NBA Power Rankings: Blazers climb, Heat on top of mountain

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Lots of big moves up and down as the rankings start to shake themselves out a little. In college football they should hold off doing polls through those early weeks because said polls impact the postseason, but as the NBA has a playoff to determine who is best let’s dive in.

1. Heat (5-0, last week ranked No. 1). They have yet to lose but it took two last-second shots by Dwyane Wade to secure wins this week against teams Miami should crush. The bar is set high for this team. But at least LeBron James is engaged now.

2. Thunder (5-0, LW 3). It’s never really too early to start a “James Harden for Sixth Man of the Year” campaign. Like the Heat, they needed a ridiculous game winner — theirs from Kevin Durant — to stay undefeated this week.

3. Bulls (4-1, LW 2). They started the season on a tough West Coast road swing and had one off night. Good start for a team with room to improve still. Rip Hamilton is starting to find a groove and his hamstring injury doesn’t appear to be serious.

4. Spurs (3-1, LW 10). Big jump because, like last year, they look strong in the regular season. Manu Ginobili is playing like a beast. All their wins have been by at least 13 points.

5. Blazers (3-1, LW 11). Another climber as they have been impressive, especially on defense, at least until they ran into the Clippers Sunday. They are deep and that will help a lot in this condensed season.

6. Magic (4-1, LW 15). The pattern follows — they lost to OKC opening day because they have someone who can single cover Dwight Howard in the post. They consistently beat lesser teams that can’t do that. They are a good offensive squad.

7. Hawks (3-1, LW 14). They move way up as they are got off to a fast start against the Nets (twice) and Wizards, but now reality hits as they have two games each upcoming against the Heat and Bulls.

8. Pacers (3-1, LW 17). Sort of the same as the Hawks, they’re beating bad teams but soon they start to run into better squads (Heat and Celtics this week). However, the Pacers are better than people think and they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

9. Lakers (3-3, LW 6). They went .500 in four games without Andrew Bynum, which included a back-to-back-to-back. That’s not bad. But somebody besides Kobe Bryant has to pick up the offensive load.

10. Nuggets (3-2, LW 12). If not for a missed layup they could have swept the Lakers, but still a sweep not all bad. Al Harrington is playing well with 15.4 points per game.

11. Knicks (2-2, LW 4). If you’re going to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach, knowing his system, shouldn’t you try to build a team that fits it? Not in New York, apparently. The good news is they got their West Coast trip out of the way early.

12. Celtics (2-3, LW 7). After an 0-3 start they have gotten healthy on a couple struggling teams (and have the Wizards again Monday night). And they got Paul Pierce back, which helps.

13. Clippers (2-2, LW 5). Great offense (that rarely turns the ball over) but until they played Portland Sunday they had not been good at all on defense. If they can start to defend consistently they will be scary.

14. Bucks (2-1, LW 18). Good start will be tested on five-game road trip out West (including a back-to-back against the Lakers and Clippers).

15. 76ers (2-2, LW 13). Their two wins were blowouts, their two losses close ones. Small sample size but this is a team to watch as they may be better than their .500 record indicates.

16. Rockets (2-2, LW 16). Kyle Lowry is playing like an All-Star. Tough week with Lakers, Clippers and OKC on the schedule.

17. Warriors (2-2, LW 21). Inconsistent — beat the Bulls, get blown out by 28 by the Sixers — and they have had Stephen Curry injured and Monta Ellis out for personal reasons. Still can’t get a read on this team other than they play hard for Mark Jackson.

18. Hornets (2-2, LW 27). Impressive win over Boston but they got smacked by a not very good Suns team. Credit Monty Williams for getting them to play over their heads.

19. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 9). They had a tough schedule to start the season and have had to navigate it without Mike Conley. But this brings back to reality the contender talk — this team isn’t the Thunder or other elite teams in the West. Not consistently, not yet.

20. Mavericks (1-4, LW 8). Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavs start, “One win over Toronto doesn’t really make the world great.” Yup. There are a lot of issues, including Lamar Odom admitting he is out of shape.

21. Suns (1-3, LW 19). Steve Nash is playing through some bruised ribs, which is slowing his game. Signing Michael Redd was a shot in the dark, but this squad might as well take those shots right now.

22. Timberwolves (1-3, LW 25). They beat Dallas and their three losses are to the Heat, Thunder and an underrated Bucks team. They are better than their record shows. Rick Adelman is going to have this team paying pretty well by the end of the season, just watch.

23. Cavaliers (2-2, LW 29). If the playoffs started today, the Cavaliers would be the eighth seed in the West (we put that in here because it might be the last week we get to write that). Anderson Varejao is looking healthy and playing well — so expect the trade rumors to ramp up soon.

24. Jazz (1-3, LW 20). They are back for games in the friendly confines of Salt Lake City this week, where they are still tough to beat.

25. Raptors (1-3, LW 28). Tough loss to Orlando Sunday, they let that one get away. Same old Raptors this season, pretty good offense but their defense is terrible.

26. Bobcats (1-3, LW 30). That second game against the Heat — a blowout loss — was more indicative or reality in Charlotte. Kemba Walker scoring 11.5 point per game will inject himself into the Rookie of the Year talk.

27. Kings (1-3, LW 22). What a mess of a franchise right now. The problem for management is what to do with Paul Westphal — cut him now or at the end of the season? If you fire him now you let the players win that power struggle and that might come back to haunt you.

28. Pistons (1-3, LW 24). They are the Pacers lone loss, and they are getting solid play from Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerbko. But the stylings of Ben Gordon still drive this offense.

29. Nets (1-4, LW 26). Looking for a positive… Mashon Brooks has had some nice games and is averaging 12.2 per contest. That’s about it for a team shooting 38 percent for the season.

30. Wizards (0-4, LW 23). Flip Saunders is on the hot seat and can’t fill out a lineup card. The Wizard’s offense is a disaster — this team should run every chance it gets yet the pace is 13th in the league. I expected a breakout year from John Wall and again he looks average this season.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.