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NBA Power Rankings: Spurs still sitting pretty, Heat slip

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, every team seemed to have a nice win and an ugly loss, balancing the karmic scales.

1. Spurs (45-9, Last Week #1). They are 5-2 on the rodeo road trip so far (still to come the Nets and Bulls). Their one loss this week was just one of those game where nothing falls (sorry Sixers, wasn’t all your defense).

2. Celtics (39-14, LW #2). Losses to the Bobcats and Lakers, a rash of injuries piled up, and then they go out Sunday and remind the Heat they are still the team to beat in the East. Injuries or no, don’t expect the Celtics to rush guys back, they are thinking about June not February.

3. Mavericks (38-16, LW #4). One loss in the last 13 and that by one point. Peja Stojakovic has shot 40 percent overall and 29 percent from three since joining the Mavs, but did drop 22 on Houston so maybe he is figuring it out. The real question, how much better does this team become when Roddy Beaubois returns soon?

4. Lakers (38-17, LW #6). What was more telling, the win over Boston, or the loss to Orlando? Still, they are 4-1 so far on the Grammy road trip with the Nets and Cavaliers left on the tour.

5. Heat (39-15, LW #3). After Sunday’s loss you would think Pat Riley would be looking for some help along the front line to combat the Celtics, but does he really have any trade options?

6. Bulls (36-16, LW #5). If he wasn’t already in your “best point guard in the game” conversation, Derrick Rose outplayed Deron Williams and Chris Paul last week. They have the Spurs this Thursday and the Heat the following Thursday, which will start to give us a real grasp of how good this team really is.

7. Magic (35-21, LW #8). They have not wowed in recent weeks with losses to elite teams, but the win Sunday over the Lakers gives some hope. Still, we need to see this over a stretch of ground to be convinced.

8. Thunder (34-19, LW #7). Some sloppy losses to the Grizzlies and Warriors this week, which would have dropped them if every team below them didn’t have some sloppy losses, too. The defense isn’t good enough for the offense to have an off night.

9. Hawks (33-20, LW #9). Two ugly losses for the Hawks last week. Not likely any late trade activity, not a lot of parts they can move, but if this is the team that goes to the playoffs it’s a repeat of last season. At best.

10. Hornets (33-23, LW #10). They are not right without Emeka Okafor in the paint (2-5 without him). Got a nice win over Orlando this week, though.

11. Blazers (30-24, LW #13). Nice wins this week, including over the Bulls, in part because LaMarcus Aldridge is on a tear. And please, rest Brandon Roy longer, for the sake of his knees. For the sake of basketball fans everywhere who want to see him right.

12. Grizzlies (30-26, LW #14). They are 8-2 in their last 10 and that includes wins over Orlando, Oklahoma City and Denver. They are currently the 9 seed in the West, one game back of the Blazers and one-and-a-half behind the Jazz and Nuggets. One of those teams is going stumble and Memphis will catch them.

13. Nuggets (31-24, LW #11). At least we know in the next 10 days the ‘Melodrama will end. One way or another.

14. Jazz (31-24, LW #12). Teams often get a little boost from a mid-season coaching change. And we’re rooting for Tyrone Corbin, but he can’t make Al Jefferson into Carlos Boozer, or make Mehmet Okur healthy. Which is what the Jazz really need.

15. Sixers (26-28, LW #16). Big wins over the Spurs and Hawks this week. Remember this team started this season 3-13, they are 20-14 since.

16. Pacers (24-28, LW #19). They are playing faster since Frank Vogel took over, but they are rebounding better two. And they re 7-1 for Vogel.

17. Knicks (27-26, LW #15). They really are a Mike D’Antoni team — if they can’t outscore you in spite of their defense they can’t beat you.

18. Suns (26-26, LW #17). Unlike the Knicks they are trying to play some defense. But they are three games out of the last playoff spot in the West and it’s going to be tough to make that ground up unless they become more consistent fast.

19. Warriors (24-29, LW #18). There was a David Lee sighting Sunday. While Monta Ellis is carrying the load the Warriors need Lee for balance.

20. Bobcats (23-31, LW #20). Few things make us smile like seeing Shaun Livingston doing well. With D.J. Augustin nursing a sore wrist he may get more run (and against the Lakers he could destroy Derek Fisher).

21. Rockets (25-30, LW #22). They want to move Aaron Brooks, and to pick up the scoring slack there is… Chuck Hayes? He’s been a scoring machine lately.

22. Bucks (20-33, LW #21). Brandon Jennings’ return has pumped no life into the moribund Bucks offense, mostly because he is shooting 33 percent since coming back.

23. Pistons (20-35, LW #23). Rodney Stuckey is back to starting, but that has not made Jon Kuester happy. Although, is there anything that makes him happy?

24. Nets (17-38, LW #25). Two wins this week, and we’ll even count the one against Cleveland.

25. Wizards (15-38, LW #27). They got a road win (over Cleveland), which prompted John Wall to say, “We’re a great team. We just got a lot to learn.” John, I think you and I have different definitions of “great.”

26. Clippers (20-34, LW #24). Losses to the Cavaliers and the Raptors in one week — that is impressively bad. Who said this team would make the playoffs again?

27. Timberwolves (13-41, LW #29). Kevin Love has 40 consecutive double-doubles, just four shy of the NBA record.

28. Raptors (15-40, LW #28). Rookie Ed Davis seems to be figuring some things out, like how to rebound at the NBA level.

29. Kings (13-38, LW #26). Long term this franchise needs to figure out how to get DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans to coexist as one unit, or make a drastic move.

30. Cavaliers (9-46, LW #30). They broke the streak. Then they came out the next game with no effort whatsoever and lost to the Wizards. Model of the inconsistent effort: J.J. Hickson.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

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