NBA Power Rankings: Heat slip, Bulls charge into top spot

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Miami tripped up out West and the Bulls ran over them on the way to the top of PBT’s weekly power rankings. Meanwhile, jump on the Sixers bandwagon while you can.

1. Bulls (12-2, last week ranked No. 2). Five wins in a row and their next five games are against teams under .500, so the streak will keep going… well, if Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton get healthy.

2. Thunder (11-2, LW 4). They keep winning — six in a row now — but there should be concerns about their defense. They are 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 102.2 points per 100 possessions (the league average is 100). It was better against the Knicks Saturday. Monday night Kendrick Perkins returns to the Gah-den for the first time since the trade.

3. 76ers (9-3, LW 9). Beat the Pacers and while they lost to the Knicks at the Garden that was the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. They still have the best point differential (per 100 possessions) in the league. They look legit but have played the softest schedule in the NBA so far. If you’re not sold, well, we will learn more about Philly this week with the Nuggets, Hawks and Heat on the schedule.

4. Spurs (9-4, LW 7). Manu who? They are 9-0 at home and 0-4 on the road, which means the Miami/Orlando back-to-back road games this week may not work out for them.

5. Pacers (9-3, LW 5). Lost a key game to Philadelphia Monday but turned around with wins over Atlanta and Boston. Still questions about if they can consistently beat quality teams, but for now they are beating the teams on the schedule, which is all you can ask. Eventually (like starting next Sunday) the schedule gets tough.

6. Clippers (6-3, LW 10). The question has always been “how well will they defend?” At home right now, pretty well. Just ask the Heat and Lakers. They have played fewer games than any NBA team, a very old-schedule start to the season, but that is about to change.

7. Nuggets (8-5, LW 8). Beat Miami handily and came back on the Knicks in the Garden —they looked legit in those games, then Paul Millsap abused the Nuggets front line late on Sunday and we wonder.

8. Heat (8-4, LW 1). Three straight losses on a West Coast swing is shrugged off for most teams but a sudden crises for the Heat. Well, maybe not in the locker room. Little first hand note: after loosing to the Clippers last Wednesday the Heat’s locker room was surprisingly unconcerned — they thought they played aggressive but the shots just didn’t fall. Next five games are at home.

9. Hawks (9-4, LW 6). The Al Horford injury is devastating for this team (although they earned a couple nice wins this week without him), and they have a lot of road game coming up the second half of the month. Bad combo.

10. Lakers (9-5, LW 11). Winners of five straight until they lost to the Clippers Saturday. The Lakers have won these games with great defense and average offense, despite Kobe scoring 40+ in four straight (Lakers fans, go look at the numbers before you curse my name). Brutal schedule this week: Dallas, Miami and Orlando back-to-back, then the upstarts in Indiana.

11. Magic (8-3, LW 12). Went 3-0 on a West Coast swing — and may we never have to see a full game of hack-a-Howard again — but they haven’t played the toughest schedule yet (save Portland). That changes this week with the Knicks, Lakers and Spurs on the schedule.

12. Blazers (7-5, LW 3). They beat the Clippers Tuesday but went 1-3 on the week against a tough schedule — the Blazers statistically have had the second toughest schedule in the league so far, only Houston is worse. That schedule masks how good this team is.

13. Jazz (8-4, LW 16). Went 2-1 last week and the only loss was to the Lakers in OT. They are playing well and look like a team that could hold on to a playoff spot in the West, but there is not a lot of margin for error.

14. Mavericks (8-5, LW 15). Beat Boston on Wednesday and blew out some bad teams. The Mavericks are starting to get it together but that will be tested on the road this week. By the way, Jason Kidd hit his first two-point basket of the season in the Mavs 13th game.

15. Knicks (6-6, LW 14). They beat Philly on Wednesday but here’s what should concern Knicks fans — this team is .500 against the second softest schedule in the NBA (via ESPN’s strength of schedule tracker). Things are going to get tougher.

16. Cavaliers (6-6, LW 18). Kyrie Irving is playing well and that is why this team is .500. They have got a piece to build with in him. Tough stretch coming up with Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

17. Celtics (4-7, LW 13). Things are bleak — they went 0-3 against Dallas, Chicago and Indiana. Good teams all, but a good Celtics team would win at least one of those. The Celtics wins are against the Nets, Pistons and Wizards (twice). Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have been average.

18. Grizzlies (5-6, LW 19). Credit them for showing some grit without Zach Randolph and getting some wins. Not sure they can keep it up, but they deserve the props.

19. Rockets (5-7, LW 22). Another team that may be a little better than their record indicates, and they went 3-1 last week including a nice win in Portland. If Samuel Dalembert can give them more on defense the playoffs are not out of the question.

20. Suns (4-8, LW 17). On a four-game losing streak and they are out on the road for four this week. Steve Nash is good but these are the same old Suns who need jumpers to fall to win, and that will always be inconsistent.

21. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 20). I want to rank them higher. I do. They are fun to watch and they have the point differential of a .500 team. But they keep losing (1-3 last week). I’m not moving a team up because of style or stats, you still got to win games.

22. Bucks (4-7, LW 21). They are 4-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. I suppose the good news is they have more home games coming up, but if they are serious about the playoffs they have to start winning away from the Bradley Center.

23. Warriors (3-7, LW 24). In the middle of a stretch of games against the East, but they did get a quality win against the Heat. That shows the potential, and they have gotten good play from Monta Ellis and David Lee. But the defense still stinks.

24. Hornets (3-9, LW 26). Nice win against Denver this week, but the Hornets started 2-0 and have been a mess ever since.

25. Kings (4-9, LW 25). Their point differential should have them in the bottom five, but they beat the Raptors this week so they get to hold their spot. That 60-point game against Dallas was UGLY.

26. Raptors (4-9, LW 23). They gave the Wizards their only win, which leads to a fall down the rankings in these parts. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for turning the Raptors into an average defensive team — that’s an accomplishment with the roster he was given.

27. Pistons (3-9, LW 28). There is a bright spot in Detroit (and not just the sweet new locker room) — Greg Monroe is playing well at center. For a rebuilding team finding a guy in the middle is a huge boost.

28. Nets (3-10, LW 29). Deron Williams is playing better and MarShon Brooks has provided some nice scoring (14.2 per game). That’s about it for bright spots here. If they can’t get Dwight Howard in a trade then it really gets ugly.

29 Bobcats (2-10, LW 27). Kemba Walker got a start and is at least a little spark, but right now this team needs big games from Byron Mullens to win. Enough said.

30. Wizards (1-11, LW 30). It’s never too early to start dreaming about what Anthony Davis looks like in place of Andray Blatche in the starting lineup for the Wizards next year.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.