m in great shape.” Coach Lindsey Hunter said he needed to rest Dragic after the long season. Dragic is 53rd in the league in minutes played and coming off a game of 31 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds. He leads the NBA in assists since the All-Star break. “I really don’t want to come out of games because I worked all my life to enjoy these minutes,” he said.

NBA news and notes

-- Miami defeating the Spurs Sunday in San Antonio without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade apparently means the Heat isn’t going to have problems with the Western Conference, either, and we can start talking about next season. Oh, yeah. The Bulls beat Miami in Miami without Derrick Rose and in Chicago last week without Rose and Joakim Noah. OK, never mind. James and Wade, though, figure to play Tuesday when the Knicks visit Miami. The Knicks are 2-1 against Miami after finishing the season series 3-1 over Boston with Sunday’s win, their eighth straight, all without Tyson Chandler, who may return Tuesday. It was the second New York blowout win over the Celtics in a week with the teams currently lined up for a possible two/seven first round meeting. It also looks less promising for Boston than that 14-4 start after Rajon Rondo was hurt when it seemed the Celtics had the ideal opportunity to make a transition and some major trades, as GM Danny Ainge long talked about not repeating the early 90’s mistakes of letting the team get old together. Have the Celtics done it again?

-- Reggie Evans somehow got 22 points and 26 rebounds (you can understand the latter in some sense) against Portland last week despite an eye virus that was limiting his vision. Offered coach P.J. Carlesimo: “If it was golf, it would be a problem. But a basketball is a pretty big ball. He can see the basketball.” The Nets then went to Utah, where they lost as Deron Williams fell to 0-4 since being traded. Carlos Boozer is undefeated in games against his former team. Meanwhile, if the Nets are not haunted by the trade last season of the No. 6 overall pick for Gerald Wallace, Portland is thrilled as they used it for certain Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. Though they’ll miss the playoffs, the Trail Blazers feel they have a young and athletic core to move forward with in Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews Nicholas Batum to build around. ... There haven't been many nice stories for the Raptors this season, but they have one in Michigan State’s Alan Anderson, who at 30 has become a valuable reserve averaging 11.4 and a pressure three-point shooter. It’s an amazing journey for Anderson, who after being undrafted in 2005 played in Italy, Russia, Croatia, Israel, Spain, Chins and three seasons in the D-League. Said Toronto coach Dwane Casey: “He’s a pro, he’s a veteran and for this young team you need as many guys with veteran status to step up and play and he’s done that all year. Alan’s a man’s man.”

-- Leave it to basketball student Doc Rivers to pull out a great name. With Shavlik Randolph coming in to aid the flailing Celtics, Rivers told Boston media Randolph reminded him of Mark Landsberger, whom Rivers played with briefly in Atlanta. Landsberger was a famous Bulls second round pick in the late 1970’s who eventually went on to play for two Lakers’ title teams. Occasionally, the Bulls got the picks right then, but usually traded them. ... Nice moment, at last for Boston, when Jeff Green got the winner in Cleveland last week and gave a wave coming off the floor to his heart surgeon, Dr. Lara Svensson. It’s not often players want to win one for their heart surgeon ... Brandon Jennings has kind of been making a fool of himself in Milwaukee, lately tweeting implied criticisms of the coaching and last week acting out after being benched after being repeatedly beaten by Jrue Holiday as the Bucks were falling well behind in an eventual loss to the 76ers. Good luck once again under 40 percent shooting going out and getting a big free agent offer as Jennings apparently expects with a declining attitude and often selfish play. Said Jennings to the Milwaukee Journal about him being benched late in the game: "I don't see any All-Stars in this locker room." Nice. The Bucks seem pretty much locked in to a first round series with Miami. Said Mike Dunleavy: "We're not on the same page. We've got a lot of issues.”

-- The Pacers shut down Danny Granger for the season for surgery a day after coach Frank Vogel said he was expected to play in a day or two. And fans in Indiana supported Granger’s patient choice as Granger made the decision not to play even as the Pacers believe they have a chance to get to the Finals. Imagine that. Granger is in the final season of his contract next season at $14.2 million. ... It’s a big championship celebration week with the Wizards (nee Bullets) having their 1978 team back Saturday of Greg Ballard, Phil Chenier, Bob Dandridge, Kevin Grevey, Elvin Hayes, Tom Henderson, Joe Pace, Wes Unseld, Phil Walker, Larry Wright, general manager Bob Ferry and head coach Dick Motta and the Knicks Friday having their 1973 team back of Henry Bibby, Dick Barnett, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Dean Meminger, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, John Gianelli and Harthorne Wingo. ... The Bulls see a hot John Wall Tuesday as he averaged 22.1 points and eight assists in March with 47 and 35-point games last week. I like Wizards coach Randy Wittman, but when the team got beaten up by the Thunder last week after a win over Memphis, Wittman, in what is all too common with losing teams, said: “I’m as proud of these guys as I was our last game against Memphis. It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about how we play.” Did he give out juice boxes and Oreos afterward? C’mon, they’re pros. They can have their feelings hurt a bit when they stink. Wall, by the way, was three of 18 in that game and it generally seems his sensibilities remain the tippy toe concern in Washington. Wall did note when he had 47 last week he should have had 52 but missed five free throws. ... Kyle Korver Saturday extended his three point shooting streak to 67 consecutive games. It’s the fifth longest streak in NBA history and one away from tying Reggie Miller for fourth best.

-- Turkoglu is back for the Orlando Magic after a 20-game suspension for testing positive for anabolic steroids, though it’s not certain for Orlando what is the good news. Turkoglu has a $6 million buyout of his $12 million for next season and isn’t expected to play for the Magic. Turkoglu likely will sit with Al Harrington, who doesn’t play for the Magic, while fellow veteran Corey Maggette sits out his contract with the Pistons. ... One of the bigger though less noticed battles is with the Magic, who currently is holding off the Bobcats, Charlotte again looking like it will finish with the worst record in the NBA and all those high lottery picks not quite what they are supposed to be. Though it’s the 2014 draft that more in the NBA are eying with potentially Andrew Wiggins from Canada, the son of onetime Bull Mitchell Wiggins, and Chicagoan Jabari Parker, whom pros rate above anyone in this draft and so called potential franchise players in the recent mold of Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. ... An interesting free agent and perhaps cheap backup center addition will be Dallas’ Chris Kaman, who basically fell out of the rotation about two months ago and rarely plays anymore. ... While considerable attention is always paid to the Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant dynamic in Oklahoma City, they are 28th in allowing offensive rebounds with the grounded Kendrick Perkins. The Bucks are worst, which should keep Larry Sanders off those Defensive Player of the Year lists. ... Interesting late season shooting addition (he’s not there for defense, you’d think) by the Thunder as Derek Fisher is two for 23 the last eight games. Said Fisher: “In the role that most of us play for this team, you shouldn't measure yourself by percentages or how you're shooting. It's really about how you're impacting the game and if you're making a positive contribution. We don't have a problem scoring points. So we don't need another guy worried about how many shots he's making. We need more guys worried about how many shots we're going to keep the other team from making.” Good one.

-- The Denver Post did a long story on the erratic but mostly amusing antics of JaVale McGee, who has been a big player for them. But what I found most interesting was McGee’s admission: "I have extreme ADD. They tried to put me on Ritalin, but I wouldn't do it. I just didn't want to take it. I was young (when it was diagnosed); it was a long time ago. But, yeah, it's definitely fun having ADD. It's extremely fun. I'm not boring." Attention Deficit Disorder, now also called ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has become something of a popular diagnosis for active kids and a controversial issue. South Park (see, I don’t only watch NBA) did a clever parody of the issue a few years back. It is one of the most common and not discussed issues in the NBA I hear coaches often mention it regarding players. Well, coaches say a lot of things about players that may not be true. But fewer NBA players, many from poor neighborhoods and families, don’t get the chance as kids for such expensive diagnoses and drugs and by adulthood the issue basically becomes part of who they are. Dennis Rodman was said to be a classic case, though the debate often is between just acting out and being unable to process as well. McGee is one of the rare players who ever has mentioned the issue regarding himself. Interestingly, the New York Times Monday had a lead story about too many children being diagnosed with the situation, which is controversial because the side effects can in some cases be worse and it can be an overuse of unnecessary drugs promoted for sales and to increase physicians’ bills. ... The NBA in its sort of officiating transparency policy admitted its crew failed to call a foul against Kobe Bryant on Ricky Rubio’s potentially tying three at the buzzer. Rubio, a 79 percent foul shooter, should have gotten three free throws. Given it was the last play and given the Lakers are in a battle for the last playoff spot with Utah and Dallas and a playoff position means millions of dollars in revenue for teams, shouldn’t the NBA have that last second played again? ... I asked an NBA general manager about Pat Riley’s apparent obscenity to Danny Ainge in a statement after Ainge questioned LeBron James criticizing the Bulls’ tough play against him. So the GM wondered whether Mark Cuban would have gotten fined as he has for saying much less and that if you are going to say something like that to someone shouldn’t you at least do it in person. I, however, see Riley as a street role model against violence. Imagine how much better our world would be if people only faxed their curses to one another. Man, do I miss Riley having become a recluse. Though friends tell me they see him back stage at just about all the Bruce Springsteen concerts.

-- Blasting his fading team after a loss to the Rockets, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is answering his annual job firing questions, though later this season than usual. Yet, the Clippers also will break the franchise record for wins this season set by the old Buffalo Braves. ... While Sixth Man winner talk goes mostly to Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith, perhaps the biggest reason other than Stephen Curry why the Warriors have been a Western Conference playoff surprise is the play of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, who likely will split their vote. ... Kind of laughable the way Dwight Howard postured around about how he’ll get David Lee next time after an elbow to the mouth. Howard famously took Derrick Rose out of the air several times and then said how you have to take hit in the game and even Howard’s Laker teammates were rolling their eyes about the threats knowing his nature. ... Maybe Mark Jackson put the Lakers’ season in perspective after his Warriors ran out the Lakers last week: "We've played 72 games, and the survey says that we're the better basketball team. That cannot be debated. They've got some guys who are going to be in the Hall of Fame. But this is a different day.” Maybe it is time to end the charade. The Lakers are just another team with a famous name going nowhere. ... I know people laugh when I say I stay up to watch Kings games, but otherwise you don’t get to see maybe the dumbest player in league history, that being DeMarcus Cousins in one of my favorite closes Saturday when they lost to the Lakers. Down three with about 24 seconds left and four other shooters on the floor (I guess Cousins may have been in for rebounding), the ball was inbounded to Cousins. Dwight Howard blocked his three point attempt with 18 seconds left in good clock management there. The Kings get the ball back, and, yes, Cousins attempts another three. The Kings foul Kobe, who earlier passed Wilt in career scoring, and with nobody obviously guarding Cousins, the Kings inbound to Cousins, who quickly turns and shoots another three. Really, you can’t make this stuff up. And they fought to keep that team, though you figure new ownership whomever that may be may have seen enough of Cousins.

-- There will be visitation for former Bulls player and broadcaster Tom Boerwinkle April 6 from 10 a.m. to noon at Christian Church of Clarendon Hills, 5750 Holmes Avenue, Clarendon Hills. In lieu of flowers, contributions in Tom's memory can be sent to Aplastic Anemia & MDS International Foundation 100 Park Avenue, Suite 108; Rockville, MD 20850 or Special Olympics Illinois 605 E. Willow Street; Normal, IL 61761. Tom’s former teammate, Chet Walker, was another fan and saw a player like Boerwinkle never quite appreciated as he should have been given our society’s obsession with celebrity and offered his own little media critique. Though living in Los Angeles perhaps Walker also sees more of this. Said Walker: “This business has so many really good people, like Tom, and really good ballplayers who are often ignored because so many of the media experts have this obsession with celebrity. We live in this society with these celebrities who haven’t accomplished anything and you have a guy like Tom who was a better than average player, great some nights, someone who put in a good and hard day’s work every day and these so called experts to get their own notice keep putting the names of these celebrities in their columns. They rely on these celebrities to get themselves noticed and often forget about the people who do the real hard work.”

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