Win and they’re in, they were told.
The Nets and Magic did. And, that simply, two of the NBA’s playoff droughts have come to a close.
For the Magic, it’s seven seasons. From the end of the Dwight Howard era on through all kinds of roster experimentation, it was a former assistant who finally, ah … found the right tricks.
And perhaps Steve Clifford’s biggest accomplishment was unlocking two-way, top-of-the-marquee talent from center Nikola Vucevic, who started the season on a tear and never relented. But after first season in Philly, Vucevic would be a Magic lifer courtesy of the massive, four-team trade that sent Howard and the Magic’s playoff run packing.
“It’s an amazing feeling. Nobody knows what I’ve been through in the last six years here, just through all the losing, the struggling, the doubting,” Vucevic said. “It’s been very difficult for me at times. It paid off in a great way, man, just to come in here in this building and beat a great Celtics team and to make it.”
It’s entertaining to think this squad will add former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, (hopefully) healthy and perhaps the point guard they’ve not been able to hone in on since Jameer Nelson’s run. But first, that postseason though.
For the Nets, much like Kenny Atkinson’s offense, this was the vision hitting the court a little bit faster than anyone was expecting. When the Nets last made the playoffs, in 2015, it was in there by a hair at 38-44; Brook Lopez was the leading scorer, and quickly downsloping Joe Johnson and Deron Williams in their final pairing as “Brooklyn’s Backcourt”.
Past-expiration assets were offloaded — see trades of Kirilenko, Andrei and Garnett, Kevin — and the full ramifications of The Trade were quickly becoming evident. By the time it all imploded midway through the following year, the GM search spotlighted Sean Marks, with Atkinson’s acquisition soon to follow.
And trade by patient trade, player by player developed, the Nets gradually pulled together a combination of cohesiveness that has outperformed any expectation. With D’Angelo Russell given a much-needed new situation and the confidence that comes with a full year of keys, with wily veterans like Jared Dudley coaching up-and-comers like Caris LeVert alongside projects-made-players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, Atkinson and Marks have found a mix that’s set for future success.
“It means a lot, obviously to exceed expectations for a lot of us in here, to see how far we’ve come,” Harris said. “It means a ton. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come for this organization.”
Russell is headed to free agency, and while the Nets have a ton of potential space on their hands, a large chunk seems destined for their star guard. How they spend the rest likely determines how much higher they can climb.
Playoff Picture sharpens
Beyond the two clinchers, here are the key takeaways from Sunday’s action:
The Warriors clinched the West. More of a question than expected, but certainly not a surprise.
The Rockets remain in the chase for No. 2. Need Nuggets losses, but still a possibility.
The Trail Blazers are one win or Jazz loss from clinching homecourt in the first-round (… and their likely matchup with Utah)
Oklahoma City sits sixth, a half-game up on the Spurs and Clippers.
The Spurs are tied with the Clippers, but hold a tiebreaker. Seventh it is (for now).
- The Clippers dropped to eighth in the West. Now that the Warriors have clinched No. 1, that’s perhaps not ideal.
Boston clinched fourth in the East with the Pacers’ loss to Brooklyn. Homecourt can be crucial, and Boston’s got it for Indiana in round one.
Detroit is a game up on Charlotte and Miami for eighth, but don’t hold tiebreakers vs. either team. On the other hand, their two remaining games are the Knicks and Grizzlies. If the Pistons win out, they’re in.
The Hornets! Still alive! It would take a ton of help, but they are keeping this thing entertaining right down to the wire.
- Miami … also alive, but becoming less fun by the game. Well maybe a little fun. Not a great time for a season-high losing streak either way.
Kawhi. Claw. Assist.
This one’s all in the headline. The ball has been used for ping-pong in Toronto, and the East should worry.
Searching for a pair of ankles. Once owned by De’Aaron Fox.
Elfrid Payton would definitely be on my annual March/April All-Star team.
Also of Note
- The Rockets broke their own record for most 3s in a game. It’s now changed hands four times in the last three years, and Houston owns the top three showings.
- The Bucks will be this season’s only 60-win team, reaching the mark for the fifth time in franchise history and first since 1980-81.
- Per Elias Sports Bureau, James Harden scored at least 30 points in 56 games, tying Kobe for most in a single season during the last 30 years.
- Russell Westbrook popped off for another triple-double.
- Rudy Gobert extended the single-season dunk record to 3 bills:
Dunk 3️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ for the Big Fella pic.twitter.com/suL7Pi76kO
— x – Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) April 8, 2019