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.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.

LeBron James on NBA play-in tournament: “No, no, no. That’s wack.”

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It’s a long way off, but there has been some discussion in the league office — and some momentum built up in some corners — for a play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs. While multiple variations of how this would work are in play, it involves some combination of teams seeded seven to 10 in a few single-elimination (or home-and-home) games to see who gets into the 16-team playoffs. The goal is to keep more teams — and more fan bases — engaged in the playoff chase longer.

LeBron James is not a fan. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“No, no, no,” James said Wednesday. “That’s wack. That’s wack. Why? You got to earn your spot to be in the postseason. No consolation for finishing last. That’s corny. That’s corny. That’s wack. To play for what? What are they playing for?”

So, how do you really feel?

“[Make the playoffs by winning the tournament], even if my record is better than yours? Nah, that’s wack,” James said.

As fans, we love drama and unpredictability — it’s what we love about March Madness, the upsets that ruin our bracket — and a play-in tournament would bring some to the often predictable NBA table.

However, LeBron has a point. Using the Western Conference and the current standings as an example, how excited are fans and the front offices of the Jazz and Nuggets going to be about an extra game or two for the right to get smacked down by Houston in the first round? Or for the Timberwolves to maybe be out after a game where they lose to the Clippers in a play-in, rather than getting to take on Golden State? Will this really sell well?

The only way this gets backing of most players and the union is if it could help shorten the season — if television and other revenue from these games allowed the 82 game season to drop to 72 (or whatever) and keep the money the same, then players would listen. However, that much money seems unlikely.

Maybe a mid-season NBA Tournament held in one city could generate the needed revenue to shorten the season. Maybe. But that seems more likely than a play-in.

Kyle Korver to miss Wednesday vs. Toronto after death of his brother

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I can’t imagine what this is like.

Cavaliers’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver will not be with the Cavaliers for an interesting showdown with Toronto on Wednesday night due to the death of his younger brother, Kirk. Korver has been given a leave of absence from the team.

Kirk Korver, 27, played four years of college ball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

There are four Korver brothers, all of whom played college basketball or at a higher level. Kirk was the youngest of them, he reportedly fell seriously ill about a week ago.

Our thoughts are with the entire Korver family.

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