NBA Power Rankings, where the Heat has finally risen to the top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the effect of LeBron James’ decision is the difference between No. 1 and No. 30.

1. Heat (30-9). Nine wins in a row and 21 of the last 22. We said before the season this team should be a regular season powerhouse and they are proving to be. They are winning the close, ugly games now, which is what good teams do.

2. Magic (25-12). Nine consecutive wins. What the trade has done is made them a much more balanced offensive team, and Hedo Turkoglu is back to being effective.

3. Spurs (31-6). In the Spurs last 10 games Gary Neal has outscored Tim Duncan, 12.4 points per game to 12.1. Neal is taking 60 percent of his shots from three (shooting 41.1 percent) and has been a key part of the Spurs attack. They find these guys who can fill roles and put them in good positions like no other franchise.

4. Celtics (28-8). In his five games back, Rajon Rondo is averaging 8.8 points and 12.2 assists per game — that passing makes the Celtics offense so much smoother. Celtics start a six-game home stand Monday, and KG is expected back this week.

5. Lakers (27-11). Four wins in a row and six of their last seven. Go ahead and say it’s against soft competition — it is. However, against a resurgent Knicks Sunday the Lakers showed signs of being their big, bad selves.

6. Bulls (24-12). Quality win against the Celtics — not a statement win, Boston didn’t have KG and the Bulls didn’t have Noah, and there are no statements in January. But still a good win. They get the Heat Saturday and that won’t be as easy.

7. Thunder (25-13). Kevin Durant is looking like an MVP candidate again, averaging 30.2 points a game on 53 percent shooting in the last 10 for the Thunder. Big test for them Thursday against the streaking Magic.

8. Jazz (25-13). Utah’s front office has to get a little nervous watching the Carmelo Anthony disaster and realizing they could be in the same spot with Deron Williams next year at this time. Good news, Mehmet Okur is back practicing with the team.

9. Hornets (22-16). In the last 10 Hornets games, no player has taken more threes than Trevor Ariza — and he has hit 25.6 percent of them. He’d be better off leaving those to Marco Belinelli, who is hitting 46 percent over the same period. Just a suggestion.

10. Mavericks (26-10). They have dropped down the rankings due to seven games without Dirk Nowitzki (2-5 in those). Until they get Nowitzki back for a while it’s hard to fully judge how much losing Caron Butler hurts.

11. Hawks (22-14). They have yet to lose in 2011 and they’re 8-2 in their last 10. Outside of Utah, however, they have yet to beat anyone in the last couple weeks that impresses.

12. Knicks (21-15). They got their season signature win over the Spurs last Tuesday, then Amar’e Stoudemire got a good homecoming with a win in Phoenix. After those two, we’ll try to ignore how the Lakers game reminded all of us of this team’s weaknesses.

13. Blazers (20-18). They get credit for two moral victories this week, playing the Heat and Mavericks tough. Like Houston, this team just makes you work for everything.

14. Nuggets (20-16). Three straight losses and it’s hard to see them getting a win so long as the ‘Melo trade rumors hang over their head. He said again Monday he doesn’t think it gets done this week.

15. Grizzlies (17-20). Last year the Grizzlies made a big mid-season run — they have a lot of road games coming up against the bottom half of the East. Can they do it again?

16. Sixers (15-22). After some tough road trips lately the Sixers are home for a little while, where they are a much better team.

17. Bucks (14-21). The good news is that John Salmons seems to have found his touch again, scoring 17 points a game in the last 10. The bad news is the team’s second leading scorer over that stretch is Earl Boykins.

18. Suns (15-20). They barely beat the Cavaliers the other day, which counts as a win but doesn’t inspire confidence. No matter now many times they deny it will happen, the Steve Nash trade rumors will not die.

19. Clippers (12-24). Don’t look now, the Clippers are 7-3 in their last 10 and playing some good ball. Actually, do look. They are worth watching.

20. Rockets (16-21). They have lost five in a row, and this week the schedule is Boston, Oklahoma City, then New Orleans and Atlanta back-to-back. Rough.

21. Bobcats (13-21). They are 4-2 in the Paul Silas era. And they are playing watchable basketball again.

22. Warriors (15-22). The Warriors are loaded with home games in January and are 4.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen now.

23. Pacers (14-20). Indiana’s final two possessions against the Spurs in a close game Friday night had Roy Hibbert isolated in the post against Tim Duncan. Really? No Granger there, but rather Hibbert on a very good defender? The Pacers are 1-6 in last seven.

24. Raptors (13-24). Remember at the start of the season we said they were playing good defense? We take that back.

25. Pistons (12-24). Tom Gores could turn out to be the kind of rich, big-spending owner the Pistons need. But really, right now any kind of owner to point them in a direction is needed.

26. Kings (8-26). They got a win over Denver this week, which any other week would be considered a quality win. Right now, well, still counts as a win. DeMarcus Cousins is beasting lately.

27. Wizards (9-26). Nick Young is making USC proud (and Gilbert Arenas, too), averaging 17.2 points per game in the Wizards last 10. Sure, he’s shooting just 47.5 percent (eFG%, which accounts for his made threes), but at least he’s scoring. Somebody needs to.

28. Timberwolves (9-29). They get moral victories this week for playing the Celtics and the Spurs close. Sure, moral victories shouldn’t count, but look where we are in the rankings, it’s not like there are a lot of actual victories to count.

29. Nets (10-27). You get the feeling watching them the last week that all the trade rumors are bothering the young Nets, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

30. Cavaliers (8-29). What Cleveland might be able to get in an Anderson Varejao trade was the one interesting thing left for Cavs fans this season. Now…..

DeMar DeRozan scores 36, Raptors top Magic 131-112 for 6th in row

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 36 points and Cory Joseph had 15 points and 13 assists as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 131-112 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

DeRozan, selected the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, set the pace early by scoring 18 in the first quarter. Joseph added six rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Raptors (45-29).

Elfrid Payton had 22 points and nine assists for Orlando (27-47). Evan Fournier added 20 points, and Nikola Vucevic had 12 points and 15 assists.

It was the first game between the teams since the Raptors traded Terrence Ross to the Magic for Serge Ibaka in February. Ross finished with 17 points and two rebounds, while Ibaka had 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors took a 99-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRozan’s basket gave Toronto a 19-point lead with 8:15 to go in the third. But the Magic, winners of seven games this season after falling behind by double digits, fought back.

Bismack Biyombo made a pair of free throws to cut Toronto’s lead to five with 12 seconds left in the period.

But after DeRozan hit a jumper to widen the lead to seven, Delon Wright stole the inbounds pass and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Toronto its double-digit lead back going into the fourth.

Payton paced the Magic surge, hitting all four field goals he attempted in the quarter. He led all scorers with 10 points in the period, as Orlando outscored Toronto 32-26.

After four ties and seven lead changes in the game’s first 15 minutes, the Raptors took charge over the final nine minutes of the second quarter to take a 73-57 lead into halftime.

The Raptors hit all four 3s they attempted in the quarter, three by Norman Powell, who led all scorers with 11 points in the period.

Eight different Toronto players scored in the quarter as the Raptors outscored the Magic 33-17 over that nine-minute stretch and led by as many as 18 points.

The Magic cooled off from a torrid shooting pace in the first quarter to a still-respectable 48 percent in the second. Fournier led the way with nine points in the period.

Toronto led 35-34 after a first quarter that featured terrific shooting by both teams.

The Magic led by seven points early as Ross hit four of his first five shots and Aaron Gordon poured in 10 points. Orlando shot 13 for 29 (62 percent) from the field in the period.

DeRozan was 7 for 10 from the field in the opening quarter and hit his only 3-point attempt.

Toronto shot 15 for 24 (63 percent) as each starter had at least one field goal in the first period.

TIP-INS

Magic: Ross received a standing ovation after a tribute commemorating his 4 1/2 seasons in Toronto was played on the scoreboard during the first timeout. . Orlando has hit a 3 in 812 consecutive games, the fifth-longest active streak in the NBA. . The Magic had a 66-58 edge on points in the paint.

Raptors: DeRozan’s conference player of the week award was his fourth of the season. He averaged a league-best 33.3 points in three games last week. . Valanciunas pulled down the 3,000th rebound of his career in the second quarter, second to Chris Bosh (4,776) on Toronto’s all-time list. . The 73 points were the most the Raptors have scored in the first half this season.

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 as Spurs dismantle ailing Cavaliers, 103-74

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 on Monday night in a showdown that turned into a major letdown for the defending NBA champions.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs, who won their fifth straight.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Cavaliers star LeBron James was injured late in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the base of his neck. He remained on the bench for a while receiving medical attention, then headed toward the locker room and didn’t return to the game.

His status was not immediately known.

Cleveland has been out of sync recently, losing three of five, and those struggles only got worse against San Antonio. The Spurs led by as many as 33 points to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league’s best record entering a home showdown with the Warriors on Wednesday.

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than sit them for rest, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of its second rout in the past two weeks.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt and remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench. He left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout.

James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Spurs held the Cavaliers scoreless for three minutes after San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was issued a technical foul during a timeout with 6:38 remaining in the first half.

Leonard hit a right-handed runner as the second quarter closed to give the Spurs a 64-40 lead.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers. . Cleveland F Kyle Korver missed his third straight game with a sore left foot, and the team plans to sit him for several games to see if rest and treatment helps. Korver will sit out Thursday in Chicago and Friday at home against Philadelphia before being re-evaluated, a team spokesman said. The shooting specialist missed seven games earlier this month with an inflamed tendon in his foot. . G Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O’Neal has 28,596 career points. . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding its opponents to an average of less than 100 points for the 22nd straight season. . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

 

Russell Westbrook dominates final minutes, hits game winner for Thunder (VIDEO)

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This game looked over. The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take the loss.

Then Russell Westbrook happened.

He scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, then capped it off hitting the game winner for the Thunder (video above). For the game-winner, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender, a smart play when you have a guy this talented.

It was the kind of game that the Westbrook for MVP crowd will point to — he had 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and he absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game (he shot 5-of-9 down the stretch).

This was Westbrook’s 37th triple-double of the season, and the Thunder are 30-7 when he does reaches that mark. Westbrook takes heat in some quarters for “empty stats” or trying to pad his numbers, but the fact is the Thunder are 11-24 when he doesn’t put up the huge numbers and carry the offense. If you’re going to define “MVP” by value to his team, it’s hard not to choose Westbrook this season, this team is toast without him.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).