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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.

Coach Steve Clifford: Poor defense has led to Hornets’ losing streak

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 04:  Teammates Michael Kidd-Gilchrist #14 and Marvin Williams #2 of the Charlotte Hornets react at the bench as head coach Steve Clifford reacts during their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center on January 4, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford points to one factor when explaining his team’s five-game losing streak – a lack of defense.

Charlotte went 0-5 on its recent road trip, surrendering an uncharacteristic 109.6 points per game during that span. The Hornets return home Wednesday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers, part of a stretch of five-game home stand which Clifford hopes will help turn things around.

But Charlotte’s fourth-year coach said nothing will get better until the Hornets start playing better man-to-man defense.

“It starts with our ability to guard our guy,” Clifford said. “When you get blown by a lot on the perimeter where you are constantly in need of help, then you are going to give up 3s – and that’s what is happening.”

The Hornets raced to a 14-9 start this season and were third-best in the league in points allowed through 23 games.

Since then, things have steadily fallen apart, culminating with Charlotte giving up at least 100 points in eight straight games. The Hornets have since dropped to 12th overall in points allowed.

The Hornets have fallen to 20-21 on the season and are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It hasn’t helped that Nic Batum and Cody Zeller have been in and out of the lineup with injury problems, but Charlotte’s struggles on the road – where it has lost 11 of its last 13 – is concerning.

Zeller said the Hornets spent Wednesday morning watching cutups of defensive miscues over the last five road games.

“All four years I have been here it starts with defense,” Zeller said. “That is what coach Clifford preaches.”

The 7-foot center said it is mostly simple things that can be corrected.

“There are sets that we know are coming – and we just aren’t defending them right,” Zelller said. “We are making too many mistakes.”

Added guard Marco Belinelli: “We need to speak a lot more on the court and help each other.”

Getting the defensive mistakes fix won’t be easy.

After Portland, the Hornets host Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington and Golden State. All five teams rank in the top 14 in the league in scoring offense, with the Warriors being No. 1 overall and Raptors No. 3.

A year ago, Hornets general manager Rich Cho pulled off a quality late-season trade, landing “three and D” guard Courtney Lee. He proved to be the driving force on the team’s playoff run and played well in the postseason.

The problem was Lee did so well it made it impossible for the Hornets to re-sign him. Charlotte re-signed Batum and Marvin Williams, and let Lee walk in free agency. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the New York Knicks.

The Hornets figured with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning this year from a shoulder injury they would be fine defensively, but the struggles are mounting.

Clifford wouldn’t discuss whether the team needs to make a similar trade before the NBA deadline.

As for the offense, Clifford likes what he sees.

Kemba Walker, a first-time All-Star candidate, is in the midst of the most productive season of his career, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range.

“I mean he’s having a great year,” Clifford said. “He’s worked really hard and it’s paying off for him.”

Chris Paul to have surgery on torn ligament in left thumb, out 6-8 weeks

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When the Clippers last were without Chris Paul (then due to a hamstring injury), they dropped six games in a row. Granted, that was without Blake Griffin, too, but this team struggles on offense without the Point God running the show.

He’s not going to be running the show again for them until March.

Paul will miss 6-8 weeks due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that will require surgery, the team announced Tuesday. He is set to have surgery on Wednesday.

Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers will get a lot more run with CP3 sidelined.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Monday night’s game against the Thunder. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook, who had pulled up to take a three. Paul’s hand was on Westbrook’s hip and got caught in his shorts and Westbrook elevated for the shot.

It looked serious as Paul walked off the court — he kicked a chair and was cursing, a sign that he knew something was very wrong. He went straight to the locker room, where X-rays were taken that found nothing broken. It was an MRI on Tuesday that found the damage.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but are likely about to lose ground, being without Paul until March and with Griffin still sidelined from knee surgery (but should be back in the next few weeks, according to his timetable). Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s a brutal stretch of games under the best of circumstances, and now the clouds over this team got much darker.

PBT Podcast: Debating NBA midseason awards with Dan Feldman

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Western Conference and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and the Western Conference warm up before the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook or James Harden for MVP?

Is Mike D’Antoni the runaway Coach of the Year?

Can anyone catch Giannis Antetokounmpo for Most Improved Player?

The PBT staff gave their picks for midseason awards already. Now Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports debate all of that, plus Sixth Man, Defensive Player of Year, and even takeaways​ from the Warriors win over the Cavaliers Monday.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

LeBron James reminds heckling Warriors fans he has three rings (VINE)

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Monday night was not exactly the best game of the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They looked like a team on the final night of a six-game, 12-day road trip and they were mailing it in. Then they ran into a rested Warriors team looking to gain a little confidence. The result was a Red Wedding-level blood bath.

LeBron James was none too bothered. He was downplaying the rivalry and the importance of the game before it tipped-off, and after the game he rightly said this was not going to have any impact in June.

And when Warriors fans heckled him, he reminded them of the hardware — he’s got rings. Three of them. The last one at the expense of the Warriors.

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

I’m going to miss Vine when it goes away.

Hat tip Matt Moore Eye on Basketball.