NBA Power Rankings: Heat on top, Blazers best in West

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A little shifting up at the top but nothing too dramatic. Your big movers this week is the 76ers, who are playing well and moving up the rankings, and the Hornets dropping like a rock.

1. Heat (8-1 last week ranked No. 1). Chris Bosh drops 33 on the Hawks and wants you to remember that he is pretty dang good, too. As are the Heat — they won three games without Dwyane Wade last week. Make sure you tune in Wednesday because Heat vs. Clippers is appointment basketball.

2. Bulls (7-2, LW 3). Look for the Bulls to go on a little run — Boston on Friday is the only team over .500 they play the next two weeks.

3. Blazers (6-2, LW 5). Best team in the West so far. Beat the Thunder and Lakers, but then looked tired against the Suns (we’ve chosen to ignore that game, good teams are having ugly losses do to the schedule this year). Interesting game against the Clippers Tuesday in a matchup of the West’s new guard.

4. Thunder (8-2, LW 2). They fall after losses to Dallas and Portland but they are the first team to win all three of a back-to-back-to-back, so they don’t fall far. Kevin Durant is going to put on show in Madison Square Garden next Saturday, just watch.

5. Pacers (6-2, LW 8). Lost to Miami and won an ugly one against Boston as their schedule gets tougher (Philly Monday will be interesting). Don’t expect them to fall apart — the Pacers are going to be solid all season because they are doing it with defense.

6. Hawks (6-3, LW 7). They had the Bulls and Heat twice each last week and went 2-2 (and had a 19 point lead over the Bulls in the game they lost). That’s not bad, not bad at all. Still don’t believe in this team long term, but they had a good week.

7. Spurs (6-3, LW 4). They are now 3-1 without Manu Ginobili. They are also 6-0 at home and 0-3 on the road, falling Sunday to a Thunder team playing its third game in three days.

8. Nuggets (6-3, LW 10). The Nuggets blow up the statistical myth — they are playing at the fastest pace in the league and have a top-10 defense (giving up just 98.1 points per 100 possessions, seventh in the league). To sum up Knicks fans, you can run and defend.

9. 76ers (5-2, LW 15). They are running more and with it their offensive numbers are much improved. Their differential of points scored versus given up per 100 possessions is best in the league — better than the Heat. On the schedule this week are the Pacers and Knicks — two teams they will be fighting for playoff positioning all season. Heavy home schedule ahead for Philly.

10. Lakers (6-4, LW 9). Andrew Bynum is a beast this season and the Lakers remain tough because you can’t handle him and Pau Gasol on the same front line. Oh, and that Kobe guy. Note that Matt Barnes has secured the starting job at the small forward and Metta World Peace is seeing him minutes drop.

11. Clippers (4-2, LW 13). Just two games last week and only three this week — but they are the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Heat. Yikes. Started to see some defense from them this week but that is going to have to get much, much better.

12. Magic (6-3, LW 6). The thumping by the Bulls led Stan Van Gundy to admit they are not on that level. They are beating who they should but are not knocking off the elite.

13. Celtics (4-4, LW 12). We’re going to have a better feel for the Celtics after this week where the play Dallas, Chicago and Indiana.

14. Knicks (4-4, LW 11). Losses to the Bobcats and Raptors last week — those are games that good teams win. The Knicks are wildly inconsistent. Knicks fans are counting on the eventual Baron Davis and Iman Shumpert starting backcourt to save them. That’s trouble.

15. Mavericks (4-5, LW 20). Nice win against the Thunder as they are starting to find a regular season groove (even if they have to do it without Jason Kidd for a few games). That said, they have lost the intimidating aura a defending champion should have.

16. Jazz (5-3, LW 24). They went 4-0 last week and move up, but they did it all at home save for beating Golden State. They look good — Derrick Favors in particular — and seven of their next eight are in Salt Lake City.

17. Suns (4-4, LW 21). The Steve Nash of old is back and the Suns looked pretty good last week.

18. Cavaliers (4-4, LW 23). They are playing better than we thought, and Kyrie Irving has figured out how to fit his game into the NBA in a way the more explosive John Wall has yet to realize. Still not sold, but they’re playing pretty well.

19. Grizzlies (3-5, LW 19). The Grizzlies were 2-2 this week but will struggle without Zach Randolph, as they did against the Lakers Sunday. The good news is the next four are at home for Memphis, the bad news is the Thunder, Bulls and Knicks are in that mix.

20. Timberwolves (3-5, LW 22). A 2-2 week with a win over San Antonio. Sunday started a three games in three nights stretch, which brutally ends against the Bulls.

21. Bucks (2-6, LW 14). They go 0-5 on West Coast swing, playing while missing a couple starters (including Andrew Bogut)… which is about what you’d expect. They are a better team than this but we’re going to have to wait to see it.

22. Rockets (2-6, LW 16). They went 0-4 last week, but with a brutal schedule (OKC and both Los Angeles teams made up the schedule). They will look better beating weaker teams but they struggle with the upper echelons.

23. Raptors (3-5, LW 25). Dwane Casey has them playing slower and better defense. You see flashes of potential, then you seen them get crushed by the Sixers and fall to the Nets and it makes your eyes bleed. Going to be that kind of season.

24. Warriors (2-6, LW 17). Really tough schedule so far and their next seven are against the East (including a road swing through Florida).

25. Kings (3-6, LW 27). We feel for Keith Smart — how do you implement real changes dropped into a condensed schedule with far fewer practices? DeMarcus Cousins has put up good numbers after being freed from the Paul Westphal shackles.

26. Hornets (2-6, LW 18). Tough winless week and its hard to be optimistic with Eric Gordon still sidelined.

27. Bobcats (2-6, LW 26). They actually have the worst defense in the league right now, giving up 111.8 per 100 possessions per Basketball-Reference.com. The good news is Hoopdata says they are only 29th in the league (with Houston worse).

28. Pistons (2-6, LW 28). Got the win against Orlando because Greg Monroe could single cover Dwight Howard and when you can do that you beat the Magic. Aside that they got crushed by everyone else.

29. Nets (2-7, LW 29). Their differential of points scored versus given up per 100 possessions is worst in the league (-13.4) — even worse than Washington.

30. Wizards (0-8, LW 30). Last week owner Ted Leonsis essentially said that Flip Saunders job was not in danger. He asked him to play a lot of young players and with that comes losses. Okay. But if those young players aren’t improving…..

Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers completes pass to become part owner of Bucks

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Aaron Rodgers is regularly be seen courtside at Milwaukee Bucks games, having professed his love of the sport many times. Here was there Friday night for the Bucks’ Game 3 win, sitting courtside with girlfriend Danica Patrick.

This time, he was doing it as part owner of the team.

Milwaukee announced between the first and second quarters that the Packers QB1 is now part-owner of the Bucks, having bought a minority stake in the team.

“I have proudly called Wisconsin my home for the past 13 years, and I am thankful for the friendships and the opportunities I have been given to live and play here,” Rodgers in a released statement. “I am excited and honored to deepen my connection to the region by joining Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, Jamie Dinan, Mike Fascitelli and the ownership group of the Milwaukee Bucks. As a huge fan of the NBA and the sport of basketball, this is a dream come true for me, and I look forward to furthering my affinity for Wisconsin sports as a minority owner in a team I love and support.”

Rodgers is a California native who attended Cal in the Bay Area for college and now — like many an NBA player — splits his time between living where he works in Wisconsin and Southern California.

This is a smart time to buy into the Bucks — and not just because they won Friday. Milwaukee moves into a brand new building next season which should generate a lot more revenue for the franchise. Plus, the Bucks are poised to make a leap forward in the East as a team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast (likely led by a new coach next season), which will lead to more revenue as they become a team to see on the road, one that fills buildings.

Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.