The NBA playoffs should be entertaining, as they always are. Just don’t count on the basketball being as good as usual. Not after a truncated season during which the injuries were too frequent, the practice time too scarce, to allow teams to peak for the postseason. “It’s been much more devastating to culture and to establishing momentum for sure, for all of us,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “And I definitely think that, I hate to say it but it’s the truth: There’s no way it can be the best basketball for all the teams.” LeBron James was a spectator the night the Lakers raised the banner for the championship they won last year, as he was for most of the second half of the season because of an ankle injury. The Brooklyn Nets assembled an explosive Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, then went three months in between getting to play them for the seventh and eighth time. The Utah Jazz won the Western Conference, but will have played for more than a month without All-Star Donovan Mitchell by the time he returns from ankle injury. Rusty or not, at least those contenders have their All-Stars. Denver will play this postseason without Jamal Murray, who was sensational in the bubble last year while leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. The Celtics made the East finals, but now just getting from the play-in to the playoffs might be difficult after the season-ending wrist surgery for All-Star Jaylen Brown. More than ever, this postseason might be more about being healthy than being great. The teams still playing survived this historically demanding NBA season, but nobody really thrived. “So, is the level of play going to be the same in these playoffs? I don’t know, but you know what, there is opportunity out there for teams,” Chicago coach Billy Donovan said. Championship contenders like to use the regular season to build a team ready to roll once it’s over. The Golden State Warriors worked themselves into a postseason powerhouse that went 16-1 in 2017, Durant’s first season. He's unsure if anybody can find that type of form now. “I don’t know, but that stuff does play a factor, a long regular season,” said Durant, who along with Harden had lengthy absences because of hamstring injuries. “It was just a different year for everybody, getting used to the COVID year, the traveling on the road throughout COVID, just everything, the protocols. But I feel like a lot of teams are excited that they got through this season and a lot of teams are excited that they head into the playoffs healthy, so we’ll see.” The condensed 72-game schedule left many teams limiting or simply canceling practices so players could recover from games. Coronavirus protocols kept them from bonding off the court, not to mention hampered them on it when players became unavailable after testing positive or coming into contact with someone who had. It all contributed to wrecking a Celtics team that had championship expectations but finished .500. But coach Brad Stevens predicts a quality postseason around the league, with players who missed time available to play and coaches able to focus on scouting reports instead of injury reports. “When we were in the bubble, I thought it was the highest level I’d ever seen, just as far as like intensity, effort, teams again playing at just a ridiculous level,” Stevens said. “And I just think the playoffs brings that out of people every year, and so I anticipate the playoffs will be great.” Popovich isn’t so sure. He has spent a quarter of a century developing his teams to peak for the playoffs, winning five NBA championships. But this team must win twice in the play-in tournament just to avoid missing the postseason for the second straight year. San Antonio had four games postponed for coronavirus reasons during its annual rodeo road trip in February, when so many previous Spurs teams began hitting their stride. Rescheduling them later in the season changed normal travel routines and lineup considerations, and league rules during the pandemic prevented team dinners that long were as much a part of Popovich’s team building as the practice gym. He sees all that was lost and doesn’t believe the impact ended when the regular season did. “You need the full season, or as much of it as you can,” Popovich said. “It can’t be squished the way they’ve had to squish it and with all the COVID restrictions and things that have happened to this team and that team and the other team, it just changes the dynamics for everybody. So, it’s very difficult, because of COVID and the injuries, to imagine that the basketball could be as good as usual.” The Lakers have to play their way to a title from the No. 7 seed, but nobody will rule that out with James and Anthony Davis now healthy. Or, perhaps Popovich is right, and even teams with talent need time. “I wish it wasn’t true,” Popovich said, “but I think it is.” ___ More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports Brian Mahoney, The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Blake Griffin started it with a behind-the-back pass and Kevin Durant finished it by slamming down a toss off the backboard. The Brooklyn Nets saved their best for last, ending the regular season with their highlight play of the season. Now it's time to forget that and everything else that's already happened. “Whatever we did so far is out the window,” Kevin Durant said. “It’s a new season for us and I think that’s the mentality we all want to have. We did some solid things throughout the regular season but we just want to continue to keep getting better but realize that the regular season is over, it’s a new vibe for us.” Durant had 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds and the Nets took the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 123-109 on Sunday night. Kyrie Irving added 17 points and joined an elite list of shooters for the Nets, who will open the playoffs next weekend against either Boston or Washington. They meet Tuesday in the play-in tournament to determine the No. 7 seed. Durant made his first eight shots, including the dunk to finish the standout play, to bounce back nicely from a 4-for-17 outing Saturday. It was a strong finale to his first season back after missing 2019-20 while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Nets rested James Harden after he played the last two games following an 18-game absence with a right hamstring strain. That meant Brooklyn finished the regular season with just eight appearances from its Big Three, going 6-2. But the Nets still managed to finish 48-24, holding off Milwaukee for the No. 2 seed and setting a franchise record for the most games over .500 at any point in a season. “I think the goal for us was to try to be as healthy as possible by the end of the year and to keep everyone on the same page and excited about what we’re doing, so mission accomplished there,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. Collin Sexton scored 16 points but was ejected midway through the third quarter for a flagrant foul against Durant. Durant was originally called for the foul, but replay showed Sexton elbowed Durant in the face on his drive, so the call was changed to a Flagrant 2, which carries an automatic ejection. Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade had 18 points for the Cavaliers. They sat Kevin Love and a number of other players in their 13th loss in the last 14 games of a 22-50 season. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he thanked his players, calling them a pleasure to coach. “We talked about all the ups and downs that we’ve seen this year and we never had a bad day of work,” he said. Irving shot 7 for 11 from the field and 3 for 3 from 3-point range. He finished at 50.6% overall, 40.2% from behind the arc and 92.2% on free throws, becoming the ninth player to finish a 50/40/90 season. Nash did it four times and Durant did it once. The Nets led 67-56 at halftime, with their final basket coming on the play that had fans and players out of their seats. Griffin grabbed a loose ball out of the air and in one motion threw it behind his back ahead to Irving, who passed it ahead to James. James tossed it high off the backboard for a sprinting Durant to slam down. James, recently signed for the rest of the season after a pair of 10-day contracts, worried that he would be in trouble if Durant hadn't finished the dunk. “I’m just glad he caught it because like I said, my Nets career could have been really short,” he said. TIP-INS Cavaliers: Darius Garland sat out after returning from a seven-game absence with a sprained left ankle to play Friday against Washington. ... Ending a season in which team outings were largely impossible because of coronavirus protocols, Bickerstaff said the Cavs had an outdoor rooftop dinner in Brooklyn. Nets: Brooklyn finished 18-3 at home against the East. ... James had 14 points and Jeff Green scored 13. FOR THE FRO The Nets played a video tribute for Jarrett Allen in his first game in Brooklyn since being dealt to Cleveland in January as part of the multiteam deal for Harden. He got a warm ovation when the starting lineups were announced and some fans chanted his name when he shot free throws in the first quarter. Brian Mahoney, The Associated Press
The Nets defeated the Cavaliers, 123-109. Kevin Durant recorded 23 points (8-10 FG), eight rebounds and a season-high tying 13 assists for the Nets, while Kyrie Irving added 17 points (7-11 FG, 3-3 3pt FG) and six rebounds in the victory. Isaac Okoro tallied 18 points and three rebounds for the Cavaliers in the losing effort. The Nets finish the season at 48-24, while the Cavaliers finish at 22-50.