Despite some shooting struggles, former Duke star Kyrie Irving has been a strong contributor to the ...

Duke in the NBA: Irving, Cavaliers cling to top seed in the East with the postseason approaching

Several former Blue Devils are already readying for the playoffs heading into the last week of the regular season.

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

One of the biggest storylines in the NBA in 2017 has been the struggles of Irving’s Cavaliers, who are suddenly struggling to hold off the surging Boston Celtics for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Irving has been one of the few constants for the team, averaging more points in the last month than the rest of the season and recording two 40-plus point games during that stretch as well. His eight-point effort against San Antonio last week was the first time he failed to reach double figures since November.

Besides his offensive output, Irving has also been a key spark for the Cavaliers as of late as they try to ramp up their play in anticipation of the playoffs. In the midst of a 17-point win against the 76ers last week, Irving took exception to what he felt was a dirty play by Philadelphia’s Justin Anderson on star teammate LeBron James. The next time Anderson had the ball, Irving retaliated by shoving the second-year forward from the University of Virginia into the first row of seats. 

Although he picked up a flagrant foul for the play, the Cavaliers responded with a blowout win to snap a three-game losing streak. With some analysts beginning to question whether Cleveland will still make the NBA finals for the third year in a row, Irving will need to be that same spark heading into the postseason.

J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers already in the playoffs for the sixth year in a row, Redick and his teammates are now just trying to improve their seeding in the deep Western Conference. Sitting in fifth place, the Clippers have a chance at leapfrogging the Jazz to get home-court advantage in the first round, but will most likely start the playoffs on the road in Salt Lake City. With just a week left in the season, Redick’s play will be critical if the Clippers want to have their best chance at moving past the first round after exiting early a season ago. 

The veteran shooting guard is averaging nearly 18 points per game in his last nine contests and is shooting 51.5 percent from the field in that span, better than his 44.6 percent season average. The former Duke standout exploded for 31 points in last week’s win against the surging Washington Wizards, part of a stretch in which the Clippers won seven of nine after a three-game losing streak in mid-March.

Redick also made headlines this past week after North Carolina won the national championship, voicing his opinion on compensation for college athletes. After congratulating the Tar Heels on winning their sixth title, he added that the players deserved to be paid and that “scholarships don’t count,” echoing other big names in college basketball like ESPN analyst and former Blue Devil Jay Bilas.

Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks

With the Mavericks now mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, Curry’s fourth professional campaign will wrap up in just a week in Memphis. But although the end of the season may be disappointing for some Mavericks fans, it marks the completion of Curry’s best year yet in the NBA. The point guard has nearly doubled his points and assists per game from a season ago, sitting at 12.8 and 2.7 now, respectively. At 29 minutes per game, he has also nearly doubled his playing time. And though he may never escape the shadow of his brother Stephen, his field-goal and 3-point percentages are actually better than those of the two-time reigning MVP.

Although Dallas failed to make the playoffs this season, its future looks bright with Curry in the fold. He ranks near the top of the league in isolation scoring offense and defense, and runs the pick-and-roll more efficiently than almost any other guard in the NBA. Some aspects of his game, particularly his passing, could definitely be improved, but he represents a potent attack for the Mavericks and a bright outlook at the guard position heading into the summer.

Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

As they fight to hold off the Clippers and maintain the No. 4 seed in the West, the Jazz need all hands on deck, and Rodney Hood is no exception. The third-year guard is playing through knee pain down the stretch, hoping to bring the Jazz some form of respite by clinching home-court advantage in the first round. Hood has struggled with injuries at various points of the season, but after missing Tuesday’s game against the Blazers, he said he wants to play through persistent pain rather than sit out another game. 

The Jazz have a tough slate of games to end the season, playing Portland and Golden State on the road before returning home to host the Spurs in their season finale. Although it is likely that stars on the Warriors and Spurs will be resting up for the playoffs, the Jazz still need to take care of business to ensure they hold onto their current seed.

Despite playing limited minutes, Hood has managed to record double figures in scoring in three of his last four games. The Jazz have benefitted greatly from his presence this season, especially since they have been decimated by a slew of injuries—their best starting lineup has only played together 13 times this year. With Hood back in the mix, even performing below his max capacity, the Jazz hope to make a splash in their first postseason appearance since 2012.

Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets

The middle Plumlee brother is fighting to keep his and the rest of the Nuggets’ season alive as they linger just outside the playoff picture in the West. Ironically, it is Plumlee’s former team, the Trail Blazers, who stand in the way of Denver’s first playoff appearance since 2013. The Trail Blazers traded Plumlee to the Nuggets in February for Jusuf Nurkic, when they sat a game behind Denver. Now, with just a week left in the season, the two teams’ seeds have flipped. 

Plumlee has been a valuable asset for the Nuggets down the stretch, averaging nearly nine points and seven rebounds per game since they acquired him. Nurkic provided a spark for Portland, which went 14-6 with him in the lineup, but then went down with a leg injury and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season.

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers

In the last week, Sean Obi and Chase Jeter’s decisions to transfer, coupled with unfounded rumors that Marques Bolden might leave the program as well, caused some to question anew whether Duke is a good school for big men and post players. Many conversations on the subject shifted to Okafor, now in his second professional season with the 76ers. Okafor has been a solid, if unimpressive, center for the Sixers, and has struggled with injuries and a logjam at the center position in Philadelphia. 

Last week, it was announced that he would miss the remainder of the season due to a sore right knee. He averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 50 games this season, both way down from his season averages last year. Even with Nerlens Noel gone, there is already some talk brewing about the 76ers dealing Okafor as well in the offseason.

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