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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.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.