NBA Power Rankings: The Lakers look like the Lakers again

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Notice that two of the top three are from the West? That’s because the East is stumbling toward the playoffs.

1. Lakers (50-20, LW #3). Four wins in a row and just one loss since the All-Star break. They won Monday without Andrew Bynum and will have another game without him Tuesday, but with his ongoing knee pain missing a couple games and getting a little more rest is not a bad thing.

2. Spurs (56-13, Last Week #1). They keep cruising along, their only two losses in March were to the Heat and the Lakers. If you see them lose a few more games from here on out, know that Popovich is resting his guys for the games that matter.

3. Bulls (49-19, LW #2). Still the best team in the East since the break, but the loss to a desperate Pacers team knocked them back a notch in these standing. With all due respect to Gregg Popovich, Doug Collins and the other candidates, Tom Thibodeau is the coach of the year.

4. Celtics (49-19, LW #5). The recent 3-4 slide shows just how important Rajon Rondo is to this team, and why they should sacrifice more games if it means getting him healthy.

5. Heat (48-22, LW #6). They beat the Spurs, then lose to the Thunder. It’s how things went during their tough stretch of 11 games, on which they went 5-6. But if you haven’t noticed they have now won 5 of their last 6 and for final few weeks the schedule lightens up.

6. Thunder (45-24, LW #7). They had won six in a row and are getting hot at the right time, except for that off game Sunday against the Raptors. The most important thing is their defense has looked better in recent games, and that side of the ball is key for them in the playoffs.

7. Mavericks (49-21, LW #4). The questions about their ability to beat top teams have grown louder after loss to Spurs, but at least Dirk Nowitzki has knocked down 58 straight free throws.

8. Magic (44-26, LW #8). They are treading water during a tough stretch of road games. Dwight Howard has averaged 20.9 points and 16.7 rebounds a game over the last 10.

9. Blazers (40-30, LW #11). Tough loss to the Bynum-less Lakers Sunday (on the second night of a back-to-back), but quality wins over Dallas and Philly show this as a team to take seriously.

10. Grizzlies (38-22, LW #9). They are just 1.5 games ahead of the hard-charging Rockets for the eighth spot in the West, and this week draw the Celtics, Bulls and Spurs in a row. Good luck with that.

11. Nuggets (41-29), LW #10). Tough trip through Florida, which is hard enough healthy but with banged up guards it is nearly impossible. Still, there is rightfully a lot of optimism around this team.

12. Sixers (36-34, LW #12). They are 2-3 on their recent five-game road trip and that brought them back down to earth. That and the banged up Andre Iguodala. Good news is they are home for all but four games the rest of the season.

13. Rockets (37-34, LW #17). They’ve won four in a row and moved into the ninth seed in the West, 1.5 games out of the playoffs. They are 7-3 in their last 10 ad have a legitimate chance of catching Memphis or anyone else that falters in the West.

14. Hornets (40-31, LW #13). A team capable of beating or losing to anyone any given game. They’ve got some big ones this week with the Jazz, Suns and Lakers — games the Hornets need to hold on to their playoff spot.

15. Hawks (40-30, LW #15). They are 5-8 since the All-Star break, mostly because their offense is unimpressive. Too much firepower on that team for the offense to be so flat.

16. Knicks (35-34, LW #14). Hey Carmelo, how’d you enjoy that honeymoon with the New York fans and media? The Knicks are not as bad as they have looked the last couple games, but they are not near as good as people thought right after the trade, either.

17. Suns (35-33, LW #16). Steve Nash looked a lot more healthy over the weekend, which is the only hope the Suns have of a big run to the playoffs.

18. Jazz (36-34, LW #19). They are clinging to playoff hopes, just two games back of the Grizzlies in the West, but they are going to do things like beat the Grizzlies Monday (especially after Sunday’s loss to the Rockets).

19. Warriors (30-40, LW #18). Monta Ellis, Steph Curry, Dorell Wright and David Lee have all actually played pretty well the last 10 games. After that the drop off is very, very steep.

20. Pacers (30-40, LW #23). They looked like they righted themselves last week, especially after beating Chicago. Then they looked terrible against Boston and lost to Memphis. They lead the battle of ugly that is the eighth seed in the East

21. Bucks (28-41, LW #22). They are 1.5 games out of a playoff spot and they should get Michael Redd back. Does that help the offense or become a distraction as they try to fit him in.

22. Clippers (27-44, LW #20). Teams are still beating on Blake Griffin pretty hard, and that has effected both his shot (he is shooting 43.4 percent his last 10 games, down from 50 percent for the entire season) and he fouled out twice last week. Debate the call on the second foul out all you want.

23. Bobcats (28-41, LW #21). They are still in the playoff hunt but a win over Indiana Wednesday seems key to that.

24. Pistons (25-45, LW #26). Rip Hamilton has been almost a steady 20 point a game guy lately, so isn’t it time for John Kuester to bench him? (Hamilton missed the last game due to a death in the family.)

25. Nets (22-46, LW #24). They are not making the playoffs, why push Deron Williams to return? They are still 5-5 in their last 10 with great play from Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries

26. Raptors (20-49, LW #27). They ended a 14-game road losing streak in Oklahoma City Sunday. That was unforeseen.

27. Kings (17-51, LW #28). This team is putting up some big offensive numbers recently, but nobody is talking about that in Sacramento.

28. Timberwolves (17-54, LW #25). If Kevin Love is out any length of time the Timberwolves could just fold their tents the rest of the season. More so than they already have.

29. Cavaliers (13-55, LW #29). They still appear a lock to have the most ping pong balls in the Kyrie Irving sweepstakes.

30. Wizards (15-51, LW #30). They needed a big game from John Wall late to beat a Nets team without Deron Williams. What matters is they got it. He’s figuring things out.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.

Hassan Whiteside knows Heat’s problem: Not enough Hassan Whiteside

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In 10 minutes on the court in Game 5, Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. He couldn’t handle Joel Embiid physically on either end, and Miami had better success against the Sixers big man with Kelly Olynyk or other shooters at the five, pulling Embiid away from the basket some.

In the three games since Embiid returned to the Sixers, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the entire five-game series Whiteside shot just 45 percent (50.5 true shooting percentage, well below the league average). Outside of grabbing some rebounds, Whiteside was not a positive for the Heat against the Sixers.

Whiteside said after the Heat were eliminated the problem was he didn’t get enough of a chance.

That’s not how the playoffs work. When something doesn’t work — and Hassan being able to hang with Embiid clearly did not work, they are not on the same level — coaches don’t have time to let a guy play through it. Time and possessions are too precious in the postseason, if something doesn’t work the coach needs to look for something that does.

Not that if he’d been given “a chance to fight” it would have made a difference. Whiteside likes to think of himself as an elite NBA center near the class of Whiteside. He’s not.

The question is will he be back with Miami next season? On the court, coach Erik Spoelstra appears ready to go another direction. However, trading Whiteside — who is owed $25.4 million next season and has a player option for $27 million the season after that — will not be easy. Teams are not going to want to take on that much salary for Whiteside’s level of production (and style that doesn’t completely mesh with where the game is going for big men). The Heat would have to attach a pick or another player that teams would want, a sweetener in the deal. That may be too rich for Miami to play that hand.

It’s something to watch over the summer. Whiteside and Spoelstra are not on the same page right now and so something needs to change, the question is what?

Off-season priority for Spurs: Meet with Kawhi Leonard, resolve that issue

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There are other questions the San Antonio Spurs have to answer this summer: If Danny Green opts out of his $10 million deal (as many around the league expect him to) how hard do they chase him? Same with Rudy Gay and his $8.8 million option (he is a little more likely to pick it up). Tony Parker is a free agent, do they bring him back, and if so at what price? How do the Spurs add athleticism to this roster, something they clearly needed against the Warriors?

But all of that pales in comparison to the big question:

Can the Spurs mend their relationship with Kawhi Leonard and get back on the same page?

While the Spurs struggled through the first round against the Warriors, Leonard was sealed off from the team, spending time with his inner circle (led by his agent and uncle), seeing his doctors in New York (who did not clear him to play due to a quadriceps tendon issue) and working out at the NBPA facilities there. There is a disconnect right now, one that has other teams around the league planning trade packages in case one of the league’s elite players becomes available. Right now, those teams are being told he is not.

The Spurs want to fix this and keep him in the fold. He is eligible for a “designated veteran” max contract extension of roughly $219 million over six years (the last year of his current deal plus five more at 35 percent of the salary cap, the deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden just got). But before the Spurs put that on the table they want to see where Leonard is at. The goal is a meeting between Popovich and Leonard, as reported by Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

With head coach Gregg Popovich expected to take the lead, the Spurs plan to meet with Leonard over the summer to gauge whether the sides can work out their differences and continue what has been largely a positive and productive partnership, sources said…

While the decision regarding whether to offer Leonard a $219 million super-max extension rests with management — and even the current players, according to a source — ownership ultimately makes the final call. Convincing the team’s former chairman and CEO, Peter Holt, and his wife, Julianna Hawn Holt, could prove to be a difficult sell for general manager R.C. Buford. The couple is currently embroiled in divorce proceedings.

Last summer, Popovich had LaMarcus Aldridge walk into his office and ask to be traded. Popovich smoothed over that relationship, put Aldridge in spots he was more comfortable on the court this year, and the Spurs big man had an All-NBA level season.

The key was Popovich was able to sit down with Aldridge over dinner and talk it out, with both sides having an open mind. Will he get that chance with Leonard?

The players and team management want Leonard back in the fold, and they have the ultimate hammer with that extension — put $219 million on the table and Leonard isn’t walking away from it. The question is will the Spurs even put that offer on the table, and that right now is not clear at all.

All the other decisions around this team hinge on what happens with Leonard — with him they are potential contenders. Without him, a trade package back likely would be loaded with young players and picks that would have the Spurs thinking about a few years down the road more than the immediate future.