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    These N.B.A. Playoffs Burst 2020’s Bubble

    The confined, roiled 2020 N.B.A. playoffs reflected their times. So, too, do this year’s celebratory games.Last August, as the N.B.A. began its 2020 postseason in the confined bubble of Walt Disney World in Florida, the coronavirus pandemic raged, a vaccine was nothing but a dream and the battle for racial justice stood firmly at the forefront of every game.That was then, and this is now: The playoffs are back, but this time set against a much different backdrop. Vaccines have softened the pandemic’s blow, allowing America to reopen and N.B.A. fans to attend games in numbers that, while still limited, would have shocked last summer.Black Lives Matter slogans are not painted on the courts or stitched on jerseys. Players no longer lock arms and kneel during the playing of the national anthem.Last year’s N.B.A. postseason reflected the tension, tenor and tone of society. The league’s players, 75 percent of whom are Black, sparked a movement that spread to other sports when they boycotted games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis. These days, as the 2021 playoffs get off the ground, shootings continue without such stoppages.The tinderbox days of the bubble seem like forever ago.This postseason is more about moving forward and sloughing off, however tentatively, the raw pain of the last year. It’s about welcoming new possibilities. It’s about basketball, the pure sport and entertainment of it.And so far, after the first few days of action, it can’t get much better.It began with the so-called play-in tournament, an innovation first tried in the Florida bubble, which gives the league’s middle-of-the-pack teams a shot at making the playoffs.The tournament, held last week, gave us Jayson Tatum leading his Boston Celtics over the Washington Wizards, sinking every shot imaginable as he went for a cool 50 points.It gave us another unforgettable duel between the two players and two teams that have defined basketball in the 21st century. That the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors struggled through injury-filled seasons hardly mattered. Wednesday’s matchup was LeBron James against Steph Curry in a game with real meaning — even if it wasn’t the N.B.A. finals, where they met four times before.It ended like poetry, with James squaring his shoulders, setting his feet and nailing a 34-foot jumper with seconds on the shot clock and less than a minute left in the game. That he did so over the outstretched arms of Curry, his longtime nemesis, added to the moment’s indelible heft.Friday night, reeling from the heartbreak loss to the Lakers, there was Curry again, only this time his Warriors were playing on their home court, in their still new arena in downtown San Francisco. Roughly 7,500 fans were on hand, the largest, most boisterous crowd at Chase Center this season.Many lament that Steph Curry, left, will not be a part of a playoff run but what would the N.B.A. be without the emergence of fresh talent like Ja Morant, right?Jed Jacobsohn/Associated PressAnd this time, they played against the league’s youngest team, the Memphis Grizzlies, with everything on the line. The winner would advance to the playoffs. The loser, to vacation.Curry claims to be 33. Maybe he’s fooling us. Coming off an M.V.P.-caliber regular season in which he led a hobbled, patchwork team to the league’s most improved record, he barely took a breather. True, there were signs of fatigue. His slow walk during breaks in action. The occasional slump of his shoulders. The slight hint of bewilderment in his face as he endured another night of battering from swarming defenders.And yet he scored 39 points and willed his team from a 17-point deficit to force an overtime.The narrative, so said almost every pundit, would belong to Curry and the Warriors in the end. Ja Morant had other ideas. Memphis’s 21-year-old, catlike point guard outdueled Curry. Normally underwhelming from long range, Morant made five of his 10 3-point attempts. And when it counted most, in the last two minutes of overtime, he showed why he is one of the brightest young stars in the league, ready to emerge from the shadow of Zion Williamson, who was taken one spot ahead of Morant in the 2019 N.B.A. draft. Morant finessed his way past the Warriors’ defense in the last gasps of overtime and sank a pair of deft push shots to seal a Memphis win, 117-112.Many lament that Curry, global icon, will not be a part of a playoff run. Many still grouse about the play-in tournament, claiming it is unfair or that it cheapens the regular season. Remember when James said, seemingly only partly in jest, that the N.B.A. official who drew up the tournament should be fired? Considering the feast the games provided as an appetizer to the main course — and, of course, the high television ratings — the criticism seems silly now.Sure, we don’t have Curry and the Warriors in the playoffs, but what fun is sport without surprises and novelty? What would the N.B.A. be without the steady emergence of fresh talent like Morant and his cast of young Grizzlies teammates, who now must prove themselves anew in their first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, holders of the league’s best record, which began Sunday night?Last year, the N.B.A. reflected the mood of our society. Angered, standing up in the face of worry and fear.But if our sports are to be a mirror, they must also mirror our hope and joy and celebrate new genius.That’s what we’re seeing now: an N.B.A. still wary about the troubles of the past year but ready to do what it does best. Ready, as the playoffs of 2021 get underway, to put on a show. More

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    N.B.A. Awards Picks: Why Stephen Curry Could Win M.V.P.

    Denver’s Nikola Jokic separated himself early with historic play. Then Curry, who has won two Most Valuable Player Awards with Golden State, went on a historic run of his own.The N.B.A.’s 75th season began on Dec. 22 — and the chatter about individual award races began soon after. Some things, even in pandemic times, never change in this league.The New York Times does not participate in balloting for such awards in any sport, but breaking down each of the six major races and who I would have chosen is always a good way to take stock of what we just saw.Most Valuable PlayerDenver’s Nikola Jokic increased his scoring average by nearly 7 points per game from last season.David Zalubowski/Associated PressNikola Jokic, Denver NuggetsRest of the ballot: 2. Stephen Curry (Golden State); 3. Chris Paul (Phoenix); 4. Joel Embiid (Philadelphia); 5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee).Preseason prediction: Luka Doncic (Dallas)Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game and shot 38.8 percent on 3-pointers to deliver dreamlike statistical diversity for a big man, and rightfully ranked as the M.V.P. favorite for some time. He was also one of just 11 players this season to appear in all 72 games, dodging the injury hex and coronavirus intrusions that affected so many fellow stars, including the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray, in a season rife with postponements and challenges.With Embiid missing 21 games, and Paul having a dramatic impact on a team that had missed the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons but without the accompaniment of gaudy statistics, Jokic appeared well positioned to become the lowest-drafted (No. 41 overall in 2014) M.V.P. in league history.Then, in the season’s final days, I and many others got swept up in Curry’s remarkable ride to a scoring title (32 points per game) that made him the oldest player, at 33, to win one since Michael Jordan at 35 in 1997-98. Without the injured Klay Thompson on an otherwise offensively challenged team, Curry was swarmed by defenses like never before but still managed to sink a league-best 337 3-pointers and lead the Warriors to a 37-26 record (equal to a 48-win pace in a typical 82-game season) when in uniform.If he prevails in the real-life M.V.P. race, Curry would be just the second player since Moses Malone in 1981-82 to win the award on a team that fell shy of 50 wins (or the shortened-season equivalent). Russell Westbrook was the last to do it in 2016-17, when he averaged a triple-double for the first time for 47-win Oklahoma City. Chances are Curry won’t finish higher than second because of Golden State’s struggles, but this race is as complex and layered as the season itself.The list of worthy candidates is so long that Doncic, Portland’s Damian Lillard, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, Utah’s Rudy Gobert and the Knicks’ Julius Randle are bound to be left off many ballots since there are only five openings.Coach of the YearTom Thibodeau turned the Knicks into a defensive force in his first season as coach.Gerald Herbert/Associated PressTom Thibodeau, KnicksRest of the ballot: 2. Monty Williams (Phoenix); 3. Quin Snyder (Utah)Preseason prediction: Steve Nash, NetsPhiladelphia was the East’s No. 6 seed last season. The 76ers hired Doc Rivers as their head coach and, with a few notable roster tweaks, posted the best record in the conference for the first time since the Allen Iverson-led Sixers did so in 2000-1.Rivers isn’t the only one responsible for Philadelphia’s rise, but the utter lack of buzz he is generating in this season’s coach of the year race shows the depth of the field. Thibodeau, Williams and Snyder all have tremendous cases, with Williams named on Monday as the National Basketball Coaches Association coach of the year in balloting by his peers.I expect Thibodeau to (narrowly) beat Williams in the news media vote after achieving one of the hardest things in coaching in Year 1 at Madison Square Garden — changing the Knicks’ culture with his relentless drive and attention to defensive detail. Thibodeau backers like to amplify their support by pointing out how much the Knicks overachieved with such a star-shy roster, finishing fourth in the East, but Williams’ bid shouldn’t be downgraded, as some say, because he could lean so hard on Chris Paul. I contend that it strengthens Williams’s bid that his presence helped persuade Paul to push to be traded to Phoenix from Oklahoma City, rather than to the Knicks, so that he could reunite with Williams, who coached him in New Orleans.There isn’t even room on the three-spot ballot to recognize the jobs done by Rivers, Memphis’s Taylor Jenkins, Atlanta’s Nate McMillan and Nash, who had his three best Nets (Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving) together on the floor for a whopping 202 minutes in his first year.Rookie of the YearLaMelo Ball helped solidify his case for the Rookie of the Year Award when he returned for the final 10 games of the season after breaking his wrist.Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesLaMelo Ball, Charlotte HornetsRest of the ballot: 2. Anthony Edwards (Minnesota); 3. Tyrese Haliburton (Sacramento)Preseason prediction: Deni Avdija (Washington)Ball’s all-around play, for a team that unexpectedly contended for a top-six spot in the Eastern Conference until losing Gordon Hayward to injury, was the clincher. He averaged 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game and, amid great skepticism regarding his shooting stroke, proved passable from the field (43.6 percent) and 3-point range (35.2 percent).Ball then addressed the biggest hole in his résumé by returning from fracturing his right wrist on March 20 to play in Charlotte’s last 10 games, ultimately taking part in 71 percent of the Hornets’ season. Had he not returned, Ball would have played in only 57 percent of Charlotte’s games, which would have been the lowest availability rate ever for a rookie of the year. Patrick Ewing’s 60 percent (50 out of 82 games) for the Knicks in the 1985-86 season is the lowest.The extra games can only help Ball in his bid to hold off Edwards. In the second half of the season, when the Timberwolves went 16-20 after a dreadful a 7-29 start, Edwards averaged 23.8 points per game and shot 45.4 percent from the field, inspiring loud support from fans who felt Ball was prematurely anointed the winner.Most Improved PlayerJulius Randle became a solid 3-point shooter in his seventh season.Pool photo by ElsaJulius Randle, KnicksRest of the ballot: 2. Michael Porter Jr. (Denver); 3. Jerami Grant (Detroit)Preseason prediction: Christian Wood (Houston)This is our one layup. Randle is unlikely to receive enough All-N.B.A. or M.V.P. votes to satiate rabid fans who suddenly see him as Knicks royalty, but he should be a runaway M.I.P. selection. He and Jokic were the only players to amass at least 1,600 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists this season.As covered in our recent piece on Randle, his jump to 41.1 percent on 3-pointers this season from 27.7 percent in 2019-20 — in his seventh pro season — has no N.B.A. precedent. Randle has likewise flourished as a playmaker whose decision-making and versatility have lifted those around him and enabled the Knicks to be just functional enough offensively to make the most of their fourth-ranked defense.Porter Jr., Grant, Wood and Dallas’s Jalen Brunson made telling leaps, too, but the Knicks could have not have become as unexpectedly viable as they did if Randle didn’t first transform himself so dramatically.Sixth Man AwardJoe Ingles gets the edge in an unexpectedly tight, and packed, race for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.Randall Benton/Associated PressJoe Ingles, Utah JazzRest of the ballot: 2. Jordan Clarkson (Utah); 3. Derrick Rose (Knicks)Preseason prediction: Caris LeVert (Indiana; began the season as a Nets reserve)In yet another anomaly in a season oozing with oddities, Utah (Clarkson and Ingles) and Dallas (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson) each have two top reserves — possibly the four best reserves beyond Rose — to make settling on a top three trickier than usual.Clarkson averaged a heady 18.4 points per game, but Ingles nudged into my top spot because of his combination of excellent shooting (48.9 percent from the field and 45.1 percent on 3-pointers), offensive versatility and success as a fill-in starter when Utah faced injuries.Rather than trying to choose between the two Mavericks for one remaining spot, I went with Rose at No. 3 in a nod to the Knicks’ 24-11 record with Rose in uniform after acquiring him from Detroit. That also gave him the edge over the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma, Chicago’s Thaddeus Young and Indiana’s T.J. McConnell.Defensive Player of the YearThe Jazz needed Rudy Gobert’s defense this year to offset the reduced firepower in the offense because of injuries.George Frey/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesRudy Gobert (Utah)Rest of the ballot: 2. Draymond Green (Golden State); 3. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia)Preseason prediction: Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)Perhaps I am falling prey to recency bias, but I can’t remember a season when even the D.P.O.Y. ballot was teeming with this many options. Maybe it’s a function of how much attention league observers and curators of advanced statistics are paying to defensive matters these days, judging by the lobbying in recent weeks for Green, Simmons, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Atlanta’s Clint Capela and Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday.Yet this, once again, is Gobert’s domain; look for him to be named D.P.O.Y. for the third time in four seasons. While Coach Quin Snyder was revamping the Jazz’s offense to commit more to 3-point shooting, Gobert kept them in the league’s top three in defensive efficiency.He also missed only one game in a season in which Utah, because of long stretches without Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, needed his durability to finish with the best record in the league for the first time.The Scoop @TheSteinLineThis newsletter is OUR newsletter. So please weigh in with what you’d like to see here. To get your hoops-loving friends and family involved, please forward this email to them so they can jump in the conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up here.Corner ThreeRobert Horry hit a clutch 3-pointer for the Spurs against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2005 N.B.A. finals.Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesYou ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)Q: Good player, many clutch moments, seems like an awesome guy — and incredibly fortunate to have played with great players and for great coaches. All that can be true, while still recognizing that Robert Horry is not a Hall of Fame player. — @MikeMcCullochAZ from TwitterStein: During his Hall of Fame induction on Saturday night, the longtime Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich lobbied for Robert Horry’s enshrinement. I posted Rudy T’s plea on Twitter and there was no shortage of resistance to the idea, because Horry averaged just 7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his 16 N.B.A. seasons.Horry’s case, though, cannot be so readily dismissed. He amassed seven N.B.A. championship rings, with three franchises, as one of the finest role players in league history. Those who played with and coached him, like Tomjanovich, insist that he delivered so much more than the two mammoth 3-pointers he is best known for, which essentially made two of those titles possible: a buzzer-beater for the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings that kept Los Angeles from a presumably fatal 3-1 series deficit; and a 3-pointer for the San Antonio Spurs in overtime of Game 5 of the 2005 N.B.A. finals to seal a series-turning victory against Detroit.After that masterpiece against the Pistons, I wrote a column proclaiming Horry to be the No. 1 role player in league history. He hadn’t scored in the first half but finished with 21 points, mitigating the damage from the six consecutive free throws that Tim Duncan, who just entered the Hall of Fame alongside Tomjanovich, clanked in the fourth quarter.Almost every year, there’s a discussion about how Rajon Rondo becomes Playoff Rondo after sleepy regular seasons. Although he has his own catchy moniker, Big Shot Rob, Horry was Playoff Rondo years before anyone was clever enough to use a nickname to spotlight the tendency. In 1994-95, he averaged 10.2 points per game during the regular season but 17.8 points and 10 rebounds per game in Houston’s four-game finals sweep of Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic.Ben Wallace, announced on Sunday as a member of the Hall’s 2021 class, won the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times but was passed over for induction until his fifth year of eligibility, likely because of his minuscule career scoring average of 5.7 points per game. Apart from a spot on the 1992-93 all-rookie team, Horry’s Basketball Reference page is far more barren than Wallace’s when it comes to individual honors. Perhaps he will never overcome the pedestrian nature of his career statistics to get that Hall of Fame call, but know this: Tomjanovich is far from the only one of Horry’s former colleagues who thinks he belongs in Springfield.Q: If more than one team finishes the season with the same record, do they have the same odds in the draft lottery? For example: If four teams tied with the league’s worst record, would they all have the same odds to land the No. 1 overall pick? — Chezky Krasner (Jerusalem, Israel)Stein: No. The league conducts tiebreakers, via a drawing overseen by a representative from Ernst & Young, when teams finish with identical records. The winner of the tiebreaker gets the higher draft pick or the higher placement in the lottery standings. The draft is July 29.There are several ties that the league will need to break in this manner, most crucially between Cleveland (22-50) and Oklahoma City (22-50) to see which team will have the fourth- and fifth-highest odds in the June 22 draft lottery. The Cavaliers and the Thunder will each get 115 number combinations, with one chosen at random to break the tie.Also to be decided in tiebreakers that are scheduled for May 25:Chicago (which owes its first-round pick to Orlando as part of the Nikola Vucevic trade) finished in a three-way tie for the No. 8 overall selection with New Orleans and Sacramento at 31-41.Charlotte and San Antonio (33-39) will have a tiebreaker draw if both teams lose this week in the play-in tournament.The Knicks and Atlanta (41-31) will need a tiebreaker to determine the Nos. 19 and 20 picks.There is a three-way tie for the No. 21 draft slot between the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland (which owes its first-round pick to Houston as part of the Robert Covington trade) and Dallas (which owes its first-rounder to the Knicks as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade).Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers (47-25) will need a tiebreaker to determine the Nos. 25 and 26.Q: Your recent commentary on the play-in round almost persuaded me, but I can’t help but be very sympathetic to No. 7 teams whose records are quite a bit better than the other teams in the play-in round. Your point about how No. 7 seeds don’t win N.B.A. championships doesn’t change the fact that fans of those teams deserve to see their teams in the playoffs even if they have minimal hope of winning it all. — Simon Rosenblum (Toronto)Stein: This is a common retort to those, like me, who love the play-in concept. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing, but I just don’t see the No. 7 seed in either conference as some sacred thing we have to protect.The No. 7 seed, even in a scenario like you describe with a record far superior to Nos. 8 to 10, gets two chances to win one play-in game to claim a playoff spot. The system still skews heavily in No. 7’s favor, while also making the regular season infinitely more interesting and competitive as teams strain to finish no lower than No. 6.As for this season, injuries are the only reason that the defending champion Lakers slipped to No. 7. Anthony Davis missed 36 games, and LeBron James missed 27 after the shortest off-season (71 days) in N.B.A. history. I expect no one outside of Phoenix will pick the Suns, one of just two 50-win teams in this 72-game season, to beat the Lakers in the first round if the Lakers beat Golden State on Wednesday to get the seventh seed.Judging by what the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are saying, they will be the scariest No. 7 seed in N.B.A. history, rather than a team at risk for an unjust early exit this week. Only the Nets have shorter championship odds.Numbers GameHaving fewer fans may have contributed to home teams’ increased losses this season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images54.4Home teams won 54.4 percent of the time this season, going 293-247 (.543) in the East and 294-246 (.544) in the West. It’s the lowest success rate for home teams in league history, dipping below last season’s 55.1 percent.8This was the eighth consecutive season in which home teams won less than 60 percent of the time, according to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press.84The empty arenas and reduced crowds mandated by league health and safety restrictions have been regularly cited as contributing factors in the further erosion of home-court advantage this season. But as the season progressed, home teams gradually got better at dealing with the baseball-style series in which teams hosted the same opponent in two consecutive games to reduce travel.Home teams won both games 27 times in 84 such series, lost both games 16 times and settled for a split 41 times, according to Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass. Of the 41 splits, home teams won the first game and lost the second 17 times, and won the second game after losing the first 24 times. Additional time in one city and the increased familiarity resulting from two consecutive games against the same foe were expected to greatly help visiting teams in this scenario.2Two teams posted a losing record at home and a winning record on the road: Indiana (13-23 at home; 21-15 on the road) and San Antonio (14-22 at home; 19-17 on the road). Memphis nearly joined them but rallied to win its last four games at FedEx Forum to finish 18-18 at home compared to 20-16 on the road. The Toronto Raptors, in their temporary home in Tampa, Fla., because of Canada’s pandemic restrictions, were in a category by themselves. They were 16-20 in Tampa, and 11-25 on the road.27-11Phoenix fell one game shy of the league’s best record, going 51-21 to Utah’s 52-20, but the Suns went 27-11 against .500-or-better opposition to lead the league. Seven other teams had winning records against .500-or-better foes: Utah (24-14), the Nets (23-13), Dallas (22-16), Denver (21-17), the Los Angeles Clippers (21-17), Philadelphia (19-17) and Milwaukee (19-17).Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. More

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    The N.B.A.’s Play-In Tournament Isn’t the Problem

    Though stars like LeBron James and Luka Doncic have complained about the pre-playoff hurdle, the stress of the play-in matters less than injuries and the compressed season.The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, who lashed out about the All-Star Game staged in Atlanta in March, has a new source of league office ire. James said on Sunday that the forces behind the N.B.A.’s forthcoming playoff play-in tournament “should be fired.”Weeks before James voiced his displeasure, it was Mark Cuban, after voting for the play-in as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who blasted the concept as an “enormous mistake.”I say they’re both wrong, and see the race to set up the N.B.A.’s play-in round from May 18 to 21 as the most invigorating aspect of a dour, draining, pandemic-skewed season.The idea here, though, is not to dwell on James or Cuban, two of the league’s most outspoken figures. They were offering emotional reactions to their teams’ increasingly unpleasant circumstances in the standings. Both surely know how self-serving it sounded to attack the play-in format only after their teams faced an acute risk of having to participate in it.Zoom in on what’s happening among the top 11 teams in each conference, and you will see that the format change is doing its job — and promisingly so. More teams are playing more games that mean something than we’re accustomed to with just under two weeks left in the regular season. A system that gives the No. 9 or 10 seed a last-ditch pathway into the playoffs — but only if one of those teams can win two play-in games in a row — has spawned new levels of jockeying for seeding position. That’s good for the game at large, even if it has, in Year 1, complicated matters for the injury-ravaged defending champions in Los Angeles.Adam Silver, in his seven-plus years as commissioner, has emphasized finding ways to make the regular season matter more. He has also sought to discourage teams from shifting into the familiar late-season mode of resting veterans and focusing on youth development to foster losing and improve draft position, better known as tanking. The combination of the play-in and changes to the lottery odds starting in the 2018-19 season is making a difference on both fronts. Before the 2019 draft, the team with the lowest winning percentage had the highest odds to get the No. 1 pick. The three worst teams now share an equal shot at the top spot.Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks said he didn’t “see the point” of playing the whole season if a play-in tournament could keep a team out of the playoffs.Nelson Chenault/USA Today Sports, via ReutersEntering Tuesday’s play, 24 of the league’s 30 teams were still in playoff contention because of the added play-in slots, although the chances seemed unrealistic for Chicago in the East and Sacramento in the West. In both conferences, in addition to the usual grappling for the No. 1 seed, there are fevered races to secure a top-six seed and avoid the play-in round, as well as crowded races to clinch a spot in the 7-to-10 range to extend the season.The play-in scenario calls for the No. 7 seed in each conference to play one game against No. 8 at home, with No. 9 playing No. 10 at home. The winner of 7 vs. 8 claims the No. 7 seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of 9 vs. 10 at home for the No. 8 seed, with the loser of 9 vs. 10 eliminated. The seventh- and eighth-seeded teams in each conference thus have to win just once to clinch a playoff berth. No. 9 or No. 10 must win two games in a row to advance.The Mavericks’ Luka Doncic lamented last month that he didn’t “see the point” of playing an entire season if “maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs.” That was what prompted Cuban’s “enormous mistake” comment, but on Monday he said that he had “no problem” with the play-in and that he welcomed the competitive boost it could lend to a standard 82-game season. Cuban’s dismay, he said both last month and Monday, is contained to this season because of the stress it heaps on already stressed teams. He contended that additional games with seeding implications compound the burden on teams chafing from cramming 72 regular-season games into five months while coping with daily coronavirus testing and extensive league health and safety demands.But the benefits, at least for fans, have been plentiful. There is a newfound incentive for teams to finish no lower than sixth, both to avoid the play-in and to gain several days of additional rest before the first round of the playoffs. The seeding scramble also features highly watchable players vying for play-in berths: Washington’s duo of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, New Orleans’s Zion Williamson, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball and, most of all, Golden State’s scorching hot Stephen Curry. The prospect of stars like Curry, Portland’s Damian Lillard and maybe even Williamson headlining bonus high-stakes broadcasts presumably excites network executives as much as the possibility of an early Lakers exit scares them.In Washington’s case, Beal and Westbrook have been at the forefront of a 13-3 surge that has enabled the Wizards to overcome a 17-32 start and compete for something after a coronavirus outbreak in January essentially shut down the franchise for two weeks. As a counter to Cuban’s complaint, San Antonio’s bid to stay alive for a playoff berth despite a second-half scheduling crunch has been boosted by the play-in path. The Spurs must play 40 games in 67 days in the season’s second half, but they have clung to 10th in the West, ahead of Williamson’s Pelicans.Young players like New Orleans’s Zion Williamson, left, and Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, right, have added intrigue to the races for lower seeds.Derick Hingle/Associated PressTanking has not been eradicated by the play-in chases, but there is certainly less of it. The numbing regular-season discourse about individual awards (and little else) has been mercifully balanced by a heightened focus on the playoff ladders and how meaningful, just to give one example, Boston’s regular-season finale against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on May 16 could be. Even fears that adding play-in berths would lead more teams to stand pat and thus chill the trade market proved mostly unfounded; deadline day on March 25 delivered a record number of trades (16).The most compelling argument against the play-in tournament is the one Cuban raised — that this wasn’t the season for such experimentation. I suppose, for some, it’s a step too far after the tight turnaround from last season, which carried into October, and all the virus-related demands that cut into players’ rest, rehabilitation and practice time.Yet the bulk of the additional stress is a byproduct of the league’s decision, in conjunction with the players’ union, to start this season on Dec. 22 and play 72 games in a compressed period. The rising concern among teams’ medical staffs about increased injury risk because of game density and scheduling logjams caused by game postponements would probably have manifested with or without the play-in wrinkle.As for suggestions that the East and West No. 7 seeds deserve more protection than the play-in system affords, based on their season-long body of work, let’s push back. The lowest seed to win a championship since the league adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1983-84 was sixth-seeded Houston in 1994-95 — when the Rockets were defending champions and traded for Clyde Drexler at midseason. The playoffs do not revolve around No. 7 seeds. If they can’t win one play-in game at home, when given two chances, how much playoff damage were they going to do, anyway?What no one envisioned was three of the four teams that reached last season’s conference finals tumbling into play-in territory, which is why the issue has caused so much angst. Miami (No. 6) and Boston (No. 7) in the East, among the teams that have been hit hardest by Covid-19 disruptions, might have to go the play-in route just to get back to the playoffs. The Lakers began the season as overwhelming championship favorites and duly started 21-6, but their subsequent struggles have played out in the most daunting way. James and Anthony Davis, as we warned, have not been able to make seamless returns from their long-term injuries.The Lakers will not look capable of a lengthy playoff run, even if they can avoid the indignity of a play-in game or two, until the health of their two stars improves. For all the attention on James’s harsh critique of the play-in games, he said something else on Sunday to suggest he had a firm grasp of the Lakers’ larger seeding plight.“If I’m not 100 percent, or close to 100 percent, it don’t matter where we land,” James said.The Scoop @TheSteinLineCorner ThreeA reader writes in with the hottest of hot takes: Stephen Curry isn’t that good.Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle, via Associated PressYou ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)Q: To answer the question posed by last week’s newsletter, Russell Westbrook is not appreciated because he does not win. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson could have averaged 15 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists per game every season if that was their goal. Westbrook is a pretty amazing player, and a deserved All-Star, but teams looking to win it all don’t seem to be interested in him. — Noel MacDonald (Petaluma, Calif.)Stein: This is a popular sentiment about Westbrook, and there are some minds he will probably never change until he is part of a championship team, no matter what he achieves statistically.That Westbrook has been traded twice since winning the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2016-17 only amplifies the argument. Yet when Westbrook has gotten triple-doubles, his teams have won handily, so I would dispute the blanket statement that Westbrook “does not win.”Westbrook has 178 career triple-doubles in the regular season and a 134-44 record in those games, good for a winning percentage of .753. That equates to a 62-20 record in a typical season.Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington, then, have clearly benefited from his triple-doubles. Detractors are bound to say Westbrook could be chasing them in every game and hurting his team when he doesn’t achieve them, but I don’t think Westbrook is motivated by triple-doubles above all else. Teammates probably wouldn’t respect him the way they do if that were happening.All of these layers, and everything we covered last week, are why I’m so curious to see the reaction when Westbrook breaks Oscar Robertson’s career record for triple-doubles (181). Maybe this will be the moment that the league at large stops to appreciate someone who plays as ridiculously hard as Westbrook does, season after season after season, even if his résumé lacks a championship. Or maybe not.Q: Stephen Curry is great, but he’s the third-best Warrior ever. He’s not better than Rick Barry, and he’s not better than Wilt Chamberlain. Unless Curry adds another dimension to his game, he will not crack the top 10 or 15 all time. — @michaelbookit from TwitterStein: This is another bold opinion (or you were just trying to get a Twitter rise out of me). Whether or not I can persuade you to reconsider your stance, I strongly disagree.Chamberlain’s greatest successes as a player were as a 76er and as a Laker. Although the statistics he posted as a Warrior remain difficult to fathom, like the 50.4 points per game he averaged as a Philadelphia Warrior in 1961-62, his time in the Bay Area lasted less than three seasons. The Warriors even missed the playoffs in Wilt’s first San Francisco season.Barry has long been one of the game’s underappreciated stars, and his all-around excellence in leading Golden State to an unforeseen championship in 1975 cemented him as one of the game’s greats, but Curry’s résumé has it all. Three championships, five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals, back-to-back M.V.P. awards, longevity with one franchise, massive popularity with fans and seemingly limitless shooting range that changed the game — Curry really has no peer here.Q: I have assumed that teams that qualified for the playoff play-in round but did not advance further would not be considered teams that reached the playoffs this season. Then on Friday, according to the league’s official standings, Philadelphia was shown to have clinched a playoff berth when the 76ers had 10 games left on their schedule — but only an 8½-game lead over No. 7 Miami. Didn’t that mean that the Sixers conceivably could have still slipped to seventh?— Jeff Pucillo (Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.)Stein: You are correct that teams that get to the play-in round will not be considered playoff teams unless they win the last playoff spot in each conference.The standings, though, did not convey the full picture of Philadelphia’s situation. The Sixers clinched a playoff berth as of Friday because No. 6 Boston and No. 7 Miami still had two games against each other — and the results of those forthcoming games, no matter what they are, will ensure that either the Celtics or the Heat can’t catch the Sixers.Numbers GameThe Sixers are 32-6 when Ben Simmons, center, and Joel Embiid play together.Darren Abate/Associated Press57It’s not your imagination: Major blowouts have been increasingly common this season. A record six games in April were decided by margins of at least 40 points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and Indiana promptly drubbed Oklahoma City by 57 points, 152-95, on Saturday, the first day of May.50When Utah scored 154 points in a 49-point rout of Sacramento last week, it was the eighth time over the past two seasons that an N.B.A. team had scored as many as 150 points in a non-overtime game. Over the prior 20 seasons, from 1999-2000 to 2018-19, it happened only four times, according to Elias.32-6Philadelphia is 32-6 this season when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both in uniform. The 76ers’ .842 winning percentage in those games shows the team’s tremendous potential when the two stars are healthy, but their 38 games together mean Embiid and Simmons have been available as a duo for only 58 percent of Philadelphia’s schedule.8Of Utah’s 18 losses this season, eight were inflicted by three teams: Phoenix, Washington and lowly Minnesota. The Suns and Timberwolves went 3-0 against the Jazz, who also absorbed a 2-0 season sweep from the Wizards. In another quirk, Sacramento is 10-1 against Denver (3-0), Dallas (3-0), Boston (2-0) and the Los Angeles Lakers (2-1). The Kings are 17-36 against the rest of the league and will most likely soon miss the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season.96Golden State’s Stephen Curry sank 96 3-pointers in April to establish a league record for a single month. It was not until the ninth season of existence for the 3-point line in the N.B.A. that a player reached that total over 82 regular-season games; Boston’s Danny Ainge (148), Denver’s Michael Adams (139), Seattle’s Dale Ellis (107) and Ainge’s Celtics teammate Larry Bird (98) were the first to get there, in 1987-88.Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. More

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    Stephen Curry Breaks Kobe Bryant's Record for Consecutive 30-point Games

    It is not that Stephen Curry has not been good all season. He has had games of 62 and 57 points, after all. But with his Golden State Warriors mired in mediocrity and players like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid emerging as leading candidates for the Most Valuable Player Award, Curry had faded a bit into the background.That has changed in the last month. After five games away nursing a bruised tailbone, Curry returned and began a streak of 30-point games that has now reached 11, breaking Kobe Bryant’s record for a player who is 33 or older.The run has revived talk of a third M.V.P. trophy for Curry, and the Warriors look like they have a good chance of making the playoffs — as the team that no high seed wants to face.Here’s a look at the 11-game run that turned around Curry’s season, and perhaps Golden State’s, too.Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press1. March 29, vs. Bulls, 32 points, winReturning from his injury, Curry helped the Warriors end a four-game losing streak. “It wasn’t fun, but I got through it,” he said.Mary Holt/USA Today Sports, via Reuters2. April 1, at Heat, 36 points, lossThe attention fell on the Heat debut of Victor Oladipo, and Miami beat Golden State by 7. It would turn out to be the heaviest Warriors loss in their last 11 games, in which the team went 7-4. Curry still managed 11 rebounds, though, his best total of the run.Curry gave his jersey to the rapper Two Chainz after scoring 37 points against the Hawks.John Bazemore/Associated Press3. April 4, at Hawks, 37 points, lossAfter missing a game at Toronto because of the lingering tailbone injury (not coincidentally, the Warriors lost that game by 53 points), Curry was back, wearing protective padding. “He pretty much did whatever he wanted in that first half,” Hawks Coach Nate McMillan said.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press4. April 6, vs. Bucks, 41 points, winFor the first time in the streak the Warriors beat an elite team, getting a 1-point win with a late comeback. Of course, the Bucks badly missed their own star, Giannis Antetokounmpo.Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press5. April 9, vs. Wizards, 32 points, lossPerhaps the poorest performance of the run, despite the 32 points. Curry shot 11 of 25 from the field and his team lost to the middling Wizards at home. Curry missed a long 3-pointer to tie the score as time expired.Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press6. April 10, vs. Rockets, 38 points, winA sixth straight 30-point game made the scoring streak the longest of Curry’s career, and he wasn’t done. “He had a highlight reel worth of plays out there tonight,” Coach Steve Kerr said.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images7. April 12, vs. Nuggets, 53 points, winCurry’s best game thus far and his first 50-point night since February. He had 10 3-pointers, the most so far in his streak, and the start of a run of four of five games with at least 10. Curry also passed Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors’ career scoring leader.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press8. April 14, at Thunder, 42 points, winIn the biggest team win of the streak, Golden State beat Oklahoma City by 38 points. Curry shot 14 of 20 and had eight assists. Draymond Green said he knew a big Curry night was coming. “I can kind of tell when he comes out,” Green said. “Just the look in his eyes.” Another 11 3s gave Curry 29 over three games, an N.B.A. record.David Dermer/Associated Press9. April 15, at Cavaliers, 33 points, winA fourth straight win for the Warriors, for the first time this season. Curry was only 4 of 13 from behind the 3-point line but compensated with eight 2-pointers. The Warriors improved to 16-1 in their last 17 games against Cleveland.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press10. April 17, at Celtics, 47 points, lossThe Warriors’ winning streak ended in a closely contested game, and Curry kept scoring, with 11 3s. “It took everything,” said Kemba Walker of the Celtics, adding: “We knew it was going to be tough. These guys are playing so well. Obviously they’ve got one of the best players in the world. He’s incredible.”Matt Slocum/Associated Press11. April 19, at Sixers, 49 points, winThe Warriors took on one of the best teams in the N.B.A. and won. Ten more 3-pointers for Curry, who faced off against his brother, Seth. The 11th straight 30-point game is a record for players 33 and older, surpassing Kobe Bryant’s mark. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like the run he’s on,” Sixers Coach Doc Rivers said.Next up? A visit to Washington on Wednesday night. More

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    Stephen Curry Passes Wilt Chamberlain as Warriors Scoring Leader

    Players must be great to set their franchise’s career scoring record. But they also need to hang around.It was significant that Stephen Curry had 53 points on Monday night. It was significant that the Golden State Warriors won the game at home, over a tough Denver Nuggets squad, as they fight for a playoff spot.But long after the single-game scoring outburst and this year’s playoff race are forgotten, the night will be remembered as the one where Curry passed Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors’ career scoring leader. His postgame total of 17,818 surpassed Chamberlain’s 17,783. Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin trail them.Curry was 10-for-18 on 3-pointers, 4-for-6 on 2-pointers and 15-for-16 on free throws.“Any time you hear his name,” he said of Chamberlain after the game, “it’s kind of daunting, because you know his records are so hard to — some of them are even impossible to eclipse.”Though surpassing Chamberlain in anything is momentous, team scoring records are something of a quirky statistic. They reward great talent, naturally, but they also reward longevity at a single franchise.Curry was able to take the lead because Chamberlain, who averaged 41.5 points a game during his time with the Warriors, played only five and a half seasons with the team before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers and then the Los Angeles Lakers. Three of Chamberlain’s seasons with the Warriors came when the team was still in Philadelphia. The Sacramento Kings’ career scoring leader is Oscar Robertson. If you don’t remember the Big O lacing them up in Sacramento, that’s because he played for the Cincinnati Royals, who didn’t arrive in California until the 1985-86, after a stop in Kansas City. Still, the record is his.The all-time leader of all-time franchise leaders is Karl Malone, who scored 36,374 of his 36,928 points during his 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz. (The other 554 points were added in a late-career cameo with the Lakers at age 40.)No player has more points for a single franchise than Karl Malone, who scored 36,374 points for the Utah Jazz in 18 seasons with the franchise.Robert Sullivan/A.F.P., via Getty ImagesNo one has scored more N.B.A. points than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has 38,387. He ranks first on the Milwaukee Bucks’ career list despite leaving after six seasons (with Giannis Antetokounmpo in hot pursuit). Abdul-Jabbar is also in good company on the Lakers list, behind only Kobe Bryant and Jerry West, who spent their entire careers in Los Angeles.The only players in the overall scoring top 10 not to lead a team are Shaquille O’Neal, whose prime years were divided among the Magic, Lakers and Heat, and Moses Malone, who played for seven N.B.A. teams (and two in the A.B.A.).Even though O’Neal, Malone, and now Chamberlain are not among them, the roster of franchise scoring leaders are virtually all great players. Only two of those who are eligible are not yet in the Hall of Fame. And one of those, Walter Davis of the Suns, who made six All-Star teams and tallied 19,521 total points, maybe should be.Perhaps the most forgotten team leader (could it be because of his common name?) is Randy Smith, who poured in 12,735 points for the Clippers franchise, mostly when they were the Buffalo Braves. Just a seventh-round draft choice, he wound up being known as the Iron Man for playing in 906 consecutive games (a record later broken by A.C. Green).At the bottom of the team leaders chart are the Nets, who have suffered from not keeping their superstars around. Buck Williams left after eight seasons, Vince Carter after four and a half. Julius Erving remains the most famous Net for many, though he played with them for just three seasons, all in the A.B.A. Nevertheless, he’s seventh on their career scoring list.At the top of that list is Brook Lopez, whose 10,444 points for the Nets were 4 more than Williams. Lopez won’t be adding to that total, as he was traded away in 2017. More

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    What’s Wrong With the Los Angeles Lakers

    Repeating as N.B.A. champion is difficult — but the Lakers didn’t expect it to be this hard.The Los Angeles Lakers braced for a season of strain after the shortest off-season in league history.They did not anticipate this.The Lakers did not envision long stretches without both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and a regular-season slog that is testing them in new ways after the rigors of being confined within the N.B.A.’s restricted-access campus at Walt Disney World for three months last summer. James, Davis and Co. began the 2020-21 season as overwhelming title favorites, having emerged from bubble life as N.B.A. champions, but factors that raise the degree of difficulty on the Lakers’ repeat bid are starting to stack up:Davis has missed the past 23 games because of persistent Achilles’ tendon discomfort and an adjacent calf strain. There is some hope within the organization that he will return to the lineup after the Lakers’ five-game Eastern Conference swing underway, but any injury that involves the Achilles’ tendon, no matter how purportedly mild, is going to spook people until Davis gets back on the floor. Achilles’ tendon injuries remain the most feared in the sport.James has missed the past nine games after sustaining a high-ankle sprain during a game against Atlanta on March 20. The reflex assumption, because this is James, is that he will return by month’s end and duly return to elite form. Given that James is 36, and in his 18th season, we should probably also acknowledge the possibility that his recovery won’t be seamless.Sunday’s 18-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, their Staples Center co-tenants, was the first in an 11-game stretch against teams in playoff or play-in positions. The Lakers were fifth in the Western Conference standings entering Tuesday, but there is mounting worry in Lakerland that a slip to sixth, seven or worse is getting more and more unavoidable. This is the first season that teams seeded seventh through 10th in each conference will be subjected to a new double-elimination playoff play-in round.The roster moves that looked so good in November, winning raves for the Lakers’ front office, haven’t panned out. Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell have not proved capable of pinch-carrying the Lakers during the regular season when James and Davis are unavailable. I believed, as resolutely as the Lakers, that they would be, but Schröder and Harrell tend to be more concerned with their own scoring than anything else. When the Lakers explored the trade market for both last month, it seemed to confirm their own uncertainty about the fit.The Lakers’ recent signing of center Andre Drummond, right, has caused some friction with center Marc Gasol, who signed with the team as a free agent in November.Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesThe Lakers’ biggest triumph since Davis went down was signing the crown jewel of this season’s buyout market: Andre Drummond. Yet it must be noted that the Lakers were desperate to go all out for Drummond in part because of a sense that their frontline was lacking. Marc Gasol, signed as a free agent in November, hasn’t replaced Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee as convincingly as the front office had projected. Gasol has since publicly acknowledged his disappointment that the Lakers felt a need to bring in Drummond.Whether it’s the injuries, or the team’s middling 10-12 record since Davis last played on Feb. 14, or mounting pressure stemming from the Lakers’ woeful 3-point shooting (24th in the league), or other factors, this group does not appear to have the same chemistry as the Lakers did in the N.B.A. bubble. Maybe these Lakers can still get there, but there is clearly much to fix in the final 22 games of the regular season.Coach Frank Vogel insisted on Monday that the Lakers were “not looking at the standings at all,” but that is easier to say than uphold when the competition looks tougher than it did last season:— The Utah Jazz readily acknowledge that they can’t hush naysayers until the playoffs, but they have also won 22 consecutive home games and remain on pace to become the first team in league history to average 17 made 3-pointers per game.— The Denver Nuggets made a clear win-now upgrade at the trade deadline by adding Aaron Gordon to their core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and, as of this Newsletter Tuesday, would have home-court advantage over the Lakers in a first-round series as the fourth seed.— Also: One of the most important players from the Lakers’ championship run — Rajon Rondo — is suddenly a member of the Clippers via trade. After his ineffectual stint as an Atlanta Hawk, skepticism persists that Rondo, at 35, will provide the offensive organization and playmaking that the Clippers badly need. Yet he has delivered often enough in the postseason that the Lakers are respectfully wary of his becoming Playoff Rondo one more time for the Los Angeles franchise still chasing its first championship.That assessment of the competition didn’t even mention the Phoenix Suns, who missed the playoffs for the past 10 seasons but have risen to No. 2 in the West by pairing Chris Paul in the backcourt with Devin Booker, or the three powerhouses in the East: Philadelphia, Milwaukee and a superstar-laden Nets squad coping with its own serious injury issues.James and Davis remain so feared as a duo that, for all the other legitimate concerns about these Lakers that we’ve listed, getting both back in coming weeks and keeping them upright throughout the playoffs would surely fix so much. I am likewise bullish on Drummond’s potential impact when he gets the chance to finally play with the two stars and, for the first time in his N.B.A. career, focus on a complementary role that emphasizes his rebounding and defense.My issue is assuming that James and Davis will heal in linear fashion that makes everything fine once they return. Ill-advised as it is to write off James in particular, after he led his teams to the N.B.A. finals in nine of the past 10 seasons, that’s a bold leap to make given the gravity of these injuries.When I published N.B.A. power rankings every Monday during the regular season for 15 years at ESPN, I occasionally sparred with angry readers who blamed The Committee of One, as I had dubbed myself, for jinxing their team with a ranking too lofty. Perhaps I should consider, along the same lines, some responsibility for the Lakers’ woes over the past two months, because Davis started missing games shortly after I devoted my Feb. 2 weekly dispatch to his partnership with James and how flawlessly they’ve meshed as teammates.Far more likely, though, than the Lakers getting derailed by a supposed newsletter jinx is the like-it-or-not reality that ill health threatens to be the Lakers’ undoing for the second time in James’s three seasons in Hollywood.Corner ThreeThe Charlotte Hornets of the 1990s were fun behind Larry Johnson, left, Muggsy Bogues, center, and Alonzo Mourning.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesYou ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)Q: I am a lifelong Nets fan. I’m 61 now and I clearly remember the team’s pre-N.B.A. years. Julius Erving was the greatest player to ever play for the Nets, and without him the franchise would not exist. But he sometimes seems to be forgotten in Brooklyn — and so is the A.B.A.The Nets recently posted a tweet indicating that James Harden was only the second Net in team history to record a triple-double that included 40 points, along with Vince Carter, but I was sure that had to be incorrect. I looked it up online and found that Erving did this twice in the A.B.A.My question: Does the N.B.A. count A.B.A. statistics? And if so, why don’t the Nets refer to them? Looking forward to your coverage soon of the first Nets championship in 45 years! — Dave Lederer (Sharon, Mass.)Stein: Love the enthusiasm for the A.B.A., Dave. But A.B.A. statistics were not (and most likely will never be) officially combined with N.B.A. statistics, so the Nets refer to their history only since 1976-77 when they make such announcements about milestones.This wonderful page maintained by Basketball Reference with multiple career scoring lists shows how Dr. J would be No. 8 and Dan Issel would be No. 11 if A.B.A. points were added to the damage they did in the N.B.A. Yet the list posted there is purely for discussion purposes, because the N.B.A. established its policy long ago, leaving Erving at No. 72 among N.B.A. scorers and Issel at No. 148. The four A.B.A. franchises that joined the league for the 1976-77 season (Denver, Indiana, San Antonio and the Nets) were treated more like expansion teams than merging teams.The A.B.A., of course, was way ahead of its time with the early adoption of the 3-pointer and the introduction of a slam dunk contest eight years before the N.B.A., and faster-paced play in general that I sadly didn’t get to see for myself. The merger season was the first that I could call myself a truly aware N.B.A. fan; 1977 Topps basketball cards with the electric green backs still weaken me when I come across them as does the Buffalo Braves set from that season that I keep on my desk.The recent death of Elgin Baylor had me venting anew about what a shame it is that Baylor’s offensive brilliance isn’t as appreciated as it should be because television footage from the 1960s and 1970s was not as widely distributed as it should have been, compared with, say, baseball footage from past eras. When I started covering the Los Angeles Clippers in February 1994, Baylor was the general manager and I told him that, to that point, I had scarcely seen five minutes of his playing career. This was years before the advent of NBA TV, of course, so the Clippers called N.B.A. Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., to assemble a Baylor highlight reel on VHS tape for my edification.A.B.A. footage, as you can imagine, was even more scarce, though thankfully there’s a smattering on YouTube now. I can’t remember seeing any in my formative years as a basketball fan. The red, white and blue ball was all I knew.Q: ⁦‪More watchable than the Larry Johnson-Alonzo Mourning-Muggsy Bogues Hornets of the early 1990s? — @BBH821510 from TwitterStein: I got a few responses like this on Saturday when I tweeted about the Hornets losing Gordon Hayward for at least four weeks to a sprained right foot.Just for some fun, and perhaps in a bow to the hyperbolic nature of social media, I have been referring to Charlotte this season as the Most Watchable Hornets Ever. It’s my go-to hat tip to these Hornets given how entertaining they’ve been since drafting LaMelo Ball in November, signing Hayward in free agency and combining those two with Terry Rozier, whose player efficiency rating is at a career-best 17.7.The Hornets teams that featured Johnson, Mourning and Bogues are remembered with great fondness by Charlotte’s fans and duly respected here. Charlotte also had some strong teams in the back half of the 1990s, after trading away both Johnson and Mourning — but I think it actually helps my case if you have to rewind that far, to a time long before the N.B.A. League Pass era, to come up with a counter.Q: What happens when a team forfeits a draft pick as the Milwaukee Bucks did in the Bogdan Bogdanovic case? Will there still be 60 players selected in that draft? — Yul Bessori (Israel)Stein: No. The 2022 draft will have only 59 picks after the Bucks were docked their second-rounder for that year as punishment for what the league deemed impermissible contact with Bogdanovic before free agency began in November.Not long after Milwaukee reached an agreement with New Orleans on a trade for Jrue Holiday in November, ESPN reported that the Bucks would also acquire Bogdanovic, who was a restricted free agent, from Sacramento via sign-and-trade, with the Kings poised to land Donte DiVincenzo as part of the exchange. But free agency was still more than three days away at that point, prompting the N.B.A. to investigate how the Bucks had agreed on terms. Milwaukee was essentially forced to abandon its pursuit of Bogdanovic or risk more severe penalties.Bogdanovic ultimately signed a four-year, $72 million offer sheet from Atlanta, which Sacramento declined to match, causing the Kings to lose the restricted free agent without compensation. The Bucks, though, have rebounded from their missteps about as well as they could have hoped, persuading Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year contract extension worth $228 million in December even without landing Bogdanovic. Then on Sunday they announced that they had signed Holiday to an extension, reported to be for four years and worth up to $160 million.They also made a useful addition last month by acquiring P.J. Tucker in a trade with Houston, but questions persist about the dependability of the Bucks’ bench. Milwaukee’s other problem is the competition — at least at the top of the East. The Bucks have to be wondering, even after all of their moves, if they really have enough to beat out the Nets and Philadelphia for a spot in the N.B.A. finals.Numbers GameGolden State’s Stephen Curry is close to passing Wilt Chamberlain as the franchise’s career-scoring leader.Mary Holt/USA Today Sports, via ReutersUpdated entering Tuesday’s games.44League officials can only hope that the basketball public was too focused on the Final Four in men’s and women’s college basketball to pay close attention to the N.B.A. on Saturday, when a league-record three teams lost by at least 44 points on the same day: Oklahoma City (48 points to Portland), Orlando (46 points to Utah) and Detroit (44 points to the Knicks). This was just one day after Golden State trailed by as many as 61 points in a 53-point loss to Toronto.14The Raptors had won just one of their previous 14 games before blasting the Stephen Curry-less Warriors. Curry has missed six of Golden State’s past nine games with a tailbone contusion.130Curry needs 130 points to surpass Wilt Chamberlain (17,783) as the Warriors’ career-scoring leader. Getting there will make Curry the 10th player in league history to rank as a franchise leader in points and assists, joining Mike Conley (Grizzlies), Alex English (Nuggets), Kevin Garnett (Timberwolves), Michael Jordan (Bulls), LeBron James (Cavaliers), Oscar Robertson (Kings), Reggie Miller (Pacers), Isiah Thomas (Pistons), Dwyane Wade (Heat).20The Houston Rockets’ recent 20-game losing streak was twice as long as its worst stretch during the 14-68 season in 1982-83 that led to the drafting of Ralph Sampson. Those Rockets started 0-10 and never had a longer winless run after that. Houston’s 20 consecutive defeats this season marked the N.B.A.’s fifth such streak since 2000, according to Stathead. Philadelphia lost 28 consecutive games from the end of the 2014-15 season through the start of the 2015-16 season and 26 games in a row during the 2013-14 season; Cleveland lost 26 consecutive games in 2010-11 in its first season after LeBron James’s free-agent departure to Miami; and Charlotte lost 23 consecutive games in 2011-12.22Utah is a spotless 22-0 at home in 2021 after losing its first two home games of the season in December.Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. More

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo Couldn't Miss at the All-Star Game

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyon pro basketballGiannis Antetokounmpo Was the All-Star Who Couldn’t MissA 16-for-16 night highlighted a game that many players didn’t really want to play.While Giannis Antetokounmpo banked in a couple of 3-pointers, most of his damage came at the rim.Credit…Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated PressMarch 8, 2021Updated 9:23 a.m. ETATLANTA — Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks unintentionally banked in two of his three 3-pointers. He took 11 shots in the first half, and five more in the second half, without missing one. He also made a priceless memory with his infant son before the game even started, leaning down to Liam Antetokounmpo at courtside for some quick ball-handling work as the opening tip approached.When the N.B.A.’s 70th All-Star Game was over Sunday night, Antetokounmpo seized the game ball without waiting for anyone’s authorization, cradled it with his left hand and collected the Kobe Bryant Trophy as the occasion’s most valuable player minutes later. It was, at least for Antetokounmpo, about as perfect as an All-Star Game gets.That the sentiment could be applied to even one participant at State Farm Arena was a grand surprise given how the N.B.A.’s All-Star Sunday started. Weeks of unease and second-guessing about the league’s decision to summon 24 players from 18 teams to Georgia for an All-Star Game, in the ongoing clutches of a pandemic that caused 31 game postponements in the first half of the season, seemed to be validated some eight hours before tipoff, when it was announced that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers would not be allowed to play.Antetokounmpo had a sweet moment on the sideline with his son Liam.Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExposure in Philadelphia to a barber who had tested positive for the coronavirus caused Embiid and Simmons to be barred from playing, even though their coach, Doc Rivers, said both players tested negative on Sunday in Atlanta. League officials thus had to be relieved, at night’s end, to see Antetokounmpo so giddy about his 35 points on 16-for-16 shooting — albeit almost all of that from at-the-rim range — and to hear the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James speaking so excitedly about the rare opportunity to play beside Golden State’s Stephen Curry.As the captain of the victorious Team LeBron, James benched himself for the second half of a 170-150 victory after scoring a modest 4 points in 13 minutes. He spent the rest of the evening encouraging Portland’s Damian Lillard (32 points) and Curry (28) to “back up further and further to shoot,” as James explained via his Twitter feed. Lillard and Curry duly drained eight 3-pointers each, including back-to-back flings from halfcourt to close out a 60-point second quarter (yes, 60) that looked laughably effortless.It was a marked change in tone from the afternoon, when the Nets’ James Harden, among numerous players dismayed by the Embiid and Simmons developments, said this All-Star Game had essentially been “thrown upon us.” James, remember, called the concept a “slap in the face” a month ago, explaining that he and many other players had been led to believe they would get an All-Star break free of basketball after the league postponed its originally scheduled 2021 All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis to 2024.The uniforms used Sunday night were those designed for Indianapolis, inspired by an old Pacers scheme from the 1980s in yellow and blue, adding to the night’s “forced” feel — to use another Harden description. No matter how many times Commissioner Adam Silver has insisted that the league’s motivations for staging the game were to reward its global fan base and bring a needed spotlight to historically Black colleges and universities, as much as the obvious “economic factors,” this was one instance where players voiced more (and louder) skepticism than members of the news media.“All in all, obviously the league did a hell of a job of being able to put this together still,” James said afterward, withholding any further criticism. He had just improved to 4-0 as an All-Star captain, helped along by the stunning array of M.V.P. candidates he drafted (Antetokounmpo, Curry, Lillard, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Dallas’s Luka Doncic), as well as the absences of Embiid and the injured Kevin Durant, the other team’s captain.“There’s always a lot of back and forth on these different decisions, but once guys get here, I think they’re grateful for it,” said Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns. Paul, of course, doubles as president of the National Basketball Players Association and is James’s close friend, which made for an uncomfortable month after James was so forceful in initially questioning the wisdom of holding even this scaled-down version of All-Star Weekend.To try to make this venture as safe as possible, league and union officials agreed that the players would spend no more than 36 hours in Atlanta, flying in and out via private jet and maintaining the daily coronavirus testing that has governed the season so far. Traveling parties were required to check in at the league’s hotel by 7 p.m. Saturday and then stay at the hotel until departing for the arena Sunday afternoon, with an array of private postgame flights scheduled Sunday night. Players were allowed to bring up to four guests. Teams were allowed to send three club representatives with them — one each from the athletic training staff, team public relations and team security.LeBron James gushed on Twitter about finally getting a chance to play a game as Stephen Curry’s teammate rather than his rival. “Well overdue and I loved every single second!”Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe idea, Silver said, was to create a “mini bubble” and keep everyone granted access to the league’s inner sanctum away from the bustling nightlife that swirled around them. League officials were well aware that many Atlantans had shown little interest in heeding recent pleas from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to stay home and treat this as the made-for-television event that the N.B.A. intended. The N.B.A., in fact, was moved to send roughly 200 letters containing cease-and-desist orders to local party organizers who used the event name or logo to promote unaffiliated events across the weekend, according to a league spokesman.Beyond the $20-plus million that Turner Sports was projected to generate in advertising and sponsorship revenue through Sunday’s broadcast, estimates for precisely how valuable this substitute All-Star experience would be for the N.B.A. have been difficult to come by. It was widely reported late last year that starting the 2020-21 season during Christmas week rather than mid-January would result in a $500 million revenue gain. No such projections have been released in connection with the All-Star Game, but one league insider with a firm grasp of money matters told me last week that just keeping a valuable partner like Turner happy, by preserving the network’s most valuable N.B.A. content of the year, was worthy of any trouble.Fake crowd noise was pumped in to amplify the understandably modest buzz generated by an invitation-only crowd of 1,500. TNT likewise had concerns of its own to contend with, competing for viewers against Oprah Winfrey’s interview on CBS with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.Commissioner Adam Silver said of the game, “It would have been a bigger deal not to have it.”Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSilver insisted at a news conference on Saturday that he had weighed it all before deciding that “we should do it for our fans and for our business” once the league “got to the point where we felt we could do it safely.”“For me,” Silver said, “it would have been a bigger deal not to have it.”Atlanta’s previous All-Star Game, in 2003, when the Hawks’ home was known as Philips Arena, was Michael Jordan’s final All-Star Game. This one will take its own place in league history, thanks to the unusual circumstances, but Silver proposed that “maybe it should be judged when people are looking back as to what this meant to them as opposed to what some of the initial reactions were.”Maybe.“It was more fun than I thought it would be,” Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics said.Lillard, who on another night might have wrested M.V.P. honors from Antetokounmpo with his repeated splashes from 40 feet and beyond, said: “It just didn’t have the All-Star Weekend feel, just because it was so quick, it was so quiet, it was empty. But I think once we got on the floor, that was like the only time it snapped into like, ‘This is the All-Star Game.’”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    The 7 N.B.A. All-Stars Who Would Be King (or Just M.V.P.)

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }The NBA SeasonVirus Hotspots in the N.B.A.LeBron and Anthony DavisThe N.B.A. Wanted HerMissing Klay ThompsonKobe the #GirlDadAdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyThe 7 N.B.A. All-Stars Who Would Be King (or Just M.V.P.)Near the halfway point, this season’s race for the Most Valuable Player Award has top-tier candidates from the usuals (LeBron James) to the newcomers (Joel Embiid).Damian Lillard is keeping the Portland Trail Blazers competitive despite injuries to key players, as he has done for years. He’s a top-tier candidate for M.V.P.Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated PressFeb. 26, 2021, 5:27 p.m. ETOne of the fiercest debates among fans and observers each N.B.A. season is over who should win the Most Valuable Player Award.This season — already strange because of the coronavirus pandemic — has created the most wide-open race for the coveted award in several years.Being named M.V.P. is official recognition that a player is not just a star, but a superstar. Every winner of the award who is eligible has made the Hall of Fame. But the qualifications for the award vary by voter, which is partly what makes the debate so contentious.Is it for the best player? If so, why hasn’t LeBron James — a four-time recipient — won every year? Is it for who has the best stats? Is it for who does the most with the least talent around him? Is it for the best player on the best team? Should past playoff performances factor in? (The winner is chosen by members of the news media, but The New York Times does not vote on awards.)Sometimes, the answers are easy. Last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks was a runaway winner. His stats were top notch (fifth in scoring, second in rebounding), and the Bucks had the best record.The 2016-17 season had one of the most hotly disputed M.V.P. races ever, among James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. Westbrook, who finished that season with his first triple-double average and led the league in scoring, ended up winning, even though his team at the time, the Oklahoma City Thunder, was only the sixth seed in the Western Conference.Almost halfway through this season, several players have made a compelling case to be a top-tier candidate.Statistics were updated entering Friday night’s games.LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers25.6 points/8.1 rebounds/8 assists per game; 50.2 field goal percentageLeBron James is the best player on the team that entered the weekend with the fourth-best record in the league, and he has already won four M.V.P. Awards.Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated PressThe Case For:James, 36, has played every game so far. His true shooting percentage — a measure of scoring efficiency that factors in free throws and gives more weight to 3-pointers — is at a solid 59.2 percent, despite a recent slump from the perimeter. The league average is around 55 percent. James is the best player on the team that entered the weekend with the fourth-best record in the league. And he’s LeBron James. His numbers rival those of his previous M.V.P. seasons. If you believe that he should have won the award then, there is no reason he shouldn’t win now.The Case Against:James has another elite player, Anthony Davis, as a teammate. If you believe in the literal definition of valuable, then you must consider that when James sits, Davis, if healthy, fills some of the void in a way the vast majority of players can’t. Put another way: No other candidate has a teammate as good as Davis. Also, James is 13th in the league in scoring. He’s ninth in assists and 22nd in rebounding. The last M.V.P. to not be top 10 in points, rebounds or assists was Dirk Nowitzki in the 2006-07 season.Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers29.6 points/11.2 rebounds/3.1 assists per game; 51.6 field goal percentageThe Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid is performing well across the board. He ranks fourth in the league in scoring.Credit…Matt Slocum/Associated PressThe Case For:Embiid is anchoring the best team in the Eastern Conference on both ends of the floor and does not have another bona fide top-10 player supporting him. He’s fourth in the league in scoring, while being absurdly efficient (64.4 percent true shooting).The Case Against:Embiid’s counting stats are fantastic, but he’s not as good a passer as other contenders. And even with his gaudy numbers, there is an argument that Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets is having a better season.Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets26.9 points/10.9 rebounds/8.4 assists per game; 56 percent field goal percentageNikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets is in the midst of having one of the five best offensive seasons in the history of the league.Credit…Harry How/Getty ImagesThe Case For:Jokic’s traditional stats are eye-popping, but when you look under the hood, you see he is putting together one of the greatest seasons ever. That is no exaggeration: His O.B.P.M. (a measure of how much a player contributes offensively compared with an average player) puts his performance at not just No. 1 in the league this season but among the five best offensive seasons in league history. It’s a higher O.B.P.M. than Larry Bird ever had. Michael Jordan had only one season better. Jokic’s win shares per 48 minutes — an estimate of how many wins an individual player is responsible for — lead the league, and also rank as one of the highest in history. He’s doing all of this while not having a teammate who will make the All-Star Game this season.The Case Against:The Nuggets are only 17-15. There is a chance they won’t even make the playoffs this season. It’s hard to give an M.V.P. to someone, no matter how great, if his play isn’t leading to wins.Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors30 points/5.5 rebounds/6.3 assists per game; 47.9 field goal percentageStephen Curry is putting up nearly identical numbers to his 2015-2016 season, which is considered one of the most dominant in N.B.A. history.Credit…Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe Case For:Curry has played every game this season except one and has kept the Warriors afloat, despite Klay Thompson’s missing the whole season, and Draymond Green’s missing time because of injuries. From a statistical perspective, Curry is putting up nearly identical numbers to his 2015-16 M.V.P. season, which is considered one of the most dominant in N.B.A. history. This run might be even more impressive, given the lack of consistent playmakers around him. Curry is second in the league in scoring.The Case Against:As with Jokic, the team success isn’t there. The Warriors are 18-15 and are closer to missing the playoffs than to getting home-court advantage.Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers29.6 points/4.4 rebounds/8 assists per game; 44.7 percent field goal percentageThe Case For:Lillard’s numbers are consistently exceptional from year to year. This season, however, he’s doing this without the second- and third-best players on his team, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, who have been sidelined with injuries. Despite not having another elite playmaker next to him, Lillard has carried Portland to 18-13 and fifth place in the Western Conference. From a “doing the most with the least” perspective, combined with elite statistics, Lillard and Curry have the best cases.The Case Against:There’s no obvious hole in Lillard’s M.V.P. case other than simple competition. It’s a deep field, and Lillard’s numbers are on par with those of multiple candidates, including Curry and Luka Doncic.The Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, left, and the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic are both contenders for this season’s M.V.P. Award.Credit…Michael Ainsworth/Associated PressLuka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks28.5 points/8.4 rebounds/9 assists per game; 47.4 field goal percentageThe Case For:Doncic is, once again, having one of the best all-around seasons in the league. He does it all. He’s an elite scorer and passer, while also being one of the best rebounding guards in the league. The Mavericks have been in flux for much of the season, as multiple players have missed games because of health concerns related to the coronavirus, so Doncic, as the only All-Star on the team, has to shoulder much of the offensive load.The Case Against:As things stand right now, Dallas, at 15-16, would not make the playoffs. The last time a player from a below-.500 team was named the M.V.P. was 1976, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the award in his first year with the Lakers. Doncic is also a streaky shooter, so his percentages might not hold up as the season goes on.Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks28.9 points/11.7 rebounds/5.9 assists per game; 55.5 field goal percentageGiannis Antetokounmpo has positioned himself for a third straight M.V.P. Award.Credit…Rick Bowmer/Associated PressThe Case For:Antetokounmpo’s numbers are in line with his previous two seasons, both of which won him M.V.P. Awards. He’s top 10 in rebounding and scoring, something only Embiid can also say.The Case Against:Fairly or not, Antetokounmpo’s falling unexpectedly short in multiple playoff runs will be on the minds of voters. Additionally, if he wins the award, it would be his third straight — and there may be voter fatigue when there is such a deep field. The Bucks are only 20-13, slightly below preseason expectations. In almost any other season with that stat line, Antetokounmpo would be the runaway winner.Honorable Mentions:Kyrie Irving/James Harden/Kevin DurantThe players in the Nets’ trio are individually having exceptional seasons, rivaling all the other candidates. But they play on the same team, making it difficult to pick one most valuable player, and each has missed a significant chunk of time.Paul George/Kawhi LeonardBoth players are having essentially the same great seasons on the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard is averaging 26.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, around the same as George. And the Clippers have the second-best record in the league. As with the Nets, it’s hard to pick one player to give the award to, especially with others putting up better stat lines.Donovan MitchellHe is the best player on the best team in the league. But his all-around stats don’t match those of other candidates.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More