Contenders, pretenders, wish-it-would-enders — taking stock of the NBA at the break

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Welcome to All-Star Weekend, when the NBA takes a break from playing games to talk about trades. And hear about the great parties that the players went to. Then talk about more trades. Then watch an exhibition with less defense than a Cavs-Raptors game.

For the rest of us, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are two-thirds of the way through the season. We pretty much know who the top teams are. We know who the guys in the running for MVP are. We know who has packed it in.

So let’s break it down.

Title contenders.

Boston Celtics (40-14). No coasting into the playoffs this season. Boston has improved in a couple key areas from a team that came within a quarter of winning it all last season. The Celtics are deeper along the front line (even if everyone seems injured at one time). Secondly, Rajon Rondo is doing a better job attacking the space that teams have been giving him (hoping he would take the jumper). They are still the best defensive team in the NBA.

San Antonio Spurs (46-10). Nobody expected this. But the Spurs altered their attack — Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are now the focal points, Tim Duncan works off them rather than being the hub. It works, they are the third-most efficient offense in the league. And they can still defend. They also have gotten great depth from George Hill, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner.

Miami Heat (41-15). Before the season we said we knew they could score, the question was how well would they defend? Fourth-most efficient defense in the league. Impressive. They look every bit the contender… during the regular season. We’ve got questions about how they match up with real size in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers (38-19). Yes, they lost to the Cavaliers. Yes, they have played poorly for stretches this season. Yes, they look old and not athletic enough at times. But scouts keep saying the team most likely to beat the Lakers is the Lakers. They’ve won two titles and if the sleeping giant wakes, they will be a force. Again.

Trying to crash the title party (teams that are close):

Chicago Bulls (38-16): New coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing great defense. Derrick Rose is having a season that has him in MVP contention. And we have yet to see them all healthy at once for any stretch. We don’t know how good they can be, but if the offense (18th in the league in points per possession) isn’t more consistent, they are out in the second round.

Dallas Mavericks (40-17). Their record means you have to take them seriously, and they are winning because they are deep with good talent. But when the rotations shorten in the playoffs, that depth doesn’t help as much. Will a handful of great players beat a bunch of good ones? In the NBA playoffs, usually.

Orlando Magic (36-21). I’m putting them in here because they have the best big man in the game and a quality defense. But I’m not sold. They will need to play better and more consistently than I have seen in the past few weeks.

Just end the season already.

Cleveland Cavaliers (10-46). We knew they would be bad, losing not only the best player in the game but also Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal. The 7-9 start to the season was a mirage, but we didn’t know the desert would be this vast. Then they get hit by the injury bug — Anderson Varejao is out for the season and Mo Williams misses extended time. But they’ve beaten the Lakers.

Toronto Raptors (15-41). Chris Bosh is gone and this is Andrea Bargnani’s team. That’s really worked out well.

Minnesota Timberwoves (13-43). Why are they even here? Their rebuilding is done. Actually, they have a couple pieces to build around, including double-double machine Kevin Love, but there is a long, long way to go.

Sacramento Kings (13-40). Another team with a couple quality pieces to build around in Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, except they can’t get along. And Paul Westphal seems unable to guide them. Or get them to listen.

MVP candidates

LeBron James (Miami Heat). He is the two-time defending MVP playing on an elite team. Still the best player in the game. And although his per-game numbers dropped a little, we’re still talking 26 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. The Heat have become his team on the court.

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). He announced his presence with authority dropping a career-high 42 on the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, but he was being mentioned as an MVP candidate before that. Personally, I don’t think he’s there — he’s still not efficient enough for my tastes — but many voters are in love with the story.

Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets). To me this should be the guy. Just him being back running the show — with an efficient 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game — has turned the Hornets from a squad that looked lost last season into a solid playoff team in a deep Western Conference. He is the best point guard in the game and the player most valuable to his team.

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic). He’s not going to win. I don’t know why, but voters are not into him, maybe because he’s a center who can make it look so easy. He’s the best defender of the paint in the league, he has become an efficient offensive player with a variety of moves, and he’s a beast on the boards. Guy is a complete player and the best big in the game. He deserves serious consideration.

Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder). Still leads the league in scoring  (28.9 points per game) on a team that is still entertaining to watch. The slow start shouldn’t hold his candidacy back. Problem is, we expected this team to take a leap forward this season and it hasn’t, and although that is not Durant’s fault, he will lose votes because of it.

Other awards:

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks
Most annoying, never-ending story line: Carmelo Anthony trade talk
Most Improved Player: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
Player Most Wasted By Coach: Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Lopez Twin: Still Brook (New Jersey Nets) by a country mile

Move over Charles Barkley: Giannis Antetokounmpo has the worst NBA golf swing (VIDEO)

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Look, nobody is expecting an NBA player of Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s length to have a pretty golf swing. He’s the kind of tall that I wonder if golf science is even able to make clubs long enough for him that are still mechanically sound.

But that didn’t stop the Milwaukee Bucks star from hitting the driving range recently, and boy is his swing bad. Like, Charles Barkley bad.

Watch at your own risk, it is not pretty.

Via Instagram:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka the Greek Freak, knows he should stick to basketball. 😂😬(via Snapchat/g_ante34)

A post shared by Golf Digest (@golfdigest) on

That’s cool, at least Antetokounmpo knows the deal.

That’s the thing about golf anyway. It’s not about how good you are, it’s about realizing at what level you suck at it.

Isaiah Thomas scores 33, Celtics’ 3s too much for Wizards in 123-111 win

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BOSTON (AP) Isaiah Thomas had 33 points and nine assists, and the Boston Celtics made 19 3-pointers to beat the Washington Wizards 123-111 Sunday and take a 1-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup.

Thomas played just a day after attending the funeral for his sister, who died in a car accident earlier this month outside of Tacoma, Washington.

Al Horford added 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jae Crowder finished with 24 points.

The Wizards were more energetic at the outset, jumping out to a 16-0 advantage and leading by as many as 17 points. But the Celtics rallied in the second quarter with Thomas briefly sidelined after getting one of his two front teeth knocked out.

Bradley Beal led Washington with 27 points. John Wall added 20 points and 16 assists.

Washington starter Markieff Morris played just 11 minutes before leaving with a sprained left ankle in the second quarter.

A rivalry has been simmering between the teams since last year, when Boston swept the season series.

They split their four regular-season matchups this season, but each included intense moments.

Sunday’s matchup was played at just as high a level, with a frenzied pace at times and physical play underneath the basket.

After the Wizards’ early scoring flurry, Thomas lost his tooth in a collision, and initially played through it. He found his tooth during a timeout, but started the second quarter on the bench while getting it repositioned in the locker room.

His teammates went on a 13-2 run without him to cut into Washington’s lead.

Boston led by 15 at the end of the third before a 9-0 spurt by the Wizards to start the final period closed the gap.

Thomas arrived back in Boston early Sunday. It was the second cross-country trip for him since Chyna Thomas died in a car accident last month, the day before the Celtics opened their first-round series against Chicago.

The Celtics star flew with Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and assistant coach Jerome Allen.

During player introductions, Thomas pointed to the TD Garden rafters when his name was called.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Shot 10 of 23 from 3-point line. … Morris turned his left ankle after landing on Horford’s foot after a made jumper. He stayed in the game to complete his three-point play, then checked out. … Washington shot 62 percent (16 for 26) in the first quarter. … Grabbed the first 12 rebounds of the game.

Celtics: Didn’t score their first field goal until 6:42 remained in the first quarter, on a layup by Avery Bradley. … Didn’t register their first rebound of the game until the 5:57 mark. …Kelly Olynyk has scored in double figures in three of his last four games, after doing so just twice in his first 11 career playoff games.

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

John Wall waits 2 years, gets revenge in post Instagram sniping at Hawks PG Dennis Schroder

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John Wall and Dennis Schroder seem to have a bit of a rivalry going. Wall’s Washington Wizards closed on Schroder’s Atlanta Hawks on Friday in Game 6, with Wall throwing down one of the more impressive individual performances of these playoffs.

Wall scored 42 points to go along with eight assists, four steals, and two blocks.

One of those blocks came late against Schroder, which helped save the game for Washington.

Now, Wall has taken his revenge on social media for a post that Schroder posted two years ago. The Hawks bounced Washington from the playoffs in the second round in 2014-15, and Schroder posted a photo to his Instagram showing him squawking at Wall.

Wall posted the same kind of photo after the Wizards beat Atlanta in Game 6 this season.

Via Instagram:

Washington goes on to play the Boston Celtics in the semi finals on Sunday.

Clippers, Jazz prepare for Game 7 in L.A.

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LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul was adamant the sun would not set on Paul Pierce‘s NBA run in Salt Lake City on Friday night.

“I looked over at ‘Truth’ during one of (those) timeouts and I said ‘You’re not ending your career in Utah,’ ” said Paul, referring to Pierce’s popular nickname. “We told him that. We just said we want to keep this thing going for him. Paul was big tonight. Like the 3 he hit over there on the wing, and stuff like that. Just his energy and his voice in those different timeouts I think was huge for us.”

With a crucial 98-93 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6, the Clippers will attempt to extend the career of the 39-year-old Pierce, who is retiring at season’s end, and capture the series Sunday in Game 7 at Staples Center.

The winner advances to the second round to meet the Golden State Warriors in a best-of-seven affair beginning Tuesday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.

Paul, whose two late free throws sealed the win against the Jazz, led the charge by scoring 29 points, dishing eight assists and allowing the Clippers to avoid elimination in the opening round for the second straight season. The Portland Trail Blazers bounced them last season in six games, aided by injuries to Paul and Blake Griffin.

And as Paul loathes to hear, the point guard has never guided a team past the second round.

“This is what we talked about before (Game 6),” said Paul, who has become the Clippers’ main force offensively with Griffin out of the playoffs again, this time with an injury to his big toe. “Doc (Rivers) said to go out there and give yourself a chance. We knew we couldn’t win both games (Friday), and we wanted to give ourselves a chance.”

Utah will have another opportunity to end Pierce’s career on Sunday despite missing a chance on its home court. After the Jazz won Game 5 on Tuesday at Staples, All-Star forward Gordon Hayward made it clear he didn’t want to return for a Game 7.

Hayward, though, is humming a different tune now.

“We’ve come a long way from where we were three years ago,” Hayward told the Salt Lake Tribune. “If you had told me at the beginning of the year you’d be in a Game 7 against the Clippers in L.A., I’d have been like, ‘Bring it on.’ “

The Jazz will be forced to bring their best with center Rudy Gobert hobbling again. Gobert, who sustained a hyperextended left knee in Game 1 that kept him out of the lineup for two games, sprained his ankle in the second half of Game 6 and was forced to the bench because of it during critical stretches.

Gobert said the ankle wouldn’t hinder him Sunday.

“I sprained it on somebody’s foot,” said Gobert, who finished with 15 points, nine boards and three blocks, according to the Tribune. “I tried to run through it, but that didn’t work out. I’ve had a lot of sprained ankles before. I will be good.”