NBA Power Rankings: The Lakers are on top, the Cavs are out of the cellar

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Changes at the top and bottom of the roster, and we wonder who can coach Kwame Brown?

1. Lakers (45-19, LW #4). It’s not the seven wins in a row that vault them to the top (well, it was in part). It wasn’t just wins over Boston and the Spurs recently. It’s the defense with Andrew Bynum as the anchor. When the Lakers are focused on that end they are a ridiculous matchup.

2. Celtics (46-15, LW #3). No Shaq, no Kendrick Perkins, trying to integrate Jeff Green into the offense, it’s nice to have a soft spot in the schedule to do that. They have won five in a row.

3. Mavericks (45-17, LW #2). They are still hot, but the loss Sunday to the Grizzlies makes you wonder how they will deal with long front lines in the playoffs. The battle between them and the Lakers for the two seed in the West is on, and the teams face off Saturday in Dallas. Big game.

4. Spurs (51-12, Last Week #1). They beat the Heat like a drum, but then get the exact same thing done to them by the Lakers. It doesn’t mean the Spurs are bad, but the Lakers are a brutal matchup for them.

5. Bulls (43-18, LW #5). They beat Miami this week, but everybody is doing that now. They beat the Magic, too. I’ve still got questions about if they have enough offense come the playoffs, but they are a contender now, make no mistake. And Tom Thibodeau is the coach of the year. (Sorry Pops.)

6. Magic (40-23, LW #7). The Magic are kind of locking themselves in as the four seed in the East. Which means a second round matchup against Boston (we’re assuming they get out of the first round). That will be interesting.

7. Thunder (38-22, LW #8). They are waiting on Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to get healthy. Mostly Perkins. They are pretty locked in at the four seed in the West, which would mean the Spurs in the second round. As we said with the Magic, that will be interesting.

8. Heat (43-20, LW #6). The blown lead to Orlando, the inability to close out in big games, four game losing streak. I don’t care if they cried or not, I care a lot more about seeing some kind of consistent execution. On both ends.

9. Grizzlies (34-29, LW #11). That was a big win in Dallas Sunday, with Zach Randolph hitting the dramatic shot shot. This is a good team folks that is 7-3 in their last 10. And we take it all back, Mike Conley is a good NBA point guard.

10. Blazers (35-27, LW #9). Brandon Roy isn’t really the story, the Blazers defense of late is. They dominated what’s left of Charlotte and are 7-3 in their last 10, with a tough stretch ahead of them.

11. Sixers (32-30, LW #13). They have won 8 of their last 10 and now you’ve got Evan Turner going off for 20 and Andre Iguodala with back-to-back triple doubles. Doug Collins is in my top three for coach of the year (with Thibodeau and Popovich).

12. Nuggets (37-27), LW #14). This is like a complexly different team after the trade — all defense and inconsistent offense. But it’s working, they are 5-2 since the deal.

13. Hornets (37-28, LW #10). We’re just glad Chris Paul is going to be alright. We’ll forgive him for missing Monday’s showdown against Derrick Rose.

14. Knicks (32-29, LW #15). Since he’s come over, Carmelo Anthony is averaging 24.7 points per game on 42.1 percent shooting and 30 percent from three. At the end of games, they still should have Stoudemire option No. 1.

15. Hawks (37-26, LW #12). Nice win against the Bulls, then they get smacked by the Knicks. And that is the Hawks in a nutshell.

16. Suns (32-29, LW #16). They are 1.5 games out of the playoffs, 3.5 out of the five seed. But does anyone not named Nash think they can catch either the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Hornets or Nuggets?

17. Rockets (32-32, LW #18). Another scrappy team that is just going to have a hard time catching any of the more talented scrappy teams ahead of them in the playoff chase.

18. Jazz (33-30, LW #17). They are about to head out on a tough road trip, but that might not be all bad as they have lost 7 in a row at home.

19. Pacers (27-35, LW #19). The Frank Vogel offensive boost has flamed out and the Pacers have been dreadful on offense again. Yet, they remain your eight seed in the East. Charlotte should concern them, except they may be playing worse.

20. Warriors (27-35, LW #21). In the last 10 Warrior games, Monta Ellis is putting up an inefficient 24.2 points a game shooting 43.7 percent overall and 26.9 from three. In that same stretch Stephen Curry is putting up 17.9 shooting 50.8 percent overall and 45.5 percent from three. David Lee is averaging a double-double in that stretch.

21. Bobcats (26-36, LW #20). Paul Silas trying to be the fourth coach to lead a team with Kwame Brown on it to the playoffs. The other three: Eddie Jordan, Phil Jackson (twice) and Michael Curry.

22. Clippers (23-40, LW #24). Without Eric Gordon this team struggles to find offensive balance, to see him go down with another wrist injury takes some of the fun out of watching this team. Not all of it, just some.

23. Bucks (23-38, LW #22). How different would they be if Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut were 100 percent healthy all season?

24. Nets (19-43, LW #26). They are the best NBA team ever to play in England.

25. Pistons (23-41, LW #23). John Kuester freed Rip Hamilton and he has shot 31.6 percent in three games.

26. Timberwolves (15-49, LW #25). Kevin Love will break the double-double record Monday night with his 51st consecutive. He has four 20-20 games in his last five.

27. Raptors (17-46, LW #27). The worst NBA team ever to play in England.

28. Kings (15-45, LW #28). Marcus Thornton is really fitting in there, once again getting a green light to shoot and taking advantage of it (averaging 21.2 points per game in his last 5).

29. Cavaliers (12-50, LW #30). They are 4-6 in their last 10 — and that gets them moved out of the cellar. They keep playing as they have and they’ll pass a couple more teams.

30. Wizards (16-46, LW #29). They have been dreadful since the All-Star break, going 1-7. But Trevor Booker can sure dunk. So there’s that.

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.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.