NBA power rankings, where the Magic almost pass the Cavs. Almost.

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It is your penultimate NBA Rankings. Then in a couple weeks we dispense with these thing and start a playoffs to determine who is best. As God intended. Yes, college football, I’m looking at you.

1. Cavaliers (60-17) We all feel like Cleveland did for the first three quarters in Boston Sunday, “Are the playoffs here yet?” Let’s just get to the Cavs and Magic Eastern Conference Finals.

2. Magic (54-23) Name the only team in the league to beat each of the other 29 teams at least once? They are playing as well as anyone right now.

3. Lakers (55-22) I hate having the Lakers ranked third. Hate it because they don’t deserve it. They dropped three of four last week. But then I look around the West and think, “Who can beat them in a best of seven?” And so here were are.

4. Spurs (47-29) They beat the Lakers and the Magic in the same week. Matt is right, the Spurs may want the Lakers in the first round, best chance of the upset

5. Suns (50-27) Let the parade of 50-27 teams begin — there are four in the West. Just five games left for them to shake out the seedings.  

6. Hawks (49-27) Joe Johnson being out for two games doesn’t help. Avoiding the Bucks in the first round not as big a priority now, but avoiding Cleveland in the second round should be.

7. Heat (43-34) Eight wins in a row for the Heat moves them up the rankings, and with Wade it makes them the new team Atlanta and Boston may want to avoid in the first round.  

8. Nuggets (50-27) With Kenyon Martin, they are contenders in the West. Without…. Not so much.

9. Mavericks (50-27) Everyone asks what happened to Caron Butler, but I want to know what happened to the Maverick’s defense? It’s been terrible, inside and out. They are fouling a lot, on top of everything else, and are 5-5 in their last 10.

10. Jazz (50-27) They’ve beaten everybody in front of them. Except the Lakers when LA was rested and focused.

11. Blazers (47-30) Greg Oden decision time is coming.

12. Celtics (48-28) Ray Allen is starting to step up his game for the playoffs. He and Rondo may have to carry this team on offense in the playoffs, Pierce is just not the player he was two years ago.

13. Thunder (48-28) I love to watch Russell Westbrook play. Makes me wish Ben Howland didn’t put him in such a tight box in college, the guy needs to run free.

14. Bucks (42-34) Ouch. Just, ouch.

15. Bobcats (40-36) We’d be screaming “playoff sleeper alert, look for upset” if they weren’t likely to get Orlando in the first round. Still a tough out for the Magic.

16. Bulls (37-39) One game back of Toronto (two, really, with the tiebreak), the game Sunday night becomes huge. But Bulls are looking like a playoff team now that they are healthy.

17. Raptors (38-38) It would be four wins in a row if Chris Bosh hit that layup. That is a kick in the gut for a team trying to stay in the playoffs.  

18. Grizzlies (39-37) A few injuries, a slow start, a lot of blown leads and you have a team that should be in the playoffs looking in from the outside.

19. Pacers (29-48) Indiana is 7-3 in its last 10 — way to play yourselves out of the lottery odds. Well done.

20. Warriors (23-53) Congratulations to Nellie. This team is playing for him to get the record, 5-5 in their last 10. And a few cupcakes ahead (as much as any team is a cupcake if you have 23 wins).

21. Rockets (38-38) What happened to the Rockets commitment to defense?

22. Hornets (35-43) Chris Paul comes back and they drop five of seven. That is a team that has packed it in for the year.

23. Knicks (27-49) David Lee is putting up monster numbers. But yes, by all means, let him go so you can bring in more guys from the outside in the next couple years.

24. Knicks (27-49) David Lee is putting up monster numbers. But
yes, by all means, let him go so you can bring in more guys from the
outside in the next couple years.

25. Sixers (26-50) Donovan McNabb is traded, the Phillies start their season. Fortunately, the fine folks of Philadelphia don’t have to pay attention to the Sixers anymore. If they still were.

26. Clippers (27-50) There is no timeline for the Clippers to screw up the selection of their next coach.

27. Wizards (23-53) At least they broke the losing streak.

28. Nets (11-66) They went 2-2 last week. For the good of the franchise, they are lucky there is no way they can catch the Timberwolves.

29. Pistons (23-53) That is 11 losses in a row, currently the worst streak in the NBA. They are trying to finish the year on the bottom.

30. Timberwolves (15-62) Trying to come up with a reason to move them up… nope. Nothing good.

Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari trade halfcourt buzzer-beaters (video)

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Warriors star Stephen Curry drained a halfcourt shot to end the first quarter. Not to be outdone, Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari hit a halfcourt shot to end the second quarter.

I’m just marveling how much less of a heave Curry’s shot was, even if it was slightly closer. His range is incredible.

Golden State won, 134-127, behind 44 points from Curry.

Report: Markelle Fultz, Kyle Kuzma among NBA players who received agency money while in school

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Details are emerging in the FBI’s probe into college basketball – specifically how former NBA agent Andy Miller distributed money (through college coaches) to players, i.e., potential clients.

Pat Forde and Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports:

An ASM balance sheet in the hands of federal investigators shows accounts through Dec. 31, 2015, with the subheading, “Loan to Players.” It listed several who were in high school or college as receiving four-figure and five-figure payments from ASM Sports. Among the largest listed loans:

  • Dennis Smith, who would go on to play at North Carolina State in 2016-17, received $43,500 according to the documents. Another document headed “Pina,” for ASM agent Stephen Pina, says Smith received a total of $73,500 in loans, and includes notes about “options to recoup the money” when Smith did not sign with ASM.
  • Isaiah Whitehead, at the time a freshman at Seton Hall, received $26,136 according to the documents. The “Pina” document says Whitehead received $37,657 and was “setting up payment plan.” Whitehead signed with ASM but later left the agency for Roc Nation.
  • Tim Quarterman, at the time a junior at LSU, received at least $16,000 according to the balance sheet.
  • Diamond Stone, at the time a freshman at Maryland, received $14,303 according to the documents.
  • A listing that refers to “BAM” for $12,000 is later identified in the documents as Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, who would go on to play at Kentucky in 2016-17. He did not sign with ASM. There’s a later reference to Adebayo that says he received $36,500. “Bad loan,” reads the document.
  • Markelle Fultz, who would go on to play at Washington and become the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, received $10,000 according to the documents. He did not sign with ASM.

Former Utah star Kyle Kuzma received at least $9,500 while in school, according to the documents.

Former Wichita State player Fred VanVleet. Documents show he received at least $1,000.

Apples Jones, the mother of former Kansas player Josh Jackson, received $2,700 according to documents.

Images attached to the article also show more NBA players, dating quite far back.

My simple reaction: Good for these players. They have a marketable skill, and they deserved to be compensated by the open market for it. It’s a shame the NCAA’s cartel system prevented that.

As Kevin Pelton of ESPN put so well:

Big nights for Ben Simmons (32 points), Joel Embiid good sign for Sixers

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It was a dramatic win — because Philadelphia’s two best players stepped up.

Down one with eight seconds left and Chicago having the ball, Joel Embiid forced a turnover, Ben Simmons scooped up the ball and was fouled, then drained a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play and the Sixers got their sixth straight victory, 116-115.

It wasn’t just that play. Simmons had a career-high 32 points, along with 11 assists and eight rebounds, while Joel Embiid had 30 points and 13 rebounds. Coach Brett Brown said after the game the pair carried Philly on the night — and the Sixers are going to need more of that to end their playoff drought.

Check out their highlights above.

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook was clutch; Curry was vintage Curry

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The NBA is back, and every day around the league there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook rescues Thunder with game-winner vs. Kings. It wasn’t just averaging a triple-double for a season, when it came time to vote for MVP last season one of the reasons Russell Westbrook came out on top was how clutch he had been. He hadn’t just willed his team into games they probably should have lost, he got them the wins — in the final three minutes of games within three points last season (something that happened 32 times for the Thunder), Westbrook averaged 4.4 points scored (best in the NBA of anyone who played in more than five such games) and shot 38.7 percent from three.

That Westbrook was back on Thursday. With the game tied 107-107 and one second left, the Thunder ran an out-of-bounds play where Westbrook got surprisingly open coming off a double screen and had room for a clean look catch-and-shoot three. Do we need to tell you what happened?

OKC needs the wins for playoff seeding through its final 22 games — the Thunder are now just 1.5 games out of being the three seed in the West, or 2.5 games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. The West is that bunched up. They should make the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com gives them an 89 percent chance of being in) but where they fall will determine how tough a run through the playoffs they will face.

2) Stephen Curry was hitting Stephen Curry shots, drops 44 on Clippers. If Stephen Curry’s shot chart looks like this, it’s going to be a long night for the opposition.

Curry had 44 points on 19 shots and just could not seem to miss, even nailing a buzzer-beater from the center-court logo.

Credit the Clippers here, who put up points (22 from Tobias Harris) and made this a contest, falling 134-127. Los Angeles is fighting for a spot in the playoffs (they are currently one game back of New Orleans for the eight spot) and have found ways all season despite a rash of injuries and Blake Griffin being traded. They should be appreciated for their play this season. There’s just not much you can do when Curry and the Warriors are going off.

3) New look Cavaliers suffer first loss, fall to Wizards. The newfound energy was there in Cleveland. LeBron James was playing at an MVP level. The versatility of the new-look Cavaliers roster was on full display.

Cleveland just couldn’t shoot Thursday night. To be more specific, Cavaliers not named LeBron James (32 points on 18 shots) couldn’t buy a bucket. Cleveland was 8-of-35 from three and in the final nine minutes of the game the non-LeBrons were 0-of-10 shooting. The Wizards went small and were +17 with that lineup as the Cavs had no answers (the lineup was Bradley Beal, Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris). The Wizards got the win 110-103.

Cleveland can chalk this up to an off night, and it was. It was also a reminder of why this Cleveland team isn’t as good as a year ago — they don’t have a reliable second shot creator and scorer who can just get buckets and lift the team up. Kyrie Irving is an elite scorer, but he’s in Boston. George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and the new guys are not on that level. Some nights that will be an issue.

The Wizards are now 8-2 since John Wall went down and are scoring 4.2 points per 100 possessions above their season average in that stretch. The ball is moving and the players are moving off it, Beal has been brilliant, Satoransky has stepped up, and the Wizards are securing their spot in the top half of the East. When Wall returns he has to figure out how to fit in with this offensive style, not come in and dominate it with the ball in his hands.

The Wizards need more wins like this as they enter a tough stretch of their schedule (14 of the next 16 are against teams currently in the playoffs).