NBA Power Rankings: Bulls on top after quarter of season

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Believe it or not, we are about a quarter of the way through the condensed NBA season already. And with that, these rankings are starting to take some solid shape. Which is bad news for Celtics and Knicks fans. But it’s all good in Chicago.

1. Bulls (15-3, last week ranked No. 1). If Derrick Rose had to miss a stretch of games, this soft part of the schedule was the time. They are 4-1 without him (and he should be back Monday night). Things change at the end of this week — starting Saturday they are on a nine-game road trip.

2. Nuggets (12-5, LW 7). Winners of four in a row on an East Coast swing, highlighted by Danilo Gallinari (37 points, 11 boards) outplaying Carmelo Anthony in New York. They are doing it by getting shots at the rim — Denver takes 44.3 percent of its shots within five feet of the rim, by far the highest percentage in the league (as noted by John Schuhmann at NBA.com). The League average is around 32 percent.

3. Thunder (13-3, LW 2). They had a pretty good week, but when your one loss is to the Wizards you fall around here. They are playing well defensively of late, which is starting with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.

4. Heat (11-5, LW 8). They have been winning without Dwyane Wade — they beat the Spurs by 22, the Lakers by 11 and the Sixers by 21. That doesn’t mean they are better without him, it means that Miami is playing like LeBron James’ old Cavaliers teams but with better shooters. And those teams did win a lot of regular season games. Plus, the Heat are at home.

5. 76ers (11-5, LW 3). Losses this week to Denver and Miami means you can end the talk about them being elite — I don’t think they are title contenders — but you can’t question if they are good. The Sixers are home against some beatable teams this week, look for some convincing wins.

6. Pacers (11-4, LW 5). The victory over the Lakers Sunday was a signature win for a team that has been doubted by some. If not for a dreadful quarter against the Kings, they could be 3-0 on a tough West coast swing. That said, Orlando and Chicago on the docket this week, still a lot of tests for this team

7. Magic (11-4, LW 11). Beat the Knicks and Lakers (where Dwight Howard dominated Andrew Bynum) last week but lost to the Spurs. This week they have Boston twice (that used to be a scary game, lately not so much) and the Pacers.

8. Hawks (12-5, LW 9). Credit them for playing well with Al Horford down — they are 5-1 and playing surprisingly good defense. Still think it’s a mirage but so far the results are impressive.

9. Clippers (9-5, LW 6). They are 3-2 without Chris Paul, which has been respectable. The one team getting a lot of rest from the schedule makers so far this young season gets it again this week. Big rematch with the Lakers Wednesday night.

10. Spurs (10-7, LW 4). Beat Orlando on the road but some ugly losses in addition. I like the idea of giving Tim Duncan a night off, as Popovich did Saturday. Spurs have struggled on the road and four of the next five are away from the Alamo Dome.

11. Jazz (10-5, LW 13). They are 9-2 in their last 11, pushing Tyrone Corbin into the discussion for coach of the year with Doug Collins and Frank Vogel (that award always goes to the coach whose team most overachieved). The team is doing all the little things right.

12. Grizzlies (9-6, LW 18). Four straight wins (one over the Bulls) as they are figuring it out without Zach Randolph. That said, brutal next 10 games so we’ll see what they are made of.

13. Lakers (10-8, LW 10). Went 1-3 last week but the losses were all to good teams (Miami, Orlando and Indiana), which is what you get when you are still trying to figure out who you are on offense. What happened to the twin-tower offense idea? Gasol is getting pushed out.

14. Rockets (9-7, LW 19). Winners of six in a row, and you can thank Samuel Dalembert for much of that. He has been a great pickup.

15. Blazers (9-7, LW 12). They have struggled to win on the road and went 2-4 on an East Coast Swing (but are back home this week). They have a back-to-back-to-back this week, just for fun.

16. Mavericks (10-7, LW 14). Dallas is calling it a conditioning camp that will keep Dirk Nowitzki out for four games, but if his knee was fine you can bet he would be playing.

17. Suns (6-9, LW 20). Marcin Gortat has had seven straight double-doubles, and he can thank Steve Nash for some of that. Imagine what Nash could do with a real athletic big like Amare Stoudemire… oh, yea.

18. Timberwolves (7-9, LW 21). They have become everybody’s second favorite team to watch this year, they put on a show with Ricky Rubio and had a great comeback against the Clippers. Of course, this week everyone will be watching to see what happens with Kevin Love and his contract extension.

19. Bucks (6-9, LW 22). Quality win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, as they made the game ugly just like Scott Skiles likes. Brutal rest of the week schedule: Hawks, Rockets, Bulls and Lakers.

20. Celtics (6-9, LW 17). Danny Ainge said he wants to wait and see how this team responds before he thinks about breaking it up. Two games against the Magic and one against the Pacers should paint a picture. Not that Ainge is going to find a great market for his veterans. Three of this team’s six wins are over the Wizards.

21. Knicks (6-10, LW 15). Six straight losses, so finally Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are going to sit down and talk. That seems prudent. Baron Davis is the big hope for this team, and anyone who has watched him the last few years should be nervous about that.

22. Cavaliers (6-9, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is winning me over, the guy can score and has a great left hand around the basket. That said, this team still has a long, long way to go.

23. Kings (6-11, LW 25). They have some wins — including one against the Pacers — but when this team loses (especially on the road) it really gets blown out.

24. Warriors (5-10, LW 23). If they are going to make Mark Jackson look good on his statement this team is better than last year’s, it will start this week on a six-game homestand.

25. Nets (5-12, LW 28). Teams are destroying the Nets from three point range… well, they are destroying them from everywhere. Brook Lopez would help a little, but not as much as Dwight Howard.

26. Pistons (4-13, LW 27). Rodney Stuckey is starting and they beat the Blazers this week, so that’s your bright spots.

27 Bobcats (3-14, LW 29). They are one of five teams really trying to lay claim to the coveted “worst in the league” title. They play the Wizards twice this week and have the chance to prove they suck less.

28. Wizards (2-13, LW 30). The win over the Thunder was surprising, but they followed it up with a good effort in a couple losses. That’s enough to move out of the cellar. For now.

29. Raptors (4-13, LW 26). Eight straight losses after starting 4-5. Now they head out on a West Coast swing. Not a good combo.

30. Hornets (3-13, LW 24). They have lost seven in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10, and they may lose Eric Gordon for an extended period. That will land you looking up at the rest of the league. If you want a bright spout, they have had close losses, so go ahead and feel good about that.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.