NBA Power Rankings: Dallas sweeps through Florida, right to the top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the top four teams are all 9-1 in their last 10 and probably could be ranked in any order.

1. Mavericks (23-5). They move into the top spot on the strength of their sweep of Miami and Orlando on back-to-back nights. That depth Mark Cuban touted really helps them in the regular season

2. Spurs (26-4). Wondering if these Spurs are for real? We say they are but the next five games — Lakers, Mavericks, Thunder, Knicks and Celtics — will be a real test of that.

3. Heat (23-9). That domination of the Lakers was a good confidence boost. The game will be meaningless if these teams meet again in June, but right now it is a validation — especially of their defense. And couldn’t we all use a little validation?

4. Celtics (23-5). The one loss to Orlando was not that bad, but they miss Rondo when the game is tight and that is going to hurt them until he is back. Whenever that is.

5. Thunder (21-10). We’re discounting the loss to New York — second night of a back-to-back, fourth game in five days and then you have to run with the Knicks? That was a schedule maker’s loss. They are still 7-3 in their last 10.

6. Jazz (21-9). Congrats to Jerry Sloan for moving past Pat Riley on the all-time wins list. That guy does it year after year — it’s time to give him Coach of the Year.

7. Lakers (21-9). Last year after LeBron thumped the Lakers on Christmas on national television the Lakers won five of their next six. Just something to watch, to see if that really was a wakeup call.

8. Magic (18-12). Orlando beat Boston and San Antonio this week. We are pretty skeptical how much better the big trades make them long term, but right now they look pretty good, don’t they?

9. Knicks (18-12). They ran the Thunder off the floor then played one quarter of pretty good defense against the Bulls and that was enough. Two big wins in one week, plus Spike Lee is back doing NBA commercials. It’s all good.

10. Bulls (19-10). Loss to the Knicks then needed overtime to get by the Pistons. The numbers say their defense has been better without Noah but it doesn’t feel like it when you watch them.

11. Hornets (18-12). Chris Paul is really, really good. That can never be said enough. Dude is shooting 45.5 percent from three this season. Remember when he couldn’t hit the three?

12. Hawks (19-13). In his five games since returning, Joe Johnson is shooting 40.7 percent overall and 32.1 percent from three. Not good.

13. Blazers (15-15). A very good team at home in the Rose Garden that struggles on the road. This week they are on the road a lot.

14. Nuggets (16-13). They expect to have Carmelo Anthony back on Tuesday, which would be a big boost. The Nuggets have lost three in a row despite good play from Chauncey Billups.

15. Rockets (14-15). Four straight wins. All against pretty soft competition but the fact is they are beating the teams they are supposed to.

16. Sixers (11-16). They had a 2-2 week — wins over Orlando and Denver, losses to Boston and Chicago. That’s a tough week, so 2-2 is pretty darn good.

17. Pacers (13-15). I thought Darren Collison would have a bigger positive impact on this team than he has. And Danny Granger is shooting 39 percent in his last 10 games.

18. Suns (13-16). They may get Vince Carter back next weekend. When you’ve lost three in a row and are in danger of not making the playoffs you look forward to Vince Carter.

19. Bucks (10-15). They are going to need more wins like the impressive one over the Lakers, because the schedule gets brutal the next couple weeks.

20. Grizzlies (13-17). January means a lot of time on the road for a team that needs to find a groove if they are going to get in the playoffs.

21. Warriors (11-18). Monta Ellis is a stud. Flat out scoring machine. Just fun to watch.

22. Clippers (9-22). If you stop watching Blake Griffin dunks for a few minutes you notice the Clips are 5-5 in their last 10.

23. Raptors (10-19). The Raptors are out of Toronto a lot next month, on the road and missing some Canadian winter. They’d like to thank the schedule maker for that, but they’ll need to find a way to win some of those games.

24. Pistons (10-20). No team’s fans were more convinced we had this team pegged wrong before the season — and they let us know it. This was a team that could make the playoffs they said. Some people don’t like to gloat about being right. I’m not one of those people.

25. Nets (9-21). Sasha Vujacic is averaging 11 points a game and the Nets have played some decent defense lately. Not that it has meant a lot of wins or anything.

26. Bobcats (9-19). Paul Silas is a fine replacement for Larry Brown, but until the roster is fixed the coach won’t really matter.

27. Timberwolves (7-24). They beat Cleveland and are now 2-8 in their last 10. Which is enough to move up two spots.

28. Cavaliers (8-22). If you look at their point per possession differential they are the worst team in the league. Which is saying maybe this ranking is generous, but it is Christmas time and we’re feeling generous still.

29. Wizards (7-21). It would be nice for Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee to show some fight on the court, too.

30. Kings (5-22). They actually hang in games then lose them in the fourth quarter — they came from ahead to lose twice last week. Which is just a little more salt in the wounds of Kings fans. Sorry.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.