SALT LAKE CITY – There were mixed, pointed and honest feelings emanating from the visitor’s locker room in Utah Tuesday night where the Nuggets’ postseason picture became clearer.

There was momentary relief and excitement after Gary Harris and Torrey Craig huddled around this reporter’s phone to watch the thrilling end of Houston at Oklahoma City. When the Thunder’s Paul George buried a 3-pointer from the corner with one second left to put the Thunder up 112-111, Nuggets forward Paul Millsap celebrated, and Harris, who heard the commotion, came over to watch Houston’s final possession.

Cameramen waited patiently for their postgame interviews, cognizant that the outcome of the Thunder-Rockets would determine the mood.

MVP candidate James Harden collected the pass, George flew by him at the top of the key as he tried to recover and the Rockets’ superstar hit front rim as the Thunder – and the few Nuggets in the locker room – celebrated.

Not that any of the minute details were discernible on the small screen of my IPhone X.

What was clear was that the Rockets’ loss had partially made up for the Nuggets’ underwhelming showing in Utah, where Denver has now lost nine consecutive times. Houston’s loss gave the Nuggets control again; a win Wednesday at home against Minnesota gives Denver the No. 2 seed.

If everything else breaks for the Nuggets – the Trail Blazers won on a buzzer-beater to down the Lakers and have one game left against the Kings – Denver could find itself the No. 2 seed, followed by the Blazers at No. 3 and the Rockets at No. 4. All the hand-wringing about Sunday’s perplexing loss to Portland would likely fall by the wayside.

But inside a locker room where players queried reporters about potential seeding and scenarios, there was one slightly more subdued and sober voice.

It was Will Barton, who while happy with the outcome of the Rockets-Thunder game, took a more measured, seasoned tone in the immediate aftermath of Denver’s 118-108 loss.

“To me, (playing well) is more important than anything because like I said, you’ve seen teams in previous years fight for seeds and thought that was going to do something for them and they lost,” said Barton, after taking just three shots in 20-plus minutes and not scoring. “I don’t feel like we’re at any liberty to be trying to pick who we’re playing against or pick the seed because if we go out there and we’re not playing the right way, anybody can beat us. But if we’re playing the right way, we can beat anybody.”

Barton’s no sucker. He wasn’t going to be lulled into any false sense of security just because the Rockets lost, potentially giving the Nuggets a favorable matchup.

“Do you want homecourt advantage?” he continued, “Of course you do. At this point right now, we know the playoff teams. It doesn’t matter, it’s going to be tough regardless. This is the playoffs. You think you’re just gonna go in there, ‘Hey, I want to play those guys.’ You think they’re gonna come out and ‘They wanted to play us, so we’re going to lay down.’ No, it doesn’t go that way.”

Barton, a veteran of just seven playoff games when he was with Portland during the 2014 playoffs, said he would lend advice about what to expect in the playoffs to anyone who asked, but he added a cautionary line.

“I try to lend my advice but we’re going to have to go through some things,” Barton said.

The Nuggets were far from their best Tuesday night. Their offense was thrown out of whack as a result of Nikola Jokic, their bedrock facilitator, fouling out in just 16 minutes with just 2 points. Millsap (5 points on 1-of-7 shooting) wasn’t much better. The only effective frontcourt player was Mason Plumlee, who flirted with a triple-double as a result of Joker’s foul trouble.

Interestingly, it was Jamal Murray (22 points) and reserve guards Monte Morris (22) and Malik Beasley (25), who collectively have zero playoff experience, who kept the Nuggets competitive.

It was under that backdrop that Barton was asked whether the Nuggets were prepared for the postseason.

“I don’t know,” Barton said. “We’re going to find out when it starts. Only thing we can do is try to close this thing out right against Minnesota tomorrow and have some type of positive momentum going in. But we won’t know until it starts. Because you’ve watched the league, I’ve seen teams go into the playoffs on winning streaks and get swept. I’ve seen teams looking like it’s the end of the world and go out and win the first round. We’re not going to know until we find out.”

The value of coaches as great teachers has probably never been higher than it is in the distracted world we live in today.  Colleague Dave Siroty penned this piece on Seton Hall’s  longtime baseball skipper Mike Sheppard, who passed away this past week. “Shep” along with a handful of other coaches like the late Rutgers Skipper Fred Hill Sr. helped grow and shape college baseball, a forgotten stepchild in most parts of the Northeast, into a national power for over a quarter century.

Dave authored a book on four of Shep’s stars,The Hit Men and the Kid Who Batted Ninth: Biggio, Valentin, Vaughn & Robinson: Together Again in the Big Leagues,” and also is working on Jamspals, a site that pairs kids injured in athletics with college and professional athletes who have overcome injury, an idea that came from his son Michael.  Dave worked closely with Seton Hall baseball during his time in the  athletic department there, and got to see Shep’s work up close. Here are his thoughts…

 

All of us in athletics have come across coaches who have changed our lives. Not because of their winning and fame, but because they taught us a lot even though we didn’t play for them. Even though we were colleagues, we couldn’t help but learn from them.

One of those people in my life was Mike Sheppard, Sr., the head baseball coach for many years at Seton Hall University. He spent his entire life as part of Seton Hall and his family is as tied to the school as any could be.
Shep passed away this weekend and we lost a guy who defined the word, “coach.”
I was fortunate enough to work with Shep for several years, including the 1987 baseball season when he produced one of the all-time great college teams led by eventual baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, American League MVP Mo Vaughn, Red Sox/Mets infielder John Valentin, Red Sox pitcher Kevin Morton, longtime Blue Jays exec Dana Brown and Marteese Robinson, who that year led the nation in hitting at a ridiculous .529.
I was a really young sports information director back then with basketball in my blood. It’s really all I cared about so I sometimes clashed with Shep because of his hard-charging style and demand for perfection. He would yell at me from the dugout if I missed putting up a strike on the scoreboard, he would get upset if his baseball media guide was delayed or anything else that he deemed hurt his program.
And it was definitely hard to end exhausting academic years with even longer days and weekends of often bone-chilling cold Northeastern baseball – including bus trips, hours of pre-game batting practice and even longer games followed by media relations, statistics and everything else I had to do.
Fortunately I got to know Shep much better over the years  including on those long bus rides. I later wrote a book about the 1987 team and got even closer to him. We talked often  as I traced the lives of his players back to the lessons they learned from their coach.
Passion and loyalty. Those words defined Shep. He lived for baseball. He lived for his players. He lived for all of the athletes and students at Seton Hall.
He was a walking “life lessons” kind of guy and his “never lose your hustle” mantra has been carried on by everyone who was ever  been around him.
He taught me that if you are going to do something, do it right. I watched him teach it. It rubbed off on me.
He was also the most loyal person I’ve ever met and everyone involved in his baseball program became part of his family. and his pride he took in those around him.
One of best memories I have of Shep came when Craig Biggio was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I talked a lot to Shep back then and his excitement was obviously off the charts.  He was just so proud and his tears, smiles, laughter and memories of what he had accomplished in his life were brought to the forefront. And watching Craig include Shep in the entire process was amazing.
Obviously a lot in society has changed since the late ’80s and we have all adapted to new styles of communicating and behavior. Shep was definitely old-school. But as we look back at his life, we should all realize people like him are so critically important to society.
The mold us, guide us and spend their days teaching us lessons. He changed so many lives including mine.
Shep was a special guy and will be missed. RIP #17.

The menswear category around athletes and coaches has always been a hidden gem, and more and more brands are looking to find their way in, especially with fun and disruption. One of the more creative in the past year has been Mizzen+Main, and as they approach the one year anniversary of their viral win dressing Phil Mickelson for The Masters, they are back with another strike as the popular veteran heads to Augusta this week.

For those who haven’t followed that closely Mizzen+Main has ridden the right mix of social storytelling and brand spending to grow their presence not just in golf, a sweet spot for the brand, but outside as well.

During March Madness, the brand was one of several outfitters that jumped on Arizona coach Archie Miller and his profuse sweating, but they took it one step further by releasing their   “Sweat 16,” selecting the most sweaty coaches in the field, among them Auburn’s Bruce  Pearl and new Texas A&M head coach Buzz Williams. Pearl received the most support among the more than 7,000 votes cast and will receive a tongue-in-cheek first place trophy in honor of his win, as well as the opportunity for a “closet takeover” from Mizzen+Main.

That came on the heels of an expansion into football, signing two sport star Kyler Murray to a deal that should pay dividends at the NFL Draft and beyond, and getting support from Texans star JJ Watt, who has been active on social and is an investor in the brand.

But back to this week, Mizzen+Main will look to open their Mickelson endorsement window even wider by releasing his Masters look in advance for the first time, not just with his four shirts that he will wear  but by adding in fifth shirt for calf exercises. Phil’s calves have been the talk of the golf community ever since he wore shorts in one of his training videos. It is a smart, disruptive, and frankly fun partnership that golf continues to need to get into wider and casual conversations, and doing it during that window between the end of March Madness and the start of play at Augusta makes a lot of sense.

Nice way to cut through the clutter in April, with a household name and a brand willing to take a nontraditional shot.

Every morning, we compile the links of the day and dump them here… highlighting the big storyline. Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good morning dump.

The Celtics released their injury report today and seven players have been ruled out. Aron Baynes and Gordon Hayward are officially listed as out with left ankle soreness. Al Horford is out with left knee soreness. Kyrie Irving is out with a right knee contusion. Marcus Morris is officially listed as having right patellar tendinopathy, which is what Al Horford has been dealing with in his left knee. Jayson Tatum is out with the shin contusion that shelved him yesterday and Marcus Smart is out with the left oblique contusion.

MassLive

It’s a slow, sllloooowwwww newsday here in Celtics-land. A season that started off with so much promise is whimpering to its disappointing conclusion tonight. There will be at least 48 minutes of contractually obligated basketball between two teams that came into the season with high hopes, and which have woefully underachieved.

The Wizards are three years removed from dreaming of Kevin Durant (even going so far as to hire his ex-coach from the Thunder), and two years removed from a 49-33 campaign that featured some feisty battles with the previous incarnation of the Celtics. They’re a lottery team this year–and not even a high lottery team. They’ve reverted back to that unsalted oatmeal blandness, that unremarkable mediocrity that seems to be their natural habitat.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have few excuses for a season that was five years in the making. Beginning with the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade and the Brad Stevens hire in 2013, the Celtics front office spent four years assembling a team designed to win championships and a fifth year waiting for players to heal. Suffice to say, this season was supposed to turn out very different. Sure, back in October we all hoped that the team would be resting a ton of players in the 82nd game of the season, but, we hoped, that would be due to the Celtics having locked up home court advantage all the way through the finals.

Not the current scenario–wherein the Celtics have locked up home court advantage only against the rapidly disintegrating Pacers.

Well, at least it’s a brand new season once the playoffs start–everyone’s going to be 0-0 again. Hopefully the team will spend the balance of this week doing whatever is necessary to scrape the last bits of the regular season off of their shoes.

Page 2: Where everybody’s saying the right things again

While Al Horford said he wouldn’t read anything too deep into what went on when the dressing room remained closed beyond the NBA-allotted cooling off period that night, Morris believes some good emerged.

“I think there were some understandings reached,” he said. “I mean, hey, man, we’ve just got a lot of players on this team. That’s just it. I don’t think no team in the NBA has this many guys that can do multiple things. So that’s what we clashed at during the season, but from here on out, man, it’s about winning. And I think everybody’s clear about that.”

Boston Herald

The Celtics’ bouts of crappy play this season have come in two distinct flavors: The first features individual players griping and complaining in the aftermath of disappointing losses, the second features individual players saying the right things and trying to keep it positive. This last crappy stretch–the team’s 5-6 over its last 11 games–has featured tons of up-beat chatter. ‘We’re saving ourselves for the playoffs’ was the unuttered subtext to the rather obvious clash between the team’s apparent self-confidence and disappointing results.

Well, the playoffs are here now. Time for these guys to put up or shut up.

Finally: I’m not going to dignify Stephen A.’s comments with a response.

Seriously. Go look them up yourself if you feel like wasting some of your finite time on this beautiful planet on the ravings of a lunatic.

The rest of the links

NBC Sports: What can Brown do? Get buckets in the 4th (Psst: I think UPS stopped using that slogan years ago) | Celtics hopeful Smart is ready for Game 1 | Celtics Q&A: Marcus Smart on dodgeball domination and playoff confidence

In a nutshell:

Most of the regular rotation guys took the night off while Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and company got some run to cap off an emotionally taxing regular season. Boston had seven players score in double figures: Rozier (21), Ojeleye (17), Hunter (17), Wanamaker (17), Brown (15), Yabusele (13), and Dozier (12). Final score: 116-110

What went right: 

-After trailing by 21 early, Boston narrowed the deficit to a single point by the half. The first 24 minutes were fairly uncompetitive by NBA standards, but it was nice to see Jaylen Brown (12 first half pts) find his rhythm while Terry Rozier (15 first half pts) knocked down the exact type of reckless shots you would expect him to take in a game like this.

-RJ Hunter put the team on his back for a stretch with some great shooting and even a nifty assist to find Semi Ojeleye at the rim.

-Of all the guys to step up, Brad Wanamaker and Semi Ojeleye’s quality minutes are probably the best possible outcome in this game given that they might actually play some spot minutes in the playoffs. Boston likes to use Ojeleye against Milwaukee, who they could face in the second round.

-I, for one, am happy this regular season is over. Let us never speak of it again.

What went wrong: 

-I’m not sure this section of the recap is needed for this type of game, but whatever. As it turns out, Boston’s bench squad (plus Rozier and Brown) don’t have the defensive fortitude to deal with Bradley Beal, who boosted the Wizards to an early 21 point lead (that didn’t last).

-The second half started off like the first, as Washington’s lead ballooned to double digits quickly. Robert Williams, whose fantastic instincts were on display tonight, still got cooked in the pick-and-roll. For a guy with such quick reflexes, he’s awfully non-committal when it comes to defensive plays that don’t involve blocking a shot. I have faith he’ll acclimate to the NBA because he’s already got a great feel for the game, but it’s important to note that his defensive deficiencies are most noticeable when dealing with the all-important pick-and-roll.

What the hell: 

It remains a mystery why this game was nationally televised instead of Dwyane Wade’s final game. Oh, and Magic Johnson quit in the middle of today’s NBA action. Weird times we live in.

Highlights:

box score

Every morning, we compile the links of the day and dump them here… highlighting the big storyline. Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good morning dump.

Smart’s injury appeared to be more serious. Initially reported as a hip contusion, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Smart had suffered an oblique strain. After the game, Stevens said that was not the case.

“Marcus Smart has an oblique bruise, which means he got hit right there,” Stevens explained “I guess that’s better than a — I don’t know whether it would be called, a strain or whatever, but we’ll see what that looks like tomorrow. He was a little sore but was walking around, which was good, in the locker room.”

Smart clearly collided with Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, and there was a delayed reaction before he went down to the floor. He initially came back into the game, but then signaled for a substitution and fell the floor again.

“Art (Horne, the Celtics trainer) went over and talked to him and Smart said he was fine; said he was good to go back,” Stevens said. “Ran up the court once, ran back down the court, an obviously it — he felt like it was spasming on the second trip down the court, so, obviously Art talked to him and Smart said he was fine.”

Mass Live

For a meaningless game, this one had a lot of drama. As far as Smart’s injury, the difference between a bruise and a strain can be a few weeks of recovery

With Game 1 vs Indy set for (reportedly) Sunday, Smart has a week to rest and should be fine.

Exhale.

Jayson Tatum’s shin “injury” seems like much ado about nothing. Heck, Stevens didn’t know it was a pre-existing condition:

“Tatum had a shin contusion that evidently he had before the game, and I didn’t know about it,” Stevens explained. “He just said it felt a little off when he jumped, so, you know, hopefully it’s nothing major but we’ll get it checked out tonight and tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”

Stevens caught some flak on social media for running some guys (Kyrie, Gordon) deep in the final quarter of a meaningless game, but, always, there’s logic behind his decisions:

“The point of tonight was to try to — because we probably won’t play ’till Saturday, maybe Sunday, was to get a true, kind-of, game for some of our starters and our top seven or eight guys,” Brad Stevens explained after the game.

Looking forward to watching PJ Dozier and RJ Hunter play a lot Tuesday night vs Washington.

On Page 2, the Pacers are fading…

Would the Celtics rather play the Nets or the Magic or even the Pistons in the first round over a hobbled Pacers club that is 21-21 since Victor Oladipo sustained a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 6?

What’s more, just four of the Pacers’ 21 wins were against teams with winning records.

Indiana hung in there in the Eastern Conference by its strong early start and then devoured a bunch of cupcakes in the second half of the season.

The Celtics, meanwhile, won five of their past seven games, including a pair of wins over the Pacers and Heat. They seemed to approach the form they were expected to when the season began and even played an inspired fourth quarter to rally from a 14-point deficit to tie the Magic at 106 before Orlando responded with a couple of key baskets in the waning minutes to pull away.

Globe

Are we feeling confident? For this series, yes. I think Boston will win in 5.

An emerging Gordon Hayward (fingers crossed) and the Pacers poor play (lost 10 of last 15 games) give me confidence.

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Over the last ten years, three #4 seeds in the East have advanced to the conference finals or more:

2018: Cleveland – Lost in the NBA Finals to Golden State.

2012: Boston – Lost in the Eastern Conference finals to Miami.

2010: Boston – Lost in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The rest of the links

Globe – Jaylen Brown back in business

Herald – Cs suffer painful loss after clinching 4th seed

NBC – Positive takeaways from loss to Magic