NBA Power Rankings: Chicago finishes regular season as No. 1

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Our final rankings make for an interesting playoff comparison — the top three come in as the hottest teams going into the playoffs, but the next three more veteran squads. Who do you take when it really matters? (We lean to the second three, but the Bulls may prove us wrong. Again.)

1. Bulls (60-20, Last Week #1). They have won with a much-heralded defense, but their offense has improved as the season has worn on. Derrick Rose can still slash and score, but his decision-making has improved across the board. Make no mistake, they are legit.

2. Heat (56-24, LW #3). The win against Boston was a confidence booster and more importantly likely means Miami is the two seed, but how much of a playoff preview that remains in doubt. Now comes the time we finally get answers to our Heat questions… well, maybe in the second round.

3. Thunder (54-26, LW #4). They come into the playoffs hot and confident, having won 18 of 22. There is a different vibe in the Thunder locker room this season — this team is trying to scowl like Perkins now. Kevin Durant said they are better prepared for the playoffs than a year ago.

4. Spurs (61-19, Last Week #7). The Spurs offense is back in its groove, but Tuesday night in Los Angeles look for Gregg Popovich to sit his stars. He does not want the Lakers falling to the four seed, which could still happen.

5. Lakers (55-25, LW #2). So the Lakers played great ball and set themselves up as the two seed winning 17 of 18, but once the pressure was off they sleepwalked through a five-game losing streak. How is this different than the Lakers we’ve seen the last three years? Now that their backs are against the wall and they have to win to secure the two seed, watch them play well again.

6. Celtics (55-25, LW #6). It’s all about Shaq — if he’s healthy they are a serious contender. If not, they are vulnerable in the second round and every one after. He gives them a big body in the paint, rebounding and scoring from the post they need.

7. Blazers (47-33, LW #8). Huge game Tuesday night against Memphis. Win and they likely are the six seed, which could mean Dallas. That’s the one in the top four of the West all the bottom four teams would like to face.

8. Nuggets (49-31), LW #5). They lost twice to the Thunder this week, reminding everyone what they really want starting in the first round next weekend is Dallas to slip to the four seed.

9. Mavericks (55-25, LW #9). Once again this is a good team — 11 straight 50-win seasons for the franchise — that scares nobody heading into the playoffs.

10. Grizzlies (46-34, LW #10). Great note from John Schuhmann at NBA.com: Memphis is 2-2 against the Spurs and Lakers, 3-1 against the Mavericks and Thunder. This is a team that could pull an upset.

11. Magic (50-30, LW #11). Dwight Howard will finish the season averaging more than 23 points and 14 rebounds per game. Last person to do that (via ESPN’s Marc Stein): Hakeem Olajuwon. I’d have him higher, but if he’s not in the top three on your MVP ballot, you’re doing it wrong.

12. Hornets (46-34, LW #15). Chris Paul was held scoreless Sunday, while in another game Kwame Brown was 9-of-10 shooting. We live in a bizzaro world.

13. Knicks (42-38, LW #18). They have won seven in a row, have gotten big games out of Carmelo Anthony and will get Amar’e Stoudemire back for the playoffs. That should be good enough to push Boston to six games. Maybe.

14. Sixers (41-39, LW #13). The Sixers really miss, and really need back, Lou Williams. And they need Elton Brand and Iggy healthy. With all those things they can push the Heat a little. (They can get the six seed from the Knicks if NY loses its last two and Philly wins out.)

15. Hawks (44-36, LW #14). Losers of four in a row. And they are counting on Jason Collins to be their playoff key against the Magic. If you are counting on a Collins twin to save you….

16. Rockets (42-38, LW #13). The best team not to make the playoffs. Easily.

17. Pacers (37-44, LW #17). Can they win even one game against the Bulls? They won one in the regular season when Roy Hibbert went off, so… yea, probably not.

18. Suns (38-42, LW #16). One very interesting offseason ahead — it is time to rebuild, but that would mean trading Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Does Phoenix ownership and management have the stomach for that?

19. Warriors (35-45, LW #20). The good news is Monta Ellis is out of the hospital. That was a nasty fall. The bad news is what happens to Keith Smart. He is in trouble. Fair or not.

20. Bucks (33-47, LW #21). The most injured team in the NBA this season (they lost most man games and most minutes played by regulars). If they were healthy, if Andrew Bogut’s elbow gets right, could they have beat out the Hawks for the five seed?

21. Bobcats (32-48, LW #19). Lost six in a row and went from fighting for a playoff spot to out of it entirely. Michael Jordan has said the right thing — they can’t live in the middle they may need to get worse to get better. Short term pain and try to draft for long-term gain.

22. Pistons (29-51, LW #25). Tom Gores. That is your hope for the future, Pistons fans. The ship at least has a rudder now.

23. Kings (24-56, LW #24). Just for the record, we’re not as high on Marcus Thornton as everyone else — a high volume, low efficiency scorer. Not that the Kings shouldn’t bring him back, but don’t overpay. The other Cousins — DeMarcus — is the future.

24. Jazz (37-43, LW #22). They will have three lottery picks in this draft. Smart planning, it just may not be the best year to have all those picks.

25. Wizards (22-58, LW #26). There were big steps — Wall got better and they traded the Gilbert Arenas contract (that still amazes me). Still a lot of roster changes needed, but they took steps in the right direction this season.

26. Clippers (31-50, LW #23). Another team poised for a leap forward next season, a team on the right path if they keep making smart moves. But can the combo of Vinny Del Negro and owner Donald Sterling be counted on for more smart moves?

27. Raptors (22-58, LW #27). A bright spot? Ed Davis started to play better late in the season. The ownership change needs to happen, that will help more than anything.

28. Nets (24-56, LW #28). They got the star point guard, but if they can’t recruit some more names — and get a more rounded game out of Brook Lopez — they could lose that new star guard.

29. Cavaliers (17-63, LW #29). Lots of rebuilding to do here, but winning the lottery and getting Kyrie Irving would help.

30. Timberwolves (17-63, LW #30). They have lost 13 in a row to close the season trying to get Kyrie Irving, too. So they can add him to Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn and Luke Ridnour.

As expected, Wesley Matthews says he will pick up $18.6 million option with Mavericks

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Wesley Matthews still has value as an NBA player.

However, he doesn’t have $18.6 million in value on the open market right now — especially in what will be a tight market this summer — so he’s going to take the cash on the table. Matthews is going to opt into the $18.6 million in the final year of his contract (the final season of a four-year, $70 million deal), he told Dwain Price of the Mavericks’ official website.

He said he will pick up that option and return and play next season with the Mavs.

“Obviously that’s something that hasn’t been on my mind,” Matthews said. “That’s what you have an agent for and agencies for.

“Like I said, I don’t plan on being anywhere else. And now it’s just focusing on getting back healthy, which I am now, and getting on this court.”

Matthews missed the final 16 games of last season with a stress fracture in his right fibula, and played in just 63 games total. He has been cleared to resume basketball activities now and is back on his workout routine.

Matthews biggest value has been on the defensive end, where he has been good on the wing for Dallas. Offensively, he averaged 12.7 points per game last season, shooting an improved 38.1 percent from three and with a true shooting percentage right around the league average at 54.1. He’s been solid in Dallas, a glue guy and a veteran example for young players such as Dennis Smith Jr., although they paid him that contract to be more than just solid.

Matthews name came up in trade rumors last deadline, and now that he has an expiring deal you can expect his name to come up again this summer and into next season (if he’s not moved). He’s an interesting trade piece who could help a lot of playoff-bound teams, something the Mavericks are not likely to be.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.