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.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.