NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck


The top three teams remain the same, just trading places, because they are the three best teams in the league right now. But all three also have long road trips coming up, which should test them.

1. Thunder (16-3, last week ranked No. 3). They are “only” fifth in point-per-possession differential in the league, but yet they just keep on winning. That said it gets tough now with a series of road games coming up, starting with a fun one against the Clippers Monday night. Wednesday we’ll see if Dirk Nowitzki is scared of the Thunder after he plays them.

2. Heat (15-5, LW 4). They got Dwyane Wade back and they got a quality win over the Bulls on Sunday. Lots of road games against lesser teams coming up, do the Heat lose focus and drop a couple?

3. Bulls (17-5, LW 1). Close loss to the Heat and they were without Luol Deng. Their next two weeks are on the road, so expect some challenges (and if this season is any indication, an ugly loss or two, everybody gets them now).

4. 76ers (14-6, LW 5). So far this season they have played the weakest schedule (opponents have a 43.6 winning percentage) but this week sees the Magic, Bulls and Heat lined up. Now we find out how good the 76ers really are. But they will miss Spencer Hawes.

5. Clippers (11-6, LW 9). They fell to the Lakers, showing they still have issues with end-game execution. Like all young teams learning to win. But they got a good win in Denver Sunday. And so far this season they have played the toughest schedule in the league, things get easier. Well, after Monday when they play the Thunder.

6. Nuggets (14-6, LW 2). Kind of unfair to move them down four spots in a week where they continued a six-game winning streak until their loss Sunday to the Clippers. Life and rankings are harsh like that — they simply are not better than the teams above them.

7. Hawks (15-6, LW 8). They just keep winning, even if it takes a miracle play by Joe Johnson at the buzzer to top the Pistons. Interesting game against the 76ers this week, but getting Philly on the second night of a back-to-back after Miami bodes well for Atlanta.

8. Pacers (13-6, LW 6). The schedule got tough and while they got a nice win against the Bulls they fell to Boston and split with Orlando. Which sounds about right, capable of very good nights but mostly a 4-5-6 seed in the East.

9. Mavericks (13-8, LW 16). They got a good win over the Spurs and now they have Dirk Nowitzki back (even though he shot 5-14 Sunday). This team has found its footing and is good. But Nowitzki should be scared of the Thunder, who they face this week.

10. Spurs (12-9, LW 10). They need to rack up some wins this week (Saturday against the Thunder?) because next week looms the start of the rodeo road trip.

11. Rockets (12-8, LW 14). They have a depth of good role players and in this condensed season that wins them a lot of games. It may not be a system as suited to the playoffs, but they are at least on pace to make it in.

12. Magic (12-8, LW 7). Two ugly losses to the Celtics, scoring 56 one game and blowing a 27 point lead in the other. Then an ugly loss to the Pacers Sunday. You can say Dwight Howard should lead them out of this, but will the other players follow a guy with one foot out the door?

13. Blazers (12-8, LW 15). Fantastic at home (9-1) but pretty weak on the road. Good news is they have a string of games at home starting later in the week.

14. Lakers (12-9, LW 13). They are 2-8 on the road this season, which is bad news for them as the Grammys force them out of Staples Center the next couple of weeks. Their defense carried them early but it has been unimpressive the last few games, which you know is driving Mike Brown crazy.

15. Jazz (11-7, LW 11). If the playoffs started today, the Jazz would be in as the five seed. Sure, two games separate the three seed from the 10 seed in the West, but did anyone expect the Jazz to be in this position before the season?

16. Grizzlies (10-9, LW 12). We should drop them just for those horrid TAMS throwback uniforms, but we do it more for the three straight losses. Their offense is starting to show how much they miss Zach Randolph.

17. Celtics (9-10, LW 20). Won four in a row before running into the Cavs on Sunday, all with Rondo out and Paul Pierce playing the role of point guard and play maker. Apparently the Fountain of Youth was not located in Florida but rather outside the Union Oyster House in Faneuil Hall.

18. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 18). Good wins against the Spurs and Mavericks last week, but they are going to need much more of that to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race (they are currently 2.5 games out of the last spot).

19. Cavaliers (8-11, LW 22). Kyrie Irving is a stud. Make no mistake. But this team is young and can beat the Celtics one game and lose to the Wizards in another.

20. Bucks (8-11, LW 19). The Andrew Bogut injury is a setback for this team. They were in the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the East, but hoard to see them holding on to that now. That said, they went 2-2 against a brutal schedule last week.

21. Suns (7-12, LW 17). Surprisingly, it’s their offense that has been terrible, not just their defense.

22. Raptors (7-14, LW 29). They found a way to win without Andrea Bargnani — go small. It worked against the Nets Sunday, although that is the Nets so lets see what happens this week.

23. Nets (7-14, LW 25). They went 4-2 for a stretch, largely because Deron Williams has awoken his inner beast and took over. He almost beat the 76ers by himself Wednesday.

24. Knicks (7-13, LW 21). New York is 1-9 in its last 10 and that win came against the lowly Bobcats. No Baron Davis expected this week. Even when he comes back, asking him to turn this offense back together is asking too much.

25. Warriors (6-12, LW 24). With Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis they have a shooter’s chance every night to outscore opponents and get the win, but their defense is awful. Hence the record.

26. Kings (6-14, LW 23). You know things are rough for this team when Jimmer Fredette airballs a three in Utah with the game on the line.

27. Wizards (4-16, LW 28). They’re not good, but they are better than the Bobcats (beat them twice last week).

28. Hornets (4-16, LW 30). I don’t think the Chris Kaman trade talk is going to hurt this team one-tenth as much as just not having Eric Gordon in the lineup does.

29. Pistons (4-17, LW 26). A Lawrence Frank team that is terrible at defense (only the Nets give up more points per possession). You know that is eating a hole in his stomach. Soft schedule the next couple weeks, so maybe they can move up.

30. Bobcats (3-18, LW 27). Losers of eight in a row, they played and lost to the Wizards last week. Twice. And what might be worse is the Wizards were clear and away the better, more talented team in those contests. On the bright side, I like Kemba Walker’s play. But that’s the only bright side.

Three Things to Know: Nothing but takeaways from Cavaliers beating Raptors

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we’re doing things a little differently, despite some other interesting games — Dwight Howard dropping 30-and-30, the genuine concern about Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ankle, and the Pelicans beating the Pacers because Anthony Davis is ridiculous — we are going to focus on the likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Toronto at Cleveland, which the Cavaliers won 132-129.

What we are not taking away from this is a prediction of a playoff matchup between these two teams. Forget the fact that regular season meetings are crappy predictors of playoff series in general, here are three other issues: 1) Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven days, which factored into their poor defense and late fade; 2) Cleveland is going to be healthier and have different guys in the rotation come the playoffs; 3) If Dwane Casey or Larry Drew/Tyronn Lue have a tactic they think could be a great weapon against the other side, no chance they break it out for long in a late-season game — they will save it for the playoffs. Sort of like to NFL teams playing each other in week 16 when they know they could meet in the playoffs. We didn’t see the best of either side.

That said, let’s get on to the real three things.

1) The biggest factor in the Eastern Conference remains LeBron James and his level of play. There are questions about how well the new-look Raptors will carry over to the playoffs. There are more questions (at least in my mind) about how well this Cavaliers roster can defend, even when healthy. All that said, this game was a reminder of one simple fact:

LeBron James can lift a team to the NBA Finals almost by himself — he’s been to seven straight Finals for a reason. He is the force of nature, he’s still playing at an MVP-level (at age 33 in his 15th season), and he took over this game with 35 points, 17 assists, and zero turnovers.

LeBron shot 62 percent from three on the night, had 14 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter alone, and was the difference in this game. OG Anunoby is the guy the Raptors will likely lean on in the playoffs to make LeBron work for his buckets, but he looked like a guys still working his way back from injury (and like a rookie with tired legs late in the season), it was Pascal Siakam who did the best of any Raptor (LeBron was 4-of-10 with Siakam guarding him on the night). That’s something we would see in the postseason, but nobody really had an impact, and the Raptors need to figure out how to make LeBron work harder for his buckets.

Put simply, the Eastern Conference is all about LeBron James. Still. And it will remain so until further notice.

2) Which one of these teams will defend better come the playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 79 first half points and allowed the Raptors a 135.8 offensive rating on the night (points per 100 possessions). Kyle Lowry put it this way after the game, “Disgraceful display of defense by us. We’ve got to be better than that.” The Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 140.4 (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Neither team defended well. If this was an Eastern Conference playoff preview, the team that improves their defense the most between now and then will come out on top.

Toronto has defended better all season — they are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating — but it didn’t show Wednesday. Maybe it was the back-to-back, fifth-game-in-seven-days that took their legs out from under them, particularly for the older Serge Ibaka who had an off night on both ends. (Tired legs also would explain the lack of transition points by the Raptors on the night, they needed those easy buckets). Maybe it’s the fact nobody has a good answer for LeBron. Maybe a lot of things, but the Raptors need to do better defensively in a playoff series or the outcome will be the same.

The Cavaliers lack cohesion on defense, and while they will get better defenders back from injury — Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. — that is not going to speed up the team getting used to each other on that end. Cleveland has to have better energy, they need to close out on shooters better (the Raptors got open looks late on kickouts, they missed injured C.J. Miles), and they just need more efforts like veteran Jose Calderon gave (it was a good night for him). Cleveland has time to get its defenders on the same page, but not a lot of it.

3) Is Toronto’s bench going to matter as much in the playoffs? Toronto’s bench unit has been key to their success all season — the Raptors took a double-digit lead in the second quarter thanks to their bench (who has done that to teams all season long). The Raptors lineup of Jakab Poeltl, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright was +6 in 10 minutes Wednesday. The Lowry plus bench unit has killed teams all season long.

Will it matter in the playoffs?

Right now coaches are going nine or 10 deep in their rotations, and the Raptors depth matters in that situation — their bench can beat your bench. It happened against the Cavaliers. However, come the playoffs the minutes that went to guys nine and 10 in the rotation go to guys one and two — the bench tightens way up and the best players get more minutes. A deep bench doesn’t have the same impact.

What that bench will provide Casey in the playoffs is options — if Anunoby is struggling against LeBron bring in Siakam — but it’s not the same as the regular season. I love that in big games recently against the Thunder and Cavaliers Casey is still playing around with his lineups for stretches — now is the time to experiment. Now is the time to get guys used to playing with each other. That way, come the playoffs, Casey can throw the combination out there that he thinks works and there will be familiarity.

But the Raptors will need more from their starters in the playoffs, because the bench will not have the same impact.

Dwight Howard posts just second 30-30 game in last 36 years

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Dwight Howard never played for the Nets. He almost got traded to Brooklyn by the Magic, but the deal never happened.

Which puts a dent in Dennis Schroder‘s theory Howard gets up for games against only his former teams.

Howard dominated Brooklyn for 32 points and 30 rebounds in the Hornets’ 111-105 win tonight. That’s just the second 30-30 game in the last 36 years, Kevin Love notching the other in 2010.

All 30-30 games since Wilt Chamberlain, who had a ton:

  • Dwight Howard (Charlotte Hornets, 3/21/2018): 32 points, 30 rebounds
  • Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves, 11/12/2010): 31 points, 31 rebounds
  • Moses Malone (Houston Rockets, 2/11/1982): 38 points, 32 rebounds
  • Swen Nater (Milwaukee Bucks, 12/19/1976): 30 points, 33 rebounds
  • Elvin Hayes (Capital Bullets, 11/17/1973): 43 points, 32 rebounds

Howard helped Charlotte erase a 23-point second-half deficit and a 10-point deficit with four minutes left. The Hornets are playing out a lost season, and Brooklyn has looked overmatched most of the year, particularly at center. But no matter the situation, Howard says he still feels super-sized expectations.

Tonight, he exceeded them by leaps and bounds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Bucks’ loss to Clippers with ankle injury (video)

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The Bucks lost, 127-120, to the Clippers tonight.

More importantly, Milwaukee lost Antetokounmpo to an ankle injury.

He limped off in the second quarter and didn’t return. The Bucks called it a sprain.

Any more time Antetokounmpo misses would be a huge loss. Hopefully, he recovers quickly.

No matter how many other good players – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe – Milwaukee has put on the floor, the team has struggled without its star. Antetokounmpo is a commanding force offensively who just does so much, and his defense impresses.

The Bucks (37-34) are eighth in the East. They’re safely in playoff position, five games ahead of the ninth-place Pistons. But this hurts Milwaukee’s chances of avoiding a first-round matchup with the excellent Raptors – though the way Toronto has regressed in the playoffs in previous years, that might not be so bad. Still, the Bucks should probably chase the seventh-place Heat, who are up 1.5 games on Milwaukee, and a likely first-round matchup with the injury-ravaged Celtics.

Obviously, a healthy Antetokounmpo would be central to that pursuit.

Cavaliers beat Raptors, become first team in 27 years to surrender 79 first-half points and win


The Cavaliers haven’t been good enough throughout the season, especially defensively. The Raptors have – offensively, defensively, starters, bench. Hope has grown in Toronto of winning the Eastern Conference after getting eliminated by Cleveland the last two years.

But LeBron James and Cavs showed why it’s hard to pick any other team – even the first-place Raptors – to win the East in a 132-129 win over Toronto tonight.

Cleveland allowed 79 first-half points and fell behind by 15. But a LeBron-led offense was just too potent. This was the first time since 1990 (Nuggets over Spurs after trailing 90-83) a team surrendered so many first-half points then still won.

LeBron finished with 35 points, 17 assists and no turnovers. No forward has ever dished so many assists without a turnover in Basketball-Reference’s database, which dates back to 1963-64.

And LeBron led the Cavaliers to this win despite Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver and Cedi Osman being out.

It’s only one game, and it was in Cleveland. But even with home-court advantage in a potential playoff series, the Raptors must grapple with even more lingering doubt now about their ability to beat the Cavs.