NBA Power Rankings: Chicago is our kind of town

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It’s our penultimate rankings, the Bulls have solidified themselves at the top and Minnesota is trying hard to make sure they finish the season on the bottom. Or not trying, as the case may be.

1. Bulls (56-20, LW #2). The East is theirs, barring a total collapse, and they are just one back of San Antonio in the loss column for the best overall. Their last couple games without Joakim Noah have not really been impressive wins, if you’re looking to nit-pick.

2. Lakers (55-21, LW #1). The loss Sunday to Denver was really the Lakers second sloppy game in a row, Utah just couldn’t make them pay for it. Also, the Lakers last two losses came in part because of key tip ins over Lamar Odom while Andrew Bynum sat.

3. Heat (54-23, LW #3). The last two weeks LeBron James has been a beast and looked like — dare we say it? — an MVP. Sunday’s game in Boston could be interesting for LeBron and the Heat, with real potential seeding implications.

4. Thunder (50-26, LW #4). Serge Ibaka has averaged 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds a game the last 10 for the Thunder. But they had to watch Denver Sunday and realize it is going to be a tough first round.

5. Nuggets (47-29), LW #9). Tuesday night they take on Oklahoma City in a first-round playoff preview. The Lakers got the message bout the Nuggets being for real Sunday. Not only has their defense gotten better since the trade, their offense has improved and is now No. 1 in the NBA.

6. Celtics (53-23, LW #8). Boston fans are saying Shaquille O’Neal looked good in the five-and-a-half minutes he played before he got hurt again. Small sample size alert there. They need Shaq, Jermaine and Krstic all to be right by the second round or things will be tough.

7. Spurs (58-19, Last Week #7). They snapped their six-game losing streak and looked good Sunday, but against the Suns without Steve Nash. So we’ll want to see them do it again before we believe they are back.

8. Blazers (45-32, LW #10). Dallas should not be scared of the Blazers in the first round because Dallas lost to them Sunday. They should be scared because the Blazers have been one of the better teams in the league the past month.

9. Mavericks (53-24, LW #5). Three game losing streak drops them down but the last two were on the end of the longest road trip of the year on a back-to-back, so don’t read too much into it.

10. Grizzlies (44-33, LW #11). Winners of four straight and they may well push up to the seven seed in the West, which would mean the Lakers in the first round. That is a team they can challenge.

11. Magic (48-29, LW #6). Losing to Atlanta because Jason Collins played well? Getting out rebounded by Toronto? Orlando has a few issues to work out and about 10 days to do it. They will get those Hawks and Jason Collins in the first round.

12. Rockets (41-36, LW #13). They are 8-2 in their last 10 but just can’t get over the hump and into the playoffs out West. If this was the East, they’d be the six seed.

13. Sixers (40-37, LW #12). We’ve been saying they can scare one of the East elite in the first round, but only if Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams get healthy.

14. Hawks (44-33, LW #14). The win over Orlando this week was not a sign they will beat the Magic in a seven game series. But it was key for the Hawks confidence to make it a tough series, not the sweep it was last year. Jason Collins allows them to single-cover Dwight Howard, the key to beating Orlando.

15. Hornets (43-33, LW #15). Carl Landry has picked up the offensive slack pretty well, but the Hornets are inconsistent with defense and rebounding. Still, they would have to totally collapse to miss the playoffs.

16. Suns (37-39, LW #16). Without Steve Nash this team is pretty hard to watch.

17. Pacers (35-43, LW #21). They had won three in a row before Sunday but still have the Bobcats right behind them for that last spot in the West. Indiana has the tiebreaker, if they can just go 2-2 in their final four they should make it in. Then get crushed by the Bulls.

18. Knicks (38-38, LW #18). Sure, they’re stumbling, but Carmelo Anthony got to be on Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street this week. So it’s all good.

19. Bobcats (32-44, LW #19). They are two games back, just one the loss column. Problem is, Indiana has the tiebreaker so they can’t just catch them, they have to pass. Then Charlotte lost to the Wizards Sunday at home and that is one they may regret if they miss the playoffs.

20. Warriors (33-44, LW #20). Numerous rumblings that Keith Smart is in a lot of trouble. He may have been in trouble since he signed that one-year contract last summer.

21. Bucks (31-45, LW #23). One point losses to both Indiana and Charlotte did in their playoff dreams. And both were sloppy finishes at the end, the Bucks could have had them.

22. Jazz (36-41, LW #17). They have lost eight straight and have gone to heavy rookie rotations for the rest of the season.

23. Clippers (30-47, LW #22). You see flashes of this team and what it could grow into next years and in coming seasons. Next season can they be consistent?

24. Kings (22-54, LW #24). They are 5-2 in their last seven (both losses to Denver) and Tyreke Evans is back and playing well. They will love that in Anaheim.

25. Pistons (26-50, LW #25). The infighting between the coaches and players has been allowed to go on to long without some intervention from above. The team sale dragging out is hurting this team badly.

26. Wizards (20-56, LW #29). Two road wins in one week after having just one all season before that. Jordan Crawford is putting up numbers and trying to make the most of his chances.

27. Raptors (21-55, LW #27). They beat Orlando and made a game of it with Chicago in one week. That’s a good week in Toronto this season.

28. Nets (23-53, LW #26). They have lost six straight — Utah fans are loving it. (Remember, Utah got the Nets pick in the Deron Williams trade.)

29. Cavaliers (15-61, LW #28). Savor that win over the Heat.

30. Timberwolves (17-60, LW #30). Losers of 10 in a row and just one game ahead of Cleveland in the loss column in the race for the most Ping-Pong balls. Kevin Love has not even been a factor for them lately, between injuries and his play.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.