NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Spurs drop at regular season’s end

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At the top would be every lazy sports columnist’s dream finals matchup — the Lakers versus the Bulls in Phil Jackson’s final year. (Well, final year for now, anyway). But do you really think the recent struggles of the Celtics and Spurs tell you much about those teams in the playoffs?

1. Lakers (53-20, LW #1). They’ve won seven in a row, only one loss since the All-Star break, and are now just four games back of the Spurs (losers of three in a row). That leaves the Lakers are four games back with nine to play, it would still take a miracle to catch the Spurs, but you can start talking about it now.

2. Bulls (53-19, LW #3). Winners of four in a row and gaining a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs. Which as a team entering its first playoffs as a unit matters more than it does for some of the veteran units that are contenders. We had questions about the Bulls offense but it has been improved lately.

3. Heat (51-22, LW #5). Winners of five in a row, eight of their last 10 and the big three are playing well together. Six of those wins came against playoff teams, but seven of their final nine are against teams below .500 so don’t be shocked if they push the Bulls for the top seed.

4. Thunder (48-24, LW #6). Kendrick Perkins made some plays against the Blazers Sunday. OKC is coming together at the right time but are poised to face Denver in the first round. Denver will be a tough out.

5. Mavericks (52-21, LW #7). Odd stat of the week, the Mavs are 15-0 when Peja Stojakovic plays at least 15 minutes.

6. Magic (47-26, LW #8). Five straight wins and the best center in the game, solid four seed, but nobody mentions them among the contenders in the East. You’ll see more Gilbert Arenas this week, which may not be best for then Magic.

7. Spurs (57-16, Last Week #2). Three straight losses with no Tim Duncan (and they lost Manu for much of Sunday, even though that is not as serious). What matters is getting both healthy by the playoffs, but that may costs them games now. Doesn’t matter because the Lakers can’t make up four games in the remaining nine… can they?

8. Celtics (51-21, LW #4). They are struggling coming into the playoffs. Fooled us once with that trick, we’re not falling for it again. But, they need to get Shaq back with a few games under his belt before the playoffs.

9. Nuggets (44-29), LW #11). He’s not going to win it (Tom Thibodeau is with the Bulls), but George Karl has to move on to your Coach of the Year ballot now.

10. Blazers (42-31, LW #9). Damn that Gerald Wallace trade was brilliant. He can score and with him and Nicolas Batum they can defend the forward spots very well. There are going to be no easy outs for the West’s top teams in the first round.

11. Grizzlies (41-33, LW #10). They went 2-1 against the Spurs, Celtics and Bulls last week. They are going to make the playoffs, and read the Blazers note about tough outs in the West.

12. Sixers (37-36, LW #12). There was a time a couple weeks ago when the Sixers looked like a dangerous team in the first round. Not so much any more.

13. Rockets (38-35, LW #13). They are 7-3 in their last season and playing with a real push for the playoffs, but nobody in the west is coming back to them at all. They are 2.5 games back of Memphis, which has an easy schedule from here on out.

14. Hawks (42-32, LW #15). The Hawks are coasting to a five seed in the playoffs. Which should last about one round for them.

15. Hornets (42-32, LW #14). No David West the rest of the way, and that makes for an undersized front line of Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry. That is an anagram for “we’re in trouble now.” (Well, it should be an anagram of that.) They are 3.5 games ahead of the Rockets.

16. Suns (36-36, LW #17). This summer, we are starting a “free Steve Nash” campaign. Vince Carter has gone to the bench, as it should be.

17. Jazz (36-38, LW #18). Their defense has been a disaster since the trade. Disaster.

18. Knicks (35-34, LW #16). They are 3.5 games ahead of the eight-seed pacers and 4.5 ahead of the nine-seed Bobcats, they are almost certainly not falling out of the playoffs. But their defense remains terrible and now the offense is joining it.

19. Bobcats (30-42, LW #23). They beat the Celtics and Knicks last week to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they need to beat the Bucks Monday to make sure they stay alive. They remain one game back of the Pacers for the last spit.

20. Warriors (32-42, LW #19). Of the teams on the bottom third of this bracket, this is the one we can recommend watching. They are very, very entertaining right now, with Monta Ellis leading the way.

21. Pacers (32-42, LW #20). About the only thing that is consistent about them is a good game from Tyler Hansbrough.

22. Clippers (29-45, LW #22). Eric Gordon is back and it makes you wonder: Is this really a playoff team with him healthy? There are still a lot of questions.

23. Bucks (29-43, LW #21). They are not out of the playoffs mathematically, but six of their next seven are on the road and they are 10-24 this season away from home.

24. Kings (20-52, LW #27). They just went 4-1 on their latest road trip. I’m sure that is generating a lot of excitement in Anaheim.

25. Pistons (26-47, LW #24). You know Detroit, if you had played Rip Hamilton more before the trade deadline, and he played like this, you might have been able to move him.

26. Nets (23-49, LW #25). Fun game Wednesday in New York. What is the over/under on Brook Lopez rebounds against the weak Knicks front line? Seven?

27. Raptors (20-53, LW #26). The worst defensive team in the league. Just wanted to reiterate that.

28. Cavaliers (14-58, LW #29). Joe Tait was back in the radio broadcast booth this week. That is a win for Cleveland.

29. Wizards (17-55, LW #30). JaVale McGee is getting his blocks lately. Rebounding be damned.

30. Timberwolves (17-57, LW #28). Losers of seven straight and no Kevin Love for the remainder of the season. Anthony Randolph teased with his talents for a game then ran into the reality of Kevin Garnett.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.