NBA Power Rankings, where that Lakers/Heat finals seems a long ways away

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings. Right now the top four teams on this list are playing the best basketball, but if the playoffs started today I’d pick teams 5 and 6 to meet in the finals. However, this is November, so we’ll worry about the playoffs later.

1. Spurs (14-2). They were down 17 at half to the Hornets Sunday when Gregg Popovich went small — Richard Jefferson at the four, Duncan at the five — and the team just ran and pressured. It worked and the Spurs beat a very good team. I don’t think the Spurs or Popovich could have done this a year ago. Things are different on the Riverwalk.

2. Magic (12-4). They are playing as well as anyone in November, but apparently Orlando management is not convinced they can do the same thing in May.

3. Mavericks (12-4). Five wins in a row, plus they had the Heat bumping into each other and sent them into a team meeting. All that and they get Roddy Beaubois back in a month, instantly become much more dynamic.

4. Jazz (13-5). Also five wins in a row. And another big comeback, this one against the Lakers. Apparently LA forgot to read the scouting report.

5. Celtics (12-4). The loss of Delonte West will hurt this team as it means more of the streaky Nate Robinson. Meanwhile Shaq says this is the best team he has ever been on, and he would never say something just to needle and old team. Nope, not him. Never.

6. Lakers (13-4). Two losses this weeks sends them a few steps down. They really need Andrew Bynum back so they can win some games at the defensive end of the floor.

7. Hornets (12-4). A 1-3 week, but you knew they were coming back to earth eventually. Games this week against the Thunder and Spurs will start to give you a sense of exactly where this team stands.

8. Hawks (11-7). Three wins in a row, including looking good beating Toronto Sunday, and they creep up the standings a little. But if they don’t start beating teams with winning records (they have yet to do that) they will fall.

9. Thunder (11-6). They could have had a bigger week, but Kevin Durant missed a couple game winners. The moral of that story — this is why you want to blow teams out and not be in close games. There’s a reason the best teams win a lot of games big.

10. Nuggets (10-6). The Nuggets have won four in a row and they did it without Chauncey Billups in a couple and Carmelo Anthony in the last one. This team is pretty good.

11. Bulls (9-6). The Bulls went 4-3 on their annual circus trip, and they still have yet to get Boozer back in the fold.

12. Pacers (8-7). They beat the Lakers and Heat this week with defense. That may be sentence I least expected to type this season.

13. Heat (9-8). They have a better scoring differential than many of the teams above them, but when faced with good defense they become stagnant on offense. The questions this week about the return to Cleveland may be a welcome break from the questions about team friction with coach Erik Spoelstra.

14. Blazers (8-8). The Blazers offense is struggling with a hobbled Brandon Roy not able to create shots as well. This may become more Andre Miller’s team soon, if it hasn’t already.

15. Knicks (9-9). The record says they are average, but that feels like a big step forward. Soft schedule this week may see them climb farther up the rankings.

16. Suns (8-9). They have got to find a way to get more of a defensive presence in the paint and grab more boards.

17. Warriors (8-9). David Lee returned and the Warriors are 7-2 when he plays. They can’t keep up that pace, but with him they may be a playoff team.

18. Cavaliers (7-9). LeBron returns to Quicken Loan Arena this week, time to laugh?

19. Grizzlies (7-10). Xavier Henry starts, OJ Mayo comes off the bench and they win three in a row. We’re not sold that was the reason, but wins are wins.

20. Bucks (6-10). Look at their point differential and this looks like a .500 team, but when you have the worst offense in basketball (looking at points per possession) you lose a lot of games you should win.

21. Bobcats (6-11). What happened to the Bobcats dominating defense from last season? Did Tyson Chandler’s 51 games mean that much?

22. Raptors (6-11). Losing Reggie Evans is really going to hurt this team, it will be hard to stay up this high (which isn’t that high) in the rankings the coming weeks.

23. Pistons (6-11). Looking for a silver lining? The Pistons only turn the ball over on 14.4 percent of their possessions, fourth lowest rate in the league.

24. Nets (6-11). They beat the struggling Blazers. They beat the Hawks. Then they turn around and loose to the Sixers. Inconsistency, my old friend.

25. Rockets (5-11). They get a nice win against the Thunder, but now get the Mavericks and Lakers. Tough road without Yao or Aaron Brooks.

26. Wizards (5-10). The Wizards need to play a lot of John Wall to get him acclimated to the NBA game, but they looked a little better when he was out for five games.

27. Sixers (4-13). This team cannot win a close game to save their season.

28. Clippers (3-15). Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon make this team watchable, but until they are consistent on defense the will not win much. They need more D like they showed against the Hornets a week ago.

29. Kings (4-11). Tyreke Evans is shooting 38.5 percent overall and 10 percent from three in the last 10 games. Not a good sign for the Kings.

30. Timberwolves (4-13). Couple of long road trips ahead for a team that shows some flashes but can’t put a well rounded game together.

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

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Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.

Hassan Whiteside knows Heat’s problem: Not enough Hassan Whiteside

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In 10 minutes on the court in Game 5, Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. He couldn’t handle Joel Embiid physically on either end, and Miami had better success against the Sixers big man with Kelly Olynyk or other shooters at the five, pulling Embiid away from the basket some.

In the three games since Embiid returned to the Sixers, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the entire five-game series Whiteside shot just 45 percent (50.5 true shooting percentage, well below the league average). Outside of grabbing some rebounds, Whiteside was not a positive for the Heat against the Sixers.

Whiteside said after the Heat were eliminated the problem was he didn’t get enough of a chance.

That’s not how the playoffs work. When something doesn’t work — and Hassan being able to hang with Embiid clearly did not work, they are not on the same level — coaches don’t have time to let a guy play through it. Time and possessions are too precious in the postseason, if something doesn’t work the coach needs to look for something that does.

Not that if he’d been given “a chance to fight” it would have made a difference. Whiteside likes to think of himself as an elite NBA center near the class of Whiteside. He’s not.

The question is will he be back with Miami next season? On the court, coach Erik Spoelstra appears ready to go another direction. However, trading Whiteside — who is owed $25.4 million next season and has a player option for $27 million the season after that — will not be easy. Teams are not going to want to take on that much salary for Whiteside’s level of production (and style that doesn’t completely mesh with where the game is going for big men). The Heat would have to attach a pick or another player that teams would want, a sweetener in the deal. That may be too rich for Miami to play that hand.

It’s something to watch over the summer. Whiteside and Spoelstra are not on the same page right now and so something needs to change, the question is what?