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…..

Isaiah Thomas on Cavaliers trade to Lakers: “They were in panic mode”

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It seems Isaiah Thomas is a thorn in the side of many in the NBA these days. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard reportedly was the source of some locker room conflict while he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, although it appears that Dwyane Wade was the first to lead the charge against Kevin Love in the infamous player rap session.

Thomas is now a member of the Lakers after being part of the worst section of the season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, with their revamped roster, have just one loss since the trade deadline. LeBron James & Co. have moved on, and Thomas appears set for free agency this summer and yet another team.

A move for the Cavaliers seemed inevitable, even if the return for Kyrie Irving from Boston — conveyed through consequent trades — was less than ideal. Meanwhile Thomas, who didn’t appear to enjoy his time in Ohio, has now said that he was surprised Dan Gilbert’s team bailed on him so quickly.

Via ESPN:

“I didn’t think they would pull the trigger that fast, 15 games,” Thomas told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview that will air March 11. “But again, it’s a business. And the Cavs were, I mean, they were in panic mode. We were losing — a lot. And I think they felt like they needed to make a move, and they, they basically cleared house.”

Thomas went on to say that he didn’t think he had enough time to find a rhythm not only coming back from a hip injury but on a new team in a new system. Thomas also mentioned that he harbored no ill feelings toward the Cavaliers.

We’ll see if that’s the case when the Lakers take on Cleveland on March 11 in LA.

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.

Watch Kyrie Irving drop 31 on Knicks in Celtics’ win

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn’t win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

 

Damian Lillard scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.