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There Are No Nights Off When It Comes to NBA Playoffs Seeding

If the Cavs lose the no. 1 seed in the East, blame their defense. If the Spurs fall short of the no. 1 seed in the West, blame injuries. Also, catch Nurk Fever and don’t worry about finding a cure.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The very nature of an “(Enter Name Here) Fever” nickname is rooted in an unpleasant, sweaty symptom, and should always be rejected and replaced with something better, more original, maybe even rhyming! But after Jusuf Nurkic tallied 28 points, 20 rebounds (13 defensive), eight assists, six blocks, and a win, becoming the first since Charles Barkley in 1986 to achieve such a line, we should all gladly open our immune systems to Nurk Fever. It’s not like “the Bosnian Bear” is any better.

In a 114–108 overtime win on Thursday, Nurkic topped his career highs in points, free throws, assists, blocks, rebounds, offensive rebounds, and delicious shade.

In case you missed what he said, here it is again: “I just played minutes for the first time in my life.” The Nuggets are somewhere recovering on two levels: first from the dig, and second from now holding just a half-game lead over the Blazers. Portland is fully infected with Nurk Fever, and it’s gunning for the eighth spot.

Elsewhere in the association on Thursday, three of the four MVP front-runners took to the court. One, Kawhi Leonard, left prematurely after a hit to the head in the third quarter sent him to the locker room. The others, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James, triple-doubled their way into unrivaled performances in their respective games. For Russ, that translated to a win over San Antonio, but LeBron’s 50th career triple-double wasn’t enough for the Cavs to take down the Pistons.

Cleveland has now fallen in three straight — four, if you include the Brock Osweiler trade — and Eastern Conference counterparts Boston and Washington linger just behind them, sitting at two and three games behind, respectively. All the losses came against fringe playoff teams: Miami twice, followed by Detroit. And though the Heat’s recent resurgence is impressive, that doesn’t excuse the Cavs losing to James’s former team twice in a row, even considering Kyle Korver’s absence against Detroit and Kevin Love’s injury. J.R. Smith returned after 36 games, and he was a welcome addition to Cleveland’s rotation, but he accomplished little in his first game back since his thumb injury in late December. He scored three points in 19 minutes, shooting a rusty 1-for-9 from the field, and ending with as many fouls as rebounds: one.

Lately, watching the Cavaliers is like going to dinner and a show, but where the dinner gives you severe heartburn and the Tums were left at home. Despite the exhilaration one gets from watching LeBron James put up 29 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and two steals, or seeing Channing Frye hit 5-of-7 from deep to finish with 15 points and nine rebounds, the defense was as appetizing as it was present — not at all.

Allowing all five Pistons starters to finish in double figures — including Reggie Jackson, who scored 21 points despite his recent slump — is no new story for the Cavaliers. They give up the ninth most points per 100 possessions in the league. In its last 15 games, Cleveland allowed its opponents to score more than 115 points six times, amounting to a defensive rating of 113.4, good for dead last. The reigning champs! Watch out for Boston and Washington, sure, but as the Prophet Juvenile famously once said, watch yourself.

The Spurs are different. Currently in second place in the West, San Antonio is just two games behind the Warriors (who were shaken and held to 86 points on Wednesday by the Celtics). With the top rating in the NBA, defense is not the issue. When San Antonio played Houston, we saw what a team with Kawhi Leonard can be and how it can win after being behind. When they played the Kings, we saw what a team without Kawhi Leonard can be, and how it can win after being behind. Against the Thunder, we saw what a team without Kawhi Leonard can be against Russell Westbrook, and there was no coming back.

As the playoffs approach and seeding remains in flux, the Spurs’ fate largely lies with Leonard and his offense (except against the Kings, apparently). When Leonard left, the Spurs struggled to find the next man up, especially with Wednesday hero Patty Mills playing on a back-to-back and Tony Parker sitting out because of back soreness. Kawhi’s 19 points (in 26 minutes) remained the team high. Westbrook tore through 23 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and two steals to notch his 31st triple-double, tying Wilt Chamberlain for the second most in a single season and crossing the Spurs off his Arya Stark list of teams against whom he hadn’t scored a triple-double. Now, just Charlotte and Chicago remain, and best believe he says their names nightly.

The Spurs face the conference-leading Warriors on Saturday night, getting the chance to shave their deficit to just a game, while the Cavaliers visit Orlando next, an opportunity to get back on track and ward off the Celtics and Wizards. Hopefully San Antonio will be at full strength — pending clearance for Kawhi — so we can watch a potential MVP take on the reigning MVP.