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Utah Moves Into Final West Playoff Spot; Kobe Bryant & Shaq Are Friends Again

Two weeks ago, we pronounced Utah dead, a casualty of a terrible stretch of scheduling and the expected rise of the Lakers. Now? They’ve won six games in a row, and have a half game lead on L.A. for the West’s last playoff spot after taking care of business against Portland last night, 112-102. Al Jefferson (24 points, 10 boards) worked the Blazers over all night long from the box, turning Meyers Leonard into a cone in a practice drill. Jump hooks. Push shots. Pump fakes. Big Al reached underneath his bed and pulled out all the one-on-one moves he’s had stashed away in storage. Add in 18 from Derrick Favors off the pine, and a weirdly great night from Mo Williams (20 points, nine assists) and this one was never in doubt … Damian Lillard set the rookie three-point record last night after making triple No. 167 this year. That prompted the Jazz’s broadcasters to note Randy Foye also has a three-point record this year: the most makes in team history. The previous mark was 129 by Mehmet Okur. Foye already has 162 and counting. That was surprising, in more ways than one … Jamaal Tinsley threw Jeremy Evans a lob in the fourth quarter that nearly skimmed Karl Malone‘s jersey in the rafters. On a mini fast break, he lofted it into the air before Evans had even reached the three-point line. Once they showed the replay, Utah’s broadcaster Matt Harpring sounded like a little kid on Christmas morning … Greg Monroe had 24 points, and in his return to Toronto, Jose Calderon put in 19 points and nine dimes, but it was Detroit’s bench that did the heavy lifting in the fourth quarter to push them past the Raptors, 108-98. Jonas Jerebko had 15 points and six boards, and caught a nasty put-back dunk after a missed Calderon three that basically iced the win with 33.8 seconds left. But Rodney Stuckey was even better, going for 13 of his 18 in the second half with almost every one of them being key shots in the fourth. During one key sequence, he banged a three-pointer, then ripped a rebound away from Toronto, and led a fast break that eventually ended in a Jerebko J … Rudy Gay dropped 34 points on 18 shots … In Atlanta’s 102-94 win over the Kyrie-less Cavs (resting after setting YouTube on fire on Sunday night), a good player disguised himself as Devin Harris and led the ATL charge with 25 points and seven dimes … Luke Walton actually tried to pick a fight with Ivan Johnson last night, shoving him down at one point and getting in his face. Someone put them in a ring together, and allow the use of props (Walton’s Jason-like facemask and Ivan’s grill). What are the chances Walton survives that encounter? … And the debate over whether Kentucky’s freshmen will leave or stay for their sophomore seasons got a little less fuzzy yesterday. Archie Goodwin will enter this summer’s NBA Draft, where he’s projected as a mid-first-round pick … Keep reading to hear about the best April Fools’ joke from yesterday…

While the public at large has their weird ongoing obsession with Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, the sports world has Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Neither relationship has been relevant for, oh, maybe five years, and yet people still can’t skip a chance to talk about them. With O’Neal getting his jersey retired tomorrow night in L.A., Bryant is now saying they’ve grown close enough that he can chide Superman whenever he can about having more rings. That “mutual respect” came out of perspective, and KB went so far as to say he hopes O’Neal gets emotional tomorrow night because he gave the fans some great memories in Los Angeles. Kobe also said this about their breakup: “I had too much talent and too much to showcase. And then there was a challenge issued by him about me not being able to win without him. That’s a challenge I couldn’t pass.” That’s pure Mamba … During Minnesota’s 10-point win over the Celtics, Nikola Pekovic (29 points) ripped Boston’s big men to shreds and then ate the remains. He was single-handedly fouling out their entire frontline, and it was amazing Tommy Heinsohn made it through the night without declaring war on the referees or a bounty on someone’s head … In Memphis, Mike Conley had 23 points and lifted the Grizzlies to a two-point win over San Antonio. Down three in the last minute, the Grizz’s point guard tied it with a triple. Then after Tony Parker (25 points) went one-on-three and took a shot that nearly sent Gregg Popovich over the edge, Conley came back and took Danny Green off the bounce for the game-winner with 0.6 seconds left … In other scores from last night: Milwaukee threw up 131 points on the travesty that is the Charlotte Bobcats, getting at least 19 points from five different players (Jennings, Ellis, Sanders, Ilyasova, Redick) in the win; the Pacers and Roy Hibbert (26 points, 10 rebounds) survived a couple of easy, potentially-tying looks from the Clippers to win 109-106; and even with James Harden sitting out, Omer Asik went to work (22 points, 18 boards) and Houston knocked out the Magic, 111-103 … After basically having his leg get cut in half during Louisville’s march over Duke to get into the Final Four, it appears Kevin Ware is already beating the odds. One of the ‘Ville’s media relations guys said he was up and moving around on crutches yesterday after successful surgery, and then provided the photo evidence … By the way, how many of you were cruising along through Facebook yesterday only to see someone straight up post that GRUESOME photo on your timeline (we won’t even link to it… we’re assuming you know which one we’re talking about)? It happened to us twice and we wanted to throw up, fight and unfriend people all at the same time … Best April Fools’ joke from yesterday? The Cleveland Plain-Dealer printed a full-spread story with the headline: “LeBron Re-Signs With Cavs.” How many casual basketball fans do you think they got with that one? We say casual because hopefully the real fans realize it’s April … We’re out like Walton vs. Ivan.

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