The opening tip
LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 12.8 points in five games as a starter for the Brooklyn Nets. (Adam Hunger/AP)
Postseason X-factors for five NBA title contenders
The playoffs can’t get here soon enough.
Look no further than Saturday’s contest between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets for evidence that the NBA, which trimmed 10 games from its regular season schedule due to the pandemic, still bit off more than it could chew with its condensed 72-game slate. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma were all out due to injuries for the defending champions; Kevin Durant played just 24 minutes after missing nearly two months with a hamstring injury and James Harden was sidelined for Brooklyn, too. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving and Dennis Schroder were tossed early following an angsty face-to-face confrontation. That left Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge, two buyout recipients, to battle it out on the ABC showcase stage. Oof.
At this point, the season's remaining dog days are unlikely to produce major revelations. There are plenty of seeding battles to track, but the contender class is set with five weeks to go before the playoffs, barring a long-awaited push from the Miami Heat. With the postseason on the horizon, here are five players worth circling as X-factors for teams with title aspirations.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Brooklyn Nets: The 35-year-old Aldridge has stepped in as Brooklyn’s starting center since his buyout from the San Antonio Spurs last month, relegating DeAndre Jordan to the bench. That’s a clear upgrade for the Nets, who have made progress on their defense and rebounding since the start of the season and have emerged as title favorites according to some oddsmakers.
Yet Brooklyn, which relies heavily on an explosive perimeter approach, remains vulnerable to mismatches with big, physical centers. Drummond tallied 20 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday, and that was without James and Davis, who overwhelmed playoff opponents last year with their physicality. If the Nets claim the East’s top seed, they shouldn’t have any real problems using Aldridge in the first two rounds. Whether Aldridge can hold up defensively against the Lakers or Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers, though, could determine the Nets’ playoff fate.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz: The beauty of the Jazz’s thrilling regular season has been that they win collectively with balanced offense and disciplined defense. In theory, deep and cohesive teams should be less reliant upon a single swing player in the postseason. In practice, Utah still must prove that its formulas will translate to the playoffs, in part because it lacks good positional matchups for James, Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Bogdanovic, who missed last year’s playoffs due to a wrist injury, looms as a crucial piece because he helps ensure that the Jazz’s offense, which ranks first in three-pointers made and third in overall efficiency, isn’t reduced to a one-man show from Donovan Mitchell in clutch situations. The 31-year-old Bogdanovic is a good but streaky outside shooter whose confidence wavers. During an overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, he shot 1-8 from deep and double-clutched an open three-pointer late in the fourth quarter, as a 41-point effort from Mitchell went to waste. Given the Jazz’s need to create space around center Rudy Gobert and their limited frontcourt scoring options, Bogdanovic must show up in May.
Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks: The last five months of moves have left the Bucks with no choice but to trust the 24-year-old DiVincenzo. Milwaukee’s backcourt overhaul has led to the departures of Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Wesley Matthews and D.J. Augustin, among others, with newcomer Jrue Holiday getting most of the headlines and a lucrative contract extension worth up to $160 million.
Quietly, DiVincenzo has put together a career year in his third season, averaging 10.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 38.4 percent on three-pointers and enjoying near-perfect availability. The Bucks’ go-to playoff lineups will be built around their three stars — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Holiday — but they will lean heavily on DiVincenzo in matchups with guard-heavy rivals like the Nets and Heat. DiVincenzo didn’t leave much of a mark during a quiet 2020 postseason, and the Bucks will need him to help space the floor in late-game situations and do his best to hold up defensively against more accomplished opponents like Harden and Irving.
Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets: Before stumbling against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, the Nuggets had won their first seven games after acquiring Gordon last month by an average of 11 points. Denver’s best lineup — Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton — has posted an outrageous 133.9 offensive rating in 90 minutes together, making the versatile 25-year-old forward look like a perfect fit and the NBA’s most important trade deadline mover.
Gordon isn’t a star, but he has the potential to lift Denver from “very good” to “great” in the playoffs. His multi-positional defense will be key in potential matchups with the Lakers’ and Clippers’ elite forwards, and his ability to move off the ball, finish off Jokic’s passes and keep defenses honest gives the Nuggets an offensive ceiling that few other contenders can reach. The only problem? Gordon has a total of five appearances and just one win in the playoffs during his eight-year career, and he will be thrown straight into the fire against a quality opponent no matter who Denver draws in the first round.
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers: Harris’s gripes about his all-star snubbing earlier this season would have landed on a more receptive audience if he hadn’t had a 2020 postseason to forget. The 28-year-old forward has checked all the boxes this season, averaging 20.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game while flirting with the 50/40/90 shooting club (52 percent on field goals, 40.1 percent on three-pointers, 88.9 percent on free throws) for a Philadelphia team that has been at or near the top of the conference.
Even so, Harris has found himself trapped in the “not quite a real star” category due to his uninspiring playoff resume. With Ben Simmons injured last year, Harris was unable to step forward as a positive difference-maker, shooting the ball poorly from the outside and getting badly outplayed by the Boston Celtics’ wing corps during a first-round sweep. The 76ers have played exceptionally well when Embiid and Simmons have shared the court this season, but they will need Harris to emerge as a more dependable auxiliary scorer if they want to keep pace offensively with the Nets and Bucks in the postseason.
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Sometimes you see a podcast title and immediately know that several mini news cycles will be spawned from the names alone.
That happened last week when Draymond Green appeared on Kevin Durant's podcast, “The ETCs.”
Prior to the podcast, both players had made headlines for the wrong reasons.
Two weeks ago, Green tweeted about the pay gap between women's and men's sports, arguing that women athletes were not doing enough to grow the popularity of their sports. He then appeared to double down on his position in an interview with Kerith Burke a few days later, saying he is “really tired of seeing them complain about the lack of pay, because they're doing themselves a disservice by just complaining.”
In his initial tweet, Green tagged several prominent athletes, including Megan Rapinoe, who later responded.
Green again addressed his comments and Rapinoe's response on Friday, saying “I have no complaints with whatever it is that she wants to do or any woman athlete wants to do, or anyone that's trying to help drive their cause and what they want to be done. It doesn't really matter to me how you get there. What does matter to me is that we get there.”
For Durant, last week began with a $50,000 fine from the NBA for the offensive and derogatory language he used in private messages with actor Michael Rapaport.
He apologized Thursday, telling reporters, “I'm sorry that people seen that language I used," That's not really what I want people to see and hear from me, but hopefully I can move past it and get back out there on the floor.”
The two former teammates spoke for more than an hour on Durant's podcast and touched on a variety of topics that are still widely discussed on NBA Twitter and Reddit.
To some fans, Green's appearance on the podcast was a big surprise, considering the unpleasant end to their successful run as title-winning teammates. However, considering that Durant and Green are two of the most outspoken and unusually candid players in the league, maybe this podcast pairing was actually inevitable.
They revisited their now famous profane late-game argument, which is often seen as a defining moment that ultimately led to Durant leaving the Warriors, as well as how Green initially recruited Durant to the team.
They also gave the backstory to one of the more popular memes on NBA Twitter.
Durant and Green also spent a few minutes lamenting the lack of competitiveness and trash-talking from the newest generation of NBA players — and criticized the quality of analysis from TV pundits.
In other words, the exact topics to generate plenty of Reddit threads.
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